Ars longa, vita brevis, as you hear every day in the tearoom at the Folger Shakespeare Library. This Christmas at the Folger I made a discovery which made me feel young: Erasmus’s favourite wine! The thought had been with me since I heard a disputation at the British Academy, years ago, between Eamon Duffy and Diarmaid MacCulloch. All of a sudden, for once they agreed on something: that the Reformation was essentially a quarrel between beer-drinkers and wine-drinkers. You will be glad to know that the new Encyclopaedia of Martin Luther and the Reformation (New York, 2017) has a learned entry on Beer. And as Duffy and MacCulloch wound down into post-symposium revelries, already an Erasmian colloquium was forming in my mind, on whether Erasmus was a beer-drinker or a wine-drinker. After all, he was born in Holland, one of the great beer-drinking countries of the world, which even invented the world’s best drinking snack, bitterballen, precisely to go with monastic ales.
[Guide gastronomique : De Jopenkerk, a converted church, Haarlem, NL – try “Malle Babbe”]
On the other hand, I felt sure that Erasmus preferred wine, just as, despite espousing reform, and flirting with the young Luther, he remained a life-long Catholic. Familiaria colloquia (1522) – where else – provides a definitive answer. It comes in the Convivium profanum, a dialogue between a variety of characters (chiefly Augustinus, Christianus, and Erasmius), who vie with each other in gluttony, and in describing foods and wines beloved of gourmets (or else people who just eat a lot). There are jokes at the expense of Stoics and other moralists, and worst of all, Diogenes the Cynic, who lived off raw vegetables and clear water. Kale, quinoa, and mesclun, are definitely off the menu at this particular feast.
[Guide gastronomique : sweetgreen, 221, Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC, all-day kale]
At this point, Christianus asks what his friend likes to drink with a meal: does he prefer red or white (rubrum an candidum)? Augustinus replies: “The colour’s no hindrance provided the taste’s agreeable” (a classic wino’s quip). But something else is going on: how do we use words to describe sensory things? Verbal discrimination is deliberately elided by Erasmus into distinctions of taste, since food – and especially wine – is famously hard to put into apt words, at least without resorting to absurd metaphor. Christianus comments: “Yet there are famous gourmets who deny that wine deserves approval unless it pleases the four senses: the eyes by its colour, the nostrils by its fragrance, the palate by its taste, the ears by its name and fame.” Now he drops his foodie bombshell: Tantum, ut multi non stupidi palati vehementer probarint villum Louanio vernaculum quum crederent, esse Belnense. Many people with “not stupid palates” can’t tell a wine from Louvain from one of Beaune in Burgundy.
This is the joke that got me salivating. At first I thought it was a beer gag: because in Louvain these days you will not find Belgian wine (the very idea is an oxymoron) but plenty of Belgian beer, including Bourgogne de Flandres (which sounds like an Erasmian trope). But in the fifteenth century, the Dukes of Burgundy planted vines in their territories at Brussels, Namur, Mons, and Louvain. Still, the thought brings a sneer to the nose of Erasmus: who could make such a terrible mistake? And there is a theological joke, too: Louvain is home to the nastiest scholastics.
[Guide gastronomique : Le troubadour, Louvain (nr. KU) – mussels with Bourgogne de Flandres]
So, is Beaune Erasmus’s favourite wine? Here I digress into a visite du vignoble via P.S. Allen’s great edition of Erasmus’s letters. Epistola 1342 to Marcus Laurinus is one of the most extraordinary in the 3000 letters that survive. Half of it is a defence of his position on the Luther affair, which was convulsing Europe; the other half is an itinerary of his odyssey around Europe in 1521, especially an uncomfortable stay in Constance and a long convalescence in Basel. In Constance he was very ill with fever and the gallstone, and nearly died (before we feel too sorry, remember that Erasmus is always nearly dying of something). But on return to Basel he is sent a half-cask of red Burgundy by Nikolaus von Diesbach, dean and bishop-designate. Erasmus makes a miraculous recovery: he felt reborn, renatus in alium hominem. Is this a sly dig at Luther, in a letter which is all about Luther’s evangelical doctrines, and how they are worse than any disease? Especially when he now claims that red Burgundy has had a direct medicinal benefit observed by the doctors, who say that his stone has disappeared. Happy is the name of Burgundy, he raptures: O felicem vel hoc nomine Burgundiam! In another letter he calls the wine a deus ex machina. He might move to France tomorrow, except that with fresh supplies he will not need to, as he reports in Ep. 1510, a year later: “I have done a deal with the vintner for three half-casks, one of old wine and two of new”.
