How Butter Fueled the Protestant Reformation

By: Dave Roos
Martin Luther nailing butter to door
“They [the Catholic church] sell us the right to eat foods forbidden on fast days… but they have stolen that same liberty from us with their ecclesiastical laws,” wrote Luther. “Eating butter, they say, is a greater sin than to lie, blaspheme, or indulge in impurity.” PHAS/Howstuffworks/Getty Images

2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. And as part of the 500th-anniversary celebrations, we need to talk about butter. Yes, the tasty stuff you spread on toast and tuck into a baked potato. In an odd twist of history, butter may have played an outsized role in stoking an outspoken German monk named Martin Luther's frustration with the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, if not for a butter ban, Protestantism might have had a much slower growth.

The story begins in Medieval Europe, where "fast days" were a big deal. According to "Butter: a Rich History" by Elaine Khosrova, the tradition started with monks abstaining from eating any animal products on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and all during Lent, the 40-day period leading up to Easter. Meat and dairy was believed to fuel lust, writes Khosrova. Eventually the Church extended the fast day rules to all Christians — no meat, milk, eggs, animal fats or butter.


The problem was that the Roman Catholic Church was centered in, you guessed it, Rome. And people in Southern Europe didn't eat a lot of butter back in the 15th and 16th century. Their diet was dominated by fish and olive oil, both of which were totally acceptable on fast days. According to "A History of Food" by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, some Southern Europeans believed that butter caused leprosy and packed their own supply of oil if traveling abroad.

Up north in dairy-farming countries like France and Germany — where Luther lived — cutting butter from the diet was a much bigger deal. After losing meat and cheese, there was pretty much nothing left. And since fast days covered almost half the calendar year, the butter ban was akin to starvation.


Indulging in Butter

For well-connected royalty and other wealthy faithful, the church was known to grant reprieves or "dispensations" on the butter ban. Other powerful petitioners made contributions to Rome — alms for chapel construction and money to fund the crusades — in return for exemptions to eat butter.

In some cases, entire regions were granted permission to eat butter, but only in exchange for an ongoing spiritual "tax." A special collection box was placed in French parishes to collect butter money, which may have been used to fund the construction of new towers for ornate cathedrals like those in Rouen and Borges, known to locals as the "Tour de Buerre" or "Butter Tower."


Meanwhile, the poor saps in Luther's parish were stuck with the "no butter" rule. Even worse, enterprising exporters from Southern Europe were selling oil to the northern countries to use on fast days. Not only was the oil much more expensive compared to local butter, but it was low quality.

"In Rome, they make a mockery fasting, while forcing us to eat an oil they themselves would not use to grease their slippers," Luther wrote in "An open letter to the Christian nobility of the German nation," published in 1520.

But the worst offense, according to Luther, was that some clergymen were traveling around Germany selling indulgences for the sin of eating butter on fast days. Indulgences were official church pardons that had been part of Roman Catholic doctrine for centuries, but were only to be given under the condition of contrite confession.

Unfortunately, the indulgence system was easily corrupted, and the practice of "selling forgiveness" for all sorts of things in the 16th century was "very, very widespread," says Kirsi Stjerna, Professor of Lutheran History and Theology at the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary.

"There was an 'economy of grace,'" explains Stjerna. "Today we buy life insurance and health insurance to secure our possessions. In the Middle Ages, the only security came through church. These indulgences were the people's insurance policies, tangible pieces of paper that said, 'Hey, I'm good.'"

For Luther, these clergy selling indulgences represented the larger sin of a church that convinced poor peasants that forgiveness came at a price. In Luther's Bible-centered theology, forgiveness was free, and man would be saved or "justified" by faith and grace alone, not by following the church's rules.

"They sell us the right to eat foods forbidden on fast days... but they have stolen that same liberty from us with their ecclesiastical laws," wrote Luther. "Eating butter, they say, is a greater sin than to lie, blaspheme, or indulge in impurity."


The Spread of Protestantism

"It seems hardly a coincidence," writes butter historian Khosova, "that most of the dairy-rich countries producing and using butter were the same nations that broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century."

Professor Stjerna agrees that food-related issues — like whether a certain food was prohibited on fast days — played a major role in the frustrations that built up with the Catholic church.


"That was one of Luther's biggest teachings — nothing about eating, drinking, sleeping, marrying or sex is sin. Not believing in God is sin," says Stjerna. "In other words, everything is cool. Eating butter is cool. One of the reasons why the Reformation was so successful was that Luther radically changed how people thought about what's wrong and what's permissible."

On October 31, 1517, Luther first published his 95 Theses, by some accounts nailing them to a church door in his hometown of Wittenberg. The 95 Theses dared to call into question the godlike authority of the pope.

Luther's teachings, which spread rapidly thanks to the new-fangled printing press, forever altered the course of Christian history. Today there are more than 45,000 Protestant denominations around the world.