Wine had become popular among the Greeks and Romans. Its popularity was strengthened with the expansion of the new religion of Christianity. The Church promoted the use of wine. So wine in early Christianity flourished.
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During the chaos and decay of the Dark Ages the Church maintained vineyards and knowledge of winemaking. Indeed, monks spent time improving both vineyards and winemaking. Wine in early Christianity enjoyed strong acceptance. Wine and Christianity were good for each other.
First Century A.D.
Archaeologists discovered a wine press and other objects used in making wine in San Marino.1 That is a small country within Italy.
Post cir. 20 A.D.
Jesus made and drank wine (Luke 7:33-35; Matthew 15:11;). He approved of moderate drinking (Matthew 15:11). But he strongly criticized drunkenness (Matthew 24:45-51; Luke 21:34,12:42;). St. Paul (d. 64?) thought wine to be a good creation of God (1 Timothy 4:4). He recommended its use (1 Timothy 5:23). But he condemned drunkenness (Galatians 5:19-21; Romans 13:3; 1 Corinthians 3:16-17,5:11,6:10). St. Paul urged abstinence for those who could not control their drinking. Wine and Christianity were closely linked from the beginning.
Mid-First Century A.D.
Wine had become the most popular beverage in Rome. It was distributed at cost or even free.2
Pliny referred to the earliest known vineyards around the port city of what is now called Bordeaux.3
Because of the high demand for wine, vineyards were often planted in place of food crops. This led to a shortage of grain that threatened Rome’s food supply. So Emperor Domitian banned the planting of new vineyards. He also ordered that half the existing vineyards be replaced with food crops.4
First through Fifth Centuries.
Romans found that mixing lead with wine sweetened it, gave a good mouth feeling. Lead also helped preserve it. They did not know the dangers of lead poisoning.5
Late Second Century-Early Fifth Century
• Several Christian sects called for abstinence. But the Church decreed that alcohol was an inherently good gift of God. Wine was to be used and enjoyed. The Church also decreed that Christians could abstain if they chose, but it was heresy to despise alcohol. It rejected the abusive use of alcohol as a sin. The Church urged those who could not drink in moderation to abstain.6 Wine and Christianity were far from incompatible. Indeed, Christianity needed wine for the Eucharist. The status of wine in early Christianity was secure. It was only in the late 1800s that some Christians began to argue that grape juice should replace wine in the Eucharist. Learn more at Alcohol and the Bible.
• Viticulture (grape growing) and Christianity spread together throughout Western Europe.7
• Detailed rules concerning the use of wine were incorporated into the Talmud. It added wine to many religious ceremonies.8 Talmudic rules were established concerning the use of wine. These included the way in which wine was to be drunk, the amount that could be drunk on the Sabbath, the legal status of wine associated with idolatry, and personal responsibility for behavior while drunk.9
• Roman poetry between 200 and 300 AD often extolled the ‘glory of wine.’10
Cir. 300 A.D.
So many landowners began destroying their vineyards to avoid exorbitant taxes that production started to decline. Therefore, Roman Emperor Theodosius established the death penalty for anyone who destroyed a vineyard.11
Cir. 320 A.D.
Wine was very important to the Greeks. This is reflected in the fact that the scholar Athenaeus wrote extensively about wine, famous drinks, and drinking cups. (He described 100 such cups).12
Cir. 350 A.D.
• St. Martin of Tours (316-397) both spread Christianity and planted vineyards.13
• Viticulture was first established near Paris.14
Cir. 370-454 A.D.
The Huns disrupted the production and consumption of wine. They destroyed vineyards, killed vineyard workers, and drank existing stocks of wine.15
The Middle Ages
The Middle Ages are also known as the Dark Ages, the Medieval Period, or the Feudal Period. It was was that period of almost 1,000 years between the fall of Rome (476) and the Renaissance (after about 1300).
• With the collapse of the Roman Empire, religious institutions, especially monasteries, maintained viticulture throughout the Middle Ages.16 With their education and available time, monks improved viticulture.17 Throughout the Middle Ages vinum theologium was was highly prized.18 Its production generated profits that helped maintain and expand the number of monasteries.19 Wine and Christianity supported each other. So the status of wine in early Christianity remained secure.
• Among their many innovations, monks discovered that wine could be clarified with egg whites.20
• Most wine was made and consumed locally. But some wine trade continued in spite of the deterioration of roads.21
• In the early Middle Ages, wine was the preferred beverage in what is now Spain, Italy and France.22
• Few commoners in Feudal England ever even tasted red Bordeaux wine, which they called claret.23 It is still known by that name.
