And so that you wonder less at my words, consider the heat of the sun, which becomes wine when joined to the juice of the grape. (Dante, The Divine Comedy, Purgatorio Canto XXV)

Talking about wine and the Middle Ages, it is impossible not to mention Dante, who gives us a great definition: the wine is born from the perfect fusion between the heat of the sun and the earthly juice of the vine. As a perfect medieval man, however, it is not wine that he wants to talk about. The metaphor serves him to make reasoning of a religious nature. Dante is explaining the moment in which God blows the intellectual soul into the fetus, the one that characterizes the humans from all other living beings. With this act, the intellectual soul reabsorbs into itself the two natural souls, present since fertilization: the vegetative one, in common with plants, and the sensitive one, typical of animals. Thus, an intimate union is born, to the point that it is impossible to distinguish one soul from the other, just as described for wine.

The reasoning introduces us perfectly into the mentality of medieval person, for whom wine is wine, to be drunk, to be marketed, but it also becomes the blood of Christ, religious symbol par excellence, full of meanings and facets. Wine, as an abuse or vice, is opposed by the Church which, at the same time, makes it the protagonist of its religious rite and contributes to spreading its production like never before.

The Italian Middle Ages was a gold period for the production of wine, especially the one referred to as Late Middle Age, that is, the era of the Municipalities. Wine was produced and consumed in huge quantities, like never more since then. Italy was also the center of wine trade throughout the Mediterranean and towards continental Europe.

From antiquity to the Middle Ages: not only from the amphora to the wood

The transition from ancient to medieval production is often simplified in wine history books by focusing only on changing the containers. As is known, in ancient times terracotta amphorae (carefully waterproofed with wax, resins, gypsum and pitch) were used for winemaking, while in the Middle Ages wood dominated. According to the historian agronomist Saltini, this dichotomy was perhaps so clear for the rest of Europe, but probably not for Italy. In any case, the decidedly more important transformation was the loss of the remarkable production techniques achieved in Roman times, both in the viticultural and oenological fields. As I told you in my previous posts, in Roman times, especially from the late Republic, very advanced production techniques had been achieved, which made it possible to produce a huge variety of wines. They ranged from the cheaper ones to the more refined ones, still and sparkling wines, up to the real terroir-expressive wines (as we would say today). Wines were no longer drunk necessarily aromatized to cover their defects, as in much more ancient times, but were often drunk pure. In addition, they were storable. They ranged from the production of young wines to those capable of very long aging. In the Middle Ages, there was a return to a much simpler production of primordial wines. Even in the Late Middle Ages, wines were generally produced unable to exceed six months of life. It will still take several centuries before the best techniques return to be rediscovered and reintroduced into the wine production.

In the Middle Ages (and even after), the wines were consumed within one year from the production. In reality, after a few months, they were already altered in the taste, and people waited anxiously for the products of the next harvest. We will see how, for centuries, the only wines that managed to last a little longer and therefore to be transported were only some Mediterranean wines, thanks to the high alcohol content. Wines produced in continental climates, especially the more northern ones, lasted very little, given the low accumulation of natural sugar in the grapes and, therefore, the low alcohol content.

The Florentine notary Lapo Mazzei (1350-1412) wrote in a letter to Marco Datini that the wine, after the middle of July, tasted like forage for livestock. The statutes of various municipalities in central and northern Italy decreed that the date of the harvest was indicated by law, so that no speculations could arise. They wanted to avoid that the harvest was brought forward more and more, in order to sell the new wine before all the others. In the Late Middle Ages, perhaps some technical improvement had occurred if Mazzei himself testifies in other writings of some 2-3 year old Ribolla, but these were rare cases.

The wine was very different from what we taste today. The frequent defects were covered at the time of consumption with the addition of spices, herbs and various aromas, sometimes even sweetened, as in Greek and Etruscan times. We will have to wait a long time to have a flawless product. According to the French historian André Tchernia, the end of the “Middle Ages of wine”, understood as a product more or less rich in defects (especially a frequent acetic cue, oxidations, microbiological alterations, etc.), there will be after the epoch of the same name. A real productive transformation will take place only after the eighteenth century.

