Between the tenth and fourteenth centuries, cookbooks flourished throughout the Arabic-speaking world, from Baghdad to Murcia. Fortunately for scholars, in recent decades both critical Arabic editions and English translations of these cookbooks have appeared with increasing frequency. Coming from a region frequently cast as a site of unchanging convention, or as a place where traditional and modern necessarily clash, these recipes offer a way to track change over time in subtler ways.
The most recent addition to the genre is Nawal Nasrallah’s translation of the fourteenth-century Egyptian cookbook Kanz al-fawā’id fī tanwīʿ al-mawā’id (“Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table”), some of whose recipes I explore in this post (Nawal Nasrallah, trans., Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table: A Fourteenth-Century Egyptian Cookbook. Leiden: Brill, 2018). Nasrallah’s edition includes extensive introductory material and glossaries that situate the work within the broader corpus of Arabic cookery books – making it highly accessible to scholars who work on other languages or regions.
Kanz al-fawa’id offers the reader a detailed picture of what elite Egyptian cuisine looked like prior to the culinary transformations ushered in by the Columbian Exchange, the rise of the Ottoman Empire, and European colonial rule.
Among historians of food in the Middle East, Kanz al-fawa’id and other medieval cookbooks are often discussed in terms of how much the region’s cooking has changed since they were written – and with good reason. Charles Perry has suggested that Middle Eastern cuisine as we know it is 500 years old, pointing out that many of today’s staple ingredients, like tomatoes and potatoes, and common techniques, like stuffing vegetables, are absent from medieval Arabic recipe collections, having been introduced to the region centuries later. And medieval cooks’ liberal use of cinnamon, caraway, and coriander is a far cry from the typical Middle Eastern palate today.
But not all contemporary Middle Eastern foods are without precedent in these medieval works. These collections also include recipes whose flavorings and makeup have shifted over time even as their essential techniques or structures have remained the same. An excellent example is the assortment of tahini- and chickpea-based dishes that we can read as forerunners of today’s hummus (Arabic for “chickpeas”).
At its most basic, contemporary hummus is a dip made from chickpeas, tahini, and lemon juice. Kanz al-fawa’id includes several recipes that hint at various iterations of this combination. Perhaps most obvious are recipes from a chapter of “cold dishes” that combine chickpeas and tahini with an array of flavorings, including aṭrāf ṭīb, a blend of a dozen spices:
Mash the [boiled] chickpeas and pass them through a sieve. Take toasted walnuts, pound them until the oil is released, and add tahini [and the mashed chickpeas]. Add enough olive oil, aṭrāf ṭīb, toasted and finely pounded seeds of coriander and caraway, rue, mint, and enough wine vinegar. Beat these ingredients together by hand until they mix well.
Next add lemon preserved in salt (laymūn māliḥ) after you cut it into very small pieces. Also add [pounded] pistachios (p. 378).
Salt-pickled lemons, which are still popular in Egypt and Morocco, likely came in handy when fresh lemons were unavailable. Although Kanz al-fawa’id largely reflects elite tastes, Nasrallah points out that in fourteenth-century Egypt, most city dwellers had no home kitchen and largely ate prepared foods purchased from market stalls and ambulant vendors – including those who specialized in cold meatless dishes like this one (pp. 40-44).
Recipes from other sections of the book offer a glimpse into how
these tart, tahini-based dips were meant to be consumed (p. 315). One recipe from a chapter on condiments includes no chickpeas, but features tahini, olive oil, and lemon juice, and a flavor profile similar to the chickpea concoction described above: it includes hazelnuts, mint, coriander, caraway, cinnamon, ginger, and rosebuds. The author warns the cook that liquids should be added “just enough so that you can still scoop it up with a piece of bread.” My attempt to recreate this recipe is pictured here: while certain aspects of its flavors resemble today’s hummus, its rich colors and textures are a reminder that changing tastes were a matter not only of ingredients, but appearance and consistency, too. Yet another recipe for a citrus-lanced tahini dip explains that it should be served “between courses” and eaten with bread (p. 206).
Fourteenth-century recipes suggest that contemporary hummus evolved from a much broader genre of acidic, tahini- and/or chickpea-based foods. In some ways they changed drastically over time, as spices were downplayed and streamlined. But hummus can also be read as part of a longstanding historical tradition: a lens through which to understand when tastes changed, and to begin asking why and how it happened.
