Friday, November 29, 2013

Getting drunk in Medieval France

This is one of several posts on drink in the Middle Ages. The others are:

In his Books of Miracles, Gregory de Tours tells the story of a poor mariner who wants to go drinking "with the others" for the Epiphany but cannot afford wine. But after he prays to St. Martin, a fish jumps into his boat and he at once trades it for wine.

Two points stand out about this tale. One is that for a poor man to drink alcohol at all may often have been an exceptional event. Wine had to be purchased (probably by barter). Beer could be made at home, but required excess grain at a time when many struggled for bread.

The other is that the very judgmental Gregory - who approvingly reports the most terrible punishments for not keeping the Sabbath - finds it perfectly acceptable not only that a man go out drinking on a religious holiday, but that he do so with the help of a saint. This touches on a larger question: in a time when beer and wine were two of the most common drinks, how concerned were people about drinking these in excess?

In fact, concern for drunkenness has a long history in France, preceding even the country's existence. The Romans mixed water with their wine and were already struck that the Gauls and Germans drank it unmixed. (In a poem about a "drunken hag" named Meroë, the fourth century Gallo-Roman poet Ausonius said she got her name from drinking unmixed wine.)

Tacitus wrote of the Germans:
It is no disgrace to pass days and nights, without intermission, in drinking. The frequent quarrels that arise amongst them when intoxicated, terminate not so often in abusive language, as in blood and slaughter...
....If their propensity to drunkenness be gratified by supplying them as plentifully as they choose, they may be subdued by their vices as easily as by arms...
This may seem like yet another Roman stereotype of the barbarians. But it concerned the Franks themselves. If the Salic law does not explicitly mention drunkenness, it implicitly acknowledges its pernicious effects in Title XLV, which states that if four or five men are gathered in a feast and one is killed, those attending must reveal the guilty party or pay the compensation collectively. (Given that Title XXXIII includes a punishment for calling someone else an informer, it is unlikely that the first option was often exercised.)

This Germanic trait was later reflected in the association of drunken revelry with paganism, including idolatrous behavior by nominal Christians. In one of the earliest known royal statutes, Childebert I (some say II) condemned "drunkenness, scurrility and singing" that lasted through the night, even on sacred days such as Christmas and Easter. In the Glory of the Confessors, Gregory of Tours tells of pagan offerings thrown in a lake in the Gevaudan and the days of festivities which accompanied them. "There were those who brought food and drink in wagons, slaughtering animals in sacrifice, and spending three days in revelry."  (This sounds very much like Medieval tail-gating.)

In the Roman part of Gaul, Christians condemned drunkenness early on. The fifth century Gallo-Roman bishop St. Orient wrote a vivid screed on the subject:
Is there a more repulsive and more hideous spectacle than drunkenness, which robs you of yourself? When your head hangs to one side and the other; when your steps stagger; when your spirit no longer feels; when your tongue refuses to speak a word and your eyes close, weighed down as they are by a heavy sleep, you act without knowing what you do. What can I say? The fumes of drunkenness take away all your energy; your words are disconnected and senseless, cups slip from your hands and foods, mixed with wine, often return to the same table.
Ironically, we know most about inebriation among the clergy - simply because, for centuries, saints and the clergy are some of the most frequent subjects of written records. Already in 461, the Council of Tours declared if a member of the clergy officiated while drunk he should be punished according to his position. (Several centuries later Yves of Chartres (1040-1116) wrote that the same council cited priests who actually created taverns - that is, wine shops - in their churches.) Subsequent Church councils continued to address the issue of clerical inebriation, which seems to have been an on-going problem. A writer on Breton history gives examples from that region:
The penitential Statutes of Gildas show that in certain monasteries beer was drunk and foresaw the case where a monk came to church in a state of drunkenness, incapable of using his tongue and chanting the office with the others: in this case he was deprived of dinner. Although very rare in Breton monasteries, drunkenness was not absolutely unknown. The Life of saint Samson tells the story of this unfortunate abbot Piron, who after a very holy life, arrived at an advanced age, was caught by surprise one evening by strong drink, and during the night having left his cell fell in the monastery's cistern where he drowned.
While these are often general condemnations, the personal impact of drinking on family members is shown in at least one anecdote from Gregory of Tours. Saint Liphard went to give his brother wedding presents after their parents' death and "found him so drunk on wine that he did not even recognize him and did not want to receive him in his home." - a brief vignette that in the midst of much credulous material still rings painfully true centuries later. So much so that one barely needs to then read that "he went off moaning and shedding tears." 

Gregory, if he found it normal to indulge in an exceptional celebration, certainly did not approve of excess drinking as a habit. He writes of Sichaire who, before dying at forty, had been "during his life, heedless, drunk, given to murder, and, in his drunken state, had caused much damage to several people." He also tells of Droctigisil, a bishop of Soissons who was said to have lost his mind due to an excess of drink. Though some claimed this was due to a curse by an archdeacon (!), Gregory says that he was "voracious in regard to food and drank wine beyond all measure, and much more than the prudence of a priest permits." He also tells how the corrupt chamberlain Eberulf, already drunk, viciously beat a priest who was slow to give him more drink.

The issue of drinking remained a concern in the centuries that followed. Charlemagne, though he was a great eater, abhorred excess drinking, above all in himself and those close to him. In one famous tale, a new bishop's love of drink cost him his office:
[Charlemagne] summoned one of his clerks, a man of high birth and great learning, and gave him the bishopric. The new bishop, thereupon, bursting with joy, invited to his house many of the palace attendants, and also received with great pomp many who came from the diocese to greet him: and to all he gave a superb banquet. 
It happened then that, loaded with food, drenched with liquor and buried in wine, he failed to go to the evening service on that most solemn eve. Now it was the custom for the chief of the choir to assign the day before to everyone the responsory or responsories which they were to chant at night. The response: Lord, if still I am useful to Thy people, had fallen to the lot of this man, who had the bishopric, as it were, in his grasp. Well, he was absent..
The rest of the story tells how the (then) king ended up replacing him with a far humbler and less learned clerk - an early tale of alcohol costing a man a good job.

