Wine and its Medicinal Uses Throughout Time

Today we are constantly reminded of the harmful effects of the overconsumption of alcohol. Pick up an average bottle of beer, wine, or spirits in almost any country and you will find warnings about the dangers of alcohol.

This is all perfectly reasonable in today’s time when the harmful effects of too much alcohol are apparent. But it would have struck many earlier societies as unusual. Throughout the vast majority of human history, alcohol has primarily been viewed as beneficial to health. In particular, wine has been utilized as a medicine for as long as grapes have been cultivated for fermentation.

Wine and Its Health Benefits

First, let’s start with the science…or at least disputed science. Wine clearly does have some health benefits. It is rich in antioxidant compounds that help prevent cellular damage as a result of inflammation. As grapes are high in polyphenols, they reduce oxidative stress and inflammation. This is especially true with red wine, and studies have shown that consuming a glass of red wine a day can reduce oxidative stress and concomitant cellular damage.

Moreover, wine has many other supposed health benefits, from reducing systemic inflammation to lowering stress and perhaps benefiting the heart. Studies have also suggested that, while it is a depressant, a moderate intake of wine can have surprising mental health benefits and may help relieve depression. All of this isn’t to suggest that alcohol isn’t harmful if consumed in large amounts regularly, but a small amount can have some significant health benefits.[1]

Ancient Times

Many societies believed this from a very early date. Tablets from Sumer in Mesopotamia and papyri from Ancient Egypt, dating to over 4000 years ago, contain medicinal recipes which used wine as their base.[2] The Book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament include a recommendation that wine and other alcohol should be drunk by the dying and depressed to help raise their mood.

Moreover, early societies soon became aware of the anesthetic qualities of alcohol, which will diminish pain substantially in the later stages of intoxication. This was particularly useful for ancient dentistry and bone-setting, though amputations doubtlessly required something more potent than wine.[3]

As with everything from philosophy to democracy, the Ancient Greeks are known for using wine as a medicine in ancient times. The greatest of the Greek physicians, the fifth century BC protagonist, Hippocrates, after whom the Hippocratic Oath is named, recommended using wine as a disinfectant and as medicine while also extolling its virtues as part of a healthy diet and as a conduit for introducing other drugs into the system.

He also experimented widely with different wines, usually watered down (the standard way for Greeks to take their wine at the time), to see which type and mix would work best for curing various ailments such as diarrhea and lethargy. He even experimented on how to use wine during childbirth. We might frown upon this today, but this was an age without epidurals, adequate anesthesia, or painkillers.[4]

The Ancient Romans continued this tradition. Several sources have been found that prove the Ancient Romans used wine as medicine, and not just in a vague general sense, but in particular ways. For instance, Cato the elder’s On Agriculture, a work written around 160 BC, noted the importance of viticulture to the Roman economy on the Italian peninsula.

He then recorded several recipes based primarily around wine for treating various conditions from constipation to indigestion to colic. Other plant ingredients are usually mixed in the wine, such as hellebore, juniper, and myrtle. They must have been effective on some level, for we find another Roman writer, Columella, writing 200 years later, proposing similar recipes for similar problems.[5]

Nor was this pattern confined to the world of the Mediterranean. Far to the east, in Eurasia’s other great center of civilization in ancient times, China, wine was being produced as early as 6500 BC. Here the preference was for rice wine by the first millennium BC, which was generally fermented with honey and fruit to make a wine of roughly 20% ABV.

This was then used in many types of traditional Chinese medicine. Notably, in this regard, the Huangdi Neijing, meaning the Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor, a famed Ancient Chinese medical text dating to the period of the Han Dynasty some 2000 years ago, outlines the use of wine to treat several ailments such as tinnitus, fainting and the unblocking of meridians, the channels through which the life-energy or qi was meant to flow in Chinese medicine.[6]

Back in Europe, the collapse of the Roman Empire and the onset of the Dark Ages in the fifth and sixth centuries AD occluded our knowledge of wine and its proponents for several centuries, but what evidence we have from medieval times indicates that Europeans and their neighbors continued to believe in the medical properties of the vine.

High Middle Ages

The fourteenth-century French physician, Arnaldus de Villa Nova, composed one of the most significant medical textbooks of the High Middle Ages. He described his use of wine to treat dementia and sinus problems, amongst other ailments.

Even among the foremost citizens of the day, the Arab Caliphate, where alcohol was banned following Islamic law, several major thinkers still extolled its medical virtues. For instance, in the eleventh century, the Persian polymath, Avicenna, commented on its use as a digestive aid and as a disinfectant. [7]

The wine was also central to medical interventions during the greatest health crisis of the entire medieval period or at any point in human history. The Black Death of the fourteenth century, when the bubonic plague killed about half of the population of Europe in the space of a decade.

Wine formed the base of the famed Theriac, a concoction handed down from the ancient King of Pontus on the shores of the Black Sea in Turkey during the early first century BC. This mysterious potion contained dozens of ingredients mixed into wine and left to ferment for upwards of a year.

Faith in its efficacy endured during Roman Imperial and Early Medieval times, and in 1348 when the Black Death was at its height throughout Europe, it became a special treatment for the ghastly bubonic plague. It would have done nothing to prevent or treat the disease, but Venetian Theriac, the most esteemed version in Europe, remained on sale until the eighteenth century.[8]

The Early Modern Period

However, in more recent times, wine’s primary use as a medical intervention was not to treat disease after it had set in but to prevent people from getting sick in the first place. During the early modern period, between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, as Europe’s cities began to expand, there was ever-growing pressure on fresh drinking water supplies.

