The Mysterious, Medieval Origin Of The Humble Pretzel

Pretzels have graced our snack cabinets and Oktoberfest celebrations for generations. We love pretzels so much that we now even have National Pretzel Day, celebrated on April 26. Pretzels are part of American history — it's said that the first colonists to come over on the Mayflower brought the food with them. From that beginning, pretzels only gained popularity, especially in Pennsylvania, where the first American pretzel factory was established. The founder of this factory, Julius Sturgis, is thought to be the father of the modern-day crunchy, hard pretzel. But the start of pretzels as a whole is much older than their presence in North America.

This humble treat can be traced all the way back to the Middle Ages. Often also referred to as the medieval period, the Middle Ages roughly consist of the time between the sixth and 13th centuries. The pretzel's true origin is shrouded in the mists of time and remains a mystery to this day, with competing origin tales floating around. But one thing is sure: Pretzels are the ultimate treat. To quote David Rose of "Schitt's Creek," "I will not feel shame about the mall pretzel."

Why is pretzels' origin so mysterious?

So, why does something so popular have such a mysterious origin? With a history that dates as far back as that of pretzels, it's inevitable for some of the original source information to have been lost or destroyed along the way. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Middle Ages, this is rather common. For example, estimates suggest that when it comes to medieval literature, only about 9% of the original documents still exist today.

This time period often gets mislabeled as the "Dark Ages," which implies that during this time period, there was some sort of halt in creativity and thinking. However, that was not the case. The Middle Ages started with the collapse of the Roman Empire. During this time period, Europe was in flux, with many shifts in power. Plus, the era was followed by the Renaissance, a period known for significant advancement. So it really isn't fair to call the time "dark" when it is being compared to a period considered one of the greatest in European history.

Origin stories

This lack of written records makes it difficult to say when exactly the first pretzel was made. We have origin stories that were passed down orally for generations before being written down later. Often, these accounts point to Germany as the place where pretzels were invented. One such story tells of bakers being held hostage and creating pretzels to feed their captors. Another story tells of a monk in Italy who is said to have created the pretzel in 610 to give to children as a reward for learning their prayers. Yet another tale points to a French monastery where pretzels were used for religious purposes.

German lye pretzels have their own specific origin story: They are said to have been created by accident when a coffee house accidentally used lye to top the pretzels instead of sugar. Now, coffee was not present in Europe during the Middle Ages, so this event, if it happened, would have come much later.

Regardless of what type of pretzel or era we're talking about, none of these stories have been sufficiently substantiated.

They were promoted religiously

As you have likely noticed, many of these supposed origin stories focus on monks. There is a reason for this. Firstly, it was not uncommon at the time for monks' work to include baking and brewing. We all get bored with making the same old thing day after day, though, even monks. So the monks would often branch out and make some novelty items, in addition to the daily bread. That one of these could have been the first pretzel is not out of the realm of possibility.

Monks were known for giving pretzels out as treats to children for saying their prayers. The word "pretzel" is even thought to derive from the Latin "bracellae," which became the German word "bretzel" and means "little arms," possibly in reference to the position of the arms when praying. They were also given out to people experiencing poverty, both to feed them and as a part of religious observance.

Pretzels were tied to many holidays

Not surprisingly, because of pretzels' religious ties, they became a part of many religious observances and an iconic holiday food in general. Starting in the Middle Ages, pretzels were used for Lent. Early pretzels were made using simple ingredients that you would find in basic bread. That meant that they were free of meat, dairy, and eggs, all of which were prohibited at the time during Lent. As a result, pretzels are thought to have been associated with Lent as far back as the seventh century.

From there, the holiday-based use of pretzels only grew. By the end of the Middle Ages, the three holes in the pretzel had come to represent the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In addition, children wore pretzels around their necks at New Year's for good luck. This is thought to have been a precursor to the traditional New Year's pretzel.

In addition, pretzels were once hidden on Easter for little children to find, a precursor to the modern-day egg hunt, and hung on Christmas trees in Austria.