Under Charlemagne, both his own rules and those of the Church sought to limit drinking. It is not clear if taverns persisted after Roman times, or simply reappeared, but by his time they were becoming common enough to be a problem. The Second Tullan Council, in 692, already forbade clerics to keep taverns; a Council held at Frankfurt in 794 forbid clerks or monks to go into them.

Charlemagne's own Salzburg Statutes (799), Aix-la-Chapelle Capitulary (802), the Priests' Capitulary (806) and the Church Capitulary (809) all warn members of the clergy against getting drunk or drinking.

As to lay people, in his 803 additions to the Salic law, Charlemagne set that one could not win a suit nor testify while drunk, nor, notably, was to urge another to drink. In Louis the Pious' Capitulary Regum and Episcoporum, of 827, again it is forbidden to encourage another to drink.

Alcuin, the English cleric who was one of Charlemagne's most trusted advisers, had another objection to getting drunk: it interfered with studying: "Avoid getting drunk which harms studies the most, which not only deprives the body of its health, but deprives the mind of its integrity." 

If monks and saints sometimes avoided alcoholic drinks entirely, some saw a distinction between simply drinking these and getting drunk. Bishop Halitgar of Cambrai points out that St. Paul said to avoid "getting drunk on wine, in which is over-indulgence", but that the over-indulgence is not in the wine but in getting drunk (non quia in vino est luxuria, sed in ebrietate.) This he says, whether with wine or beer, is against the interdiction by "the Savior and his apostles" and requires a penance of forty days on bread and water for those who have taken holy vows, but only seven for lay people.

Period strictures on drinking could get quite vivid. In one Penitential, a monk who vomited from drinking was to do thirty days penance, a priest or a deacon, forty. Throwing up the Host because one was drunk could require from forty to eighty days penance, depending on one's clerical status.

It is clear then that the ubiquity of alcohol in the period did not make people any less aware of its worst effects. Yet getting drunk was not necessarily viewed as entirely bad.

The eighteenth century writer Le Grand d'Aussy writes rather acidly: "It is normal for people who harm themselves to respond to the reproaches of others with some excuse, good or bad. For all time no doubt drunks have had theirs." He then lists various claims that, not only wine, but even getting sometimes getting drunk, is good for health. "Once it was seriously believed; and many people got drunk every month; as others, by a similar principle which has not yet completely disappeared, had themselves bled in certain set seasons".

One of the first native French medical experts, Arnaud de Villeneuve, cites this belief in his De regimine sanitatis. If he clearly has reservations about the idea, he also seems hesitant to reject it outright:
Some claim that it is good for health to get drunk once or twice a month with wine; either because it results in a long and deep sleep, which, in letting the animal functions rest, fortifies the natural functions; either because the secretions, the sweats, and the vomiting which follow it purge the body of harmful and superfluous humors that it contained. As to me, I would only want to allow it to those whose diet is bad; and, even in this case, I would advise them not to push drunkenness too far, for fear of harming the brain, and weakening the animal functions more than rest can strengthen them. Therefore this inebriation must be light, just enough to induce sleep and to remove concerns about one's temperance. Outside of this, getting drunk is blameworthy both in one's morals and nature.
Aldebrandino of Siena, from about the same period, also writes "Many philosophers say that it is healthy to get drunk twice a month" but then says, categorically, that "many maladies come from getting drunk."

If drinking had its defenders then, it seems nonetheless that the practice was, for the most part, condemned, and for multiple reasons: because it caused incompetent or frankly dangerous behavior, because it hurt family members, because the Bible condemned it, and, as medical knowledge awoke again, because it was harmful to the body. Medieval attitudes, in other words, were not so far from our own, except in one regard - if people of the time clearly recognized that some people were more prone to this behavior than others, none yet saw its roots in a disease.


Saint Gregorius (évêque de Tours), Henri-Léonard Bordier, Les livres des miracles: et autres opuscules, Volume 2 1860

Cornelius Tacitus, A treatise on the situation, manners, and inhabitants of Germany

Félix Clément, Les poëtes chrétiens depuis le IVe siècle jusqu'au XVe  1857

Decimus Magnus Ausonius, Ausonius, Volume 2  1921

Nicolas-Joseph Poisson, Delectus actorum Ecclesiae universalis, Seu Nova summa conciliorum 1738

Sancti Ivonis, Opera omnia, post Joannis Frontonis cura 1854-55

Lois des Francs, contenant la loi salique et la loi ripuaire, tr. J.F.A. Peyré 1828

Arthur Le Moyne de La Borderie, Histoire de Bretagne : topographie générale de la Bretagne de 57 av. J.C. à 753 de J.C I

Childeberti I. Regis Praeceptum 511-558 "Credimus hoc, Deo propitio..."

Gregorius (Turonensis), Henri Léonard Bordier, Les livres des miracles et autres opuscules de Georges Florent ..., Volume 3  1862

Saint Gregory (Bishop of Tours), Histoire ecclésiastique des Francs par Saint Grégoire Volume 2 1861

Einhard, Life of Charlemagne 1880

The Monk of Saint Gall. The Life of Charlemagne, 883/4

Guérin, Les conciles: généraux et particuliers, Volume 2

Societas Aperiendis Fontibus Rerum Germanicarum Medii Aevi, Capitularia regum Francorum 1835

Ferdinand Walter, Corpus iuris germanici antiqui: Capitularia regum Francorum usque ad Ludovicum Pium continens 1824

Theodulfi,... Sancti Eigilis,... Dungali reclusi, Ermoldi Nigelli, Symphosii amalarii,... Opera omnia : ex collectionibus memoratissimis Jacobi Sirmondi,... simul ad prelum revocatur Liber diurnus romanorum pontificum..