Examples of Arab influence on medieval European recipes abound, from the introduction of durum wheat to imported medicinal ingredients to the aesthetics of medieval cooking sauces. Conversely, shifts in spice use in the Middle East followed early modern Ottoman and European trends. Who knows how many more unexplored connections lie in the wealth of medieval Arabic recipes – more accessible today than ever.
Selected bibliography of translated medieval Arabic recipe books:
Ibn al-Karīm, Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan, and Charles Perry. A Baghdad Cookery Book: The Book of Dishes (Kitāb Al-Ṭabīkh). Petits Propos Culinaires 79. London: Prospect, 2005.
Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq, al-Muẓaffar ibn Naṣr. Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens: Ibn Sayyār Al-Warrāq’s Tenth-Century Baghdadi Cookbook. Translated by Nawal Nasrallah. Leiden: Brill, 2007.
Nasrallah, Nawal, trans. Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table: A Fourteenth-Century Egyptian Cookbook. Leiden: Brill, 2018.
Perry, Charles, trans. Scents and Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook. New York: New York University Press, 2017.
Zaouali, Lilia. Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World: A Concise History with 174 Recipes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.
This season’s higher than normal influenza cases has inevitably drawn comparisons with the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, the worst in modern history. It killed more than 40 million people, according to the World Health Organisation. It punctured medical doctors’ newfound confidence in the power of bacteriology to fight infectious disease. In Ireland, it killed at least 23,000 people (the number of certified deaths from influenza and excess pneumonia) and infected about 800,000 people, one fifth of the population. Entire communities fell silent as it passed through.
Laboratories churned out vaccines, but the general consensus was these vaccines, made from bacteria suspected to cause influenza like illness such as Pfeiffer’s bacillus (haemophilus influenza), were ineffective. Physicians threw everything in their medical bag at it, trying desperately, and in vain, to find a cure for a disease they found baffling. Ultimately, doctors came to realise that the most effective treatment was good nursing – which included nutritious food – and strong liquor.
There was little consensus amongst the medical profession on what medicine worked best. Some suggested quinine and grains of aspirin to reduce fever and grains of opium for sleeplessness. Calomel (mercurous chloride) was liberally prescribed, as doctors then were very keen on keeping the bowels open. Strychnine, which we tend to view now as the villain’s poison of choice in James Bond movies, was injected as a stimulant.
D.W. McNamara, a young house doctor in Dublin’s Mater Hospital during the crisis, later wrote that one of the popular treatments in the hospital was an injection of camphor in olive oil, which he described as ‘the very nadir of therapeutic bolony’. Instructed by his seniors to use it, he felt guilty that he had inflicted further pain and suffering on the very ill. Some doctors, especially his older colleagues, favoured brandy or whiskey ‘in heroic doses’. Alcohol had, he considered, a good deal to recommend it, as it was ‘probably no less worthless than any of the other nostrums, and at least its customers had a merry spin to Paradise’.
The demand for whiskey was so strong that some flu-stricken communities wrote to the Chief Secretary’s office to see what could be done to improve supplies. Non-prescription medicines were in high demand. As well as compounding regular medicines, pharmacists worked long hours to prepare huge quantities of tonics, cough medicines and poultices. The poultices were usually a mixture of boiling water and ground linseed, reputed to aid decongestion, enclosed in cloth and placed on the chest or throat.
Journalists passed on tips on cures to their readership. The Irish Independent related that Major R. T. Herron, Medical Officer, Armagh Union infirmary, had suggested gargling with a solution of permanganate of potash as a useful preventive measure. Sir R. Winfrey, MP, a qualified chemist, recommended a prescription of thirty drops pure creosote, half-ounce rectified spirit, three-quarter ounce liquid extract of liquorice, two drachms salicylate of soda and twelve ounces of water, with the recommended adult dosage of two tablespoonfuls three times daily.
While good nursing with bed rest, plenty of liquids and nourishing food offered a better chance of survival than medication, this was not always possible when every member of the family was sick. In some areas, the Women’s National Health Association, the St Vincent de Paul and neighbours set up community nursing schemes and community kitchens to cook and deliver nourishing soups and stews to those too weak to care for themselves. Local farmers often donated vegetables and meat.
