I can remember John Julius Norwich giving a talk on Belloc at Saint Paul's Girls' school, in Hammersmith, just before he died. I loved his story about Belloc transforming the dinner table into a historical European battle scene at the end of the evening. Seemingly, his favourite one was Crecy.
Wednesday, 30 October 2019
I can remember John Julius Norwich giving a talk on Belloc at Saint Paul's Girls' school, in Hammersmith, just before he died. I loved his story about Belloc transforming the dinner table into a historical European battle scene at the end of the evening. Seemingly, his favourite one was Crecy.
Tuesday, 3 September 2019
As previously advised, our meeting at Rusper Parish church, on the 18th of May, was a great success. Bellocians may recall that Mike Hennessy (our Chairman) gave a presentation on 'Belloc and Wine', from the pulpit, and it can now be viewed online.
Tuesday, 6 August 2019
Wednesday, 19 June 2019
|Mike in full flow...|
Our meeting at Rusper Parish church, on the 18th of May, was a great success. It was wonderful to see, first hand, the remarkable progress Chris Hare, and his team, have made with the Belloc, Broadwood and Beyond Project. Belloc, Broadwood and Beyond is a Heritage Lottery Fund project run through Rusper Parochial Church Council. The project is to research the life and times of Lucy Broadwood (1858 – 1929), the folk song collector, who is buried in Rusper; and the writer and poet, Hilaire Belloc (1870 – 1953), who lived for most of his life at Kingsland in Shipley.The event brought the two project workshops (Worthing and Rusper) together in a harmonious union. During the day, we were regaled with folk songs and poetry. To crown it all our Chairman, Mike Hennessy, gave a presentation on 'Belloc and Wine' in the afternoon. It could have been the first time that Mike has preached from a pulpit! By kind permission I am pleased to publish the talk in full:
“To exalt, enthrone, establish and defend,
To welcome home mankind's mysterious friend
Wine, true begetter of all arts that be;
Wine, privilege of the completely free;
Wine the recorder; wine the sagely strong;
Wine, bright avenger of sly-dealing wrong,
Awake, Ausonian Muse, and sing the vineyard song!”
I come here with something of a conundrum (and not just because I am more used to speaking on Belloc in pubs than in churches!): whom do you think of when you think of Belloc?
For some he is a young man, riding on his chestnut cob, Monster, singing – and arguing – loudly. To others, he is that older man of occasional melancholy, atop a high hill by day or on the deck of the Nona at dusk, his gaze lost in far-off thoughts, reflecting perhaps on dissolution and the End of Things. Some hear his sonnets, others his songs of Sussex; some his humour, whether verse or prose, while others the sonorousness of his essays, like the “mellow tones of a beautifully played ‘cello”, as Maurice Baring put it.
Some delight in him for his historical certainties, or his evocation of the past; others for his political or socio-economic expositions and theorising; some are drawn to him because he encapsulates the Faith which he believed was central to personal and societal sanity. Others are drawn to Belloc the wanderer or the sailor, delighting in his evocation of place. Some rejoice in his novels, others his topographical studies and travel books. Just as E C Bentley famously complained in his clerihew on Belloc, seldom has a man had so many parts!
And those delighting in Belloc, for this reason or for that, if left in a room unattended would all eventually fall upon each other in disputation and argumentation as to which parts were the greatest: for the fellowship of Bellocians can be as rowdy and argumentative as the man himself (sometimes) was.
One thing is common to all of these people, of course. They all like a drop. And they would gladly raise a glass in his name. So what better subject is there to unite that fellowship of Bellocians than wine!
Wine, of course, features regularly in Belloc’s writings, often as much symbolically as actually. The Master, as I call Belloc, was clearly fond of the stuff, but he also knew that it carried in itself something eternal, much broader and deeper and richer and more significant than the delight it can bring to body, soul and mind. He wrote of it practically, and he wrote of it as a cultural artefact, heavy with meaning.
“The first, the most essential canon, is that wine of every sort so long as it is pure, must be taken seriously as a chief element in life. It is the concomitant, and perhaps the foundation, of all our culture. ‘Man without wine is an ox,’ said the wise man – and he was right. Man without wine is a boor.”