In any case, it is not quite correct to speak of only one medieval wine, just as I have tried to make it clear that there was no only one Roman or ancient wine. The medieval period was very long, with great difference between the areas and with notable transformations along the time. We will see how these wines were in the next posts.

But how much did they drink in the Middle Ages!?!

“Vinum dulce, gloriosum / pingue facit et carnosum / atque pectus aperit. / Et maturum, gusto plenum / valde nobit est amenum / quia sensus asuit. / Vinum forte, vinum purum / reddit hominin securum / et depellit frigora …”.

Medieval anonymous

“Wine, sweet and glorious, fattens man and gives him health. The ripe and full-flavored one is very welcome and sharpens the senses. The strong and pure wine makes man safe and keeps the cold away … “

The consumption of wine in the Italian Middle Ages (at least from the 13th century), as in ancient times, was daily and very abundant. The situation was quite different in North Europe, where wine remained the drink of the clergy and the rich for a much longer time, both for production and for consumption.

But you don’t think that everyone was always drunk :-). The more alcoholic wines, such as ours, were then reserved only for important events, such as the visits of guests, banquets, parties, … The daily consumption mainly concerned a light and low alcohol wine, often diluted with water. There was also the so-called “vinello” (“little wine”) or “acquerello” (the “loria” of the Roman era), a slightly alcoholic product obtained by the extraction of alcohol and aromas from the marc with water. The production of the “vinello” will end in Italy only in the early twentieth century, prohibited by law to combat fraud on the market. Returning to the Middle Ages, among the different types of wine, there was not only a distinction between wine for the rich and wine for the poor according to historians. Apart from the more expensive wines, which obviously the poor people could not afford, it seems that everyone drank wine on some occasions and light wines (or watered down or the “vinello“) daily, to quench their thirst.

In fact, at the time, drinking water was very unhealthy: the rivers and the wells were often dirty with mud and waste, the water easily had microbiological contamination that caused dysentery or other diseases (as still happens today in some very poor countries). For this reason, it was considered healthier to drink a very light wine. This is not so wrong: even a low alcohol content can be enough to eliminate some microorganisms.

How much did they drink at the time? It has been estimated that the average consumption of a citizen of Florence or Bologna in the fifteenth century could be almost two liters per day. Consider that the average in Italy today is about 22 liters per year. However, the comparison is impossible: today we drink more alcoholic wines, rightly in moderation (and not everyone is wine consumer). The children drank also, not only the adults. For example, in the fifteenth-century, in the treatise by Bartolomeo Platina (De honesta voluptate et valetudine), wine is not recommended only for infants under 5 months. However, for children and teenagers up to 14 years of age it was indicated only during meals, watered down for the little ones. They were considered adults after the age of 14.

The wine was obviously also drunk for pleasure, as an escape from the difficulties of everyday life. The wine thus also entered the goliardic songs of the wandering Clerics, the students who moved from all over Europe to study in the Italian cities where the first universities in the world were born, Bologna, Padua and many others. Here is a goliardic chant of the thirteenth century, “In taberna quando sumus“, in the famous reinterpretation by Carl Orff (Carmina Burana).

Tam pro papa quam pro rege / bibunt omnes sine lege. /Bibit hera, bibit herus, / bibit miles, bibit clerus, /bibit ille, bibit illa, /bibit servus cum ancilla, / bibit velox, bibit piger, / bibit albus, bibit niger, / bibit constans, bibit vagus, / bibit rudis, bibit magus. / Bibit pauper et egrotus, / bibit exul et ignotus, / bibit puer, bibit canus, / bibit presul et decanus, / bibit soror, bibit frater, / bibit anus, bibit mater, / bibit ista, bibit ille, / bibunt centum, bibunt mille…

… To the Pope as to the king / they all drink without restraint. / The mistress drinks, the master drinks, / the soldier drinks, the priest drinks, / the man drinks, the woman drinks, / the servant drinks with the maid, / the swift man drinks, the lazy man drinks, / the white man drinks, the black man drinks, / the settled man drinks, the wanderer drinks, / the stupid man drinks, the wise man drinks, / The poor man drinks, the sick man drinks, / the exile drinks, and the stranger, / the boy drinks, the old man drinks, / the bishop drinks, and the deacon, / the sister drinks, the brother drinks, / the old lady drinks, the mother drinks, / this man drinks, that man drinks, / a hundred drink, a thousand drink …

