Role of Wine in Medieval Christianity, Islam, and Judaism

Wine has a long and illustrious history, dating back to at least 4000 BC in Neolithic times. Since those times, it has undergone significant transformations, particularly in terms of production techniques and cost. Moreover, the winemaking industry has also played an essential role in various human civilizations, particularly with the emergence and evolution of the agriculture sector. After exploring various allusions to wine in myth, holy books, and literature, we can see the importance of winemaking and related concepts throughout history.

Furthermore, wine is rich not just in flavor but also in symbolism. Its abundant beauty has remained a topic of lovely descriptions and poetic comparisons. Likewise, it has long been regarded as a sign of life, particularly in its scarlet form. The exquisite twisting of the grapevine stock appears to be an ideal representation of the strength and endurance of human capabilities. This article describes the role of wine in medieval monolithic religions – i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

A significant number of Biblical scriptures provide a reference to the use of wine in the early times of Christianity and Judaism. For instance, the Last Supper of Jesus Christ particularly exemplifies the significance of wine in Christianity, as it turned into a metaphor for Christ’s blood. This feature has been passed onto modern Christianity, especially Catholicism.

The link between wine and religion has witnessed many transitions over time. While certain religions, like Islam & Buddhism, officially restrict their consumption, wine serves an essential part in many other belief systems. For instance, it has been utilized in religious rites in Egypt for at least 6,000 years, where Pharaohs and other influential people consumed it. In ancient cultures, alcohol was also related to some gods’ devotion (n.d., Deckebach).

Medieval Wines

Many early societies eventually gave birth to new faith systems, like Christianity, that incorporated the intake and consumption of wine in their rites. For example, wine is mentioned in the Bible in several places, notably during various festivals, Lot’s release, and Noah’s flood. It is stated that after the famous Noah’s flood, they established a vineyard. In Judaism, the wine was traditionally granted a blessing within its faith system and included in offerings. As per Jewish Law, wine is also sanctified for the Sabbath and festivals. It developed and remained an essential component of Jewish rituals, such as weddings, funerals, and religious festivals.

Medieval Wines

After 400 AD, Roman Empire experienced a steady collapse that eventually took Europe into Dark Ages. Consequently, a rich culture of grape cultivation and winemaking skills was lost during the transitional process. Vineyards were only maintained within the premises of the Church because the wine was required to conduct the rite. However, certain monasteries—particularly Cistercian abbeys and the large Benedictine in Burgundy, France, and all along the Rhine River throughout Germany—started manufacturing surplus wine only for their private consumption and utilizing it to the aristocracy.

Gradually, the winemaking industry began to rebound as Europe recovered its respect for said fruit of the vine. According to William the Conqueror’s Doomsday Book, there were 28 productive vineyards throughout Norman England towards the conclusion of the 11th century.

Thus, over the next 300 years, such vineyards flourished, and England became a significant winemaking hub in Europe. However, most of these British vineyards were primarily linked with the Church like the rest of Europe. Around this time, the Bordeaux farmers, an English holding within France, built their own booming wine sector to satisfy their English masters’ palates.

Imports of Bordeaux wine into England, which the English called “claret,” increased. As a global cooling trend gradually reduced the harvests and yields of English vineyards, shipments of Bordeaux wine soared. As a result, the British wine sector became financially unviable, resulting in the “little ice age” of the mid-1500s. Moreover, the seizure of English monasteries all through King Henry VIII’s religious revival accelerated the onset of the French regions of Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the Rhine Valley as excellent centers of growing grape and winemaking as we can see them today. Wine consumption and production grew with European colonization that began in the 15th century. Notwithstanding the disastrous Phylloxera louse invasion of 1887, contemporary technology and science evolved, and commercial wine consumption and production are now widespread worldwide.

Role of Wine in Christianity

The conversion of bread and wine into the blood and flesh of Jesus at a mass is among the foundational tenets motivating Christian belief. Transubstantiation has become the foundation of the Christian belief system as Christ accomplished this wonder during the Last Supper.