In this environment, the average resident of sixteenth-century Rome or seventeenth-century London drank alcohol every day because drinking alcohol-based drinks were safer than drinking water, a petri-dish of disease in early modern Europe. As a result, many people drank up to six or seven pints of beer or sizeable quantities of watered-down wine across Europe. This wouldn’t necessarily be recommended as a healthy lifestyle choice by any physician today.

Still, given a choice between over-imbibing or risking the diseases passed through contaminated water, most people in Europe risked drinking too much wine. It was only from the eighteenth century onwards, as municipal governments began to establish bodies such as the Chelsea Waterworks Company, which started developing clear water sources for London from the 1720s onwards that people gradually were weaned off alcohol and onto water-based drinks for their daily rehydration.[9]

 As the cholera epidemic swept through Europe’s major cities at the height of the Industrial Revolution during the nineteenth century, many cities once again turned to alcohol to sanitize their water supplies. The wine was being used to clean the city of Hamburg’s water as late as 1892.

Yet, by this time, alcohol was beginning to be phased out for many other medical uses. It had continued to be used as a painkiller, for example, over the centuries, but the discovery of more effective forms of anesthesia such as chloroform, which was identified by the British physician Dr. Richard Mortimer Glover in the early 1840s, reduced the medical profession’s reliance on alcohol for procedures. But its use did not dry up entirely for treating ailments such as toothaches and back pains.

Prohibition Era

Thus, when the sale of alcohol was prohibited across the United States of America through the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920, one of the exceptions was the sale of alcohol for ‘medical purposes.’[10]

Today wine is still extolled for its potential health benefits, while few would suggest that beer or vodka, for instance, are the key to a long life. Much of this is owing to the French Paradox, a peculiarity in life expectancies noticed during the twentieth century. French people overall live longer than some of their European counterparts.

Wine is part of a medical revolution to prevent vascular disease and degenerative diseases such as cancer.

This is despite the richness of the French diet. Many observers over the decades have been keen to suggest that a glass of French wine a day was the key to longevity. Whatever the reasons, many people will continue to believe that in vino sanitas still holds true.[11]

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On this Day

March 8, 1723 – A royal charter is granted in England to the Chelsea Waterworks Company. It was supplying the City and Liberties of Westminster. The company established extensive freshwater ponds in the region.

It was a result of the work of the company and others like it across Western Europe that the citizens of London and other metropolises could finally begin weaning themselves off beer. Weak wine a way of ensuring a sanitary intake of liquid. It felt relatively safe to drink water supplied by the city.[12]

April 30, 1859The British Medical Journal reports on the recent death of Dr. Richard Mortimer Glover. In 1842 Glover was awarded the Gold Medal by the Harveian Society for discovering the anesthetic qualities of chloroform. His discovery paved the way for introducing its use as an anesthetic in all manner of medical operations from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. Previously been performed by administering alcohol to the patient.

Unfortunately, chloroform was not without its own risks. Glover had become addicted to it after he contracted dysentery while serving as a doctor in the Crimean War in the mid-1850s. It was an overdose of it that led to his death in 1859.[13]

October 28, 1919 – On this day in 1919, the National Prohibition Act was passed. The act, which is informally known as the Volstead Act, led to the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution just a few months later. The sale of intoxicating liquor was largely prohibited across the United States. Several exemptions were included, one being the sale of alcohol for ‘medicinal purposes.’ Thus, over the next fourteen years of Prohibition in America, people could obtain sales of alcohol in pharmacies for disorders such as toothaches and other painful medical issues.

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[1] [accessed 11/3/22]

[2] ‘Medicine’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

[3] Norman Grover, ‘Man and Plants against Pain’, in Economic Botany, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Apr. – Jun., 1965), pp. 99–112.

[4] ‘Medicine’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

[5] Winston Black (ed.), Medicine and Healing in the Premodern West: A History in Documents (Ontario, 2020), pp. 96–97.

[6] Patrick E. McGovern. Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (Princeton, 2003), p. 314; Ilza Veith (ed.), The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (Berkeley, California, 1972).

[7] H. Johnson, Vintage: The Story of Wine (London, 1989), p. 126; ‘Medicine’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

[8] Christiane Nockels Fabbri, ‘Treating Medieval Plague: The Wonderful Virtues of Theriac’, in Early Science and Medicine, Vol. 12, No. 3 (2007), pp. 247–283; Demetrios Karaberopoulos, Marianna Karamanou and George Androutsos, ‘The Art of Medicine: The Theriac in Antiquity’, in The Lancet, Vol. 379 (May, 2012), pp. 1942–1943.

[9] ‘The Chelsea Waterworks Company’, in Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert (eds.), The London Encyclopaedia (London, 1995); Phil Withington, ‘Intoxicants and Society in Early Modern England’, in The Historical Journal, Vol. 54, No. 3 (September, 2011), pp. 631–657.

[10] ‘Medicine’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

[11] W. Lewis Perdue, et al., The French Paradox (Sonoma, California, 1993).

[12] ‘The Chelsea Waterworks Company’, in Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert (eds.), The London Encyclopaedia (London, 1995).

[13] ‘Toxicology: Deaths from Drinking Chloroform’, in The British Medical Journal, Vol. 1, No. 122 (30 April, 1859), pp. 354–356.

Categories: This Day in Wine History | Articles, Wine History In-DepthTags: , , , , By Published On: May 30, 2022Last Updated: March 8, 2023

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