THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

07 September 2019

Wine-making, medieval-style

Pluck. Crush. Cork. Medieval calendars remind us that September is the month for making wine. If planting and pruning vines fall to the month of March, September is the time for cashing in on all the effort.

The parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard in the Stavelot Bible

The depiction of the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard in the Stavelot Bible takes us closer to the toil involved in tending the vines: Add MS 28106, f. 6r

To turn grapes into wine has never been an easy task. During the summer months, the vines grow heavy with fruit. September is the time to start picking the grapes and prepare them for the arduous journey towards vinification.

The Old Testament story of the spies of Canaan

The two figures on the right are carrying a large cluster of grapes, freshly picked, illustrating the Old Testament story of the spies of Canaan (Numbers 13:1-33): Harley MS 4996, f. 24v

After picking the grapes, the next stage is to crush them. The evidence in medieval manuscripts is interesting. The majority of representations of wine-making involve some form of crushing the grapes. This was usually done by treading them in a large tub. It provided the model for the most enduring image of medieval vinification, that of winemakers stomping on grapes, allowing the juice to drain into a waiting basin.

Crushing tubs

Crushing tubs varied in size. Some were small enough to accommodate only one person, others large enough for several: Royal MS 2 B II, f. 5r

In medieval calendars, each month had one or several types of agricultural activities (or labours) associated with it. The 'labours of the month' were illustrated on the calendar page, one (or several) for each month. You can find out more in our article on medieval calendars. The labour of the month of September was wine-making and the associated symbol was usually the wine-press, and later the wine barrel. There was significant variation in how the wine-press was depicted, but it usually involved one or several labourers treading on grapes in a tub.

Crushing freshly-picked grapes

Crushing freshly-picked grapes was an essential stage of making wine. This illustration is from a 14th-century calendar page for September: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 79v

In an early 12th-century manuscript produced at Silos Abbey in Spain, picking the grapes and crushing them are represented as actions occurring simultaneously, a reading on a prophetic passage from the Book of Revelation:

"The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great wine-press of God’s wrath. They were trampled in the wine-press outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press [...]".  (Revelation 14:19-20).

Wine-making in Beatus of Liébana's Commentary on the Apocalypse

Wine and wine-making are a prominent metaphor in the Book of Revelation. This manuscript of Beatus of Liébana's Commentary on the Apocalypse conveys the drama of the biblical text with vivid colours and imagery: Add MS 11695, f. 168r

On the other hand, once the grapes are picked, it is advisable to crush them immediately — unless one is producing wine made from dried grapes through techniques which, although popular today, did not exist in the Middle Ages. Trampling the grapes was not the only way to crush them. The Romans had invented technology using mechanical pressure to crush grapes into juice. Their successors went further, developing the 'basket press'. This typically medieval wine-press used a basket made of wood staves kept together by metal rings, while a heavy disc pressed down towards the bottom of the basket, forcing the juice of the grapes to ooze out between the staves into a container.

Christ in a wine-press

This image based on the words of the Book of Revelation shows Christ in a wine-press fitted with bars which allowed a mechanism to squash the grapes into the staves of the basket: Add MS 35166

The grape juice was then poured into casks and barrels and stored, but without any preservatives such as sulfites. Because of this, the wine could easily go bad, and aging was not possible.

Filling up the barrels in a calendar

While some are tread-crushing the grapes, others fill up the barrels with juice ready for fermentation, from a 15th-century calendar for September: Add MS 18851, f. 5v

Wine had been made in western Europe before the Middle Ages. The ancient Greeks and the Romans planted most of the vines that were producing wine in the Middle Ages. Just like today, wine was consumed for the pleasure of it. An important part of its production, however, was driven by the requirements of the Mass, with wine being an essential part of Communion. Wine was biblical, liturgical, communal, bridging the gap between the sacred and the profane. A common motif was that of Christ in the wine-press, which brought together several mystical and theological insights, based on imagery from the Book of Revelation: "He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty” (Revelation 19:15).

Christ in the wine-press in a manuscript of the Apocalypse

The image of Christ in the wine-press is common in manuscripts of the Apocalypse: Royal MS 2 D XIII, f. 45v

 

Cristian Ispir

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