Nevertheless, nothing is known about the origin of the wine shown in this consecration. Indeed, precise religious regulations govern how a specific wine fits this rite. Despite this ambiguity, Christian monks have utilized several different varietals of grapes to conduct the rite throughout the previous two centuries. Regardless, wine has a long history, dating back to the dawn of civilization.

After the Great Flood, Noah planted grapes and made wine, which is also the earliest reference to winemaking in human history. Various historical accounts of wine consumption demonstrate it as a favorite beverage from that period.

According to many studies, grapes were farmed by the ancient Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians. They made wine as an everyday replacement for polluted water and a festive drink for important occasions. Each civilization developed its own wine varieties to suit its own preferences. To mitigate the bitterness of the wine, some added extra water; others added herbs and honey. Nonetheless, old wine was nothing like the polished wines we drink today.

For centuries, this was the case. Then, Christians’ perceptions of wine were eternally altered during Christ’s Last Supper. As Christians and their faith expanded throughout the medieval globe, it became a central spiritual hub. The wine did not change much, but its reverence as a sacred emblem of Christianity’s fundamental belief expanded.

The Middle Ages

Many different terms refer to the Middle Ages in Europe, which include the Dark Ages, Feudal Period, or Medieval Period. It is the (nearly) 1,000-year period spanning the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 and the Reformation period around 1300 AD (Prof. David J. Hanson, n.d.).

  • After the fall of the Roman Empire, religious institutions, particularly monasteries, continued to practice viticulture throughout the Medieval Era. Monks enhanced viticulture as a result of their knowledge and free time. For instance, Vinum Theologium had been appreciated all through the Medieval Era. Profits from its manufacturing were utilized to keep and extend the handful of monasteries. Christianity and wine were both supportive of one another. Consequently, wine’s place in ancient Christianity was primarily secure.
  • Monks found that wine could be refined using egg whites, which was one of their numerous discoveries. Most wines were created and consumed locally. Notwithstanding the degradation of roads, miniature wine trading remained throughout the European continent. Moreover, the wine remained the favorite beverage throughout France, Italy, and Spain during the Early Medieval Period.
  • Only a few ordinary folks throughout Feudal England had ever tried reddish Bordeaux wine, known as claret, a term by which it is still recognized.

For many decades, the flavor of wine stayed untouched as devout Christians consumed both kinds of wine at mass, till the arrival of European priests in the Medieval Era, particularly in Spain and France. They mastered the art of producing a more pure and refined wine that delighted both themselves and their religious pupils. Moreover, they controlled and cultivated what is now regarded as some of the globe’s best wine-growing locations, including Rhone Valley, Loire Valley, and Burgundy.

These regions became home to French priests. On the other hand, Spanish priests traveled towards the New World, growing vines and expanding the winemaking industry throughout South America, including north and northern California across the Pacific. The highly esteemed wines made in these regions now result from the European priests’ toil and perspiration.

All these efforts were made to ensure that there would be enough holy wine for the general public.

Later on, Church communities’ participation in obtaining holy wine at mass dwindled and finally vanished for whatever reason anywhere along the road. Along the process, another major transformation occurred: i.e., the Reformation. This division split Christianity, including the ideas about wine’s significance.

It was not until Vatican II, throughout 1962, that Roman Catholics were allowed to partake of both Christ’s flesh & blood at mass (2015, Antonaccio).

As divergent as they are, Christians of Eastern and Western churches keep drinking wine commemorating Christ’s sacrifice – even in the 21st century.

Role of Wine in Islam

It is commonly recognized that Arabs throughout the “Jahiliyyah” period1 would relish their alcoholic beverages. Evidence of this claim may be found in many historical and religious references, including Quranic ayahs (verses), Palmyrene, South Arabian, Hadith, Nabataean monuments, pre-Islamic Arab poetry, and written records, etc. The 11th-century historian Ibn Sidah2 (d. 1066) included approximately 100 Arabic synonyms for the word wine within his famous book, Kitab al-Mukhassas.

