Most of people don't know that pretzels began as a monk's joke.
Credit: © Todd Taulman / Getty Images

We may not often think much about pretzels—absentmindedly tossing them in our carts as we wander down the snack aisle—but as Americans we eat a whole heck a lot of them. According to 2013 statistics, this country buys more than 324 million pretzels a year. The sometimes-soft, sometimes-hard snack is a favorite to munch on while watching sports, getting drunk at Oktoberfest. The carb-loaded treat even became part of presidential lore when President George W. Bush fainted when he choked on one in 2002.

However, what the history of pretzels is a bit more unexpected: They have deep-rooted religious origins. At one time, they were thought to provide good fortune to those who crunched away.

The pretzel's origins date back at least over 1500 years. While the New York Times reported in 1988 that a fifth century illuminated manuscript in the Vatican featured what may be the first pretzel, most sources date the snack's invention a century later. It was around 610 BCE when legend has it that, in a secluded monastery, in either Northern Italy or Southern France lived a monk with a twisted sense of humor. As a reward to his students for learning their prayers, this monk handed out baked pieces of leftover bread twisted together to resemble crossed arms, which was a traditional prayer pose. He called them "pretiola," which is Latin for "little rewards." What's more, the three-holed "pretiola," claimed the monk, represented the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The etymology of the word may not prove this story to be entirely true, but certainly shows that the pretzel crumbs lead back to the Catholic Church. Some scholars believe that the word "pretzel" is not a corruption of the Latin word "pretiola," but rather comes from the Old German "brezitella" from the Latin for "arm" (bracchiatus). There's also evidence that they could have started as a food meant to be eaten during lent to replace meat.

During the Middle Ages, monks gave away pretzels to the poor as a religious symbol that additionally provided literal sustenance. Because of this, the twisted snack caught on as a sign of fulfillment, good fortune and prosperity. It started popping up in medieval art as a lucky symbol, most famously in Herrad of Landsberg's encyclopedia Hortus Deliciarum. A 12th-century German nun, Herrad depicted pretzels as an important part of any feast.

In the 16th century, it was heroic pretzel bakers who saved Vienna from ransacking by Ottomon Turks. The story goes that in 1529 soldiers from the Ottoman Empire began the Siege of Vienna by tunneling underneath the Austrian city under the cover of darkness. However, several monks in the monastery's basement, hard at work making the next day's pretzels, overheard the commotion. They quickly altered the city leadership and military. By doing this, the monks were able to thwart the attack and save lives. In thanks, the Austrian emperor gave the pretzel bakers their own coat of arms which included angry lions holding a pretzel. It's still used at European pretzel shops today.

So the next time you crunch away on a pretzel, just remember they've had a long journey history, from monastic joke to the baked good that may have saved a city.