What would you drink if you were living in Medieval Europe?
Wine has a long, long history dating back to ancients time, but, it was during the Middle Ages that our beloved drink became so important in Europe.
It was used as a multi-purpose beverage; not only with food but also for medicinal, political and liturgical purposes. It had a sacred character and was fundamental to celebrate the Mass, as in the ceremony of Eucharist, it represents the blood of Christ.
What was wine like in Medieval Europe?
Obviously, since there were no modern production and preservation techniques, wine used to have a short life and had to be drunk fresh. It tasted very different from what we know and love now and often it was not even particularly pleasant.
To improve its taste, it was diluted with water or cooked must, and flavoured with spices or herbs, honey or fruit.
Wine’s popularity at the time was partly due to its invigorating capabilities when other beverages such as tea, coffee and chocolate were not yet known in Europe.
It was accessible to all classes and was always present on the table, from that of the poor to that of the noble (where it obviously abounded especially during celebrations).
Some documents speak of the average consumption of 2 litres of wine per day per person: not sure if this number is completely true, but it gives us an idea of its spread in the society.
England was known for experiments of mixing wine with resin. That was done to preserve wine from turning sour. It is now, in the 21st century we got the heatwave, but Medieval England wasn’t warm enough for the grapes to ripe.
Sadly, experiments did not prove to be a great success and from late 1200 most of the wines were imported from France. Which made a lot of sense: England owned vineyards in Southwest of France ( Duchy of Aquitaine) thanks to the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry III.
Another interesting hint is given by William Shakespeare. His plays “Henry IV Parts I and II” and “Richard III” highlight the times of exceptionally bad quality wines, for example, malmsey wine.
Normally brought by Italian merchants from Mediterranean vineyards of Greece, this sweet and rich wine was very expensive and was only consumed by rich people.
However, in a medieval tavern, poorer people could also enjoy malmsey wine but artificially made of water, brandy, honey, juice and beer grounds.
One sure thing is that, in the Middle Ages, the true guardians of the quality of wine were the monks who put a lot of attention in it improving production techniques, managing numerous vineyards and even creating varieties still very much appreciated today.
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What were the most common wines during the Middle Ages in Europe?
Well, it really depends on the country and region we are looking at.
For example, in the Duchy of Aquitaine, the Clairet wine became more and more popular around the X-XII century.
In the same period, the Champagne region became famous for its vineyards, with the stipulation of the “Champagne Document” which consolidated the agricultural production of the abbey “Saint -Pierre-aux-Monts”.
It was the French monk Dom Pèrignon, who discovered the secret of champagne making in the Abbey of Hautvillers near Reims in 1668 and to produce, using black grapes, the first sparkling white wine.
The grapes with a more aromatic twist were the most appreciated as well as the fortified and sweet wines that were also particularly prone to ageing.
Wines were traded through maritime trade, for example, the French region of Gascony, Southern Italy and the Dalmatian coast developed a solid export of wines to the Flanders region, while France, Spain and Portugal, instead, exported to England.
What else did people drink in the Middle Ages (other than water)?
Other popular drinks were beer and cider. Beer was consumed daily by all social classes in northern and eastern Europe.
Extracted from all fermented cereals, it was in the Middle Ages that it began to be flavoured with hops. In the 14th century, England made mandatory by law the use of hops.
Cider (or apple wine) could be made from pears, cherries, but above all from apples. Coming from Spain, probably from Biscay, cider spread first in Normandy and then throughout France and England, between the XIII and XV centuries, even replacing beer, that, at the time, was penalized by the high cost of cereals.
Another typical drink that an average tavern of Medieval Europe would serve was mead. As you can guess also made with honey and some local fruits.