And wine thematically connects all sorts of strands of Belloc’s life – his French nationality, his travels, his love of history, poetry and song, his musings on the Catholic Faith and Christian culture, his devotion to the liturgy and to Holy Mass; it even connects with his sailing, and not only because of the wine-dark sea upon which he sailed.
So, through the medium of wine we will draw closer to Belloc and learn more of the man and his thought – and perhaps draw closer to resolving that conundrum.
Wine is of course to many an evocation of place. The French insistence upon the importance of a wine’s terroir is a recognition that vine draws in the genius loci of a place, so that the grapes it bears, and the precious liquid then pressed from those grapes, is a unique and local thing. And the local was so important to Belloc. A man so widely travelled, often on foot, but who loved each and every place he saw because it was local and particular, because he felt the presence of that genius loci and drew it into his lungs (and drained it from a glass wherever possible). And how the Heroic Poem In Praise Of Wine, which I opened my talk with just a few minutes ago, incants that love of particular place, even while taking us on journey from Asia to the Atlas, and almost everywhere in between in a classical travelogue sans pareil:
“Sing how the Charioteer from Asia came,
And on his front the little dancing flame
Which marked the God-head. Sing the Panther-team,
The gilded Thyrsus twirling, and the gleam
Of cymbals through the darkness. Sing the drums.
He comes; the young renewer of Hellas comes!
The Seas await him. Those Aegean Seas
Roll from the dawning, ponderous, ill at ease,
In lifts of lead, whose cresting hardly breaks
To ghostly foam, when suddenly there awakes
A mountain glory inland. All the skies
Are luminous; and amid the sea bird cries
The mariner hears a morning breeze arise.
Then goes the Pageant forward. The sea-way
Silvers the feet of that august array
Trailing above the waters, through the airs;
And as they pass a wind before them bears
The quickening word, the influence magical.
The Islands have received it, marble-tall;
The long shores of the mainland. Something fills
The warm Euboean combes, the sacred hills
Of Aulis and of Argos. Still they move
Touching the City walls, the Temple grove,
Till, far upon the horizon-glint, a gleam
Of light, of trembling light, revealed they seem
Turned to a cloud, but to a cloud that shines,
And everywhere as they pass, the Vines! The Vines!
The Vines, the conquering Vines! And the Vine breathes
Her savour through the upland, empty heaths
Of treeless wastes; the Vines have come to where
The dark Pelasgian steep defends the lair
Of the wolf's hiding; to the empty fields
By Aufidus, the dry campaign that yields
No harvest for the husbandman, but now
Shall bear a nobler foison than the plough;
To where, festooned along the tall elm trees,
Tendrils are mirrored in Tyrrhenian seas;
To where the South awaits them; even to where
Stark, African, informed of burning air,
Upturned to Heaven the broad Hipponian plain
Extends luxurious and invites the main.
Guelma's a mother: barren Thaspsa breeds;
And northward in the valleys, next the meads
That sleep by misty river banks, the Vines
Have struck to spread below the solemn pines.
The Vines are on the roof-trees. All the Shrines
And Homes of men are consecrate with Vines.”
What a magnificent sequence of vistas passes befreo our eyes! The merry and magical journey of the life-giving sun and sun-kissed winds, from Anatolia to the north African plateaux – those winds that filled the sails of the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans even as it stirred the vine-leaves and caressed the nimble fingers that picked the grapes.
I often muse that the well of joy within Belloc that never yet was dried was probably full of wine, although whether full of his beloved wines of the Rhone, or Burgundy, or even of Orvieto hill – of which but two glasses taken chilled “are enough to make man immortal for a short time” – I cannot say. He drank by choice from a silver goblet at home, something with shame I admit to never having done. There is almost something liturgical in that image, to which we will of necessity return when we come to consider the grape sub specie aeternitatis. On board the Nona or the Jersey he would as often as not drink from a chipped enamel mug, something I have done, more often than I would like to admit.
Belloc was, of course a Frenchman by birth and – to some extent – by upbringing. He was naturalised as a British citizen only as late as 1902, at the age of 32. The Belloc of The Path to Rome was French. The Belloc of Danton and Robespierre was – appropriately – French. But so was the Belloc of The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts. He probably became British principally so that he could seriously consider a career in politics and stand for Parliament. But to his political enemies he would always be French.