Wasserschleben, Die Bussordnungen der abendländischen Kirche nebst einer ... 1851

Pierre J. B. Le Grand d'Aussy, Histoire de la vie privée des francois, Volume 3 1782

Arnaldi Villanovani... Opera omnia cum (ejus vita per S. Champerium et) Nicolai Taurelli... annotationibus... (Carmen V. Thilonis) 1585

Aldebrandino de Siena, Le régime du corps de maître Aldebrandin de Sienne 1911

Friday, November 22, 2013

Lamprey, fish ponds, and carp

The lamprey is a particularly repellent fish which lives by sucking (literally) the life blood out of other fish. It was also long a delicacy, prized by the rich and royalty. These two aspects of the fish meet in a famous anecdote from Seneca about Vedius Pollio, a wealthy Roman who wanted to punish a slave by throwing him to the lampreys in his fish pond. The terrified young victim begged the emperor Augustus to be killed in another way. The emperor, horrified by the threat, freed the young slave and filled in the fish pond. 

For a food historian, however, Pollio's cruelty is of less interest than his taste for lamprey, and the fact that he stocked them in his fish pond. By the end of the Medieval period, the rich would still eat lamprey and some would even have fish ponds. But the two are not mentioned together.

Fish ponds have a long history in the West, starting with the Romans. But that history is only fitfully documented. Pliny says that they were invented (following those for oysters) sometime in the first century B.C.E. by Licinius Murena; ironically, his last name means "lamprey", but it was a certain Caius Hirtius who was credited with inventing ponds specifically for that fish.

Other than lamprey, what fish did the Romans raise in ponds? Columella says that earlier Romans had raised salt-water fish in fresh water and fed "the mullet and scarus, with the same care as the sea-lamprey, or sea-pike, are now educated." He also mentions sea-jacks and gilt-head bream as sea-fish which had been raised in lakes, as well as "other kinds of fishes which can endure fresh water". But as tastes became more refined, "the daintiness, magnificence, and sumptuousness of the rich have shut up the very seas" - that is, both fresh and salt water ponds were now made. He lists various fish for various types of regions. "A slimy, muddy region" for flat fish like sole, turbot, and plaice, as well as various sorts of shellfish, including oysters and scallops; sandy gulfs for flat fish as well, and also gilt-head and sea bream, but not shell-fish; "a rocky sea" for rock fish such as sea-carp, sea-thrush and sea-bream. Later he mentions merlins, sea-mullets and sea-wolves.

Rich Romans - including those born in Gaul - had estates in Gaul and no doubt some had fish ponds. Any of these fish might have been raised in them, but no specific evidence appears to exist of which. Given that Gallo-Roman culture persisted for at least two centuries under the Franks, probably fish ponds survived as well. Whatever their origin, "fisheries" (piscaria) certainly existed in Gaul in the seventh century, when the Edictum Rothari (part of the Lombard Law) specified: "Who lifts from others' nets or traps, or takes from another's fishery, fish, will pay VI gold pieces." That term seems later to have applied to natural waters reserved for fishing, not artificial ponds; but the term may have been ambivalent at this point.

About a century later, Charlemagne ordered that fishponds (vivarii) be maintained on his estates:
21. Every steward is to keep fishponds on our estates where they have existed in the past, and if possible he is to enlarge them. They are also to be established in places where they have not so far existed but where they are now practicable.
The Romans had viewed these not just as sources of domestic supply but as sources of profit. Columella writes: "Let the man who has purchased islands, or lands contiguous to the sea, and cannot receive any fruits from his ground, because of the poorness of the soil, which, for the most part, is the case near the sea-shore, raise to himself a revenue from the sea." Pliny says that the fish from Lucullus' fish ponds were sold for several million sestertii after his death.

Charlemagne too sought to monetize his ponds:
65. That the fish from our fishponds shall be sold, and others put in their place, so that there is always a supply of fish; however, when we do not visit the estates they are to be sold, and our stewards are to get a profit from them for our benefit.
(Note that this also implies that enough infrastructure existed at the time for sales to occur, despite a frequent view of the early Middle Ages as being dominated by self-sufficient estates).

Audits of some of Charlemagne's actual estates show that one had a stocked fish pond and another had three. Presumably the situation was similar for those for which records have not survived.

After some silence in the records, through the eleventh century, mentions of fish ponds are found in various charters (from 1037, 1039, 1064, 1081, 1083, 1087, 1089,  and 1097).

Fish then were clearly kept or farmed through much, possibly all, of the early Middle Ages. Unfortunately, none of these records mention the types of fish stocked. The first such mention may be that from 1105 when, in founding the monastery of St. Fuscien-aux-Bois (in the Somme), a local lord committed to providing one hundred eels each year for the fish pond.

A more detailed mention of the fish stocked in ponds comes in the thirteenth century, in some fragmentary accounts for the Count of Champagne. These list specific fish being stocked in stagni (that is, "ponds"). Several fish are listed - bream, pike, roach -, but one stands out, both for its absence in previous texts and for its future importance: sixteen carp are added (along with "six large pike"). Says Richard C. Hoffman: "Carp almost explosively entered the French historical record in middle decades of the thirteenth century - and were there for the first time associated with ponds."

What fish were stocked before these appeared? Hoffman points to a (then) very French England for clues:
In England, where after 1066 an ethnically and culturally French elite built and managed fish-ponds like those of their continental cousins, the king's own fish-ponds commonly supplied "fat mother bream" (bremas matrices et grassas) and pike for stocking his other ponds and those of his favorites. A late thirteenth century guide to estate management, Fleta, explicitly recommended bream and perch for ponds.
Carp would remain absent or rare there for a long time:
The species is unrecorded in the British Isles before the mid-fifteenth century, and acknowledged as a rare and recent introduction there well into the sixteenth... A relative lag crossing the Channel fits other evidence that the fish had failed to reach northwestern France before the 1204-6 collapse of the Angevin realm split Anglo-Norman estates into different lordships and social networks.
Among other things, this scattered data allows us to make a credible guess at what Charlemagne and those who kept fish ponds right after him stocked. Bream, pike, perch, roach and eel are all likely candidates. Carp on the other hand was almost certainly absent: "In the twelfth century carp were unknown west of the Rhine. The native range of this heat-loving species covered the lower Danube and Black Sea drainages of southeastern Europe. Millenia of premedieval bone finds and verbal records are confined to that region."