Similarly, there are 357 synonyms for wine in al- Firuzabadi’s (d. 1415) “wine list.” Hence, it can be concluded from these references that alcohol remained a significant component of Arabian culture and life during that period (Musaev). The Arabs consumed not just wine (khamr, a date and grape derivative) but various alcoholic beverages produced from dried berries, dried fruits, cereals, fruit, and honey (Maraqten 1993, 95–96; Waines 2011, xiii).

While Islam prohibited the manufacturing and drinking of wine, alchemists like Geber developed the distillation of wine for industrial and medical reasons, like the creation of perfume, throughout the Golden Age of Islam (7th to 13th century).  However, in the early period of Islam, there was no taboo against drinking alcohol within Islamic society.

Wine (khamr) is mentioned in a “positive” sense in one of the Qur’an’s early surahs (chapters) as being one of the beverages pledged to those who feared God in Paradise (Qur’an 47:15) and as among Allah’s symbols of mercy to humanity (Qur’an 16:67). According to Hadith, the Prophet’s uncle Hamzah and another friend, Anas ibn Malik ibn Nadar al-Khazraji, were once caught intoxicated.

Similarly, one of the holy legends claims that several of the religion’s soldiers consumed wine prior to the Uhud battle (Sahih al-Bukhari: “Kitab Fard al-Khumus”; Sahih al-Bukhari: “Kitab al-Jihad”; Sahih Muslim: “Kitab al-Ashriba,” etc.). Moreover, Tabari’s Al-tafsir has mentioned similar material (exegesis). His study discussed the early Muslims’ faults in ceremonial prayer caused by alcohol (Wensinck 1997, 994). The situation altered as a result. The evil deeds perpetrated by inebriated people eclipsed the wine’s positive attributes. Consequently, it was banned to employ khamr (Qur’an 2:219; 4:43; 5:90–91).

Unsurprisingly, there was no prohibition at first: the Muslim population gradually gave particular thought and behavior instructions as needed. Later on, following the Prophet’s demise, the Hejaz jurists decided that all alcoholic beverages must be outlawed (haram).

Scholar-theologians from the Hanbali, Maliki, and Shafi’i scholars’ schools of thought and their Shi’ite counterparts later corroborated this view. Simultaneously, every school of law used its methods to arrive at that conclusion, with Hadiths and Quranic verses interpretations serving as references. The Arabic word khamara (which means “to conceal,” “to cover”) originated from a very similar root as the phrase khamr (wine), which is the Qur’an’s solitary term used for intoxicating drugs.

Muslim philologists and jurists used an analogy to conclude that khamr implies anything which blurs the intellect and perceptions. Consequently, dates, grapes, fermented juice, and any chemicals that induce drunkenness and therefore can impair intelligence and perceptions should be deemed khamr. A Sahih Al-Bukhari Hadith backed up the professionals’ finding: “khamr is anything that veils the intellect” (Sahih al-Muslim: “Kitab al-Ashriba”). Hence, any substance that works on a human similarly to alcohol, like nabidh, is khamr within their perspective.

Due to Muslim conquests in the  7th and 8th centuries, many countries came under Muslim rule. Even though alcoholic beverages were outlawed by Islamic jurisprudence, the manufacturing of alcohol, particularly wine, prospered. Even under Islamic rule, numerous poets wrote about wine. Moreover, many Khalifas (Caliphs) drank alcoholic drinks during their private and social gatherings. The Mamluk and Fatimid administrations leased vines to Egyptian Jews, making wine for ritual and medicinal purposes and selling it across the East Mediterranean.

Alcohol was despised by the Prophet, who is considered the ideal Muslim. “Whoever drinks wine in this world will not drink it in the next,” he declared, referring to a particular Hadith. Therefore, a state of inebriation indicates a low moral discipline and an insult to a Muslim’s honor in this context. Nonetheless, the Prophet refers to Quranic texts that promise believers streams of wine as a celestial recompense. Thus, wine has a “Pre-text” connotation that elevates it above other banned foods in the Quran—no bacon in Paradise, for example. Throughout history, many poets and painters subsequently picked up on this wine analogy.

