JULIAN HITNER TORONTO WINE CONSULTANT

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Wine and Local Identity in Regional Europe

     As is widely recognized by most contemporary historians of Early Modern Europe, the types of drinks – specifically those of an intoxicating nature – produced, traded, and consumed by local and regional populations are, in terms of historicity, highly valuable as a means of ‘cultural identification.’ In its simplest measure, alcoholic beverages have routinely served as an important focal point for modern scholars’ examinations of the cultural characteristics of any given region or society of European extraction, from conventional activities conducted in everyday life to intangible collective traditions and widely-held beliefs.

     This appears to be an especially accurate assessment when analyzing areas of Europe where the vine (or Vitis) has been cultivated and enjoyed by the majority of the population for many centuries, such as in France, or even in places where the vine is not actually grown en masse but nonetheless widely consumed by local inhabitants (specifically those in the upper echelons), such as in England in particular. Admittedly, such a phenomenon is most recognizably manifest in the twenty-first century, as any experienced traveler to such wine-producing regions as Burgundy will relate, as well as those who are familiar with the seemingly endless nuances of the ‘wine aristocracy’ of Britain. Nevertheless, in each of these places, one is able to quickly fathom the awesome degree to which wine seems to have long existed as an integral part of various peoples’ local and regional cultures.

     But in what exact ways was this correlation between the ‘institution of wine’ – that is, its cultivation, trade, and consumption – and local and regional culture most acutely illustrated back in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries throughout the aforementioned regions of Europe? In what fashions were these manners different from those contemporary travelers to different parts of Europe have commonly been able to identify in the twenty-first century? Were they as easy or more difficult to identify in comparison to those of the period in question?

     Utilizing the research of modern scholars and any relevant primary sources from the period in question, this paper shall examine the characteristics which best define the correlation between wine and cultural identification. To such an end, special attention will be awarded to exploring the remarkable extent to which the actual carrying out of viticultural operations – including associative concerns and beliefs – had served as a notable mode of ‘cultural characterization’ of various regions, specifically that of France. Particular regard shall also be paid toward analyzing the ways in which the actual trade of wine itself can function as a sort-of ‘indicative barometer’ of the extent to which people had perceived their regional identities. Finally, significant consideration will be given toward distinguishing the fashions in which the very consumption of wine – including both the types of wine imbibed and the contexts in which wine had been consumed – offers, from a historical perspective, a remarkable level of insight into the ‘cultural psyche’ of local and regional peoples. In the end, this paper shall not fail to adequately illustrate the most significant manners in which the institute of wine is able to function for modern historians as an important means of cultural identification in the examination of certain western European civilizations during the Early Modern Period.

     In many respects, the cultivation and production of wine (or Vitis vinifera) provides contemporary scholars with all sorts of valuable illustrative details into the cultural identities of regional peoples throughout the winegrowing areas of France during the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. With the dissolution of the feudal system around the end of the Middle Ages, accompanied by improvements in living standards, the burgeoning middle classes demanded increasingly greater amounts of wine; as such, vineyard acreage in France increased rapidly during the Early Modern Period.[1] Coupled with rising urban populations, this led to the emergence of what contemporary viticulturalists refer to as ‘commercial vineyards,’ under which coarse types of vines with high yields were planted and harvested; similar to today, such wines were generally meant to be consumed within a year, otherwise they would turn sour.[2]

     Despite such commercialization, from a cultural standpoint, French peasants have long been noted by many modern scholars to have played an especially important role in the actual cultivation of the vine. Normally, peasants would serve as tenants to a ‘winegrowing landlord’ on a sharecropping basis, the former usually carrying out the instructions of the latter.[3] In the Early Modern Period, ‘winegrowers’ could make up a substantial proportion of any given local population; in Dijon, for example, winegrowers made up more than twenty percent of the city’s total inhabitants when the Burgundian duchy was incorporated into the realm of France at the end of the fifteenth century.[4]

     On the whole, each group (both peasants and winegrowers) shared common – and oftentimes reciprocal – difficulties, responsibilities, desires, and beliefs. According to eminent wine historian and enthusiast Hugh Johnson, the “most fundamental decision winegrowers [be they simple peasants or landlords] had to face was to decide what type of variety of vine to plant. For most simple growers … for preference they would plant several different kinds in a mixture as an insurance against the crop failing in any one of them.”[5] In such a process, winegrowing neighbors would most certainly consult one another – as they do today – for advice on selecting suitable grape varietals, thus establishing and enhancing amongst themselves a sense of communal and cultural identity. This idea of ‘cultural establishment’ can arguably be even more easily fathomed when examining the methodology that occurs in bringing in the grape harvest. In France, the signal to begin the vintage (in French, the “ban de vendange”) was given at a week’s notice by the landlord, and watch guards were set up in the vineyards to guard the ripening fruit; on the announcement, by drum, trumpet, or bells, all hands set to picking, with groups of twenty pickers harvesting about a hectare of vines a day.[6] Clearly, to judge by the level of importance and associative conciseness under which the grape harvest took place, it appears strongly that both winegrowers and peasants viewed (albeit likely unconsciously) the time-honored vintage harvest as being culturally definitive.

