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.
Most of the people lived in the countryside then, and the harvest at the end of summer would mobilize everybody including children, it was a federative moment in the communities. I try to imagine this festive time and I don't think that we have the equivalent today. The ban des vendanges (the green light to begin the harvest) would be given by the authorities, say the local seigneur. Men & women would share the picking while the basket holders would be males exclusively.
This image shows also the tasting of the juice/new wine on the side, you can notice the flat bowls used as cups.
Of course the monks role is highlighted, and although these workers aren't dressed like monks, the architecture of the room around them looks closely to the one of a church or a monastery. The text going with the reproductions gives some insights about the vinification modes then, and it seems that several additives were added in order to preserve the wine or enhance it. Pietro de Crescenzi who wrote in those times one of the earliest treaties on agriculture is said to have devoted more than 20 chapters to the winemaking usage, including details on the topping up of casks and racking.
Varieties were already relatively clearly documented, and an essay on agriculture by Pietro de Crescenzi in 1305lists 13 white-grape varieties and 8 "black"-grape varieties, with already a distinction between the qualitative ones and the more vulgar ones suitable for table wines, those who make wines that can age, and the ones used for short-delay consumption. The Paris region was mostly planted with white, particularly with a variety known then under the name of Fromenteau or Fromentot, which is known today as the Pinot Gris.
There are a couple of murals in the exhibition devoted to the work in the vineyard with more period illustrations, and for example this type of tool (the till) here was still used in the early 20th century, and you can see one on this story about Hugues Garnon in the Loire (right-side picture in the lower page). The sickle on the other hand has its origin in the Roman civilization, and it was the main tool for pruning. The text accompanying the images gives interesting details about this work on the vines then.
The text and several other period images in the exhibition shed some light about the issue.
The cask is said to have been invented by the Gauls or the Celts and it had become widely used throughout the Roman empire after the Romans switched from their clay amphorae to these more convenient vessels.
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...
Training varied but in most vineyards in France and Flanders the mode was échalas or vertical sticks around which the vine would grow. The sticks would be taken off in autumn so that they don't rot. Trellis and Pergola were also used. Walls were build around parcels, sometimes with wood planks sometimes with dry stones in order to hasten ripening. In 1305 the agronomist Pietro de Crescenzi advises when there's no protection wall around the parcel to grow brambles around the vine to offer protection against wild animals, proving that they already preyed on grapes like today.
In Italy, the vine would often grow along a tree like it was the tradition there.
Wine was drunk from flat containers in that time, almost like we can do it for soup today. Even though the glassware technology improved along the years, the containers were made out of pottery or tin depending of your wealth. The table was usually set in front of the fireplace, the person seating with the fire in the back, there was no central heating or efficient stoves back then and even wealthy castles were pretty cold in winter.
Already then a clear distinction is made between the vulgar crowd with bad manners, spilling the wine and behaving loudly in the taverns, and the educated society where one knows the rules. This painting puts the two societies side by side, the low-extraction plebeian party in their mess alongside the upper-society elite sitting straight at their table. Time passes, nothing changes, the latter seem to be bored and without any fun, let me check what kind of wine they're drinking...
Here is a strange venue which you would have a hard time to imagine when you think about the Middle Ages : This is an étuve in French, some sort of public bath bordering the idea of a sauna, where both sexes went together and where in addition to eating and drinking it was not uncommon for newly met couples to leave for the privacy of a room. Both sexes enjoying booze and food and having fun on some sort of indoor recreation pool, that's what I call a very different picture compared to the depressed mood conveyed by Umberto Eco in his novel The Name of the Rose... Our times need easy certitudes with the cozy assertion of intellectual superiority, and the Middle-Ages period, real or imaginary, is the perfect tool for that. Not that I want to side with the Catholic-Church hyerarchy but they were probably more tolerant than initially thought to let these venues operate in most major cities : according to this webpage [saved by Wineterroirs because it's not online anymore], Brussels had 40 of these étuves, same for Bruges and Bade has 30 of them. In France, in addition to Paris, cities like Dijon, Digne, Rouen, Strasbourg have such étuves, and even Chartres has 5 of them, and even though they were probably not all offering the full range of "services" this makes probably a good number of sinful businesses... Aside from these other services probably not registered even back then, the fee for a steam bath in 1380 was 2 Deniers (a big loaf of bread cost 1 Denier), a mildly-warm bath cost 4 Deniers, and steam (étuve) plus bath cost 8 Deniers. On the other hand, two people having the steam plus the bath together would pay 12 Deniers only, not bad for a supposedly narrow-minded era...
These venues must have been very common indeed, and the image above is very explicit, the private bed is close enough for immediate use when needed, although it's not clear wether they had other beds available or if couples had to wait their turn...
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...
Remember : we're in the dark Middle Ages, even if in last stretch...Note that speaking of taking one's bath with another person (your spouse I suppose in that case) this was an usage with which the Middle Ages seemed to be familiar with, at least enough to have this scene featured on an image describing life at home for the upper society of that time. Eating and drinking all the while enjoying the warm bath may have been an hedonic ritual then, so much more fun than eating a pizza in front of the TV screen...
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...
There was probably as much excitation about the prospect of drinking the new wine, although back then people weren't probably into analyzing the aromas and the mouthfeel and other sophisticated intellectualizing. The particular perspective-drawing of that time is maybe why these small casks seem weirdly positionned along (almost inside) this wall, it reminds me these fake casks in Russia in a shop from which the clerk poured bulk wine.
