By Azelina Jaboulet-Vercherre
PhD Dissertation, Yale University, 2011
Abstract: Why do people alternate between accolades and censure about the powers they perceive in wine?
By looking for descriptions of wine and explanations of its effects, be they beneficial or harmful, this dissertation ventures into drawing up a history of wine drinking. Although the history of wine is already a widely harvested vineyard, the role of wine in medicine and, more broadly, natural philosophy, has not yet been subject to comprehensive investigation. The present study examines and explains the disparate and often conflicting opinions that late medieval writers expressed about wine, the role it plays in the preservation and restoration of health, as well as in the quest for pleasure. It also considers the other side of the spectrum, wine’s potentially dangerous properties, and the impact it can have on disease. It thereby bridges some gaps in our understanding of the role wine plays in late medieval civilization, especially as presented in French and Italian medical and philosophical writings, with a focus on the 13th–15th centuries.
I first examine wine’s nature and effects, and present the medieval physician’s argument that wine is the ideal beverage for man. I then explore the question of whether it is a drink, a food, or a medicine. While we cannot with any degree of certainty trace the lineage of grape varieties back to their ancient and medieval roots, as most of the European vines were destroyed in the modern era and are therefore unknown to us, I attempt to reconstruct some of the oenological landscape depicted in the source texts. This geographical overview provides a typology of medieval wines and traces their main characteristics, a preliminary to the survey of wine’s uses, benefits, and harms, including its influence on physiology, psychology, and social relations. Within this context, I investigate various consequences of excessive wine consumption as they were perceived in the Middle Ages. I consider the etiology of the disease we now call alcoholism and its scholastic explanations, expose medieval views of this pathological phenomenon, and analyze the consequences of drinking wine as they were then understood.
My goal in this study has been not only to shed light on this time period through the prism of wine, but also to inform the modern reader that there was indeed a time when medical experts knew how to discuss wine, owing their profound insight to cognition, not laboratory experimentation.