More wine!

When I started this post I figured it would be something quick and easy, find a few references to wine in the sources, but in the end, as with so many areas of daily life in the 8th century, be forced to say, “but that’s all we know.”

I underestimated the place of wine in the lives of the great and the good. By a lot. While the church required wine for the sacrament of the Eucharist, wine infused virtually every area of society.

Wine was in their laws. The lex Salica imposes fines for thefts great and small:

“Chapter 23: If anyone reaps the harvest of another’s vineyard in theft, he shall be liable to pay six hundred denarii. [Which was the same fine for knocking out a tooth.]
Chapter 24: And if from there he carries off the wine to his house in a cart and there unloads it, he shall be liable to pay eighteen hundred denarii in addition to return of the material stolen [or its value] plus a payment for the time its use was lost. [Which is the same fine for a blow “so that the brain shows and the three bones over the brain protrude.”]1.The Salic Laws, Drew, LVII.

The Burgundian Code imposed fines for damage done to vineyards by wandering livestock. The laws of the Lombards went into great detail describing different fines for different amounts of theft. One law identified three grapes as the amount of theft deserving of punishment, not two. And if you want detailed offenses, try Rothair’s Edict:

Law 292: On grape vines. He who destroys a vine by taking more than three or four vine stalks shall pay six solidi as composition.
293: On poles that support the vine. He who takes a supporting pole from a vine shall pay six solidi as composition.
294: On cutting down vines. He who deliberately destroys a vine by digging [and thus cutting the root of the vine], shall pay one solidus as composition.
295: On vine shoots. He who cuts a vine shoot shall pay half a solidus as composition.2.Lombard Laws, Drew, Rothair’s Edict.

Wine was in the poetry  of the age. Theodulf of Orleans composed (or transcribed) this little ditty, from above a barroom door:

May he who once changed water into the benefit of wine,
And he who made the likeness of water into wine,
Bless our cups with his kind touch,
And may he let us have [today] a delightful day.

Alcuin, one of Charlemagne’s court scholars, penned this “Lament for the Cuckoo,” the nickname of one of his pupils, who had traveled back to England (wine-related excerpts only):

Woe to me, if Bacchus, who seizes the young,
Has cast him into waves, into some noxious whirlpool…

Who snatches you from your father’s nest, cuckoo? He [Bacchus] stole you;
I do not know if you will return…

It is Bacchus, that wretch, I think, who feeds him evil food,
It is Bacchus who wants to turn everyone to evil.

Wine was deeply embedded in the economy of the continent. Archaeological evidence indicates that wine traveled in bulk via ships, and was a common trade good.3.Wells, Barbarians to Angels, assorted references. Peasants who owed service and goods to their lords were told to supply staves for vines, and hoops and staves for casks. Wine-producing villages commonly had to pass one-third of the production up the chain, but that still left plenty to trade for other goods.4.Verhulst, Carolingian Economy, pp70-71.

As Pierre Riche noted, “Without doubt, this was an age obsessed with wine.” He notes that monastic rules allowed about a quart of wine a day. Walafrid Strabo, an 8th century monk, disdained fancy meals, saying, “some salt, bread, leeks, fish, and wine; that is our menu. I would not spare even a glance for the splendid tables of kings.” Riche found a scholar who laments, “I have lost all in hope in life and my soul is sorely troubled, for I have no wine.”5.Riche, Daily Life, pp171 – 177.

Apparently Charlemagne was not a fan of the grape, but that didn’t mean he didn’t partake. Einhard wrote this about the royal attitude:

Charles was moderate when it come to both food and drink, but he was even more moderate in the case of drink, since he deeply detested [seeing] anyone inebriated, especially himself or his men. … He was so restrained in his consumption of wine and other drinks, that he seldom drank more than three times during a meal.

The king did realize how important wine was to others, of course. In his Capitulary De Villis, which dealt with the proper running and maintenance of the royal estates, he gives many orders about wine:6.Loyn, Reign of Charlemagne, pp64 – 73.

Chapter 8: That out stewards shall take charge of our vineyards in their districts, and see that they are properly worked; and let them put the wine into good vessels, and take particular care that no loss is incurred in shipping it. They are to have purchased other, more special, wine to supply the royal estates.7.Nothing but the best for the king! And if they should buy more of this wine than is necessary for supplying our estates they should inform us of this, so that we can tell them what we wish to be done with it. They shall also have slips from our vineyards sent for our use. Such rents from our estates as are paid in wine they shall send to our cellars.
Chapter 34: They are to take particular care that anything which they do or make with their hands – that is, lard, smoked meat, sausage, newly-salted meat, wine, vinegar, mulberry wine, boiled wine, garum, mustard, cheese, butter, malt, beer, mead, honey, wax and flour – that all these are made or prepared with the greatest attention to cleanliness.
Chapter 41: That the buildings inside our demesnes, together with the fences around them, shall be well looked-after, and that the stables and kitchens, bakeries and wine-presses, shall be carefully constructed, so that our servants who work in the them can carry out their tasks properly and cleanly.
Chapter 48: That the wine-presses on our estates shall be kept in good order. And the stewards are to see to it that no one dares to crush the grapes with his feet, but that everything is clean and decent.

Going without wine was a punishment. In that same capitulary the king also orders that, “whoever falls short on this [obeying orders from Queen or other royal representatives] through negligence, let him abstain from drinking from the moment he is told to do so until he comes into our presence or the presence of the queen and seeks forgiveness from us.”

The grapes were pressed, as noted above, not with the feet, but with wine presses. Verhulst says that to  press the grapes, “a simple beam was used levering big square wooden blocks.”8.Verhulst, Carolingian Economy,  p71. Several kinds of wines are mentioned, including “old and new,” as well as the boiled and mulberry we’ve seen. Both red and white wines have been made since early antiquity, but I haven’t found anything on which was preferred in our time. Best to have some of both, to be sure.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. The Salic Laws, Drew, LVII.
2. Lombard Laws, Drew, Rothair’s Edict.
3. Wells, Barbarians to Angels, assorted references.
4. Verhulst, Carolingian Economy, pp70-71.
5. Riche, Daily Life, pp171 – 177.
6. Loyn, Reign of Charlemagne, pp64 – 73.
7. Nothing but the best for the king!
8. Verhulst, Carolingian Economy,  p71.

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