     In a not dissimilar fashion, during the Early Modern Period, it was also apparent that French winegrowers in particular shared common concerns over the interference of higher authorities in both their viticultural operations and actual livelihoods. As an interesting example, because the Gamay grape has a far higher yield than Pinot Noir, the former had been the preferred choice for Burgundian growers to plant; however, because its quality was far below that of Pinot Noir, it was considered in 1395 by Philip “the Bold” of Burgundy (r. 1363-1404) to be a “disloyal grape,” and was demanded to be entirely uprooted by next Easter.[7] However, as any modern imbiber of Beaujolais (which is made from one hundred percent Gamay) will immediately realize, this was hardly a successful decree, as the ‘disobedient vine’ continued to be planted in droves, thus revealing the extent to which winegrowers shared the common-held belief that their superiors had no business interfering in their viticultural operations. Such a notion also seems to have translated into winegrowers’ willingness to act in unison whenever their livelihoods were being threatened, such as in seventeenth-century Dijon, where winegrowers formed into groups to act on their needs and demands. For instance, in 1630, rebellious winegrowers of Dijon assembled to a drumroll, elected sergeants, and marched to Champmoron Wood, which belonged to a nearby Carthusian monastery; there, they collected firewood and returned peacefully to the city.[8] Clearly then, French winegrowers (including peasants) generally saw themselves as groups that shared similar values and priorities, and, from what it seems, conducted their activities accordingly.

     While not especially surprising, the beliefs of winegrowers and the production of their wine, regardless of status, also extended into the realm of superstition and spirituality. In many wine-producing regions of France, there was the sense that God favored or punished winemakers according to their virtue; in the Monologue of the Worthy Wine-Maker, a late-sixteenth-century anonymous work from Burgundy, the comment is made that it is “when our vines are frozen in winter or hailed upon in summer, or when by some other means we harvest very little wine, that God has means enough to punish our past sins,” while, on the other hand, “God protects the noble wine-grower.”[9] Such beliefs were arguably accentuated by the religious-related measures winemakers, in astonishing cooperation with higher officials, undertook to maintain their vineyards and secure good harvests. For example, in 1443, the chancellor of Philip “the Good” (r. 1429-1467) Nicolas Rolin and his wife Guigone de Salins founded the Hospices de Beaune, a charity hospital for the town’s numerous indigents.[10] It was sustained by proceeds from vineyards given to the hospital by Rolin and his wife, but also by the many vineyards that had been donated by the Burgundian winegrowers themselves.[11] Hence, in both cases, because French winegrowers’ superstitions and religious ‘observances’ had been held on a noticeably regional scale, it is clear that such beliefs were culturally implicative. Indeed then, the production of wine – along with associative concerns and beliefs – offers modern historians with all sorts of valuable insights into the regional identities of peoples in various regions of France during the Early Modern Period.

     From what it appears, the central characteristics of the actual wine trade in France – and, associatively, England – during the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries are also highly invaluable for contemporary scholars as indicators of the extent to which peoples’ cultural identities were perceived, from particular group characteristics to the levels of importance at which different groups were regarded and the special treatment individual groups received. As mentioned previously, the Early Modern Period had witnessed a rapid increase in the demand for different kinds of wine, particularly by people of middle-class extraction. For example, in 1556, a complaint of the increase in the number of taverns at Oxford says plaintively that “the poor scholars … will have wine whatever it cost [sic],” thus illustrating the demand.[12] As such, throughout France and England, various groups of winemakers and merchants vied to secure and capitalize on their interests in this newly-enlarged wine-trading arena. It is arguably within these groups that modern historians are able to identify the establishment and promulgation of localized and regional cultures.