Alcohol and the Qur’an: According to Siraj Islam Mufti, a notable Islamic scholar, drinking was ubiquitous across Arabia before Islam’s spread. However, its popularity gradually waned as the faith expanded. According to an early passage within the Qur’an, which condemns praying while inebriated, alcohol causes more damage than benefit. “Surely, gambling, intoxicants, and divination through arrows are indeed an iniquity of Satan’s handiwork,” according to a subsequent passage of the Qur’an. Muhammad further declared that individuals who bring, offer, or distribute alcohol to everyone else, even though they do not consume it themselves, are disdained by Allah (Why forbidden alcohol in the Islam?).

Role of Wine in Judaism

A considerable part of the Jewish religion revolves around wine. The Bible mentions viticulture2 as one of Palestine’s primary contributions to agricultural riches throughout history. According to historians, grapes originated from the grapevine, and wine was produced from grapes. Similarly, hundreds of references regarding alcohol may be found within Babylonian Talmud. The wine research within medieval Palestine is consequently reliant on exploring Judaism’s sources and archaeological evidence for allusions and signs of the period’s viticultural activity. There have been several references. Wine is mentioned about 200 times in Hebrew Bible and more than 3500 times within Babylonian Talmud. Nonetheless, the Bible seems to be the only significant source that has witnessed more than a superficial study of the available data.

The wine was utilized sacramentally at festivals, rituals, and sacred occasions in medieval Egyptian Jewish groups, and it was also recommended in Talmudic treatment. Jews could make the wine since it would have to be made according to the Jewish faith.  According to Cairo Geniza records, there were four kinds of Jewish wine traders, primarily defining Jewish life throughout medieval Egypt. These traders included those who made investments in wine merchandise, full-time cellarers or wine retailers, physicians, and dignitaries. Likewise, a few Egyptian Jews have been mentioned as “grape-pressers.”

Several authors have discussed the function of wine within early Jewish medicine. Preuss is the most influential book on wine in Jewish medicine. Despite its minor inaccuracies, Preuss listed several therapies that also included wine. Furthermore, Preuss elaborated on the role of wine within historic Palestine’s diet, the few who refrained, and the issues connected with excessive intake. He discussed that Brim seemed to be of minimal utility and appeared to be temperance-oriented. Lucia relies only on Brim & Lutz for his small part on Judaism.

Jews would have some of the earliest documented wine associations. Wine is mentioned frequently throughout the Bible, dating back to Noah, the first known vine planter in history. Noah cultivated his vine upon Mount Ararat whenever his Ark landed there. After inspecting the Promised Land, the spies turned to Moses, carrying a big cluster of grapes balanced on a pole among two persons.

This iconic illustration has always served as the emblem for the Tourist Board in Israel and Carmel Winery until now. According to many historical references, King David possessed two wine authorities: one in charge of the vineyard and another for his vaults.

The Talmud mentions sixty different varieties of wine. A few of these varieties were watered down, whereas others added flavors to enhance and serve as a preservative. Moreover, wines were sweetened with date honey or raisins and salt, saltwater, herbs, and common spices, such as cinnamon. These flavored wines foreshadowed today’s vermouths and punches.

The wine that had been smoked had been cooked. That was not the predecessor of Mevushal wine; instead, it was used to condense the wine into something like a syrup, not really for kashrut concerns. They learned about drying grapes upon rugs to enhance the flavor even back then. This is identical to the Vino Santo variety of wine produced in Italy nowadays.

According to archaeological records, wine was manufactured across ancient Israel. The Holy Land had a robust wine sector till the Roman conquest. The various winepresses that may be witnessed across Israel reflect this age of Israeli wine production. Due to their excellent quality, Israeli wines became so valuable that they were exported to Roman colonies all around North Africa & Europe and to nobility within Rome.

