The Ecphorizer

The Crust and the Croissant
Gareth Penn

Issue #05 (January 1982)

Historians play a shell game with the origin of the noble croissant

It was the darkest time of night. The sleeping city of Byzantium was besieged by the forces of Phillip II, King of Macedonia. He had pioneered in the use of siege machinery, but be hadn't been able to bring up his catapults in time. Athenian troops were

...Truth May Be Stranger Than Fiction, but It Is Seldom As Well Written.

on their way by sea to reinforce the Byzantine garrison. Short of time, he grasped at an expedient. Under cover of darkness, a party of sappers made up of expandable psiloi worked on undermining the city wall.

[quoteright]The work was well underway when the moon rose. Dogs yipped and howled at it, rousing the drowsy guards. They peered over the battlements and saw, in the moonlight, what the Macedonians were up to. They sallied forth and quickly dispatched the sappers. Byzantium was saved. To honor Hecate, the goddess of the moon, a grateful bouleuterion -- the City Council -- adopted the crescent noon as the emblem of the city.

There was nothing constant about Byzantium but change itself. First, the city was conquered by the Macedonians under Philip's son, Alexander. It became the capital of the Roman Empire under Constantine, who changed its name to Nova Roma. After his death, it was popularly called Constantinopolis. But if you asked a farmer where he was taking his wagonload of produce to sell, he would say, "Is tin polin" - to The City. Migrating Bulgars, Celts, Goths, and others picked up the phrase.

By mid-15th century, The City was short on grandeur. Its imperial hinterlands had been gobbled up by the Turks over the preceding four centuries. Its population had dwindled to a nubbin. But through all of these epochal changes, one thing remained constant: its emblem was still the crescent noon.

In the siege of 1453, Sultan Mehmet Fetiye ("the Conqueror") used gigantic bombards to attack the great walls of The City, which had turned hack Attila the Hun in 444 A. D. The bombards were so huge that they had to be cast in place. The largest fired a 1500-pound stone ball; its rate of fire was seven rounds a day. Eventually, the walls were breached and The City fell. Mehmet led a triumphal parade down the Mese, The City's main street. Turkish became the official language, and the Greek is tin polin was corrupted to "Istanbul." The great cathedral Ayasofya, built by Justinian to surpass Solomon's temple, became a mosque. But the emblem of The City did not change. To commemorate his victory, Mehmet adopted the crescent as the Emblem of his empire.

The Ottomans extended their say over all of southeastern Europe. By the end of the 17th century, they were at the gates of Vienna. In 1683, war broke out between the Ottoman and Hapsburg Empires. Vienna came under a Turkish siege.

This time, the Turks were not able to bring up their big siege guns from Istanbul -- several important bridges in Serbia had been washed out in spring floods -- and they had to draw their powder from the second-rate arsenal at Budapest. They used their light field-pieces to harass the city while they fell back on a siege tactic that had proved successful in their two-year siege of Candia in Crete 14 years before. They dug mines under walls, filled then with gunpowder, and tried to blast holes in the fortifications, which were among the most advanced in design for their time.

One morning about three o'clock, a baker who had risen early to bake bread for morning sales heard suspicious scraping and clinking noises underfoot. alerted the garrison, which set a countermine that foiled the Turkish attempt. The city was saved, and a grateful City Council granted the takers' guild a patent on a crescent-shaped pastry to commemorate the victory over the Turks which a baker bad made possible.

The motto of the Hapsburgs was "Marry, Austria, and be happy!" They took it seriously, and when events in the second half of the next century seemed to dictate, they married off Archduchess Maria Antonia to the Dauphin of France, not so much for her sake as to consolidate an alliance. When she arrived in France, her name was Gallicized to Marie Antoinette. For a time she was very popular, and there was a ready market for things Austrian. One thing that found ready acceptance was the crescent-shaped pastry, which the Austrians had called Hörnchen ("little horns"). The French celled it croissant And so an institution was born that has survived numerous political revolutions, disastrous wars, and economic crises. On any given morning, millions of Frenchmen all over the globe are biting into croissants, the transubstantiated form of more than two millenia of history.

Isn't that a great story? It's made of elements that everyone has heard or read one time or another and believes to be true, and it shows a cairton thread running through events from the time of Alexander the Great to Napoleon Bonaparte. And it has the intriguing twist of uniting the history of siege warfare with that of baked goods. I think it's a wonderful illustration of a historiographical principle that I am going to propose right here and now: Truth May Be Stranger Than Fiction, But It Is Seldom As Well Written.

The first difficulty with this story is the value of sources. The first account of Phillip' s siege of Byzantium was written down by the historian Hesychius of Miletus at the time of Justinian. Eight centuries had elapsed in the meantime. Given the state of historiographic standards in those days and the universally observable tendency to forget, falsify, and embellish events only a few years old even when abundantly documented, it seems highly unlikely that Hesychius is trustworthy, even if he believed his sources to be true.

Secondly, it is documented that the Ottoman Turks were already using the crescent emblem in the reign of Sultan Orhan, over a century before the siege of Constantinople (the second Turkish siege, incidentally). Modern scholars believe that it derived from a stylized pair of horns left over from the Turks' totemistic heritage before their conversion to Islam. That it s identical in form to the Byzantine emblem is pure coincidence. And the crescent also has nothing whatever to do with the Islamic religion.

Finally, the Turkish mines were directed at the outer fortifications of Vienna, not the residential areas. No matter how early he got up in the morning no baker could have detected mining. What defeated the Turks was the lack of siege artillery, the poor quality of the powder from Budapest (which was old, wet, and lumpy) and the timely arrival of King John Sobieski of Poland at the head of an enormous army, which attacked the Turks in their rear and routed them.

The story is so good, though, that it has undergone numerous embellishments. According to Larousse Gastronomique for instance, it was the siege of Budapest in 1686 at which the baker overheard the mining et cetera. Unfortunately for Larousse, while it is true that Budapest was besieged in that same war, it was the Turks who defended the city and the Austrians who attacked. There is even a traditional story that it was the discovery of coffeebeans in the captured Turkish baggage train that led to the invention of Viennese coffee. The story doesn't explain where they found the sugar and whipped cream.

There is a kernel of truth in it, however, for there can't be any doubt that the Hörnchen is a souvenir of the war, as is the Gugelhupferl which is baked in the shape of a turban. And it seems likely that the croissant was introduced into France at the time of Marie Antoinette.

How quickly we forget our history! Not long ago, there was a story in Newsweek about the burgeoning croissant industry in the U.S. Some manufacturers, to the horror of purists, it seems, have been contaminating their product with additives such as cheese and disgusting as it may seem - jam. Marie Antoinette's poor headless corpse has been cold hardly two centuries, and we have already forgotten that the pure, original, pristine Ur-croissant, the Hörnchen (being an Austrian confection) was also filled with jam, and for that matter, still is.

Indulge your sweet tooth, Austria, and be happy! 

Pastry historian Gareth Penn is also a traveler, linguist, and opera buff. He believes he had a previous incarnation as a medievalist.

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