The Benedictines and their Role in European Wine Production during the Middle Ages
The Benedictines and their Role in European Wine Production during the Middle Ages
The decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire could have spelled disaster for viticulture in Western and Central Europe. The Germanic peoples who moved into countries like Spain, France, Italy, and Germany and established their kingdoms in the ruins of Rome’s empire were largely beer-drinking societies. As such, the Romans’ preference for wine ended in these regions. That is, apart from the Church.
Christianity has always had deep connections to viticulture. Jesus turned water into wine at the Wedding at Cana, and he passed wine around to his disciples at the Last Supper. Therefore, it was inevitable that wine would become a key feature of Christian worship during the medieval period. Wine became intrinsically associated with the Roman Catholic Church and the religious orders in Western and Central Europe during the Middle Ages.
Among these religious orders, the Benedictines were particularly notable for how they put vineyards next to their abbeys and monasteries, leaving a significant impact on the viticulture landscape of Western Europe across the second millennium.
The Benedictines were founded by a man called Benedict. He hailed from Nursia in the Umbrian countryside in Central Italy, where he was allegedly born on the 2nd of March 480 AD. This was a time of utter chaos. The Western Roman Empire had effectively disintegrated over the previous seventy years, beginning with the Roman withdrawal from Britain in 410 AD, as the Irish, Picts, and Saxons launched waves of invasions on the island.
This culminated in 476 AD when a Germanic warlord called Odoacer deposed the last emperor, Romulus Augustus, in Italy and made himself king of the peninsula. As the empire collapsed, more and more individuals developed a zealous belief in the Christian religion, which had won out over the Greek and Roman monotheistic fate in the fourth century.
In Italy and other areas, people became so committed to the new faith that they adopted monasticism, which had first emerged in places like Syria and Egypt in the third century. This involved them living either on their own or in isolation to contemplate God and the heavens. Some established small, austere communities of monks.
In the early sixth century, Benedict established a dozen monasteries at places including Subiaco in Central Italy. The foremost of these was the monastery of Monte Cassino, which he founded in 530. Moreover, around 516, Benedict drew up ‘The Rule of St Benedict,’ a kind of instruction manual for monastic life that outlined the hierarchy of the monastery with an abbot at the top, and monks below him, as well as the schedule of prayer, fasting, and work which the monks were to follow daily.
The Rule became so revered that monks throughout Western and Central Europe began adhering to it during the sixth and seventh centuries. By the eighth century, there were so many followers of St Benedict’s Rule that they became known as the Benedictines, and they dominated the monastic life of Early Medieval Europe.
The Benedictines played a central role in cultivating vineyards throughout medieval Europe, including Western and Central Europe, especially France, Western Germany, Italy, and the Alpine regions. Some of the most esteemed wine-producing regions in Europe were first established as major centers of viticulture by Benedictine monks who built their monasteries in places such as Provence and Burgundy in France, the Veneto, and Campania in Italy, and Rheingau in Western Germany.
In many cases, their influence can still be seen today. For example, the Abbazia Santa Maria di Montevergine in Campania, the Abbazia di Praglia in the Veneto, the Abbey Sankt Hildegard in Rheingau, and the Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine in Provence are all Benedictine abbeys which are still held by the religious orders and continue to produce their own wines centuries later.
Others have passed out of monastic hands but continue to produce wine in Benedictine vineyards, notably along the River Loire in Burgundy and surrounding regions in eastern France. In many instances, the vineyards of some of the most esteemed wineries in these areas were first planted and cultivated by Benedictine monks upwards of 1200 years ago, particularly between 1000 and 1300.
The most powerful of all the Benedictine monasteries were the abbey of Cluny in the Burgundy region of eastern France. Founded in 910, it became the mother abbey of dozens of smaller monasteries across the continent.
Its members left Cluny and founded other abbeys, which were governed by Cluny for decades. Cluny also developed an extensive property portfolio, including a hotel in Paris. This involved most of the vineyards in what is now Gevrey-Chambertin, a small town in the Cotes de Nuits region responsible for some of the most famous Pinot Noirs produced in Burgundy.
Other Benedictine monasteries played major roles in the history of viticulture. Such is the case at Schloss Johannisberg, where the order erected a monastic house known as the Bischofsberg or ‘Bishop’s Mountain’ around 1100. This site on the north bank of the River Rhine in Western Germany was a prime location for planting vineyards.
The monks continued to plant large amounts of grapes throughout the High and Late Middle Ages until the monastery was destroyed in the 1520s following the Protestant Reformation, as German church reformers became bitterly opposed to monastic life as inimical to Christian doctrine as it was presented in the New Testament.
Nevertheless, the tradition of wine production that the Benedictines had established at Schloss Johannisberg lived on long after the demise of their monastery. In the eighteenth century, the wineries here became famed for their Riesling.
Additionally, the area has traditionally played a part in popularizing wines made from noble rot or botrytized wines in Germany in the second half of the eighteenth century. This came after the practice first gained currency in Hungary years earlier. The area has played an outsized role in the history of European viticulture, and it all began with some Benedictine monks in the early twelfth century.
