Friday, December 31, 2021

1415: Wine and the Agincourt campaign Pt II (what did 15th century wine taste like?)

Previously: "1415: Wine and the Agincourt campaign, Pt I (logistics and supply)". 

From The Drinks Business:

(NB: This series of articles was originally published in October 2015)

In the second part of our look at wine in the Agincourt campaign, we turn our attention to medieval viticulture, hypothesise on the taste of wine in the fifteenth century and how people then viewed fine wine.

 And if he be not fought withal, my lord,
Let us not live in France; let us quit all
And give our vineyards to a barbarous people.”

Charles d’Albret, Constable of France, Henry V, act 3, scene v.

The army struck out from Harfleur between the 6-9 October – the chronicles are conflicting on the exact date – and stuck to the coastal road.

Shipping the army to France for a siege had been a major undertaking, keeping an army full of sick men together on the march in steadily worsening autumn weather was another altogether. Supply once again was a key issue.

The record of Henry’s march through Normandy is not especially thrilling in itself but is interesting for us in that it shows the sheer extent of viticulture in France in the Middle Ages.

As Henry’s “ordinance”[1] for the campaign forbade the plundering of the countryside in “our lands in France”, each man was ordered to take a week’s worth of supplies with him to last the eight days it was expected they would take to reach Calais.

In some texts Henry supposedly heads off to Calais without a supply train in order to move faster across the French countryside. He might have been daring the French to do battle with him but simultaneously hoping he could out march them and avoid confrontation altogether given the state of his forces.

Then again, even if the whole thing was a daring bluff, a gamble, it seems odd that a commander who had previously been so apparently meticulous in regard to his logistics would cast aside the need for a wagon train entirely. And how else were the royal tent, crown jewels and holy relics to be transported? Not least the royal wine supply? The archers may have been forced to yomp, tab and march burdened down with kit but not so the nobles.

If we refer to the sums from part one, we will remember that each man had a ration of just under a gallon of wine a day. For eight days one man would therefore expect just under eight gallons. An army of some 6,000 would therefore require 47,947 gallons – 190 tuns of wine.

These and the other supplies and equipment would have been loaded onto bullock or oxen-driven carts which would have formed the central body of the army on its march.

Richard Barber in his book on the Crécy campaign of 1346 notes that a medieval army would have had one cart for every 20 combatants[2]. An army of 6,000 therefore would have needed 300 carts and probably taken more if it were able. Each cart was capable of carrying one ton of supplies approximately so 190 tuns would have taken up over half the army’s transportation. This seems too much although how much weight other supplies took up is difficult to quantify. As Henry expected a battle to be fought, his knights and men-at-arms travelled fully armoured rather than keeping their armour stored in barrels on the carts as was more usual and this would have saved a lot of space. The men themselves, particularly the 5,000 or so archers, would have carried a certain amount of equipment, food and drink on their person as soldiers have always done.

Let us not forget that wine and beer was more important to the medieval man than water so transportation of a large amount of wine would have been given some priority. As Barber again points out in reference to the 300 tuns Edward III took on campaign, “this was no luxury, but an essential part of the supplies.”[3]

One hundred and ninety tuns may be too much but if we downgrade that number to 100 (a third of Henry’s transport wagons), then Henry was still taking 25,200 gallons with him, enough to supply an army of 6,000 men with half a gallon a day each on the projected eight day march. Whatever the amount taken we may imagine that this was deducted from the stocks that had already been brought to France.

It was also no doubt hoped that additional supplies either from towns or the surrounding countryside might be obtained along the way – either given freely or leveraged by any means necessary.

“Other means” was largely what it turned out to be. Henry might have viewed Normandy as a simple extension of his domains in England or Ireland, but the Normans themselves were not, it seems, at all convinced.

Upon arriving at each large town on his route – and finding the gates closed against him – Henry therefore resorted to the rather contradictory expedient of threatening to burn down the town and pillage the surroundings unless bread and wine were turned over to him and his army.