Gregory of Tours wrote that wine had replaced ale as the popular drink of the Parisian taverns.24
• Viticulture and winemaking had flourished in Uzbekistan up until the seventh century. But the spread of Islam forced production to changed from wines to table grapes and raisins.25
• Commercial vineyards advanced as far north as the Welch border in England. The average harvest in Western Europe occurred about one month earlier than today.26
• Viticulture appeared in Kazakhstan.27
Islamic Prophet Muhammad directed his followers to abstain from alcohol. But he promised them that there would be ‘rivers of wine’ awaiting them in the gardens of heaven (Surah 47.15 of the Qur’an).28
The Vikings preferred mead (a honey wine) but had to drink mostly ale.29
Wine trade expanded rapidly between England and France after William, Duke of Normandy, captured England at the Battle of Hastings.30
English demand for wine could not be met by local production. That led to a rapid expansion of vineyards in the Bordeaux region of France.31
The king of France granted Parisians the exclusive rights to import wine into the city on the Seine and sell it directly from their boats. Any non-Parisians who wanted to do so had to ‘first associate himself with a Parisian.’32
Philip II Augustus (1180-1223) ordered all French provinces to submit to Paris samples of their best wine for a national exhibition.33
French law required that when the king’s wine was for sale in Paris, criers had to announce both morning and evening where it was sold. While the king’s wine was for sale, no other could be sold.34
Conclusion: Wine in Early Christianity
The position of wine in early Christianity was always secure. The relationship between Christianity and wine was mutually beneficial. They both survived the Dark Ages.
Europe very slowly began to emerge from the hardships of that long era. It didn’t occur everywhere at the same time. And it wasn’t without many setbacks. But the future would be better for both society and wine.
We’ve had a glimpse of the story of wine in early Christianity. Now on to see the experience of wine in the Renaissance.
Fun with Wine!
1. Babington, D. Tiny San Marino has big dreams for local wine.
2. Babor, T. Alcohol. NY: Chelsea, 1986, pp. 7-8.
3. Taber, G. Judgment of Paris. NY: Scribner, 2005, 21.
4. Estreicher, S. Wine from Neolithic Times to the 21st Century. NY: Algora, 2006, p. 35.
5.Estreicher, p. 32.
6. Austin, G.A. Alcohol in Western Society from Antiquity to 1800. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 1985, pp. 44 and 47-48.
7. Lausanne, E. The Great Book of Wine. NY: World, 1969, p. 367. Sournia, J-C. A History of Alcoholism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990, p. 12.
8. Spiegel, M. The Heritage of Noah. M.A. thesis. Hebrew Union Coll., 1979, pp. 20 -29. Raymond, I. The Teaching of the Early Church on the Use of Wine and Strong Drink. NY: Columbia U Press, 1927, 45-47.
9. Austin, pp. 36 and 50.
10. Sournia, p. 10.
11. Cottino, A. Italy. In: Heath, D.B., (ed.) International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995. Pp. 156-167. P. 159.
12. Austin, pp. 45-46.
13. Patrick, C. Alcohol, Culture, and Society. Durham: Duke U Press, 1952, pp. 26-27.
14. Hyams, E. Dionysus. NY: Macmillan, 1965, p. 158.
15. Gately, I. Drink. NY: Gotham, 2008, p. 52.
16. Seward, D. Monks and Wine. London: Mitchell Beasley, 1979, pp. 15 and 25-35.
18. Patrick, p. 27.
19. Babor, p. 11.
20. Estreicher, p. 41.
21. Wilson, C. Food and Drink in Britain from the Stone Age to the 19th Century. Chicago: Academy, 1991, p. 371. Hyams, p. 151.
22. Babor, p. 11.
23. Gately, p. 81.
24. Sournia, J-C. A History of Alcoholism. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1990, p. 13.
25. Uzbek Wines.
26. Estreicher, p. 43.
27. Robinson, J. (ed.) The Oxford Companion to Wine. London: Oxford U Press. 2006, pp. 380-381.
28. Alcohol in Islam.
29. Gately I. Drink. NY: Gotham, 2008, pp. 62-63.
30. Ford, G. Wines, Brews, & Spirits. Seattle, WA: Ford, 1996, p. 15.
31. Gately, p. 80.
32. Di Corcia, J. Bourg, bourgeois, bourgeoisie de Paris from the eleventh to the eighteenth centuries. J Mod Hist., 1978, 50, 215-233. P. 215.
33. Duby, G. Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West. Columbia: U South Carolina Press, 1968, p. 138.
34. Hopkins, T. An Idler in Old France. NY: Scribner’s, 1899, p 123.