This is about an exhibition which ended november 11 and was centered on wine in an era that seems light years away from today : the Middle Ages, a grey historic era which we consider as having taken place between 500 and 1500 A.D.
A century ago is already so far in the past that we have a hard time figuring how people exactly related to wine, like did people really focus on the aromas, or did they analyze the mouthfeel or just apreciated the well-being feel experienced after a couple of glasses and so on. But the Middle Ages is almost another planet for us, and this humble exhibition did a lot for me to put the record straight on the subject, first because the images speak volume and we can intuitively guess things and certain ways of the feelings back then, and secondly because the text and printed documentation and comments really clarify our understanding of this time.
This exhibition, where the entry fee was 5 € only, took place from april to november 2012 in the Tour Jean sans Peur (pictured on right), a little-known museum centered on the Middle Ages which is located 20 rue Etienne Marcel in Paris. This exhibition is mobile and for rent by the way, and I think that it is very informative and at the same time very light to put in place, so it should in my opinion find many potential buyers either private or among the cultural institutions & local museums in the wine regions including abroad. I don't know if there's an English version ready but it shouldn't be difficult to set up. The images and displayed Art here being mere reproductions, the insurance costs are minimal I guess. The showcase consists in multiple panels (a few dozens) describing, through well-chosen reproductions and an explanatory text, the various aspects of the wine culture of that time.
Danièle Alexandre-Bidon, the historian who put in place this informative and visually-pleasant research explains on this video interview that the water was polluted then and that every one was drinking wine instead, like around 3 liters a day (making probably 7 or 8° of alcohol), the children receiving smaller amounts diluted with water. If not wine, people would drink cider, beer or poiré. Even breakfast would have some wine included, possibly in the soup. Wine would be used as disinfectant for injuries and surgery. You'll learn many things by reading and watching the images at this exhibition.
Right now, the current exhibition in that museum is about the cuisine in the Middle ages, see the press release (Pdf) about it.
The distorded contemporary vision about the Middle Ages is almost universal for unknown reasons, it's the dark hole of history and we seem to delight in darkening even more the picture with our fantasies, although there is documented evidence of a not-so-gloomy epoch. We're like a now-sophisticated person who would feel ashamed of her/his grandparents' modest background. But what happened in the Renaissance found its source in this era after all, and if the Middle Ages had been that backward and "Talibanesque", no gem like the Renaissance would have ever been brought to light.
History has often been a battleground in France leading to rewriting for political purpose. The distortion about this era fits the scheme and it has by the way often modern political roots, with anticlericals loving to crucify (or rather in this case burn on the pyre) the usual suspects to make their point. The recent state-produced TV fiction Inquisitio describing events of the Middle Ages proves that this obsession is still widely shared, and the state-funded TV drama is in this regard a case study for caricature disguised as History (at the tax payer expenses). The French history saga is already the laughing stock of specialized forums but it speaks volume about the misconceptions (more intended than sincere) about this period. It's hard to make adjustments when trends have lasted for so long, and for example recently, Lorant Deutsch, a young non-conformist writer/historian who didn't follow the official version on the French revolution events was singled out and targeted by the watchdogs of the PC orthodoxy like Rue 89 and Mediapart. Like in the hottest Stalinist trials (or better, witchcraft trials), Lorant Deutsch had to justify himself and has been saved in extremis because his books happen to sell welll and because his work is based on documented history and not re-writing fantasies. The poor guy was even adorned with a false nose like in the Monthy Pithon's witch hunt (on the left), the fake nose taking the shape of a rightist's yellow star, which I'm not sure he deserves. Just a side anecdote to say that our modern, progressive era has its own mobs pushing for burning the designated witches on the pyre. Maybe we all lived through the Middle ages and we're here again to play the drama under different disguises...
So, let's leave this infighting of historians on the side and concentrate on a more consensual subject (at least I hope) : wine in the Middle Ages. We're dealing with an era which was certainly extreme in many regards on our modern standards (let's concede it), but on the whole after visiting this exhibition I think that life then was also probably lots of fun even though the individual's boundaries within the society restricted the personnal freedom compared to what we have today.
