Dr's Casebook: The origin of the baker's dozen for Easter

Hot cross buns are traditionally eaten on Good Friday. Photo: AdobeStockHot cross buns are traditionally eaten on Good Friday. Photo: AdobeStock
Hot cross buns are traditionally eaten on Good Friday. Photo: AdobeStock
It is Good Friday tomorrow, and after the fasting of Lent comes the feasting of Easter. Traditionally this comes with the baking of hot cross buns. I love this time of year andwill be up early in the morning to make my own baker’s dozen.

Dr Keith Souter writes: The origin of the term a ‘baker’s dozen’ is interesting, since many people think that it refers to the Last Supper, when Jesus is said to have announced to the 12 disciples that one of them would betray him. The practice of making a baker’s dozen of hot cross buns is said by some to represent the twelve apostles and Jesus.

I write a series of medieval thrillers and in my research I came across another explanation from the 13th century, which is based on one of the statutes introduced by King Henry II. It is called the Assize of Bread and Ale. Effectively, bakers and publicans were prevented by law from short-changing their customers, and risked severe punishments. Therefore, the Worshipful Company of Bakers of London wrote into their guild code the practice of baking 13 items, on the basis that one of the 13 could be lost, eaten, burnt or ruined in some way, leaving the baker with the original dozen. Either explanation makes a nice story, I feel.

A rather quaint custom in days gone by was to bake a special loaf as well as hot cross buns on Good Friday. Crumbs from this loaf were then kept for adding to nostrums, poultices and potions to treat all sorts of ailments. It is possible that the effectiveness of these came about as the result of moulds that would grow on them. And of course, it was from penicillium mould that penicillin, the great antibiotic was later developed.

We don’t know exactly when the tradition of hot cross buns came into being. It is said that it started in 1361, when a monk named Father Thomas Rockcliffe distributed buns to the poor of St Albans on Good Friday. It certainly seems a long tradition and baking your own baker’s dozen is good fun, as is the giving of them to friends and family. I recommend it to you. Happy Easter to you all.