Praying with pretzels

The salty, twisted treats that we call pretzels have their origin, it is thought, in a seventh-century European monastery—according to lore, either in southern France, northern Italy, or Germany. Allegedly a monk invented them by shaping scraps of leftover bread dough to resemble arms crossed in prayer over the chest. (Think upside-down pretzel.)

During the Middle Ages the church’s fasting requirements for Lent were stricter than they are today, forbidding the intake of all nonaquatic animal by-products, including eggs, lard, milk, and butter. Because pretzels could be made with a simple recipe that avoided these banned ingredients, they soon became associated with the season.

Lady Lent with pretzels
Detail from The Battle between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel, 1559, showing the gaunt Lady Lent (a man cross-dressed as a nun) riding a cart bearing traditional Lenten fare: pretzels, waffles, and mussels. He holds, like a lance, a baker’s peel topped with two herring.

The pretzel’s Lenten link, not to mention its popularity as a year-round snack both inside and outside monastic communities, led artists to sometimes paint pretzels into Last Supper images.

Pretzel at the Last Supper
The Last Supper, from a bishop’s benedictional made in Bavaria, Germany, ca. 1030–40. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles: MS Ludwig VII 1, fol. 38.

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