The medicine of wine, according to Arnau de Vilanova

We think of wine as a means of pleasure, and some studies still recommend it in moderation as a health supplement, but this has not always been the case, far from it. In the time of Arnau de Vilanova (ca. 1240-1311) wine was little more than essential at the table: an average of between one and two liters was drunk daily and it accounted for up to 25% of food expenditure. And even more: it was understood as medicine, to the point that Vilanova dedicated an entire book to it, hitherto unpublished in Catalan, The book of vines which is now published by Vibop in a Catalan translation by Patrick Gifreu from the original Latin (in 1995 the Valencian publishing house L’Oronella published a restricted version by Vicent Lluís Simó i Santonja).

The editor, also a cultural journalist Montserrat Serra, met him by chance, when in a second-hand bookstore in Berkeley, California, she found a volume on wine as therapy and read a chapter dedicated to Vilanova, but it was not until 2011 that he thought of him again because of the translation that Gifreu had published in French. So, when Serra had put together the Envinats collection, dedicated to the intersection between wine and culture, she proposed to translate it into Catalan as well.

wine, essential

In the Middle Ages, it is estimated that between one and two books of wine per person per day were drunk, which represented up to 25% of food expenditure

How can it be that a book by such a well-known medieval Catalan scholar did not have any current edition in his language? And it is even more difficult to understand if we think that at the time it was a best seller, with up to 34 editions of the German translation during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is also true, on the other hand, that there are some experts who disagree on whether this free vines it is really or not by Vilanova, but there are contemporary editions –in addition to the French one– in Italian and English that continue to attribute it to him.

Fifty wine recipes can be found in the book, headed by a praise of wine in which one can read, for example, that “wine goes well at all ages, depending on production, season and region. It is a remedy that suits both old and young. For the former, it helps combat dryness, while it is a real food for the latter. For children, it provides warmth and dries up moisture.”

Montserrat Serra, Joan Santanach and the manager of the Boqueria market, Òscar Ubide, during an act on the book in the market

Patrick Gifreu, who, in addition to specializing in translating texts from Latin and Catalan into French, has a good literary career that began in the seventies, offers an introduction and some notes that are almost a book in themselves, in which, in addition to clarifying concepts puts the work and the author into context. Thus, it reminds us that Vilanova was a doctor of great renown throughout Europe, called to court by kings such as Pere II of Aragon, Jaume II of Mallorca, Jaume II of Aragon the Just and popes such as Bonifacio VIII. Now, in addition to his task as a doctor, he had an important spiritual task that led him to prison several times for proclaiming the coming of the Antichrist and promoting spiritual Franciscanism.

The medievalist Joan Santanach explains that Vilanova is integrated into the canon of medical history, since he reinterpreted Galen and wrote many treatises not only for the rich but also with ordinary people in mind. In fact, he is a character, says Santanach, who fosters the legend, and is often related to legends and occultism, such as alchemy, of which Vilanova must have used some techniques that are at the very base of chemistry, but not ideology, and even criticizes it. In fact, Santanach claims that in the work of this medieval doctor he already recommended as part of medical practice some of the aspects considered common sense today, some as simple as hygiene or physical exercise.

Regarding the way of treating the wine, on the other hand, Serra points out that Vilanova does not do it by adding elements to the wine but “from the must, preferably white, so that you really build the wine”. In addition, Vilanova also recalls the importance of making wine on good land and using good wooden barrels, that is, how good wines should be made. Directly medicinal wines such as the “naturally laxative” or the one that is “against the occlusion of the spleen”, “memory”, “for phlegmatic”, “ophthalmic wine”, “against fever”, “against flatulence” or a “came from the toilet”, which “cleanses the skin, softens it, strengthens it and gives it shine”.

In any case, it is a book that can be read to bring us closer to a time when medicine was as it could be, and if wine did not cure illness, it could always appease the senses.

Catalan version, here