Spirituals and Spirits

I recently read a novel set in England in the mid-fourteenth century in which one of the characters routinely gets drunk on brandy and Madeira. I sighed. It’s not the first time I’ve come across this, the brandy, that is. I haven’t read a book in which Madeira has been drunk before. Madeira wasn’t permanently settled until the 1420s, so no one would have been drinking Madeira wine seventy years earlier.

Brandy is a slightly different matter, though. I’ve had characters drink brandy in one of my novels, The Mercenary’s Tale, set in 1366. It’s not referred to as brandy, though, and it’s distilled by an alchemist. Yes, what (much) later became known as brandy wasn’t a drink but a medicine.

Wine was first distilled towards the end of the thirteenth century and was certainly being distilled on a regular and competent basis in Avignon in the 1320s. It was believed to have medicinal properties, but no one quite knew how to make the best use of it. John of Rupescissa was a Franciscan friar and an alchemist. He was a Spiritual Franciscan, which meant that he embraced the ideals of poverty set out by St. Francis. The Spirituals thought that the order was moving away from its roots and wanted to return to them. In some, more powerful, quarters they were viewed almost as heretics. If you’ve read Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose or Stephen O’Shea’s The Friar of Carcassonne, you’ll know that sometimes there really was very little difference between the Spirituals and the heretical Cathars.

By 1344 John was in prison in Avignon. The early years of the fourteenth century were not a good time to be a Spiritual Franciscan. He was allowed to continue with his alchemical experiments, though, and it was probably here that he learned about distillation. He was almost certainly the first alchemist to think about alchemy in terms of health. Alchemy was originally about turning substances considered impure, such as lead, into pure substances, such as gold. John thought about how his alchemical skills could help people to live longer. Along with many others he was expecting the Antichrist to arrive at any moment and he thought Christians would need to be in the best of health to deal with him, so he was searching for a medicine that would achieve that. In the “burning water” or the “water of life” (acqua vitae) created by distilling wine he found something that he thought could protect the body from illness and, for a while, aging.

He thought he had discovered something different from the four elements of fire, air, water and earth that were believed to inhabit all substances, and described it as the fifth essence of the wine, or quinta essentia in Latin. We still consider the quintessence of something to be its purest and most concentrated form.

His belief that alcohol could prolong life was not without foundation. He noticed that meat placed in the liquid didn’t rot. Wine would turn into vinegar fairly quickly, but distilled wine continued unchanged for a very long time. Something that seemed to be incorruptible also appeared to be capable of sharing that property with other substances.

John was also the first to discover that alcohol extracts the useful compounds from plants more effectively than water, which made them more useful in medicines. Somewhat more controversially, he developed medicines using metals such as gold, mercury and antimony.

Brandy didn’t properly become a drink until the fifteenth century. Is it possible that it was appreciated as an alcoholic drink in fourteenth-century England? Of course, but distillation was a fiddly and dangerous process and an alchemist who knew how to make the precious liquid would not have made it in large enough quantities for it to be used for anything other than to continue his experiments for the improvement of mankind and for medicines for a few local people. There certainly would not have been a ready supply to allow people to get drunk on it.

In my own novel, the female protagonist is the daughter of an alchemist and she has learned how to distil wine and how to use it as a medicine, but, like the philosopher’s stone before it, the water of life had a reputation that made it sound extremely powerful and it became an object of desire for those who wanted its power rather than its alcoholic pleasures and she finds herself in trouble as a result.

The Secrets of Alchemy by Lawrence M. Principe

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Heresy, Medieval Medicine, Medieval Monks, Medieval Science

21 responses to “Spirituals and Spirits

  1. Your first paragrah made me smile. I live with a contemporary historian and coined the word ‘anachrohumph’ to describe his responses to anachronisms. Yours sound quieter!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Sadly I can see no evidence that wine prevents aging, my wrinkles show the folly of that thought! I would not have known about brandy and madeira not being ubiquitous back then.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Just an FYI about Brandy; it makes a delicious vanilla extract! I had a bottle from which I used only 8 ounces for a cake. I had three spare vanilla beans which I split & added to the bottle. That was 11 months ago.

    Remembered it for this year’s holiday baking – WOW!

    Will never make extract with Vodka again.

    Happy New Year! ♥

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Love this post! So often, through my research/reading, it seems that beverages that contained alcohol, whether on purpose ramped up or not, was all seen as ‘healing’, most notably, when ferments were more predictable if water was heated to boiling, first, before covering the vegetation to be covered/made into ferment – at various times when water supplies were contaminated, AND/OR when milk was too – because of plants the livestock grazed on – thus, at some portions of USA early history? Small beers and wines were seen as ‘safer’ to drink all day, every day, than water was – or milk – when really, the FIRST step was boiling the water to rid of pathogens OR finding out what plants were being grazed on that was killing both producer (livestock) and consumer (humans) That said, all you shared makes perfect sense in the evolution of distillation – yup, makes it keep well longer, but also, to me, and now, later? touted as ‘stripping out the very health giving things, by getting rid of sediment….. Not sure I’ll live long enough to find out whether me homebrewing and not filtering and not distilling/decanting for ‘consumption’ in short order is proper way or if I just missed out on some other thing I don’t yet ‘know’ – LOL

    Liked by 1 person

    • Beer and wine were generally safer than water, although water was drunk in the Middle Ages as well and wine was often watered down. Both tended to be much weaker than what we drink today, so distilled spirits must have seemed incredibly powerful.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. John the Alchemist was ahead of his time! Also, I’ve heard that wine is good for you in small daily doses.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. For some reason I cannot get my “likes” to post. Consider this a blanket LIKE for all comments and responses!

    A blessed 2022 to everyone! ♥

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I think I know so much until I read your posts. Still I may have to do some more testing with wine…hehe …alos I must try theThe Friar of Carcassonne, hadnt heard of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. In 19th century Australia, and I would imagine in Great Britain, brandy was definitely thought to have medicinal properties. In the 1870s one hospital here in Melbourne spent more on alcohol than all other medicines combined. But medical opinion began to change and another hospital decided to use less brandy. According to Geoffrey Blainey in Black Kettle and Full Moon (2003), ‘a patient whose paralysis had defied all diagnosis and all treatment suddenly rose from his bed, walked from the hospital, and was not seen there again.’
    A miracle!

    Liked by 1 person

    • A miracle indeed! Personally, I don’t find brandy to be particularly reviving and I assume that the recipes and distilling practices have changed over the years.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I find it useful if I feel like I am coming down with something fluey (well, in the past). A cup of tea with a tot of brandy and two panadol and I sleep like a log and usually wake up feeling much better. Perhaps, a cup of tea and two panadol might work just as well, but I haven’t bothered to experiment.

        Liked by 1 person

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