The fish had already moved farther west by the eleventh century, but was still unknown in France until its use in fish ponds from the thirteenth century on. But at that point, carp became closely associated with domestic pisciculture; so much so that it ultimately spread to the wild:
Just the written records which survive from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries itemize hundreds of thousands of small carp going into ponds there. As objects of controlled monoculture these fish were becoming domesticates.....In other words, the "wild" carp of central and western Europe are feral descendants of domesticates.
It very quickly made its way too onto tables - and into recipe books. It is only glancingly referenced in the Enseignements qui enseingnent a apareillier toutes manieres de viandes, which is very roughly dated to the end of the thirteenth or start of the fourteenth century. But Taillevent's Viander includes more, if still very cursory, mentions. Finally, the Ménagier de Paris has several recipes for both carp and lamprey (including "etouffées" for each fish, though these were probably not very Cajun). One for carp includes this note:
The Germans say of the French that they put themselves in great peril by eating carp so little cooked. And it has been seen that if the French and the Germans have a French cook who cooks them carp, these carp cooked in the French way, the Germans will take theirs and have it recooked more than at first, and the French not.
This is of particular interest since the Germans at that point had probably had more experience with the fish.

By the fourteenth century, then, carp was fully established in France. Hoffman sees broad implications in that fact:
Twelfth-century western Europeans, almost certainly French, evolved ways of controlling water and the fish they put in it to get consistent and seasonally useful food. When the technology was joined, probably not much before the mid-1200s, to a naturally well-adapted fast-growing fish of exotic eastern European origin, the carp, the result was the dominant and most advanced artificial fish production system used from the Atlantic to the Urals well into the nineteenth century and, in some regions, still today. Aquaculture revolutionized local ecologies and human relations with them, forming and controlling synthetic habitats for the sake of a non-native animal and to the harm of some native varieties. Whether aimed at indirect subsistence or market sales, fish farms made ordinary people and nature alike submit in new ways to elite cultural preferences and powers.
Otherwise, this development is one of several which clearly differentiate the late Medieval centuries from the earlier ones. The lamprey meanwhile had not lost its status on aristocratic tables. But - by all surviving evidence - its days in fish ponds were done.

UPDATE (11/25/13): Ironically, the lamprey-carp story doesn't end in the Middle Ages:

So one could call this post "The March of the Invasive Species"


Lucius Annaeus Seneca (le Jeune), Sir Roger L'Estrange, Seneca's Morals: By Way of Abstract. To which is Prefixed the Life of the Author 1807

Pliny's Natural History. In Thirty-seven Books 1848

L. Junius Moderatus Columella Of Husbandry: In Twelve Books: and His Book ... 1745

"Leges Langobardorum", Monumenta Germaniae historica: Legum VIII  1868

Isaac Espinasse, A Digest of the Law of Actions at Nisi Prius 1791

The Capitulare de Villis

Richard II, duc de Normandie, confirme à l'abbaye Saint-Ouen de Rouen les bien donnés ou restitués par ses prédécesseurs (1026)

Richard C. Hoffman, "Carp, Cods, Connections" in Animals in Human Histories: The Mirror of Nature and Culture, edited by Mary J. Henninger-Voss, 2002

Félix Bourquelot, "Fragments de comptes du XIIIe siècle", Bibliothèque de l'école des chartes     Year   1863    Volume   24    Issue   24    pp. 51-79  70

Enseignements qui enseingnent a apareillier toutes manieres de viandes

Taillevent, Jérôme Frédéric Pichon, Georges Vicaire, Le viandier de Guillaume Tirel dit Taillevent  1892

Jérôme Pichon, Le ménagier de Paris: Traité de morale et d'économie domestique Volume 2  1846

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The great Medieval water myth

This is one of several posts on drink in the Middle Ages. The others are:
For looks at later water myths, see Old Regime water after the Middle Ages and Early America.

The idea that Medieval people drank beer or wine to avoid drinking bad water is so established that even some very serious scholars see no reason to document or defend it; they simply repeat it as a settled truth. In fact, if no one ever documents the idea, it is for a very simple reason: it's not true.

Not only are there specific – and very casual – mentions of people drinking water all through the Medieval era, but there seems to be no evidence that they thought of it as unhealthy except when (as today) it overtly appeared so. Doctors had slightly more nuanced views, but certainly neither recommended against drinking water in general nor using alcohol to avoid it.

Paolo Squatriti is a rare writer (in Water and Society in Early Medieval Italy, AD 400-1000) to look at this question. He writes of both Italy and Gaul:

Once they had ascertained that it was pure (clear, without odor, and cold) people in postclassical Italy did, in the end, drink water. Willingness to drink water was expressed in late antiquity by writers as dissimilar as Paulinus of Nola, Sidonius Apollinaris, and Peter Chrysologus, who all extolled the cup of water. 

In Misconceptions About the Middle Ages, Stephen Harris and Bryon L. Grigsby write: "The myth of constant beer drinking is also false; water was available to drink in many forms (rivers, rain water, melted snow) and was often used to dilute wine." Steven Solomon's Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization examines uses of water, including for drinking, going back to Sumeria.

UPDATE 10/28/2014 - A new article in Eä – Journal of Medical Humanities & Social Studies of Science and Technology examines Greek and Roman ideas of drinkable water, showing that these groups too regularly drank water.

Otherwise, modern examinations of the issue are rare. In the period itself, however, there are numerous, and always uncritical, mentions of people drinking water. When Fortunatus (sixth c.) says that Radegund drank water mixed with honey, there is no suggestion at all that the water itself might be dangerous. 

Gregory of Tours (sixth c.) writes that when one man "arrived at a village by the road, he went into a small habitation and asked there for water." He even favorably mentions a pond – that is, still water – as a source of drink: "In the middle is a large pond with water that is very agreeable to drink".  And in one tale a merchant uses river water from the Saone to dilute wine. Gregory also tells of a crowd finding the marks where a hermit had knelt to drink water from the river. St. Lupicin is said to have drunk the water of a local stream. When a child restored to life miraculously speaks, he tells his mother "Run quickly and bring me a cup of water." 