Sinn Féin’s Dr Kathleen Lynn, who opened a hospital to treat influenza sufferers and vaccinate people, suggested that sufferers should be given milk, barley water and egg flip, while those in good health ought to fortify themselves with butter, eggs, fresh meat, vegetables and porridge.
Many newspapers reported that people were carrying handkerchiefs doused in eucalyptus oil in front of their mouths as a preventive measure. Macnamara considered this practice about as effective against influenza as ‘a black beetle would be to halt a steamroller.’
Beef extracts Bovril and Oxo were in heavy demand, and production was sometimes halted when they ran out of bottles when sales went up. Beef extract or tea was understood to strengthen the body as a defence against infection. Goodbody’s Flour Mills in Clara, Co Offaly supplied Bovril to their 300-strong workforce during the pandemic.
Manufacturers changed their regular advertising to offer their product as a useful treatment. Readers of the Enniscorthy Guardian were urged to ‘pour a little Cousin’s lemonade into a saucepan and warm it, to provide the perfect drink for influenza sufferers.’ A pharmacist in Gorey, Co Wexford, advertised his cod liver oil emulsion as offering protection from influenza. Purveyors of snake oils – the cure-all nostrums – swiftly added curing influenza to their list. Such claims preyed on the general fears created by an untreatable mass disease.
The use of whiskey as a treatment crops up frequently in written records and oral histories I captured from survivors or families of sufferers. Raphael Sieve, whose family lived in south Dublin at the time, told me that his father kept his teenage brother constantly mildly drunk with whiskey at the time, until he pulled through. When I presented this idea in a paper, a medical doctor suggested that there might be good science behind it. He said that the reason that young healthy adults may have suffered more than normally in this flu was because of cytokine storms, where the immune system overreacts. He thought that small regular doses of whiskey might help prevent this.
One survivor I interviewed, Tommy Christian, from Boston, Co Kildare, was administered gruel, a type of watery porridge, which he said ‘had an awful lot of responsibilities’, a hint perhaps that it was intended to open his bowels. His family put a poultice made of linseeds and hot water wrapped in cotton on his chest, another common treatment. Tommy had his first taste of whiskey, in a hot toddy – made from sugar, whiskey and hot water – as that five-year old flu sufferer, a taste he said he continued to enjoy for the rest of his life. Despite being extremely ill in 1919, he lived to his 99th year. Proof that the old remedies can sometimes be best?
Editor’s Note: Ida Milne’s book on the influenza epidemic in Ireland comes out in May 2018 and can be ordered through Manchester University Press.
 Telephone communication with a family member of Phillip Brady, who worked as a pharmacist at Kelly’s Corner, Dublin, during the epidemic; further details with author.
In my last post I mentioned that relatively few medieval cookbooks included menus for actual events. The ones that did were typically included in cookeries originally composed for noble households; by the fifteenth century, these cookeries were being used by gentry and professional households as aspirational texts. That is, readers would use these cookbooks to learn about the foods served in the social class to which they aspired. This continued into the early years of printing. In England, Richard Pynson printed the first vernacular cookery in 1500, based on recipes originally circulated in manuscript form. Despite being a printed book, the Book of Cookery is very similar to typical medieval cookeries. The size of the book and appearance of the text mirrors many fifteenth-century manuscript cookeries. The black gothic typeface is unadorned, nary a decorated capital or border in sight. Clearly differentiating the printed text from a manuscript one is the lack of rubrication, which speckles so many handwritten recipes.
The Book of Cookery begins with the menus of several fourteenth and fifteenth-century noble feasts: one hosted by Henry IV at a Smithfield joust, the coronation feast of Henry V, a feast of the Earl of Huntingdon at Calais, a feast held for the king in London by the Earl of Warwick, the installation feast of Bishop Clifford in London, and an installation feast for the Archbishop of York in 1465. The author describes several other untitled feasts before discussing dishes appropriate for various seasons. Following this calendar, which also serves as a recipe index, the author provides 275 recipes for dishes familiar to late medieval nobles. The text is filled with high status birds and fish fit for noble tables.
