04 June 2009

Somebody give these poor Christians a glass of wine

Still reading Thomas Asbridge's The First Crusade. In the previous post on this subject, the crusaders had laid siege to Antioch and were in the process of exchanging atrocities of all sorts with the defending Turks. Subsequently, the crusaders kicked the Turkish fighters out of the city and, in the true Crusader spirit, massacred the Moslems left behind.

Only a few days later, however, a massive Turkish army headed by Kerbogha arrived and surrounded the city; now it was the crusaders’ turn to be holed up inside the walls. Soon, starvation set in. Asbridge quotes a crusader’s account of the ordeal from Gesta Francorum:

The blasphemous enemies of God kept us so closely shut up in the city of Antioch that many of us died of hunger, for a small loaf cost a bezant, and I cannot tell you the price of wine. Our men ate the flesh of horses and asses; a hen cost fifteen shillings, an egg two, and a walnut a penny.
My first thought upon reading this was why a starving person would care about obtaining wine. Then it dawned on me that wine is a pretty good source of calories if nothing else. And calories in the form of simple sugars (glucose and fructose, especially the former) is what you need if your enemy is about to chop your head off unless you act first.

According to the USDA, one serving of Cabernet Sauvignon (~150 ml) provides 122 kcal of energy. The crusaders are unlikely to have washed down their horse steaks with Cabernet Sauvignon, but the caloric contents of different types of wines are more or less the same except for dessert wines, which have more carbohydrates and hence more calories. So we can safely assume the wine that was then available had about the same amount of calories. Nevertheless, it would still have made more sense to spend one’s last bezants for eggs and walnuts than for wine when water was presumably available for drinking.

But then again, there may have existed back then various ingrained opinions regarding the dangers of drinking too much water. Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, the Austrian Emperor Ferdinand’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, wrote in his fourth Turkish Letter (1562) about some Christian prisoners of war that had been brought to Istanbul. He was appalled by the Ottomans’ treatment of them and made arrangements to supplement their standard ration of bread and water with meat.
My house from early morning till evening was filled with a crowd of those who sought assistance for their different troubles. Some, who had been accustomed to sumptuous tables, could not digest their daily ration of dry black bread, and required the means of procuring some relish to eat with it. There were others whose stomachs could not endure perpetual water-drinking, and wanted a little wine to mix with it.
It is not clear how the prisoners, if they had indeed been imprisoned, could come to Busbecq’s house. But that’s besides the point; what is significant here for our purposes is Busbecq’s claim that their “stomachs could not endure perpetual water-drinking”.

There may have been some truth to the perceived dangers of drinking water in the Middle Ages. In densely populated cities, the available "potable" water was probably more often than not contaminated with human and animal waste and hence was a source of disease causing microorganisms. Wine with its ~14% alcohol content, on the other hand, would have offered a safer liquid to drink.

If I had not just finished my glass of Cabernet, I would offer a toast to the wisdom of the Middle Ages.

1 comment:

xoggoth said...

There were dangers in wine too. The poor health of Handel, some 600years later, has been blamed on wine that contained large quantities of lead.

In the absence of any imposed health standards, most any foodstuff can be dangerous, rather like cocaine on the streets of the UK today is now. It is cut with almost anything to increase the profit.