The earliest surviving depictions of pretzels

With all these stories and symbolism dating back to as early as the 600s, it might surprise you that images of pretzels don't show up until the year 1111. Unlike the various passed-down origin stories, the earliest known depictions firmly point to Germany — they're in the crests of German bakers' guilds. Later in the 12th century, pretzels were shown in pictures in "Hortus Deliciarum," a religious and philosophical encyclopedia compiled by the nun Herrad of Landensberg in Alsace, France, between 1167 and 1185. Sadly, most of the original manuscript was lost in a fire; however, fragments and reproductions still exist.

Near the end of the Middle Ages, between 1430 and 1440, the book "The Hours of Catherine of Cleves" featured pretzels surrounding an image of St. Bartholomew. From these bits and pieces, we are able to see that while only remnants of pretzel history remain, they were nonetheless important and present in regular life.

What medieval pretzels looked and tasted like

The first thing that is noticeable about early images of pretzels is that they do not look all that different from the pretzels we have today. This is because they had their signature crossed-over look, like little arms, pretty much from the start. Some variation shows up regionally. For example, Swabian pretzels have thinner arms than Bavarian pretzels and have a slit in the bottom rather than bursting naturally. But the basic shape remains the same.

Crunchy pretzels were not thought to have been invented until well after the medieval period, when a baker in Pennsylvania supposedly fell asleep while baking. Pretzels during the Middle Ages were all the soft variety. These were made by first boiling the pretzel to create the signature chewy exterior. Today, this would be done with baking soda or lye, which helps create a dark crust. However, neither of these were used for cooking in the Middle Ages. The skin would have been moderately lighter because of this.

Next, the original pretzels were fairly simple in ingredients, just water, flour, salt, and some kind of leavening. This created a simple, not sweet, pretzel. The leavening would likely have been either sourdough or beer bram, a by-product of making beer.

Beer and pretzels go way back

It should come as no surprise then that beer and pretzels are intertwined. Beer is one of the oldest fermented beverages in the world, dating back at least to 7000 B.C. Pretzels are babies by comparison, but their existence is intrinsically linked to beer. As mentioned, pretzels were likely made using beer bram, as other forms of leavener were not nearly as common. Additionally, monks weren't just baking; they were brewing beer.

Evidence suggests monks have been brewing beer since around the fifth century. Naturally, this meant a seemingly endless supply of yeasty beer bram for all their baking experiments.

In the early 16th century, hundreds of years after beer and pretzels first met, bakers in Germany also noted the same ingredients are used to make beer and bread, namely water, grains, and yeast, so they decided to make pretzels themselves and serve them with beer. This, in conjunction with monks wearing strings of pretzel necklaces, helped usher in the Oktoberfest pretzel necklace tradition and solidified this dynamic duo.

Pretzels foiled invading Ottomans

It might have come a bit after the Middle Ages, but one of the more shocking bits of pretzel history is their purported role in foiling the Ottoman Empire in its attempt to conquer Austria. In 1529, the Ottoman Turks attempted a rather ambitious invasion of Vienna by tunneling underneath the walls protecting the city. Well, the plan would have worked if not for those meddling monks. At one particular monastery, the monks, busy in their basement kitchen baking pretzels, could hear the approaching Ottomans digging the tunnels. They informed the government, which was able to stop the invasion before it even really started.

The Austrian royalty was so pleased that the pretzel-baking monks received their own coat of arms, which featured two lions, each holding one end of a giant pretzel in one paw and a spatula in the other. It is said to still be used today in some pretzel shops.

Pretzels may be the original tying the knot

The phrase "tying the knot" is used to describe the joining of two people in marriage. It has a long and celebrated history, particularly in the Celtic tradition of handfasting, where a cord is literally tied around the newly wedded couple to symbolize their joining.

What is less well known is that pretzels were also used as a symbol for weddings and are possibly the true origin of the phrase "tying the knot." This stems from Switzerland in 1614. Royal couples would take a pretzel and break it as part of the ceremony. This was thought to bring good luck to the happy couple, similar to the way pretzels symbolized luck for the New Year. The trend spread and became part of wedding ceremonies throughout the country. The pretzel, as a crossed and knotted food, acts as a symbol of the "knot" and is now thought to be related to the popularization of the phrase.