When Gregory mentions miraculous cures using water associated with a holy figure, the water has more power because of that association, but he never implies that it would have been undrinkable otherwise: "Since then a great number of the sick, after having drunk water or wine into which this gem had been plunged, were immediately restored to health.”; "Water left there by the rains is sought by the sick, who recover their health when they have drunk it.”; "Often the possessed, the feverish and other sick people recover their health in drinking water from this well".
It was not unusual in speaking of the devout or the saintly to say that they drank mainly water. Gregory says of a boy who received religious training that he became "so abstemious that he ate barley instead of wheat, drank water instead of wine, used an ass instead of a horse, and wore the meanest garments."  Patroclus, a hermit in Bourges, drank only water “a little sweetened with honey” Other writers share similar incidents. St. Paul Aurelian dipped his bread in water. A life of St. Clothilde tells how she brought a cup of spring water for builders at Les Andelys (only to have it changed to wine). 

The thirteenth century doctor Arnaud de Villeneuve said that water was better for quenching thirst than wine but recommended drinking it from a vessel with a small opening or a narrow neck in order not to drink too much. In the fourteenth century, Maino De Mainer (Magninus Mediolanensis) wrote the "Natural [drinks] are twofold, that is, wine and water. These drinks are in use among us."

In 1389, writes Jean Juvenal des Ursins, when Paris welcomed the Queen, "there were at each crossroad.... fountains pouring water, wine and milk." (Was the unpasteurized milk safe? That's a separate question.)

UPDATE 2/10/2014: A fourteenth century monk in Liège not only listed water as one of the preferred drinks, but recommended it over ale and beer.

It was also standard throughout the period to punish monks by putting them on a diet of bread and water – something that would have been frankly sadistic if in fact people of the time had believed water was likely to cause disease. Rather, the idea was clearly, as with prisoners later, to limit them to the minimum required to sustain Life.

People in the time certainly knew the difference between bad and good water. Pliny, in discussing drinking water, says: "It is a fault also in water, not only to have a bad smell, but to have any flavour at all, even though it be a flavour pleasant and agreeable in itself....  Speaking in general terms, water, to be wholesome, should have neither taste nor smell.”. Centuries later, Paulus Aeginata (seventh c.) wrote: "of all things water is of most use in every mode of regimen. It is necessary to know that the best water is devoid of quality as regards taste and smell, is most pleasant to drink, and pure to the sight; and when it passes through the praecordia quickly, one cannot find a better drink."

Bavarian law (c. eighth century) addresses the case where someone pollutes a fountain: "If someone pollutes or stains a fountain with any filth, they are to clean it so that there is no sign of pollution and pay six sols..."

Medical authorities of the time did have some reservations about water, but none of these reflected any concern that clear, odorless water carried disease. Pliny and Paulus both warned, as did others, against water that smelled bad. But even then, Paulus thought these might be used:
But waters which contain impurities, have a fetid smell, or any bad quality, may be so improved by boiling as to be fit to be drunk; or, by mixing them with wine, adding the astringent to that which is sweeter, and the other to the astringent. Some kinds of water it may be expedient to strain, such as the marshy, saltish, and bituminous.
Note that if he suggests improving bad water by adding wine, neither he nor any other medical authority says to replace water by wine or beer in order to avoid disease.

What many did say, and with reason, is that water was not as nutritious as wine and so wine was more appropriate for health overall. Both Villeneuve and de Mainer wrote that, if water was more appropriate for quenching thirst, wine was a more appropriate basis for a healthy regimen. But saying that (as is still true) wine was more nutritious than water is not in the least to say that water caused disease.

Doctors also warned against drinking too much of it, as in Villeneuve's suggestion of using a vessel that limited how much one could drink. Galen, whose writings would be central to Western medicine for over a millennium, warns that an excess of water “corrupts, then breaks and destroys the stomach's strength and vigor; which being so weakened receives bad humors, which flow and drift through the whole body in its cavity; no more or less than those who fast and endure hunger for a long time.” To drink mainly water, that is, was like abstaining from solid food and would similarly make a person weaker and more prone to illness. 

Yet Galen certainly does not say not to drink water in general and in fact he says that those of hot natures should drink more water than wine. This is because, in humoral theory, water was believed to be cold (and so a balance to hot natures). For the same reason, several doctors, such as Villeneuve, recommended against drinking it with meals, on the grounds that it would retard digestion.

If modern doctors put no stock in humoral theory - and so would never condemn water as being "cold" - they certainly would agree that water on its own cannot support Life and that one should avoid water that smells or looks bad. The classic and medieval theories on water, then, did not substantially differ from modern ideas. And again no early medical authority said to replace water - good or bad - with wine or beer.

All of this is of course quite academic, since it is unlikely that many in the largely illiterate society of the time even knew what medical opinion was; to the degree that they thought they did, their information was probably as distorted as much that passes for medical knowledge on the Internet today.

There is no specific reason then to believe that people of the time drank proportionately less water than we do today; rather, since water was not typically sold, transported, taxed, etc., there simply would have been no reason to record its use. Did people in the time prefer alcoholic drinks? Probably, and for the same reason most people today drink liquids other than water: variety and flavor. A young man in a tenth century Saxon colloquy is asked what he drinks and answers: “Beer if I have it or water if I have no beer.” This is a clear expression of both being comfortable with water and preferring beer.

At the time, most prepared drinks were alcoholic drinks and those that were not intended to be would quickly have become so. The Gauls, for instance, were said to drink water that had been poured through beehives; that is, honey water. In Merovingian times, Fortunatus describes Radegund as drinking the same drink. But leave honey water sitting long enough and it will ferment, producing mead. In a time before refrigeration, this was true of many flavored drinks; in a sense, fermentation was a preservative process. That is, drinking something that was not water almost inevitably meant drinking at least weak alcohol.

It may be too that, as per Galen, it simply seemed fortifying to drink more substantial drinks. Even in the eighteenth century, Ben Franklin discovered that his fellow printers in London believed that drinking beer gave them strength. 