[Guide gastronomique : Domaine Albert Morot, négociant at Ave. Jaffelin, Beaune: several 1ercrus]
Can we locate what particular wine might have brought such magical results? Here we encounter a great aporia in epicurean history, which is that the technological revolutions of the eighteenth century – in bottling and especially in corks – mean that we judge wine by completely different standards. Beaune, with its beautiful coloured rooftops, is now the commercial centre of a multi-million-Euro industry. Wine is a science (oenology, a word Erasmus surely must have invented) which went from France to California and back again, transforming an everyday drink into the wine-tasting superlatives of today. Red Burgundy, some connoisseurs say, has typical aromas of horseshit [sic] and blackberry jam. What would Erasmus have made of that? I think he would have loved it, and cited it in De copia, his great book which makes a philosophical marriage between all the possible words, and all possible things in the world. But what did he taste? There are three references in the letters to a wine from Beaune, which seems to be the one he liked best; it “was of a most agreeable colour – you might call it ruby-red”; the taste was “neither sweet nor dry”, “neither cold nor fiery”, and so kind to the digestion that “it did very little harm” – even when taken in quantity.
[Guide gastronomique : Chez Jeannette, Fixin, boeuf bourgignon; Beaune 1ercru «Les Cent Vignes»]
The mythology of French wine is based on a holy trinity of values: the grape; the vintage; and most mystical of all, le terroir. This untranslateable word means something like “all the best wine comes from France”. White wine in Burgundy is now dominated by the Chardonnay grape, which in unoaked form is still perhaps the most opulently elegant white in the world; but in Erasmus’s time almost certainly the whites of Burgundy were made from the Fromenteau grape, perhaps equivalent to Pinot Gris. As for reds, on the other hand, we have documentation: on 6 August 1395, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, made the political decision of his life in banning the “vile and disloyal Gamay”, and giving precedence to the Noirien, a less high-yielding grape. This is the ancestor of the modern Pinot Noir, that most quixotic and awkward of grapes. For those who love it, it is the cutest grape in history, but it is very hard to grow in abundance, and likes poor soil, cool climates, and fairly steep hills. Since these are also the conditions that wipe out harvests in bad years, the Pinot Noir is a cruel mistress, although it has found renewed success in chillier areas such as Oregon, New Zealand, and Alpine Italy, as well as its native Burgundy. However, good red Burgundy also needs a bit of age in the bottle to develop its flavours, and nothing about wine storage in Erasmus’s time was much suited to ageing. He describes liking wine with a bit of age (perhaps two years), but after four he says most of the flavour has disappeared.
We are left with terroir. The intensity of the modern wine trade is such that individual parcels of land perhaps 30 metres wide are prized as having such a particularity of flavour that they are considered quite distinct from others only a hundred metres away. It is possible that for Erasmus “Beaune” meant nothing like that. Belnense might be a generic name for wine of the whole region, somewhat like “Bordeaux” or “Sonoma”. But it is also possible that Erasmus does mean the name of this particular village. So could we find his wine on a map? It got me thinking, and indeed googling, looking at wine maps, which have always given me a special kind of pleasure. There is something cartographically exciting about a wine map: all of those tiny parcels of land, and weird names, coloured in crimson for red wine, or yellow-green for white; in the case of Burgundy, with darker shading, the better the wine. So I googled this.
