A Medieval Battle for Wine
Here’s a bit of an essay.
It’s actually my entry for the Young Wine Writer of the Year Award. Hopefully it still makes for an interesting read…
‘Celebrated or Excommunicated’ – How did the Medieval ‘Battle of Wine’ reflect the changing social attitudes towards the production and consumption of wine in the Middle Ages and its subsequent effect on history?
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’.
It’s a a shift in attitudes towards wine. Set in the context of the era this colourful poem highlights a sea change in wine’s role in society and has knock on consequences to this day.
The Middle Ages seem to have a modern day reputation for being relatively dour. 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. The instability of many of the fledgling Kingdoms meant long distance trade was at best unreliable and we are far from the modern day wine making techniques which could have dealt with the issues of disease and pests.
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. We can see this in the archaeological record, merchant houses began to expand to accommodate the large wine barrels and vines were reintroduced to areas on a large scale. But for many wine was far more than an escape from the bleakness of the age. This is a time were people took pride in the wine they produced, but after years of decline 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. At the start of the tale the man chosen to hold judgement across the many blends gets to his work with an apparent solid determination. He begins with the wines of France and it is remarkable that many of the wines are names we would see at modern day tastings. In a somewhat prophetic fashion the English monk shows favour towards some of our modern day greats; those of Chablis and Beaune for example are highly favoured. 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. This is more than just the notion of place being transferred to the character of the wine (or terroir). This was wine taking on the political instabilities of the age head on. What could be more culturally astute?
In something approaching a Chaucerian style.
T he French author tells us of how in time the monk shows his true English nature, indulging himself before falling asleep into his cups. A nice touch – showing how we English cannot grow our own vines and subsequently clearly cannot hold our drink. It’s an idea which dates back as far as Roman times, that the vine has a ‘civilising’ effect on a population. When the Romans invaded Britain in the first century AD one of the things they introduced was commercial wine growing – despite the climate being far from favourable. Why would they do this? We have to think more in terms of the culture of the age. The vine represented something more to the Romans than simply the end product. Instead, a vineyard was an emblem of a ‘ruling elite’, a beacon of civilisation in an area so far, both geographically and culturally, from the sophistication of the Mediterranean world. But it seems to this Medieval author that as the vine had become all but extinct in England by this time, the monk would only seek to drink heavily without comprehension of the nuances of the wine.
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. It may well have been an early form of Commandaria (indeed this name dates from the 12th Century) which is a sweet fortified wine made from two indigenous grapes to Cyprus – Xynisteri and Mavro. This wine is made from late harvesting grapes and then leaving them out in the sunlight to dry, to the Medieval palate this extra sweetness must have seemed truly decadent and wonderful.
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.”
So what can we learn from this compelling episode in history? Well in many ways it sets a great historical precedent for the wine tasting competition. When a group of vintners get together to compare and contrast, we can be sure that they will seek to outdo each other. This natural sense of competition can do nothing but drive up standards. It’s why we place such importance on the winning of national, or even regional, awards. It goes beyond bragging rights however, in the natural evolution of wine it is through competitions like this that techniques are honed, trends set and these filter down to all levels of the wine industry. Perhaps competitions like this were the driving force behind the increase in quality of wine throughout the Middle Ages.
Likewise, it is not simply the beginnings of competitions between wine makers we see here. The whole concept of wine tasting can be seen to have its modern day origins. The renaissance of wine tasting can also tell us a lot of the social, economic situation of Europe at this time. We have to place this in the context of the age. Not since the days of Ancient Rome had wine taken on such a cultural importance. The aim of this occasion was to evaluate and judge – not merely to drink the wine on show. The English Monk becomes the point of ridicule because of his unwillingness to grasp this. With a growing middle class and a greater level of equality in wealth – there was more room for the luxuries of life. Wine became a luxury in the true sense of the word. It was drunk, evaluated and recommended simply for the joy it brought to people.
In conclusion then, it’s admittedly hard to draw a direct correlation from eight hundred years ago. But what this poem shows us a core, human instinct to put wine above the mundane and ordinary. It’s an attitude which continued throughout history and has slowly allowed our wine to be what it is today – an indispensable part of life which is there to simultaneously delight and intrigue.