My fellow-pressman drank every day a pint of beer before breakfast, a pint with bread and cheese, for breakfast, one between breakfast and dinner, one at dinner, one again about six o'clock in the afternoon, and another after he had finished his day's work. This custom appeared to me abominable; but he had need, he said, of all this beer in order to acquire strength to work. 
I endeavored to convince him that the bodily strength furnished by the beer, could only be in proportion to the solid part of the barley dissolved in the water of which the beer was composed...

But as poor a method as Franklin found this for gaining nourishment, beer does indeed contain some nutrients; more, certainly, than water. And for people in a subsistence economy (as many were in the Middle Ages) that would have been as good a reason as any to drink it. When they could get it.

One would think that, confronted with the above evidence, those who insist medieval drinkers drank beer and wine to avoid water would at the least reconsider. Unfortunately, long-standing myths are not displaced by anything so flimsy as documentation. In previous discussions elsewhere, one person's response was simply to say, "The lack of evidence is not evidence." Another's was that since some doctors criticized some water, some drinkers might have considered this good enough reason to avoid water. Etc. This long-established idea then is unlikely to die anytime soon. But at the least, the next time you see or hear someone put it forth, you can always try asking: what is the evidence for this from the period?

Because that simple question has, for too long, been ignored.

UPDATE 10/18/2017: Why are people who have little or no firsthand knowledge of the Middle Ages absolutely convinced they know the facts on this issue? Some even after reading this or similar items? Here's a new item from the New Yorker: Why Facts Don't Change Our Minds: New discoveries about the human mind show the limitations of reason.

UPDATE 2/8/2018: One problem with the common myth is that it ignores the water actually available to most people - who, in early European countries, mainly lived in rural environments (pollution was primarily an urban problem, and actually became more of an issue AFTER the Middle Ages). One major source then would have been streams, which, as this article demonstrates, typically provide perfectly safe drinking water: Actually, Backpackers, You Don’t Need to Filter Your Stream Water.

UPDATE 4/21/2108: And if we needed any further confirmation that people will drink water from springs and streams, this look at the Raw Water craze is a reminder that, yes, natural water carries risks, but also that, modern hygiene or no modern hygiene, not only are some modern, sophisticated people doing that today, they are paying well for the privilege. How likely is it then that people with no knowledge of science would have avoided water which to them looked clean and fresh?

 A History of the Food of Paris: 
From Roast Mammoth to Steak Frites
Visit for more.


2019-5-22: "Since there was always a risk of contamination with water, fermented beer and wine were considered much safer to drink."

Israeli researchers brew 'ancient beer' with antique yeast


Paolo Squatriti, Water and Society in Early Medieval Italy, AD 400-1000, Parts 400-1000 2002

Stephen Harris, Bryon L. Grigsby, Misconceptions About the Middle Ages 2007

Steven Solomon, Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization

Sainted Women of the Dark Ages, edited by Jo Ann McNamara, John E. Halborg, Gordon Whatley

Saint Gregorius (évêque de Tours), Henri-Léonard Bordier, Les livres des miracles: et autres opuscules, Volume 1 1857

Joannes Bollandus, Jean Baptiste Carnandet, Godefridus Hanschenius, Daniel van Papenbroeck, L. M. Rigollot, Acta sanctorum: Ed. novissima, Volume 21 1867

Arthur Le Moyne de La Borderie, Histoire de Bretagne : topographie générale de la Bretagne de 57 av. J.C. à 753 de J.C 

Thomas Wright, Richard Wülcke, Anglo-Saxon and Old English Vocabularies: Vocabularies

Arnaldi Villanovani... Opera omnia cum (ejus vita per S. Champerium et) Nicolai Taurelli... annotationibus... (Carmen V. Thilonis) 1585

Magninus Mediolanensis, Johannes Van Westfalen, Regimen sanitatis 1482

Jean Juvenal des Ursins, Histoire de Charles VI roy de France et des choses ... advenues des l'an 1380-1422. mise en lumiere par Theodore Godefroy. -Paris, Pacard 1614

Ferdinand Walter, Corpus juris Germanici antiqui, Volume 1 1824

Galien, Le Livre de C. Galen traictant des viandes qvi engendrent bon & mauvais suc, mis en françois pour

Pliny (the Elder), The Natural History of Pliny, Volume 5 1856

Paulus (Aegineta.), Francis Adams, The Medical Works of Paulus Aegineta, the Greek Physician: Tr. Into English Vol I 1834

Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography an Essays 1864


Friday, November 8, 2013

A matter of courses

In a nineteenth century novel, a character says "For your sake I have endured the Nibelungen Cycle from soup to nuts—or I should say, after Horace, 'from the egg to the apple.'" Horace's Latin phrase, ab ovo usque ad mala, was shorthand for the standard Roman table service, as the American phrase "soup to nuts" sums up an older American idea of the standard European service, which for a very long time has begun with soup. If it did not always end with dessert, it was more likely to include (after the dessert) smaller treats such as the medieval French candies known as draguées and the American substitution (for the kind of very large meal rarely served today) might well have been nuts.

If the two phrases are symmetrical, it should also be clear that they refer to different orders - which is to say that somewhere between the Romans and a later time, the European idea of order in table service changed. Which of course raises the question: how?

The Roman courses began, not only with eggs, but lettuce and other light foods, meant to stimulate appetite; this course was called the gustatio or promulsis. The main course was called the coena, which was also the name of the meal (typically in the evening) which was most likely to be divided into courses. This however could be divided into a number of fercula, a term which referred both to the service and the platter on which it was brought in (ferculum). Typically there were between three and six of these; Juvenal speaks pointedly of a man who had seven when dining privately 

Or which of our Forefathers far'd so well,
As on seven Dishes, at a private Meal?

The last principal course was the mensae secundae ("second tables"). which was essentially dessert, including cakes, sweets and fruit.

In Gaul, even after the Franks took over, there are hints that some version of the Roman order survived; not in the eggs, but in the idea of having something green - except that the lettuce became vegetables. The poet-bishop Fortunatus describes one meal which began with "vegetables, drizzled in honey". As a member of the high clergy, Fortunatus lived in a Gallo-Roman, rather than a Germanic, milieu. He also lived luxuriously. But Gregory de Tours describes a Gallo-Roman couple, humble enough for the wife to be cooking, serving a meal in several courses. Again, the first dish is of vegetables.