Unsurprisingly, it is of French wine that he most often speaks – and I here do not just refer to that delightful and weaving excursus on the wine of Brûlé that adorns the opening parts of The Path to Rome. Even when he muses on wine further afield, it is often of north Africa, to which the French had returned the vine – as the Romans had brought it there so many centuries before – and where the glory of the French Republic born ironically of an imperial dream was manifest in newly-planted vineyards as in brand new railways and roads.
He revels in the red wines of Burgundy, particularly Corton, Vosne Romanée, Richebourg and Nuits St Georges; he appears almost to scorn the white wines there (for which I have to forgive him – it’s a blemish on his record which in my eyes is significant – but then Evelyn Waugh did say that Belloc’s opinions on wine were “strong and idiosyncratic to the verge of perversity”).
He claims no specialist knowledge of clarets – or the ‘wines of the Garonne’ as he calls them – but states that he is fond of them. (No man who has fallen in love with red Burgundy can ever love another red as he loves the wines of the Côte d’Or.) But he does have this to say about them:
“Claret is a doubtful thing. All the wines of the Garonne and of the Dordogne are as diverse as the souls and bodies of men. Some will live it out prodigiously for years, increasing in virtue with time – a process quite against the general order of things. Some die young, and are soured by the wickedness of the world in their first bloom. Some with precocity attain ripeness early like the poets, and hang on like the poets doubtfully, preserving their main quality on into middle age, and then, like the poets, rapidly becoming intolerably dull, downright bad, and worthy of destruction: sometimes calling for vengeance. Others have so little substance in them, that they rot from the first. Some few, some very few, are worthy to be called contemporaries with man himself.”.
Rhône wines he adores (even if he did blend them with Algerian red…). Of whites, he prefers them sweeter than drier, but not too sweet, although he does express a deep admiration for the drier wines of Faye on the Loire. Of sparkling wines he will only admit those of Angers, Saumur and Vouvray to be veritable wines – Champagne is to him a drug not a wine. He says it is “invaluable when tired” and he drinks it to raise himself “from the dead” – “a thing I constantly need”, he adds.
And the most French wine of all? It is that which is connected to perhaps one of the most French writers of all. I speak of Francois Rabelais, Abstractor of the Quintessence, surgeon, monk, satirist, runaway friar, humanist and writer of Gargantua and Pantagruel, one of the works of literature (in five volumes, although some doubt the authorship of the last two) most beloved of the Master. Rabelais’s style, both as expressed in the original and as polished, prettified, glossed upon, adorned, enlarged, revivified, be-lustred, bejewelled, damascened and rendered positively rococo by his first English – or should I say Scottish – translator (Sir Thomas Urquhart, a Royalist who fought at the battle of Worcester and wrote his translation from prison) can be found imitated throughout Belloc’s oeuvres, most notably in essays such as On the Approach of an Awful Doom, and of course in the prologue to The Path to Rome.
And the wine of Rabelais is Chinon, a red to be drunk cellar cool, or after a short dip in the waters of the Loire (the wine, not the drinker thereof). Find a bottle tomorrow, drink it. Failing that, find a bottle of Bourgeuil or St Nicholas de Bourgeuil, from the next town along the river bank, and revel in it. Your quest for Bacbuc, keeper of the oracle; of la dive bouteille, will then be over.
“And now the task of that triumphant day
Has reached to victory. In the reddening ray
With all his train, from hard Iberian lands
Fulfilled, apparent, that Creator stands
Halted on Atlas. Far Beneath him, far,
The strength of Ocean darkening and the star
Beyond all shores. There is a silence made.
It glorifies: and the gigantic shade
Of Hercules adores him from the West.
Dead Lucre: burnt Ambition: Wine is best.”
Belloc wrote that “[m]aking a custom of wine breeds an appreciation of truth, goodness and beauty”, so he construed the ideological rejection of wine – and indeed of alcoholic beverages more broadly – as a sign of the Devil’s mischief, of Man’s fallen nature, his vility and wretchedness, of something crooked in his very being that led him to despise a gift of God. And yet he had to some extent to accommodate himself to people with such views in order to further his political career.