The Book of Cookery now exists as a unique copy in the library of the Marquess of Bath at Longleat House. It is bound with a fragment of a tract, also printed by Pynson in 1500. This text, Remembraunce for the traduction of the Princesse Kateryne, lists noblemen and women assigned to escort Catherine of Aragon through England upon her arrival from Spain in 1501 for her marriage to Prince Arthur. Only two leaves of the tract are bound with the Book of Cookery. This tract presents an interesting counterpoint to the cookbook, as the list of nobles seems an appropriate way to conclude a book which begins with descriptions of feasts for or hosted by specific nobles in the preceding century.
I have located a reference to one other copy of the 1500 edition of the Book of Cookery in a list of books in the possession of James Morice, a gentleman in the service of Lady Margaret Beaufort. Morice recorded a list of his twenty-three books in his copy of Cicero’s De senectute. His copy was bound with seven other texts, including books on courtesy, carving, and verse. Morice’s books appealed to nobles and gentry refining their manners and intelligence.
Shortly after he printed the Book of Cookery, Pynson moved his printing shop inside the city of London and became the royal printer. He printed a variety of texts and genres within the reading preferences of professionals, gentry, and nobles. His wholesale book prices reflected this range, priced between 20 d and 10 s, with most valued at 2 s. The Book of Cookery was probably priced at 2 s. Given that 2 s was the equivalent of four days wages for a master craftsmen, the Book of Cookery was an expensive book, though still more affordable than manuscript cookeries.
Once printed, the Book of Cookery made a noble manuscript cookery available to a larger number of people. Such a book would appeal to noble households as a tool for planning meals, as well as gentlemen aspiring to be more like their social superiors. The cookery’s incipit specifically targets these higher status readers rather than reaching out to a broad audience. Neither Pynson nor any other hand involved in the printing changed the incipit to reflect a desire to reach a new audience. Pynson’s output also targeted a higher status audience, one that encompassed professionals, gentry, and nobles. The tract fragment bound with the extant Book of Cookery also suggests a gentry or noble reader who wanted or needed information about Catherine of Aragon’s travels. Additionally, the two known copies of the book were housed in the private libraries of noble estates. It is notable that the extant copy of the book was consistently preserved in an estate library, passed down through several generations.
The Book of Cookery is an excellent example of the way readers used cookbooks at the turn of the sixteenth century, devouring menus and recipes to learn how to imitate higher social classes.
 Sarah Peters Kernan, “‘For al them that delight in Cookery’: The Production and Use of Cookery Books in England, 1300–1600” (PhD diss., The Ohio State University, 2016).
 Here begynneth a noble boke of festes ryalle and Cokery (London: Richard Pynson, 1500). Henceforth I will refer to this book as the Book of Cookery. For the book’s manuscript sources, see Constance Hieatt, “Richard Pynson’s Noble BokeofFestes RyalleandCokery and its Relationship to Two Analogous Manuscripts,” Journal of the Early Book Society 1 (1997), 78–95; Robina Napier, ed., A Noble Boke off Cookry ffor a Prynce Houssolde or eny other Estately Houssolde; Reprinted Verbatim from a Rare MS. in the Holkham Collection (Elliot Stock, 1882).
 Book of Cookery, fols. aiir–avir.
 Kate Harris, “Richard Pynson’s Remembraunce for the Traduction of the Princesse Kateryne: the Printer’s Contribution to the Reception of Catharine of Aragon,” The Library XII, no. 2 (June 1990): 99.
 J. C. T. Oates, “English Bokes Concernyng to James Morice,” Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society 3, no. 2 (1960), 124–32.
 Oates, 130–31.
 Frank Burgoyne, “Printers of England, I.—Richard Pynson,” The Library Assistant: The Official Organ of the Library Assistants’ Association IV (1905): 148.
 Henry Plomer, “Two Lawsuits of Richard Pynson,” The Library X, no. 38 (April 1909): 126–27. The “d” is an abbreviation for pence. There were twelve pence in one shilling (s), and twenty shillings in one pound.
 “Prices & Wages (Munro),” MEMDB: Medieval and Early Modern Data Bank, http://www2.scc.rutgers.edu/memdb/.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
The mythology of French wine is based on a holy trinity of values: the grape; the vintage; and most mystical of all, leterroir. 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.
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.
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.