It’s awfully hard to date the pretzel. That’s because its main ingredients — flour, water, salt, yeast — are the basis for just about every bread product known to man. Its shape, on the other hand, is quite distinctive. Perhaps a little too much so. Why? Because in an effort to make themselves sound intelligent at dinner parties, generation upon generation of know-it-alls like me have advanced countless ersatz explanations for it, to the point that today we have almost no end of kooky pretzel myths, each more outlandish than the last.
One of the most popular dates the invention of the pretzel to the Seventh Century A.D., to a young monk (nameless, of course) whose monastery, depending on the version, was located in either Italy, Southern France, Alsace or Germany.
So the story goes, this young fellow was preparing some sort of traditional Lenten bread when it occurred to him that if he formed some of the longer, skinnier pieces of dough into the shape of arms folded at prayer, the finished bread might make a handy reminder for his fellow monks to pray. Explanations of exactly how a pretzel resembles arms folded at prayer, or why monks living in a Monastery would need to be reminded to pray is always left out. Add to this that Catholics don’t, and have never, prayed with their arms folded (I should know, I am one). Medieval monks — and you can see this yourself by looking at manuscript illustrations from the period — prayed the way Catholics still do to this day: kneeling, head bowed, palms either pressed together or open to the sky.
There’s a variation of this same story that further attempts to explain the origin of the word “pretzel.” Take the same young baking monk, put him in the location of your choice, in either 600, 500, 400 or 300 A.D., only this time he’s trying to entice church-averse youngsters to come to Sunday mass. He fashions the same shape for the same reasons, only this time dubs it a pretium, the Latin word for “reward” or “prize.” Set the story in Italy, and “pretium” evolves into “pretiola” and later into the German “pretzel.”
Of course there are other food historians with other ideas about where the word “pretzel” came from. Some claim from the Latin word brachium or “arm”, others bracellae or “crossed arms.” There are other name-origin theories, of course, each of which goes a little better with one or another version of the “young monk” story. It’s in this way that pretzel history is akin to a Mr. Potato Head doll. You can mix it, you can match it, you can have it any way you like it. And most food writers do.
The only thing that’s clear from all of this is that at some point the pretzel came to be associated with Lent, the Catholic pre-Easter fasting period. It’s not hard to see why the two might go so well together. Pretzels are plain. They contain no meat, dairy, eggs, spices or anything else that might interfere with a fast. So exactly how and when did the pretzel and Lent come together? As to that there are only guesses. Several paintings by Dutch masters depicting early Christians feature pretzels, however Seventeenth Century painters weren’t exactly food historians. Most likely they were simply incorporating myths into their paintings which were by then already well entrenched.
How to sort it all I out? I have no idea, save to say this is but one rivulet of the mighty stream that is pretzel mythology. Let’s look at some others, shall we?