By the end of the Middle Ages, the Burgundian court was one of the most elegant in Europe. But the first Burgundians were among the Germanic groups that took over Gaul from the Romans, and somewhat less than couth.
In a famous passage, Sidonis Apollinaris, a fourth century bishop and poet, made it clear that, invasions aside, these were not Our Sort of People: "I am forced to listen to the barbarous German language and to applaud, despite myself, what a drunken Burgundian sings, his head perfumed with rancid butter" - not to mention that his odor of garlic and onion. The poor giant of a Burgundian, had he been able to read, might have been wounded by Sidonis' lack of appreciation for his vocal talents. But this Gallo-Roman's dislike of his hair dressing would simply have left him perplexed. Just as rough characters of a later time would take pride in their Brylcreem and Brut, he no doubt thought his rancid butter the height of fashion and refinement.
Pliny the Elder wrote of butter that it was "held as the most delicate of food among barbarous nations, and one which distinguishes the wealthy from the multitude at large." As for its odor: "The more rank it is in smell, the more highly it is esteemed." One reason for its value may have been that, as historian Kathy Pearson notes, it is "an expensive fat to produce, as between 18.9 and 35 liters of milk are required to produce 1 kilogram of butter." Compare this to the 8.36 liters she estimates would be used for a similar quantity of artisanal cheese.
Butter was not new in Pliny's time; in Ireland, butter has been found in bogs that is at least three thousand years old. But the Romans associated it with the Germans. Pliny, in fact, thought that they did not know how to make cheese, only butter and whey: "It is a remarkable circumstance, that the barbarous nations which subsist on milk have been for so many ages either ignorant of the merits of cheese, or else have totally disregarded it; and yet they understand how to thicken milk and form therefrom an acrid kind of liquid with a pleasant flavour, as well as a rich butter: this last is the foam of milk, and is of a thicker consistency than the part which is known as the "serum."
But not only did Caesar mention the Germans making cheese, cheese presses have been found in digs in Germany itself.
He was on surer ground in describing the substance:
It is mostly made from cows' milk, and hence its name [butyrum or bouturon, from bos or bous, beef] ; but the richest butter is that made from ewes' milk. There is a butter made also from goats' milk; but previously to making it, the milk should first be warmed, in winter. In summer it is extracted from the milk by merely shaking it to and fro in a tall vessel, with a small orifice at the mouth to admit the air, but otherwise closely stopped, a little water being added to make it curdle the sooner. The milk that curdles the most, floats upon the surface; this they remove, and, adding salt to it, give it the name of "oxygala." They then take the remaining part and boil it down in pots, and that portion of it which floats on the surface is butter, a substance of an oily nature. When old, it forms an ingredient in numerous compositions. It is of an astringent, emollient, repletive, and purgative nature.
The Romans never seem to have developed a taste for butter, but they did find medical uses for it. As Pliny writes: "butter has certain of the properties of oil, and...it is used for an ointment among all barbarous nations, and among ourselves as well, for infants." He lists a number of medical uses for it, including these: "in cases where a leech has been swallowed, butter is the usual remedy, with vinegar heated with a red-hot iron. Indeed, butter employed by itself is a good remedy for poisons, for where oil is not to be procured, it is an excellent substitute for it. Used with honey, butter heals injuries inflicted by millepedes."; "For other kinds of ulcers butter is used, as a detergent, and as tending to make new flesh."
It may come as a surprise that the great medical authority Galen mentioned its use for washing - but no more of a surprise than to know it was used in place of olive oil: "Furthermore, people in many cold regions where they lack olive oil use butter for washing themselves."
The French quickly enough adopted this "Germanic" food, which was a standard one in medieval France. Today we think of butter as a spread, but in defining a medicinal use for it, Anthimus makes it clear (in the sixth century) that it could be consumed on its own: “Fresh butter is taken for consumption. But butter completely without salt, for if it has salt, it does not cure it as well. If it is pure and fresh with a little honey mixed in, lick it at intervals while laying down.” (Note too that it was already sometimes salted.) Fortunatus, from about the same period, speaks of butter being served together with milk, from whose fat it was made (recalling, in a roundabout way, Paul Simon's "Mother and Child Reunion", said to have been inspired by seeing chicken and an egg on the same plate).
As late as the sixteenth century, nuns at Beaumont-lez-Tours were allowed a special ration which could consist of "fruit, cheese, or some slice of butter, with bread and wine." About the same time, says Le Grand d'Aussy, [Bruyerin-]Champier wrote that the Flemish were those who consumed the most butter and so their country was known as "the butterer": "Not a day, not a meal gone by without eating it and I am surprised they have not yet had to put it in their drink. And... when someone must travel in that country, it is recommended that he take a knife, if he wants to try good mounds of butter.” But he says of the French too that they served fresh butter on their tables, especially in May, and that the common people ate it "in the morning with garlic in order to drive out what they call bad air and kill any worms they might have in their guts.”
If the idea of eating butter directly strikes you as strange, you might consider if you've ever tasted really, really fresh butter - butter so good you could eat it as food, perhaps with some honey or garlic; maybe even a glass of milk on the side.
FOR FURTHER READING:
Oeuvres de C. Sollius Apollinaris Sidonius
Pliny - The Natural History
Kathy L. Pearson, "Nutrition and the Early-Medieval Diet", Speculum, Vol. 72, No. 1 (Jan., 1997), pp. 1-32, Medieval Academy of America
‘Bog butter’ from 3,000 BC found in ancient underground store
Galen On the Properties of Foodstuffs
Anthimus-Anthimi De observatione ciborum: epistula ad Theudericum
Venance Fortunat, Poésies mêlées
Mémoires de la Société archéologique de Touraine, Volume 26
Available in my own translations:
Anthimus' De Observatione Ciborum
Le Grand's chapter on eggs, butter and cheese