And it got me thinking: if any of these vineyards are really old, they will be close to the town but not part of it; for instance, those near the cemetery. The cemetery will always have been in the same place. And here I was excited, because there on the map, at just that point, were some vineyards I knew the names of: “Toussaints”, “les Bressandes”, “les Cent Vignes”. Not really expensive wines – but of a price which a father, shall we say my own father, might buy his son for his 40th birthday.
For here the strands of my story had become personal. My father, who was a complicated man, was always happiest when opening a bottle of red Burgundy with his own family. He discovered Burgundy, place and wine, when I was in my teens. We used to stay at an unpretentious hotel in one of the smaller villages, Fixin – Beaune even then was hopelessly expensive and chic. The hôtel was called (as almost all nice Logis de France are, at least in the memory) Chez Jeannette, and we would stay for a week, and each night my father would buy a slightly better wine. He wasn’t buying the most expensive stuff, and Burgundy was then still quite a backwater for most travellers, nothing like the Côte d’Azur. In memory of these trips, when I was 40, he did indeed buy me 12 bottles of Beaune, “Les Cent Vignes”, made by Albert Morot, an extremely traditional negociant.
How did these vineyards get such beautiful names? Originally, the story goes, it was “Sans Vignes”, because no wine was made there; then they planted vines and changed the name. “Les Bressandes” is either named after the 13th century canon, Johannis Bressand – or else after the women of Bresse. “Les Marconnets” perhaps refers to an ancient gallic tribe conquered by the Romans.
[Guide gastronomique : Le Diplomate, 14th St, NW, DC, Beaune 2006 Domaine Maillard.]
Such etymologies are very Erasmian. It would be nice to believe in an Erasmian vineyard. It is not impossible – for it was the Benedictines from Cluny who first began cultivating wines on a large scale, and the Cistercians who first walled off individual vineyards and prized the difference between small parcels of terroir. They were doing this in the 14th century. But the oldest map of Burgundian wine, to my knowledge, is 18th century. It offers nothing at this level of detail, consisting of a range of small mountains and the names of the main villages.
It is appended to the first ever book on Burgundy, by Claude Arnoux: Dissertation sur la situation de la Bourgogne, et sur les vins qu’elle produit (1728). He mentions four vineyards in Beaune, St Desiré, la Montée, les Grèves, and la Fontaine de Marconney. Traces of all these can still be found – the last is now Les Marconnets, above. Arnoux favours even more the wines of Volnet (now Volnay) and Pommard. Wines from Beaune, he says, much as Erasmus does, do not do well after two years of age. Volnay, he says, has the colour of l’oeil de perdrix – the eye of a partridge – and goes on: “il est plein de feu, de montant, & de legereté; il est presque tout esprit” (“it is full of fire, of flavour, and of lightness; it is almost all spirit”). Just like in Erasmus, Arnoux presents us with the problem of copia: how to represent things in words. Word is added to word, to express through variety of language the abundance of matter. Wine, like language, is a cornucopia. And so, as we continue to try, and fail, to give expression to sense perception through metaphor, there is nothing for it but to open another bottle, and wonder if it might be, as for Erasmus, a cure for life’s ills or even a deus ex machina.
[According to the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture, moderate drinking is up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men.]
Brian Cummings FBA is Anniversary Professor at the University of York in the Department of English and Related Literature. His books include Mortal Thoughts: Religion, Secularity & Identity in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture (OUP, 2013), and an edition of The Book of Common Prayer: the Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662, which appeared in Oxford Worlds Classics in 2013. In 2012 he gave the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford University on ‘Bibliophobia’, and in 2014 the Shakespeare Birthday Lecture at the Folger Library, coinciding with a NEH-sponsored conference on Shakespeare’s Biography. With Alexandra Walsham (Cambridge) he is leading the project “Remembering the Reformation”, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council from 2016 to 2019. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.