Every so often you come across a little titbit in some otherwise incredibly dry prose and you just have to stop what you were doing, put down the book, get online and find out more. So it was when, in reading about some rather tedious, but important, technicalities to do with the Medieval wine trade, I stumbled across something altogether more fun – the thirteenth century Battle of Wine.
The Middle Ages seem to have a modern day reputation for being pretty miserable. Harsh commandments from the Church dominated people’s day to day lives, the constant outbreaks of plague or war were an ever present threat and the incredibly oppressive workings of a ‘Feudal’ society paved the way for extreme poverty or riches.
However, if you were lucky enough to have the wealth to do so, there were equally fabulous ways to unwind. To put it simply, people in the Middle Ages liked to drink. As we do now and as people did before them. But this wasn’t just, as some people assume, a way of combating the notoriously vile ‘fresh water’ supply (not for the rich at least). Merchants and the aristocracy loved wine. But standards were slipping.
The ‘Bataille des Vins’ is a fabliau or poem about an, apparently, fictitious early wine tasting competition. It pits seventy different blends against one another, all for the enjoyment of one, very drunk, English monk. The wines have been drawn from across all of known Europe and the poem is believed to represent the very real fear of Philip Augustus (the great medieval monarch) that there was a real detrimental decline in the favoured Medieval tipple. The man chosen to hold judgement across the many blends gets to his work with an apparent solid determination. In a somewhat prophetic fashion the English monk shows favour towards some of our modern day great wine regions; those of Chablis and Beaune for example. He places them in his ‘celebrated’ category, whilst those wines which do not make the cut are to be ‘excommunicated’.
The poem’s martial tone displays the wider political context for the piece. England and France, as was often in the Middle Ages, were locked in conflict during the thirteenth century. The wines represent far more than their liquid alone. They often taken on the characteristics of the region they hail from. For instance the priest ridicules the wine of the French heartland – Champagne – as ‘Sir Fat’ for it’s bloated character. Whereas the Bordeaux wines (which had been an English territory for decades) ‘tout their vigour and strength’ as Ben O’Donnel puts it.
In something approaching a Chaucerian style, the French author tells us of how in time the monk shows his true English nature, indulging himself before falling asleep in his cups. A nice touch - showing how we English cannot grow our own vines and subsequently clearly cannot hold our drink…
Eventually however, a winner reigns victorious. A sweet Cypriot wine is eventually crowned ‘Pope’ of the competition, placed above all others. Mediterranean dessert wines have fallen somewhat out of favour over subsequent centuries, but to the thirteenth century palate they were beyond measure.
We do not really know if this tasting every took place; although I like to think there is enough of a ‘knowing tone’ in the author’s words to suggest something like it may have. What it does show though is that the Medieval sommeliers were very much aware of the dangers of allowing wine to become ‘ordinary’. Philip Augustus, the French king present in the poem, was responsible for some of the great changes in Medieval France, allowing much of the country’s wealth to pass down from a very select group of nobles into the hands of a growing wine drinking ‘middle class’. This is very much a reflection on a timeless attitude that we all still feel today – we want our wine to be beyond measure and the mere ordinary, ultimately without compromise, because as Sir Robert Scott Caywood put it –
“Compromises are for relationships, not wine.”