Schloss Johannisberg was established when the Benedictines’ influence throughout Europe was about to be challenged by new orders such as the Franciscans and the Dominicans. The Dominicans, for instance, were established in 1216. They were founded by Saint Dominic, a Castilian priest of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries.
As such, they were a separate order. However, the Cistercians, established in 1098, were effectively a scion of the Benedictines. They claimed that the order had become somewhat corrupted. They wished to establish a more austere version of the Benedictines that would adhere more rigidly and faithfully to the Rule of St Benedict. The Cistercians also inherited their predecessors’ penchant for wine production.
They planted extensive vineyards at Clairvaux Abbey, which they founded in the Burgundy countryside in 1115. The Cistercians who established a monastic house at Pontigny were the first viticulturists to plant Chardonnay grapes in the Chablis region.
Many other significant wine-producing Cistercian abbeys and monasteries could be noted at Clos de Vougeot. Where the monks had planted the 125-acre vineyard and enclosed it by 1336. It remains one of France’s most significant wineries to this day. One can still walk alongside vineyard walls that the Benedictines laid down over 700 years ago.
Clos de Vougeot and Schloss Johannisberg are examples of how the Benedictines and their alter-ego religious order. The Cistercians, played an immense role in developing Europe’s wine culture. A crucial bridging of the gap between the end of the Roman Empire and the rise of modernity.
During these years, wine production dropped considerably among the general population compared to what it had been in Roman times. Yet, religious orders such as the Benedictines not only kept the tradition of viticulture alive in Europe. As the foregoing has highlighted, played a major role in shaping the viticulture landscape of Western Europe and France in particular.
March 2, 480 – On this day in 480, Benedict of Nursia was born in Central Italy. He would go on to found over a dozen monasteries in Italy during the sixth century. The most famous being the monastery of Monte Cassino. His ‘Rule’ laid out extensive instructions for how monastic life should be conducted. How monasteries should be ruled, which became highly influential across medieval Europe.
Hundreds of Benedictine monasteries were established in Western and Central Europe. These developed a pivotal role in cultivating vineyards and the production of wine in medieval Europe. Benedictine and Cistercian monks significantly shaped the wine landscape of much of the continent, particularly in France, in ways that still resonate today.
January 5, 1639 – On this day in 1639, the famed French monk, Dom Pierre Pérignon, was baptized in the town of Sainte-Menehould in the Champagne region of north-eastern France. Pérignon became a Benedictine monk in the region. He became the cellarer of the Abbey Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers for the better part of half a century.
Dom Pierre Pérignon is famously associated with the development of French champagne. He represented the continuing influence of the Benedictine religious order on viticulture in Europe over 1100 years. After St Benedict produced his ‘Rule of St Benedict.’ In those eleven centuries, the Benedictine order massively influenced the wine landscape of medieval and early modern Europe, particularly in France.
Want to read more? Try these books!
Andrew McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian Ritual Meals (Oxford, 1999).
Marilyn Dunn, The Emergence of Monasticism: From the Desert Fathers to the Early Middle Ages (London, 2003).
C. H. Lawrence, ‘St Benedict and his Rule’, in History, Vol. 67, No. 220 (1982), pp. 185–194; Caroline White (ed.), The Rule of St Benedict (London, 2008); Terence G. Kardong, The Life of St Benedict by Gregory the Great: Translation and Commentary (Collegeville, Minnesota, 2009); James G. Clark, The Benedictines in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge, 2011).
‘Monks and Monasteries’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine(Third Edition, Oxford, 2006); Desmond Seward, Monks and Wine (Second Edition, London, 2021), pp. 51–71; Natalia Beltrán Peralta, Silvia Aulet and Dolors Vidal-Casellas, ‘Wine and Monasteries: Benedictine Monasteries in Europe’, in Journal of Foodservice Business Research, Vol. 25 (2022), pp. 1–32.
Joan Evans, Monastic Life at Cluny, 910–1157 (Oxford, 1968); ‘Gevrey-Chambertin’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).
‘Clos de Vougeot’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006); Stephen Tobin, The Cistercians: Monks and Monasteries in Europe (London, 1995); Desmond Seward, Monks and Wine (Second Edition, London, 2021), pp. 88–110.
For a sense of some of these, see Jasper Morris, Inside Burgundy: The Vineyards, the Wine and the People (Second Edition, London, 2021).
C. H. Lawrence, ‘St Benedict and his Rule’, in History, Vol. 67, No. 220 (1982), pp. 185–194; Carolinne White (ed.), The Rule of St Benedict (London, 2008); Terence G. Kardong, The Life of St Benedict by Gregory the Great: Translation and Commentary (Collegeville, Minnesota, 2009); James G. Clark, The Benedictines in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge, 2011).
H. Johnson, Vintage: The Story of Wine (London, 1989), pp. 210–214; R. Phillips, A Short History of Wine (New York, 2000), p. 245; Desmond Seward, Monks and Wine (Second Edition, London, 2021), pp. 188–195.