This isn’t about a Straight Dope column per se, but about a quiz answer in More of the Straight Dope. The question is on page 222, and the answer (such as it is) is on page 473-4. We are asked to believe that “Nicolaus Copernicus, the astronomer, was the first man to butter his bread.” The explanation goes
Certainly the story is fun, and it would be even better if we embellished it with a spinning cat. But you’ll excuse me if I think the whole thing is a crock. Are we really supposed to believe that he was the first person in the history of humanity to get the idea of putting bread and butter together? At the library today I consulted four biographies of Copernicus. Every one of them mentions the fact that Copernicus was in charge of Allenstein Castle when it was besieged for several months in 1520. Not one of them mentions a plague of any kind, not one of them mentions bread and butter. The book that went into the greatest detail said there were no soldiers, only castle servants.
Did Copernicus butter his bread? Undoubtedly, but so did half the population of Europe, I’d be willing to bet. Looking in the Oxford English Dictionary, under buttered, I find a citation from The Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle (1496): “Browne breede tostyd wyth hony in lyknesse of a butteryd loof.” So I think we can safely say that people were butteryng their looves a good quarter century before Copernicus came along to show them the light.
I found several other references to the story on the Internet, some of which go so far as to imply that not only was he the first to put bread and butter together, he was the first person to make butter, period. That’s so insane, I won’t even dignify it with a rebutteral.
I agree with bibliophage that “inventing” buttered bread seems far too grandiose a claim. But I’m willing to admit the possibility (as described by L.M. Boyd, though I will refrain from commenting on L.M. Boyd’s habitual level of accuracy) that <<As commander of Allenstein castle during a 16th-century plague, he coated baked goods with a paste from churned milk in the hope it would purify the food. It didn’t. But the troops liked it. And everybody started wanting bread smeared with milk paste.>>
However, it’s strange that this plague is not mentioned in any of the biographies consulted by bibliophage.