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...
It seems that already back then, the love of certain amateurs for old, aromatic wines was taking root. Again, Rhenania along the Rhine valley seems to have had a central role in this early wine culture. Around the 11th century, new wine regions are sprouting along the large rivers that were the freeways of that time, the Rhine, the Oise, the Marne, the Yonne, the Loire and the Allier make wines that are famed then, some being shipped to weathy flemish cities from the port of La Rochelle.
Taverns were the hot thing, you had a large number of them in any city, and some were serving the wine outside, maybe the German beergarten originated in that time. The taverns had a mixed reputation, being places of drunkenness, card players and thieves, and the moralists of the time called them the antechamber of hell (antichambre du diable). The tavern was also typically where people would conclude deals and sign contracts, hire an employee or get a loan.
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...
Glasses weren't sophisticated then, but it was still a precious utensil you didn't break casually. Pots of wines were not only containers to pour wine, a pot was a measure unit making a little more than a liter. The volume of these pots had to be correct because cheating on the volume was not a minor offense, it would have been akin to messing with a gas pump in order to deliver less gas than displayed, you won't get away with that sort of crime...
These taverns where wine was at easy reach for what I guess was little money were the equivalent of our bars. They were even more than today places to meet people, let the steam off and have a romance, I understand that like it's been pointed in this painting, the clergy (here sneaking a peek from outside at the window) was worried by his flocks veering away from the church teachings.
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...
Don't ever think that women drinking wine together is a clear sign of modernity and emancipation, or again, the Middle Ages are different from the preconception we have of that time. Some books dealing with spiritual guidance for women even have a few lines about wine excesses, for example the author of Le Ménagier de Paris, a treaty about morality and home management written in 1392/1394 advised his young wife not to drink wine... before 9am. Here are by the way a few chewy lines (page 50) found in this treaty, written in old French, where you can read a prayer aknowledging too much drinking by a repenting woman :
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.
What must happen happens, and after drinking all this wine, some people always quarel and fight, and with weapons sometimes at hand, there could be casualties. Notice that it doesn't seem to disturb or worry the two other people around the table who are going to help themselves or maybe secure the booze in the midst of the fight.
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.
Prices of wine were fixed in the taverns, the owners couldn't change it at will, they were exposed to quality checks and couldn't put low-quality wine into a barrel reserved for higher-quality wine. It reminds the rules enforced by the French Customs in the wineries. Bakeries could also sell wine, as well as tripiers (butchers) and even some pharmacies. Private individuals who had some vineyards for family consumption were also allowed to sell their wine and even to turn temporarily their house into a tavern. Even some religious institutions occasionally had a tavern wing, like Saint Benigne in Dijon. A tax was levied on wine in the taverns and it yielded good revenues for the city administrations.
The higher the social position and the wealth, the more sophisticated the cellar will be. The most elaborate ones are built as the foundation of the whole house, the weight of the construction being supported by state-of-the-art vaulted ceilings which are admired by architects and non-experts alike for their simplicity and relentless sustainability through the centuries.
There is a museum devoted to the Middle Ages in Paris, it is the Musée du Moyen Age de Cluny. You will find there very interesting artifacts, including this masterpiece tapestry which comes from the Flanders but obviously describes a scene taking place in a region more to the south, possibly in what is now called France. Flanders destiny was then tied to Spain and Burgundy, there were no firm nations like today but rather interconnected regional kingdoms, and there is a good chance that what you see here was a harvest scene in Burgundy. click here for more details on this tapestry. When you think about it, the picking in baskets, the pressing and the foot stomping remained until now, like the entonnage, the pouring of the juice into the casks, it's amazing to see that actually the quality wine stands on the same requirements. Another interesting thing to note in this scene is that both in the vineyard and in the chai, men and women work together.
Also of interest is the way the vineyard was attached not to poles but to trees, that's utterly interesting, and this was done high enough so that you could walk underneath. This is a great testimony to fuel the hot issue of bringing back trees (fruit trees) in the vineyard and letting the vine grow as long as it wants.
And notice the meticulous hand-picking and the moderately-sized baskets, everything you need to make great and true wines...
I understand that the pavements and streets were very dirty at that time, I understand better why they had a problem with rats...
This another masterpiece from the Musée de Cluny. This large altarpiece displays three scenes including this original version of the last supper. The whole artwork has the size of a big cabinet and it was probably capable of striking the imagination of believers to see such vivid scenes featured this way. See other details here as well as the whole altarpiece.
I guess the details of such scenes give more insight on the way people in the 15th century behaved than on the social usages of the times of jesus. But cups and jugs might not be very different actually.
This is probably more recent than the Middle Ages but this unidentified painting on the wall of the Musée de Cluny (a trompe-l'oeil if I remember) was interesting because it showed cherubims hanging fruits and grapes on a bell-shaped structure, something the people of that time probably did to extend the lifespan of fruits and enjoy them later. Maybe they also picked them early and had them ripe this way. Maybe they made vin de paille like in Jura...
Source for this short poem.
Magazine issue about wine in the Middle Age
What historians think about the French State TV drama Inquisitio.
Russian webpage with more images related to wine in the Middle Ages