     In general terms, according to seventeenth-century French historian Pierre Goubert, “The requirements of commerce … had long obliged the vine-growers to learn to read, and even to write (they had always been able to count).”[13] Assuming this is correct (which it probably is), this undoubtedly afforded winegrowers with a certain level of distinction, especially since the literacy rate among the general populace in Early Modern France has long been acknowledged by modern historians to have been exceptionally low. With regard to actual groups of wine-traders, on the part of peasants, the economics of winegrowing meant that the majority had to sell most of the wine they produced, so as to enable them to purchase other products, such as grain, which they could not produce in adequate supply because of the intensive labor involved in viticulture.[14] Because peasants made up such a substantial proportion of the winegrowing population, it is highly arguable that their ‘sector’ of the wine trade almost certainly had culturally definitive implications, if nothing else than by the fact that so many people were engaged in the practice of selling; which meant that they would have indeed shared a considerable range of communal bonds and interests.

     Concerning levels of importance, however, those of the ‘big merchants’ in the wine trade of France and England were considered, particularly by the royal authorities, to be far greater than those of French regional peasant sellers. Apart from its trade with the northern part of the kingdom, which did not develop until the fifteenth century, Burgundy did not actually export much wine, whereas regions located by water (such as the Loire, the Île-de-France, and Gascony) did.[15] However, by the sixteenth century, major Burgundian and Aquitainian vignerons (vine-growers) were producing well-known wines for both local towns and places far abroad.[16] Because the revenues generated by the trade of wines from these specific regions were enormously high, royal authorities made great allowances – even under circumstances of hostilities – to ensure that business transactions proceeded as smoothly as possible. For example, even after the city of Bordeaux (which had taken the side of the English during the Hundred Years’ War, 1336-1565), was captured by the French in July 1453, the authorities realized that the Gascon wine trade was too valuable an asset to the royal coffers to be allowed to suffer.[17] The king’s counselor M. Regnault Girard argued that the whole basis of Bordeaux’s wealth was the wine market in England, and that no other country could take England’s place as the purchaser of its wines; the English should therefore be allowed to trade as freely as they would like.[18] In the end, the French gave the English merchants six months to ship the 1453 vintage, as well as gave the Gascons free leave to take themselves and their goods abroad; they even grudgingly granted safe-conduct to English vessels coming to Bordeaux to purchase wine.[19]

     Though some contemporary scholars might have reservations about the following assertion, from a cultural standpoint, the aforementioned episode particularly reveals the extent to which the trade of wine – in this case, specifically that of Bordeaux – can be regarded as carrying significant cultural implications. Above all, the very concept that so many people, not just Bordeaux traders but English wine merchants, had a stake in the existence of a stable wine trade – so much so that even during times of international warfare monarchies were prepared to make special allowances to maintain this stability – conclusively implies the existence of ‘group mentalities,’ thereby extending into the realm of cultural distinctiveness.

     This notion of group awareness is even more applicable when analyzing the various privileges certain winegrowers and traders, such as those of Bordeaux and their counterparts in England, were permitted to enjoy. Due to the difficulty of non-river transport, wine coming from the interior of France by way of the Dordogne and Garonne Rivers had little alternative but to pass through the port of Bordeaux on their way to distant markets, thus placing them at a distinct commercial disadvantage.[20] Furthermore, the elite wine-traders of Bordeaux had obtained from the English crown special protective measures against wines from such regions in Southwest France as Bergerac and others in the high country and interior.[21] English wine-traders were also granted similar privileges, as most wine shipments to England were directly in the hands of English merchants, who took them in small ships to Bristol, Southampton, and west country ports.[22] As shown, each of these groups was clearly concerned about protecting its privileges, thus logically fostering a sense of group mentality that would have had a notable cultural impact on the regions in which they operated, specifically with regard to far-ranging regional interests. Indeed then, the characteristics associated with the actual trade of wine in France (along with England) during the Early Modern Period are highly invaluable as indicators of the extent to which peoples’ cultural identities can be characterized, from particular group features to the levels of importance at which different groups were regarded and the special treatment certain groups received.

     Though not especially surprising, matters related to the actual consumption of wine arguably provides some of the most illustrative insights for modern historians into peoples’ cultural identities during the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. In southern France, wine was recognized to be a basic part of peoples’ diets, not as a luxury item, such as in the north.[23] In fact, it was considered so crucial a component to one’s diet that a meal without it was referred to as a prandium caninum, or “dog’s dinner,” because only dogs were supposed to have a dislike for wine; it was even consumed at the ‘breakfast table,’ first thing in the morning.[24] To provide an idea of exactly how much wine consumed in some areas of France, in 1664, an Italian traveler observed that the 700,000 inhabitants of Lyons drank more wine than the combined population of twelve Italian towns.[25] Assuming that a reasonable portion of this wine was drunk solely for dietary purposes, this must have been an extraordinary amount of alcohol!

