How Butter Built a Cathedral—& Other Interesting Butter Facts

Butter has led a life of international mystery.

March 14, 2023
Photo by Rocky Luten

Butter has been around for over 10,000 years, and in those centuries it has been used in countless recipes, allegedly cured illnesses, and even built a cathedral. Before it was relegated to your kitchen counter (or refrigerator), butter led a life of international mystery. To celebrate the beauty that is butter, we’ve compiled six of the greatest butter facts we could find, including a few myth-busting anecdotes for good measure.

1. The Butter Tax

Butter was once so ingrained in Scandinavian culture, that the 11th-century Norwegian king Svein Knutsson demanded each of his subjects provide him a bucket of butter as tax annually. While this tax was questionable at best, it begs the much more serious culinary question: If you were King Svein, what would you make with the people’s hard-churned taxpayer butter?

2. Butter As A Cure

In ancient Rome, butter was swallowed to soothe sore throats. More than a dairy-forward cough drop, ancient Romans also rubbed butter on their aching joints—think Icy Hot, with great flavor and no tingling sensation.

3. The Great Race For A French Butter Substitute

In the mid-19th century, Emperor Napoleon III offered a prize to anyone that could develop a cheap butter alternative for French workers and his armies in the Franco-Prussian war. Napoleon’s challenge led to French chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries patenting margarine in 1869.

4. Building With Butter

Back in the 15th century, the Catholic church banned its followers from eating butter during the 40 days of Lent. However, Catholics could pay a fee to the church if they wanted to free themselves from the butter-ban entirely. So many French Catholics opted to give money rather than forgo butter that the revenue generated from Lent butter fees became a substantial funding source for France’s Rouen Cathedral. Today, the Rouen Cathedral is colloquially known as the Butter Tower.

5. I Can’t Believe There’s No Butter

There is no actual butter in the motor-oil-like substance cosplaying as “movie theater butter.” Like the food itself, this realization is tough to stomach.

6. Butter Is Booming (Kind Of)

The butter market is growing. According to Grand View Research, the global market for butter was valued at $51.61 billion in 2021 and is projected to grow at 2.6 percent from 2022 to 2028. You could even say that butter—just like many of us—has its best days still ahead.

Do you have a favorite butter fact that we missed? Let us know in the comments below!
Listen Now

On our new weekly podcast, two friends separated by the Atlantic take questions and compare notes on everything from charcuterie trends to scone etiquette.

Listen Now

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

Paul Hagopian

Written by: Paul Hagopian

Content @ Food52

1 Comment

Cy March 24, 2023
Butter is also healthy; like lard because our bodies have been eating it for hundreds of years our bodies recognize and utilize butter well. I buy grass fed butter at the grocery store and leaf lard from a local charcuterie that makes their own. Stay away from the scary chemical laden ones. Best of all butter is delicious!