Wine as Medicine: Part Two – The Middle Ages

By Dr. Philip Norrie, MBBS, MA, MSc, MSocSc (Hons), PhD, MD (cand)iStock_000002088257Small medieval chalices

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, Europe entered the “Dark Ages” where many traditions and much learning were lost, including knowledge of Greek healing—which included the use of wine as a medicine. During this period, it was Byzantine physicians who preserved the traditions and learning of the great Greek and Roman physicians and healers, otherwise lost to the Europeans. They in turn taught Arabic physicians, who reintroduced this knowledge back to Europe when the Moors invaded Spain in 711. So the Greek tradition of using wine as a medicine went full circle from Greece to Rome to Byzantium to Arabia and then finally back to Europe with the Moors.

During the Middle Ages, the pre-eminent doctors in the world were Arabic, and a number of them advocated the use of wine as medicine. Rhazes (860–932), who was the first to describe smallpox and measles in medical literature, used compresses soaked in wine to prevent infection. Avicenna (980–1037), author of the main medical textbook for Western and Eastern medicine called the “Canon of Medicine,” which was used until about 1650, advocated the use of wine for dressings. Albucasis (936–1013), author of “Treatise on Surgery,” the first complete book of surgery, which was translated from Arabic into Latin in the late twelfth century and then into English in 1778, recommended wine to prevent infection of wounds and to irrigate infected parts of the body. Haly ben Abbas, another famous tenth-century Arabic physician wrote the medical encyclopedia “Almaleki,” which contained a section on wine, as did the “Book of the Foundations of the True Properties of the Remedies,” an extensive pharmacological work written by the famous tenth-century Persian pharmacologist Mansur the Great.

In medieval Europe, monks were the primary healers. Their medicines were based on the Greek and Roman formulae, with some Islamic influence, that had been reintroduced to Europe by invading Muslim forces. The monks mainly mixed plants and herbs with wine, but animal products and minerals were also used. Each different order of monks had its own “secret recipe” for wine-based medicine, some of which have evolved into present-day liqueurs such as D.O.M. Benedictine, which was first made in a Benedictine Abbey in France in 1510. Not only were monks the most prominent viticulturalists of the period, but they also preserved scientific and medical knowledge in their libraries, including knowledge related to the medicinal uses of wine.

There were also doctors outside the religious orders who advocated wine as a medicine such as Arnauld de Villeneuve (1235–1311), who wrote “Liber de Vinis,” which recommended wine as a tonic, as part of a poultice and as an antiseptic, especially to sterilize polluted water. Hieronymus Brunschwig (1450–1533) was a surgeon in the Alsatian army where he treated many gunshot wounds. He promoted a mixture of strong Gascony wine, brandy and herbs which he called “Aqua Vite Composite” for cleansing wounds. It was said that it could also “cure palsy, putteth away ring-worms, expel poison and it was most wholesome for the stomach, heart and liver.” Theophrastus Bombastus Von Hohenheim (1493–1541), also known as Paracelsus, the Father of Pharmacology, popularized chemical medicine and the use of minerals in wine-based medicines as therapeutic agents. He was a great advocate of the use of wine as a medicine and once stated that “whether wine is nourishment, medicine or poison is a matter of dosage.”

For more on how wine has been used as medicine throughout the ages, see Wine as Medicine: Part One The Ancient World and Wine as Medicine: Part Three – The Modern Age.

Dr. Norrie, a Family Physician and a Conjoint Senior Lecturer in the Medical Faculty at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, is also a wine and medical historian. Dr. Norrie has written 15 books in wine and medical history and has been made a member of the Renaud Society (named after Prof. Serge Renaud of the French Paradox fame) for his services to wine and health internationally. Dr. Norrie is also the inventor and patent holder of the world’s first high-dose Resveratrol-Enhanced Wine—REW.