     By the same token, as intimated by the above suggestion, wine was hardly confined to peoples’ dietary needs; as an alcoholic substance, it also played notably significant roles in (among other things) status-related, medicinal, and social-connecting capacities, each of which had cultural implications of communal and regional dimension. Similar to what one might find today, the types and amounts of wine different groups of people consumed in the Early Modern Period were highly centred on notions of personal status; and this was especially true in both the more northerly regions of France and among the gentility of England. As late as 1500, wine was still confined to people from the wealthier classes in many non-grape-growing regions of France; the quality and variety of wines they consumed would understandably have been of a notably higher quality than those drunk by the bulk of peasants living in southern France, who mostly drank the dregs left over from the final pressing.[26] Not surprisingly, on the highest end of the spectrum, the royal family would be privy to enjoy the greatest variety (and no doubt the finest) wines that the kingdom (and the known world) had to offer. In a letter written on 24 November 1682 by Elisabeth Charlotte (“Liselotte,” 1652-1722), wife of the brother of King Louis XIV, it is commented that, during an assemblage of the court, there are four tables set out, which are “laden with decanters and glasses and every kind of wine and liqueur.”[27]

     Not dissimilarly, good-quality wine had long been – and continues to be – the beverage of choice for wealthy merchants and aristocrats living in England. During the period of the Tudors, wine was the drink for a gentleman to consume and offer his guests, as it was an outward sign that he could afford the finer things in life.[28] Even more illustratively, like their high-ranking counterparts in France, the volume of wine consumed (and likely the quality) was substantial. Aristocratic household accounts for the Elizabethan and Stuart periods indicate a wine allowance of 750-1,250 gallons of wine a year for a household of between 50 to 100 people.[29] In 1484, the installation of the Archbishop of York was celebrated by the consumption of an astounding one hundred casks (or 25,000 gallons) of wine, most of which was probably provided by the archbishop himself – a man of presumably considerable wealth and prestige.[30] From what is revealed by such examples, simply by way of human nature, it is highly probable then that most people viewed the types and amounts of wine they consumed – similar to groups of today – as having at least some sort of significance in terms of cultural commonality, be it on a distinctively regional or particularly localized scale.

     In an admittedly more abstract fashion, there also arguably exists a measurable correlation between peoples’ cultural identities and the different ideologies taken toward the inclusion of wine for medicinal purposes, particularly in France. For the most part, physicians of the Early Modern Period viewed wine as a potentially beneficial substance. On its own, wine was often given as a simple ‘pick-me-up’ to poor people and the diseased.[31] The popular French physician Jacques Dubois (1478-1555) regarded wine as an admirable remedy, even against fever, and does not even hesitate to affirm that it is good to “awaken the forces of the stomach once a month by an excess of wine.”[32] Another French physician Laurent Joubert (1529-1582) wrote that it was necessary, particularly for a young person with hot blood, to correct the warmth of the atmosphere with a cool glass of wine.[33] Wine was also an ingredient in dozens of apothecary’s recipes, mixed with flowers, herbs, crusted entrails, dung, and spittle.[34]

     From what it appears then, wine was considered in the Early Modern Period to be an especially important component in many French persons’ minds to their overall health. More importantly, considering how seemingly widespread and ingrained this notion was, its potential effect on cultural identity cannot be overlooked. After all, if so many people in any given locality or region in France (or England for that matter) subscribed to the same types of wine-related medicinal doctrines, contemporary scholars can most certainly look upon it as being culturally definitive.

     This being said, however, there is arguably no better substitute for examining the consumption of wine and its significance toward cultural identity than analyzing the actual social contexts in which wine is consumed. By the seventeenth century, it appears that travelers who described the drinking habits of different European countries were already depicting scenes similar to those of the twenty-first century. In 1618, English traveler Fynes Moryson (1566-1630) noted that the English were moderate drinkers who “at a feast will drinke two or three healths in remembrance of speciall friends, or respected honourable persons,” while the French “drinke water mingled with wine” for pleasurable enjoyment.[35] Interestingly, in both cases he gives no indication that the English or French were notably absolute drunkards, unlike the Germans, Irish, and Scots, each of whom he found to be excessive drinkers.[36] Moryson’s comments are even corroborated by Swiss-born medical student Felix Platter, who wrote in his journal, on 12 February, that – presumably having witnessed this in social gatherings – the citizens of Montpellier did, in fact, dilute their wine with water before drinking it; several months later, on 8 May 1553, Platter even noted that he never saw anyone drunk in the city of Montpellier other than Germans.[37]

