It’s a story, oft-repeated as fact, that Nicolaus Copernicus — the early 16th-century astronomer who first proposed that the planets revolve around the sun – invented the practice of buttering bread.
Alas, it isn’t true. The Oxford English Dictionary contains a reference to buttered bread from 1496. But it’s still an entertaining tale.
As described in Mould’s Medical Anecdotes , the story is that in 1520, the Teutonic Knights — a military order that was at war with Poland — besieged the fortified town of Allenstein in Prussia. Copernicus was put in charge of organizing the defenses of the town and its castle, which eventually repelled the attack.
Some six months before the siege was lifted, however, an outbreak of plague allegedly struck Allenstein Castle. As a youth Copernicus had studied medicine. He noticed that the elderly men that had been left to guard the castle frequently dropped bread on the ground as they carried it up the steep steps from the kitchen. Suspecting this might have something to do with the spread of the disease, Copernicus divided the inhabitants into groups and allotted each a different diet.
The group denied bread was the only one that remained plague-free. But refraining from eating bread during a siege wasn’t practical. Someone suggested that if the black loaves were coated with a thin layer of churned cream, it would make it easy to detect when they’d been dropped. If they had, the dirt could be wiped off. Copernicus supposedly adopted the suggestion and plague was eliminated at the castle.
The idea of plague being transmitted via dirt isn’t totally far-fetched. Medieval castles were notably infested with rats, and the bacterium that causes plague has been found to survive for up to 24 hours in soil. It seems far more likely, however, the plague was spread by fleas living on the rats, which is the most common way that plague is spread.
After Copernicus’ death, the story continues, an official named Buttenadt leaked Copernicus’ secret. The practice spread to other parts of Europe, where it became known as Buttenadting – or buttering.
And if you believe that, I’ve got a grail to sell you.