Although the art of butter making started out in a somewhat crude and accidental manner thousands of years ago amidst our nomadic ancestors, it wasn’t long until butter came to be used for more than just a tasty byproduct of storing milk in animal skin sacs that were jostled around on the road to new pasture.
In the sixth century, a Byzantine physician by the name of Anthimus swore upon butter for its healing properties. According to Anthimus, fresh butter could be used for curing tuberculosis, but only if it did not have any added salt. It was also advised that a bit of fresh honey be mixed in with the butter as well, and that the patient lick the butter-honey blend while laying down in order to fully reap the benefits of this treatment.
In contrast to the Byzantines, the ancient Egyptians used butter as a cosmetic treatment during the mummification process rather than as a medical treatment for the living. In order to give the shrunken corpse a more lifelike appearance, the Egyptians would create a concoction of butter, sawdust, sand, and earth and then insert this mixture into subcutaneous areas that needed a bit of plumping up via incisions in the skin. In essence, the Egyptians used butter as an ancient form of Botox for corpses.
For the Romanized Britons, it wasn’t until the high Middle Ages that dairying shifted from favoring sheep to cows. Before this time, sheep were the farm animal of choice because they were able to provide wool, meat, milk, and tallow (a special type of sheep fat used as a cooking fat). Cows were around, but they were mostly used to breed oxen to plow the fields, and not for milking or butter making purposes. Due to the small size of sheep and their relatively small milk supply, sheep butter was a commodity consumed only by the upper classes. While sheep reigned supreme, their milk was used mainly for cheese making and not for butter. However, once the Britons began to adopt the cow more widely in the Middle Ages, making cow milk more affordable, butter took off in popularity and became a more lucrative product to produce than cheese.
Khosrova, Elaine. Butter: A Rich History. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2016.
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