This would be the pattern of the campaign. Henry would avoid the better fortified towns such as Dieppe but bully smaller ones such as Arques and Eu into handing over supplies or, more accurately, their “tribute”. In this early stage of the march the point of these demands was not so much to supplement the supplies the English had with them. We shall see later that the presentation of bread and wine to a victorious king had a clear biblical origin, which would have been immediately evident to the people of the fifteenth century, not least Henry who was an extremely religious man.

While the handing over of bread and wine did serve a limited practical purpose, as a demonstration of power and acknowledgement of divine blessing on his enterprise

it had a stronger double meaning – one of submission and homage on the part of his new “subjects”. Furthermore, to strengthen this theory remember that Arques and Eu were reached well before the initial rations would have begun running out so demanding food from those towns was almost certainly intended as a symbolic act on their part rather than essential to the replenishing of supplies.

Supplication may have been the inescapable final result but the French did not always go quietly.

As towns were approached or left, the garrisons (defiant or enraged) occasionally ventured forth to skirmish with the English van or rearguards. At Eu, as the English vanguard approached, the garrison rode out to meet them. A “very valiant man-at-arms” named Lancelot Pières couched his lance in a challenge which was answered by an English knight. In a scene straight out of an illuminated manuscript or “the pages of Froissart”[4] the two knights spurred their horses at each other and clashed with such force that witnesses swore they drove their lances through each other’s bodies. Crashing lifeless to the ground Lancelot had secured his place in the annals of chivalry but the identity of the equally bold and tragic Englishman remains sadly unknown.

This needless, even suicidal act to modern eyes nonetheless is exactly what one expects of the period and what knights expected of each other. To court danger and not flinch in the face of death even as you succumbed to a mortal stroke was praiseworthy to knightly eyes. They were a warrior class in an often violent age and death was sweet if well met. Yet it also contrasts neatly with a world increasingly on the cusp of a more modern era, where ostentatious displays of knightly posturing and braggadocio sat alongside an ever more powerful mercantile middle class, and their bureaucratic and legal institutions; where a lord could be charged for even two additional pitchers of wine. The fifteenth century was not quite the last hurrah of the chivalric ideal but it was getting close.

But these displays of gallantry aside many garrisons generally hunkered down behind their walls, complied with Henry’s demands and simply hoped his army would move swiftly on to bother somebody else and if the price of that was some wine and bread then so be it.

Natural wine paradise?

What is clear from the various sources though is that the wine they were handing over was locally produced which points to an agricultural landscape in medieval Normandy that included vines – something conspicuous by its absence now[5].

It should not surprise us terribly that a province such as Normandy had a wine industry in the fifteenth century – though “industry” is possibly too strong a word for it as mono-agriculture was not practised at this time.

There is a consensus that the early Middle Ages were warmer than our current climate which those interested in such matters have rather prosaically dubbed the “Medieval Warm Period” (MWP). This theory might explain the much greater spread of viticulture in France at the time but it is disputed as it is sometimes used to support the argument that the Earth goes through cyclical warm and cool periods and this is rejected by those convinced it is manmade pollution that is causing global climate change.

In a warmer climate, whites from northern France may not have been as piercingly acidic as certain northern European wines, such as still Champagnes, are today as they would have had more exposure to warmer weather and longer to ripen on the vine.

But were medieval harvests later than they are now? By the 15th century this MWP was at an end and the grape harvest is a common motif used to illustrate September or October in manuscripts from this period and, as we shall see below, if Henry’s army was drinking new wine from the barrels and presses in the town of Boves around 18-19 October, then the harvest must have begun in mid to late September or early October – which is not really so different from today or even the last one to two hundred years.

Whatever the truth of it though, what is not in question is that vines were extensively planted all over France at this time chiefly because wine was such an integral part of life and the medieval diet.

Niceties such as “terroir” were not always (if at all) of prime importance to medieval vintners and consumers. Wine was there to be drunk as part of a healthy diet and was as much of a staple as bread....


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