     Quite clearly then, the social contexts in which different regional peoples consumed wine can serve as cultural indicators, especially since social gatherings have long been recognized by modern historians as being among the most highly valuable of analytical points when examining a given peoples’ cultural identity. This also appears especially true when analyzing instances of social gatherings during which violence occurs as a result of excessive consumption. Often obsequiously termed the ‘liquor of sociability,’ wine could be found by the hundreds of tuns, casks, and barrels at virtually every celebratory event that took place throughout the regions of France, including carnivals, agrarian rituals, patronal festivals, weddings, and the great entries of princes and kings; during such occasions, fountains were ‘pissing wine,’ as many writers put it.[38] With such high levels of intoxication, incidents of violence were extremely common. In sixteenth-century France, authorities had to maintain constant and ever-increasing vigilance over the violence that occurred during charivaris; for example, brides were often violently abducted and held prisoner in a cabaret by drunken mischievous friends, only to be released when drinks were purchased for the troublemakers.[39] Such instances clearly indicate the remarkable extent to which wine played a significant role in the communal and regional social cultures throughout France during the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. Definitely, matters pertaining to the consumption of wine are able to serve as important ‘cultural indicators’ when examining the local and regional cultures of Early Modern France and England.

     Ultimately, the institute of wine is able to function for modern historians as an important means of cultural identification in the examination of certain western European civilizations during the Early Modern Period, specifically those of France and England. Aside from the manners in which the actual production of wine serves to characterize different cultures, various aspects of the actual wine trade itself serve to illustrate the ways in which people perceived their communal and regional identities; the same goes for consumption, under which peoples’ social identities are, in many ways, wholly illustratively expressed and understood. Indeed, while the institute of wine might only be one of countless modes by which societies of the Early Modern Period can be examined by contemporary historians, it is most definitely a highly useful one.*



[1] A.M. Amerine and V.L. Singleton, Wine: An Introduction for Americans (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1965), 21.

[2] Gregory A. Austin, Alcohol in Western Society from Antiquity to 1800: A Chronological History (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-Clio Information Services, 1985), 133.

[3] Roderick Phillips, A Short History of Wine (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 93.

[4] Mack P. Holt, “Wine, Community and Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Burgundy,” Past and Present, no. 138 (February 1993): 74.

[5] Hugh Johnson, Vintage: The Story of Wine (London: Mitchell Beazley, 1989), 122.

[6] Ibid., 123.

[7] Jancis Robinson, ed., The Oxford Companion to Wine (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 164.

[8] Charles Tilly, The Contentious French (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press, 1986), 15.

[9] Phillips, A Short History of Wine, 121.

[10] Jan Harm de Blij, Wine: A Geographic Appreciation, with a forward by Robert Hosmon (Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman & Allanheld, 1983), 48.

[11] Ibid., 48-49.

[12] William Anthony Younger, Gods, Men, and Wine, with a forward by James Laver (London: The Wine and Food Society, 1966), 297.

[13] Pierre Goubert, The French Peasantry in the Seventeenth Century, trans. Ian Patterson (London: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 132.

[14] Phillips, A Short History of Wine, 132.

[15] Robinson, Wine, 402.

[16] Austin, Alcohol in Western Society, 137.

[17] Johnson, Vintage, 148.

[18] Austin, Alcohol in Western Society, 119.

[19] Johnson, Vintage, 148.

[20] Robert C. Ulin, “Invention and Representation as Cultural Capital: Southwest French Winegrowing History,” American Anthropologist, New Series, no. 3 (1995): 521.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Alan David Francis, The Wine Trade (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1973), 30.

[23] Austin, Alcohol in Western Society, 153.

[24] Ken Albala, Food in Early Modern Europe (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2003), 80.

[25] Jean-Charles Sournia, A History of Alcoholism, trans. Nick Hindley and Gareth Stanton (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 14.

[26] Phillips, A Short History of Wine, 123.

[27] Charlotte-Elisabeth d’Orléans, Letters from Liselotte: Elisabeth-Charlotte, Princess Palatine and Duchess of Orléans, “Madame” 1652-1722. trans. Maria Kroll (London: Allison & Busby, 1988), 45.

[28] Alison Sim, Food and Feast in Tudor England (Stroud: Sutton Publishing Limited, 1997), 58.

[29] Austin, Alcohol in Western Society, 172.

[30] Phillips, A Short History of Wine, 103.

[31] Goubert, The French Peasantry, 124.

[32] Austin, Alcohol in Western Society, 137-38.

[33] Phillips, A Short History of Wine, 147.

[34] Goubert, The French Peasantry, 124.

[35] Thomas Babor, Alcohol: Customs and Rituals (London: Burke Publishing Company Limited, 1988), 33.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Austin, Alcohol in Western Society, 165.

[38] Goubert, The French Peasantry, 124.

[39] Austin, Alcohol in Western Society, 131.

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