However, just after Diaspora 2000 years ago, after Jews were dispersed around the globe, wine production became incredibly difficult to sustain in Israel. Many Jewish settlements in Europe lacked suitable climate or soil conditions for grape production. Even when the circumstances were ideal, Jews were prohibited from owning property and could not produce or grow their own vineries.

Throughout Jewish history, many blood libels — claiming that Jews used the blood of slain non-Jewish infants to produce matzot and wine – formed the incorrect excuse for multiple pogroms to persecute Jews, which was one of history’s bitter ironies. Due to these risks, individuals, who resided in regions wherein blood libels, had been halachically prohibited from drinking kosher wine could be put against them as evidence.

Drinking in Islam: Is it Allowed?

As wine was necessary for sacramental reasons, winemakers made kosher wine with whatever equipment they had on hand, even dried raisins under specific circumstances. However, producing high-quality kosher wine became practically impossible without accessibility to a reliable source of good grapes. Due to its sweetness, the Concord grape became famous among Jewish migrants when they began to settle in America. However, the wine produced from this grape fruit was not that great.

With time, sweet wines became correlated with kosher wine throughout time. As a result, many superior wines made in the past were disregarded. Even within Europe, the scenario was nearly identical to America’s, with exceptional kosher wines hardly being manufactured. Currently, many Jews continue to consume wine solely for ceremonial reasons in practically every nation with a Jewish community. According to tradition, wines being used for ceremonial reasons were supposed to be crimson, syrupy, and sugary.

During the 1980s, the increasing prevalence of superior wine sparked a trend that led several best wineries to reintroduce the manufacturing of exquisite kosher wines produced from a diverse range of aristocratic grape types. Consequently, many countries, including the USA, South America, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Israel, Spain, Italy, and France, cultivate and produce quality kosher wines (Morris, n.d.).

 

Want to read more? Try these books!

Medieval Wines, Role of Wine in Medieval Christianity, Islam, and JudaismMedieval Wines, Role of Wine in Medieval Christianity, Islam, and Judaism
 

References

  1. (n.d.). Retrieved from Why forbidden alcohol in Islam?: http://www.thinkbeforedrink.eu/documentation/forbidden-alcohol-Islam.pdf
  2. Antonaccio, N. (2015, March 12). Grapevine: A Brief History of Wine’s Role and Influence in Christianity. Retrieved from https://www.theexaminernews.com/: https://www.theexaminernews.com/grapevine-a-brief-history-of-wines-role-and-influence-in-christianity/#:~:text=Ancient%20Egyptians%2C%20Greeks%20and%20Romans,celebratory%20beverage%20for%20special%20occasions.&text=It%20became%20a%20religious%20focal,spre
  3. Deckebach, J. (n.d.). A Brief History of Wine and Religion. Retrieved from https://www.winecellarinnovations.com/: https://www.winecellarinnovations.com/wine-racks/brief-history-wine-religion
  4. Maraqten, M. 1993. “Wine Drinking and Wine Prohibition in Arabia before Islam.” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 23: 95–115.
  5. Morris, N. (n.d.). The Jewish History of Wine. Retrieved from https://kosherwinelife.com/the-jewish-history-of-wine/
  6. Musaev, M. (n.d.). The Prohibition of Alcohol in Islam: Religious Imperatives and Practices in Seventeenth- to Nineteenth-Century Dagestan. Retrieved from https://www.readcube.com/: https://www.readcube.com/articles/10.22394/2311-3448-2017-4-1-4-25#:~:text=Initially%20there%20was%20no%20prohibition,’an%2016%3A67).
  7. Prof. David J. Hanson, P. (n.d.). Wine in Early Christianity. Retrieved from https://www.alcoholproblemsandsolutions.org/: https://www.alcoholproblemsandsolutions.org/wine-early-christianity-wine-history-timeline/
Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesBy Published On: October 28, 2022

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