At the time, the wine was not only consumed for pleasure and to quench one’s thirst but was also considered positive for health, a sort of corroborating drug for the sick, as in ancient times. The wine was definitively released from the official medical treaties only in the 18th century. It was given to patients and pilgrims in hospitals. Even the poor were given both bread and wine as basic food. The calories offered by the wine were very important to supplement the daily meals. There were frequent donations of wine by the wealthy citizens to the charitable institutions, meticulously noted in the bookkeeping of the institutions as well as in the domestic ones of the benefactors.

The wine was also part of the workers’ wages, both the day laborers and the masons and many others, who could also refuse a job if the wine (or the “vinello“) was denied or was not good enough. The French Ch. M. de la Roncière wrote in the fourteenth century, on a visit to Florence, that the Florentine salaried people suffer more from the lack of wine than of meat. He notes astonished: “Le vin coule à flots sur les tables florentines” (The wine flows in gushes on the tables of the Florentines). The religious also drank habitually. The friars of the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena who transgressed the rules, in the early 1300s, were punished with a diet of bread only, but the wine was nevertheless not denied.

The taverns and wine bars had to have regular licenses issued by the municipalities, while the wine could be sold for home consumption or to retailers by any private individual. The specialized wine producer, as today, did not exist. In Florence, for example, anyone who had a piece of land dedicated to the vineyard, whether small or large, sold wine, as long as they produced a surplus over their own family consumption.

The places for the consumption of wine were numerous in the cities and towns. De la Roncière writes again that in Florence there were bars and taverns on all street corners. The opening hours were strictly regulated by the Municipal Statutes, influenced by the religious control of the time on social life. For example, Florentine winemakers had to remain closed during Lent and Good Friday and in other religious periods. Even in Florence, it was not possible to open a tavern within thirty meters of churches and crosses. In Montopoli town, every wine shop had to be closed while the churches were celebrating sacred functions, therefore for almost all holidays. It was not only the wine that frightened the authorities, but the pairing with the gambling, which was also strictly regulated. The wine was also sold in the hotels. In Montaione town, in the fifteenth century, there are distinct lists of hotels between those who offer wine, favored by the Municipality, and those without.

In the Boccaccio’s story “Cisti the baker” (Decameron, 1350-1353, Sixth Day, story II) Pampinea tells of Cisti, an intelligent and polite baker, despite his social class. He had “always the best white and red wines, among his other good things, that could be found in Florence or in the countryside” in his workshop. Every morning, he saw Geri Spina, a Florentine nobleman, pass in front of his shop in the company of other gentlemen, papal ambassadors. He would have liked to invite them to drink and be part of that cool company but, given his social class, he could not step up. So, he began to sit down in front of his shop every morning, sipping with great satisfaction one of his best white wines. After a few days, both out of curiosity and thirst, the company of Geri Spina asked to taste the wine and everyone was struck by his goodness. Since then, every day, the group stopped by the baker to chat and taste good wines. At the departure of the ambassadors, Geri Spina wanted to offer a banquet and also invited Cisti. However, he declined because he did not feel he could participate, but he still wanted to send him some of his excellent white wine. Geri sent a servant to get the wine. The latter, who wanted to keep part of it for himself, arrived at Cisti’s shop with a very large bottle (the traditional Florentine fiasco). Cisti sensed the intent of the servant and sent him back, telling him that Geri certainly did not send him to his shop with that bottle, but rather to fetch water from the Arno (the river that crosses Florence). The scene was repeated twice. Geri then asked the servant to show him the bottle and seeing its size, he understood what had happened. Cisti confided to Geri that he did not refuse to fill the big bottle out of avarice but because that was a wine of such value that it could not be wasted on large containers. When the servant returned with the right bottle, Cisti filled it and offered it for the banquet. So, Geri became friend with him understanding his intelligence and wit, beyond his social class.

To be continued …


 Prof. Alfonso Marini (AA 2020-2021) Dispense del corso di storia medievale.

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