Here are a few extracts of what I learnt about wine in the Middle Ages.
This image shows also the tasting of the juice/new wine on the side, you can notice the flat bowls used as cups.
The text and several other period images in the exhibition shed some light about the issue.
Vignerons were often coopers at the same time, making their own containers for both the preservation, removal and transportation of their wines. Wines were already moved and exported according to the study, although countries were actually much smaller than in modern Europe. Repair of casks were also routine due to the high demand for new casks, and in a context where evey profession was tightly regulated, special allowances to work at night were issued before the harvest to speed the production of barrels.
More details are given in the exhibition on the sizes for example, like it was often either 400 liters or 800 liters, and Alsace had already huge foudre that were so big that you couldn't move them. The text give insightful information on what the vintner would add in the cask with the wines : fragrant wood chips, cypres powder or cinnamon bark...
In Italy, the vine would often grow along a tree like it was the tradition there.
We learn in this exhibition that these businesses were very wealthy and yielded lots of money (I can understand that !) and that some of these venues even belonged to the catholic clergy... Because of the prostitution extent in these places, the étuves will be closed down progressively. No wonder then that we subsequently ended up in France having a reputation for not bathing enough...
There doesn't seem either to be discomfort from the part of the couple to be serviced by a servant (a very pretty one apparently, by the way) while both of them are naked in their bath having good time. Note the tarpaulin hanging in the background which may have been used to keep the bath hot before use, but why not, also maybe to get the appropriate privacy if things turn torrid...
Look how the two fellows here hold their glasses, it's like when a knowledgeable amateur holds his stemmed glass from the lower part so as not to warm up the wine : here there's no stem but they still seem to hold the glass delicately with the tip of the fingers...
Everybody would go there including women, children and clergy. In Paris in the 13th century, there was a tavern for every 600 inhabitants, in Bordeaux in the early 15th one for every 300 to 370 inhabitants, and in Avignon in the 14th, one for every 150 inhabitants...
The guy bending from his bench on the left must indeed have ingested lots of wine if this is this red liquid he's vomiting here...
J'ay maintes fois beu sans soif, par quoy mon corps en etois péris et pis ordonné et mal disposé, et par ce j'estoie abandonnée à parler plus largement et plus désordonnéement et faisoie les autres péchier qui prenoient par moy et avec moy plus largement des biens qu'ils ne faisoient se je ne feusse; de viandes aussy ay-je mengié sans faim et sans necessité et maintes fois que je m'en peusse bien passer à moins, et tant en prenoie que mon corps en estoit aucunes fois grevé et nature en estoit en moy plus endormie, plus foible et plus lasche à bien faire et à nien ouir, et tout ce venoit par le péchié de gloutonnie ou quel j'ay péchié comme j'ay dit, et pour ce, chier père, je m'en repens et vous en demande pardon et pénitence.
I'll not translate, it's not easy because I don't understand completely this old French but it is the prayer of a woman repenting for having excessively indulged in wine and meat and having subsequently lost her temper, said bad things or behaved improperly...
Other pages of this treaty are intriguing, like page 67-68 where on the subject of improper sex we learn that the jews living in France then had a Taliban-like law allowing to lapidate to death women adulterers.
There's also a panel in the exhibition devoted to alcoholism, which we learn wasn't called this way, the word alcool having been invented around 1568, a word derived from the arabic word 'al kuhl meaning antimony powder. The word describing such disorders was gluttony, and in the Middle Ages it embraced the excess of both wine and food. The text in the exhibition gives lots of info about the understanding of that time about these diseases related to excessive drinking, inclusing visual drawings of that period depicting a man with a Rhinophyma or ovegrown nose. Ways to heal these diseases were also devised in that time, and the least to say is that they seem very unusual for our ears.
http://correcteurs.blog.lemonde.fr/2012/04/26/bain-de-vin/ http://www.histoire-images-medievales.com/ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HZkXXGu-fh4 http://bibliothequerrs.forumsactifs.com/t175-livre-les-bonnes-manieres-de-table
Source for this short poem.
Magazine issue about wine in the Middle Age
What historians think about the French State TV drama Inquisitio.