This is a simple enough detail. But even this distinguishes the order from those found later, when vegetables were rarely served as a first course. (Eggs and lettuce seem never to have reappeared.)

Later in the early medieval period, it is virtually impossible to know what, if any order, was used. Charlemagne's first biographer says that he ate four courses (or possibly dishes) and a roast, but provides no further details. This at least tells us that meals continued to be served in separate courses, at least among people of rank. Einhard also makes it plain that this was the Emperor's daily fare and intends this to show Charlemagne's personal simplicity; for greater occasions, he knew how to impress.

During Charlemagne's own lifetime, an astounding figure, Abu l-Hasan ‘Ali Ibn Nafi‘ (789-857), came from Iraq and north Africa to Spain (then al-Andalus). Known to history as "Ziryab", he is credited with a long list of cultural innovations, including laying the basis for flamenco and establishing seasons in fashion. By some accounts, he also set the order for courses in a meal and this innovation ultimately made its way to Europe, though only much later and probably by the roundabout route of post-Crusade influence from the Mideast. However, as will be seen, this claim does not square with the available evidence.

Meanwhile, for several centuries after Charlemagne, no specific account of a European meal survives. The first may come from the twelfth century, when a  bishop outlined a special feast for monks. But this order (which was probably not typical) bears no hint of those that would become standard later. It begins with hams, feet and a head of pork, followed by sausages and other parts made from pork offal, then smoked beef on a bed of a cabbage; two types of bacon, peppered, roasted and grilled pork, a young pig garnished with game meats, fat bacon with strong mustard, then a plate of millet with eggs, milk and pig blood, and ends with a roasted and larded shoulder of pork.

This looks very much like a "baconic", a meal later said to have been made up entirely of pork (though the word does not appear in period accounts). But even if that was the intent, there would certainly have been ways to adapt it to the later standard courses, such as beginning with a pork soup, especially since this version makes room for millet and smoked beef. It seems, rather, that that order was not yet standard at this point.

Otherwise, until the fourteenth century, the sequence of courses can only be deduced from the fact that in 1294 Philip the Fair found it necessary to limit people to having a dish and an entremets (itself a new concept) for an ordinary meal and two with a bacon soup for a major meal. If this implies that people were already having far more courses, it also shows that he thought it reasonable to restrain diners to the point that a three or four course meal would have been impossible. Nor did he seem to think soup an essential course in an ordinary meal.

The first thorough look at medieval courses comes in the fourteenth century Menagier de Paris, which includes a list of twenty four menus of meals "for great lords and others". Right off, then, it is clear that these were not for standard meals. The most striking aspect of the menus is that not only do they follow nothing like the later order in European dining, they differ greatly between them. Most begin with a heterogeneous assortment of dishes, often including one or more pies and only sometimes including soup. Here (in Janet Hinson's translation) is the first course for the second dinner (today, lunch): "Pies of veal chopped small in grease and marrow of beef, pompano pies, black-puddings, sausages, forcemeat, and rich pies de quibus". And for the second supper: "Capons with herbs, a cominy, daguenet [?Danish (JH)], peas, loach in yellow sauce, venison in soup."

The food historian Jean Louis Flandrin examines these menus closely in his L'ordre des mets (in English, "Arranging the Meal: A History of Table Service in France"). He tries to show that there is a certain logic to these seemingly random sequences; notably that the roast always plays a central role and that the courses themselves tend to be symmetrical in number of dishes. It is a valiant, but unconvincing, effort. The fact remains that a modern cook would be hard put to organize a meal using the structure of these as a guide.

The work offers two far grander menus after the numbered ones, and these at least name the first course "soup", though the dishes listed do not obviously match that description; for instance, "capons in fricassee, pomegranate and red sugared almonds on top." But this at least suggests that the later European order was taking shape in this period, even if it was far from established.

Another view can be deduced from the early manuscripts of the Viandier of Taillevent, the first really famous cookbook. These start with a chapter on pottages. Today potage has has the same meaning as soupe in French. But in this period it was a much thicker, more complex production. Was beginning a meal with pottage the same as beginning it, later, with soup? One can at least see a linear evolution, especially since the next chapter is on roasts, followed by one on entremets (which Prescott translates, reasonably enough, as "subtleties"). Since Taillevent's work was intended for the highest ranks of society, it is possible that the grandest meals were (as in the Menagier) beginning to follow the sequence which would later become standard.

For another look at courses in the fourteenth century, we can also turn to a curious document from Humbert, the Dauphin of Vienne. In a moment of financial difficulty, Humbert carefully laid out what would be served at each of the meals in his household. He probably ate more ornately when better off, but a restricted meal for a Dauphin would still have been a good one for the time. For Mondays and Wednesdays, then, he wanted "a purée of peas or of broad beans, with two pounds of salted pork; then good tripes, cooked in water. For the second service, two portions (rotulos) of beef and mutton, boiled and served with a warm pepper sauce; and, as a roast, six capons, or six fat hens." Dessert was of cheese and fruit (which would largely remain the case for centuries and was not, in fact, too far from the Roman model - except that pastries would take some time to return.)

For Saturday, he did in fact begin with two soups with (again) a purée of broad beans and almonds, seasoned with onion juice and olive oil; fish, "if there is any"; twelve poached eggs, with a good sauce; tarts of greens, and eight hard-boiled eggs.(Note that here the eggs have moved beyond the initial place assigned to them by the Romans.) But for his supper (every day?), he wanted only "a half-portion of roast beef; beef feet, prepared in vinegar with parsley; and grilled beef tongues, with cameline sauce." It seems then that soup at the start of a meal still remained only one of several possible options.

The overall impression left by all this data is that as the Roman sequence of service declined in France, at least, it was not replaced for a long time by anything particularly organized. The one clear tendency was to eat far more meat and fowl - even the heartiest Roman meals would have been far more varied than the later meals seen here. Finally, in the fourteenth century, the idea of starting with soup (or pottage?) began to take hold among the grand and, as often happens with fashion, later made its way to the less exalted ranks of society. (To complicate matters still further, even in later centuries, the sequence sometimes shifted. But that is another story,)

Can these first glimmerings in fourteenth century France be traced back to Ziryab? A thirteenth century work defines eight courses for meals in Arab north Africa and Spain, and these do not specifically begin with soup. In the East itself, apparently courses were all served at once in this period. So it seems unlikely that the Western sequence had its roots in a model from either side of the Arab world. But the question offers fertile ground for future exploration.


Friday, November 1, 2013

The small, tart plum of my eyes

Most French people know the word prunelle from one phrase: "la prunelle de mes yeux". This has been translated as "the apple of my eye", but even idiomatically that is not correct. The American phrase refers to something that is precious in one's sight; the French phrase refers to sight - or the organ of sight - itself. It is sometimes translated as "the pupil of my eyes" and in fact that is probably how most speakers understand it: something is as important to the speaker as their own pupils.

Other than a dim idea that it means "pupil" (which it once did, but no longer does), very few people in France today know what a prunelle is. When I asked two different French friends, in both cases I was met with a blank stare. When I helpfully pointed out that a prunelle was a fruit, each then said brightly, "Oh! For making jam! Like mirabelles!" And in fact, today, that is not far off. But in previous centuries the answer would have been different.

In English, prunelle is "sloe". But this is likely to mean little more to most English speakers than prunelle does to the French. Drinkers of a certain age will remember the "sloe gin fizz", but may never have particularly thought about what "sloe gin" is, much less "sloe". If anything, punning drink names of the Seventies ("Sloe comfortable screw") probably left a vague impression that the word has to do with reduced speed.

The sloe (Prunus spinosa) is, in fact, a small, tart cousin to the plum. In French, this relationship is clearer: plum is prune, sloe is prunelle (that is, little plum). As it turns out, the sloe today is sometimes used to make jam, as well as various drinks, including, yes, sloe gin (which may be made with vodka or even neutral spirits).

In earlier times, however, the sloe was a perfectly edible fruit. How early? Ötzi, the Iceman, whose mummified body was found in 1991, was carrying dried sloes. He lived roughly 5,000 years ago and so the sloe was being eaten at least that far back.

Perhaps more surprisingly, it was still a standard food in France in the Medieval period. It is not unusual to find sloes in archaeological digs, along with some more familiar fruit (especially plums) and hazelnuts. The carpologist Marie-Pierre Ruas found that sloe remains were as common in the South of France during the Medieval period as fig and plum trees. At a Carolingian site in Auvergne, she found an "abundance and ... diversity" of both plums and sloes, identifying at least three different varieties of the latter. This was part of "one of the aspects of fruticole expansion in Europe, apparent from the first centuries of the Christian era".

Ruas links this with clearings in wooded areas:
The presence of woody species with edible fruits (sloe, hazelnuts, blackberry brambles) gives a glimpse of the existence of sunlit woods formations such as forest selvage, clearings, copses or hedges, established on a soil rich in nitrates, clay-sand or loess, and limestone.
Still, the sloe's presence in domestic contexts was surprising, if only because it has generally been considered a wild fruit:
We were surprised at the predominance of sloe pits over other forms of plums. ...The sloe is always considered as a wild fruit species whose fruits continued to be gathered after Antiquity.
...The frequent use of [sloes and other fruit] in food or other paths of consumption no doubt favored, intentionally or not, the proliferation of these species which particularly affects more or less neglected spots on the edges of habitations or cultivation.
Other digs have also uncovered sloes; Corrie C. Bakels, for instance,  also found evidence of sloe consumption in Picardy in the same period.

The sloe was probably always a humble food, gathered freely from the woods. The fourteenth century poet Eustache Deschanps described shepherd's meals as consisting of "dark bread, sloe and buds, cheese and milk" ("Pain bis, prunelles et boutons, Fromage et lait"). In 1421, a diarist said that people in Paris ate apples and sloes left by pigs during a severe shortage.

By 1602, Olivier de Serres mentioned sloe only as a way to color "wine" made from pears and apples. Around the same time (1607) a religious text translated "pupillam oculorum meorum" as the "prunelle de mes yeux"; that is, "the pupil of my eyes" and in fact the word was then used far more often in that sense than to refer to the fruit. But already before that, in 1535, Olivetan used the term in his translation of the Bible (in Solomon's Proverbs Ch. vii).

Did the second usage start as a metaphor for the first? Possibly. But archaic as it now is, it has largely outlived the original. Yet once upon a (Medieval) time, the sloe was as common a fruit as a plum, or so archaeology suggests.


Home › Ötzi – the Iceman › The Circumstances of the Iceman’s death › When did he die?

Productions agricoles en Auvergne carolingienne d'après un dépotoir découvert à Saint-Germain-des-Fossés (Allier) / Farming productions in caroungian auvergne from a refuse pit recovered at Saint-Germain-des-Fossés (Allier).
M.-P. Ruas    lien Revue archéologique du Centre de la France  lien   Year   2000    lien Volume   39    lien Issue   39    lien pp. 137-160

Productions agricoles en Auvergne carolingienne d'après un dépotoir découvert à Saint-Germain-des-Fossés (Allier) / Farming productions in caroungian auvergne from a refuse pit recovered at Saint-Germain-des-Fossés (Allier).
M.-P. Ruas    Revue archéologique du Centre de la France  Year   2000     Volume   39     Issue   39    n pp. 137-160

Corrie C. Bakels-Dury "Le Moulin" (Somme). Étude des restes botaniques [Article]

Paulin Paris-Les manuscrits françois de la Bibliothèque du roi

Denis Godefroy, Josè Maria Fonseca de Evora -Jean Jouvenel des Ursins-Histoire de Charles 6. roy de France, et des choses memorables aduenues durant 42. annees de son regne, depuis 1380. iusques a 1422. Par Iean Iuuenal des Vrsins, archeuesque de Rheims 1653

Olivier de Serres-Le Theatre d'Agriculture et Mesnage des Champs d' Olivier de Serres-1603

Olivetan-La Bible qui est toute la Saincte escripture 1535

Pierre Richelet-Dictionnaire de la langue françoise ancienne et moderne 1758