His decision to seek the parliamentary constituency of South Salford as a Liberal candidate was probably taken in 1904, two years before the eventual election in which he won that seat. I believe that, notwithstanding his deep political interests, he also saw it as means of making a better living for his family and of selling more books. He had a lot of winning-over to do in his proposed constituency, not least from the core of Liberals who were non-conformists in religion and supporters of the Temperance movement, for many of whom consumption of alcohol was not just a potential occasion of sin (as Catholics might put it) but evil in itself. Just as he famously placated those of them who were anxious about his Catholic Faith, he managed to placate those who suspected him of inebriety, maintaining that he would fight against the big brewing industry (backed by his Conservative opponent) but would also fight for more relaxed opening hours and purer beer for the working man.
He knew that the temperance movement was an over-fastidious relic of puritanism become a bourgeois fad and luxury – and the working man needed a good drop regularly to leaven his often difficult life. He was almost alone in his party in supporting the Pure Beer Bill, a private Member’s Bill which the Liberal Government squashed (a familiar tale today); he regularly spoke in other debates on licensing laws, opening hours and pure beer, noting how easy it was for the rich to drink champagne at any time and in any place, whereas a glass of good beer for the working man was becoming more penned in by government regulation and capitalist control.
His support for the poor man’s drop ate into his support in the constituency. But at the first 1910 election he retained his seat, with a reduced majority (the party lost 110 seats across the country – so Belloc did significantly better than most Liberals) but decided not to contest his seat again when another election was called later that year. Famously he said: “I am glad to be rid of the dirtiest company it has ever been … my misfortune to keep.”
“But what are these that from the outer murk
Of dense mephitic vapours creeping lurk
To breathe foul airs from that corrupted well
Which oozes slime along the floor of Hell?
These are the stricken palsied brood of sin
In whose vile veins, poor, poisonous and thin,
Decoctions of embittered hatreds crawl:
These are the Water-Drinkers, cursed all!
On what gin-sodden Hags, what flaccid sires
Bred these White Slugs from what exhaust desires?
In what close prison's horror were their wiles
Watched by what tyrant power with evil smiles;
Or in what caverns, blocked from grace and air
Received they, then, the mandates of despair?
What! Must our race, our tragic race, that roam
All exiled from our first, and final, home:
That in one moment of temptation lost
Our heritage, and now wander, hunger-tost
Beyond the Gates (still speaking with our eyes
For ever of remembered Paradise),
Must we with every gift accepted, still,
With every joy, receive attendant ill?
Must some lewd evil follow all our good
And muttering dog our brief beatitude?
A primal doom, inexorable, wise,
Permitted, ordered, even these to rise.
Even in the shadow of so bright a Lord
Must swarm and propagate the filthy horde
Debased, accursed I say, abhorrent and abhorred.
Accursed and curse-bestowing. For whosoe'er
Shall suffer their contagion, everywhere
Falls from the estate of man and finds his end
To the mere beverage of the beast condemned.
For such as these in vain the Rhine has rolled
Imperial centuries by hills of gold;
For such as these the flashing Rhone shall rage
In vain its lightning through the Hermitage
Or level-browed divine Touraine receive
The tribute of her vintages at eve.
For such as these Burgundian heats in vain
Swell the rich slope or load the empurpled plain.
Bootless for such as these the mighty task
Of bottling God the Father in a flask
To one small ardent sphere immensely filled.
With memories empty, with experience null,
With vapid eye-balls meaningless and dull
They pass unblest through the unfruitful light;
And when we open the bronze doors of Night,
When we in high carousal, we reclined,
Spur up to Heaven the still ascending mind,
Pass with the all inspiring, to and fro,
The torch of genius and the Muse's glow,
They, lifeless, stare at vacancy alone
Or plan mean traffic, or repeat their moan.
We, when repose demands us, welcomed are
In young white arms, like our great Exemplar
Who, wearied with creation, takes his rest
And sinks to sleep on Ariadne's breast.
They through the darkness into darkness press
Despised, abandoned and companionless.
And when the course of either's sleep has run
We leap to life like heralds of the sun;
We from the couch in roseate mornings gay
Salute as equals the exultant day
While they, the unworthy, unrewarded, they
The dank despisers of the Vine, arise
To watch grey dawns and mourn indifferent skies.
Forget them! Form the Dionysian ring
And pulse the ground, and Io, Io, sing.”
While Belloc was a Frenchman, he was also a classicist – not in the professional sense – he of course read History and not Greats at Balliol – but by education and cultural affinity. The knowledge of Europe’s classical heritage lies deep at the root of much of what he believed, understood and wrote about, although its influence is not as first always apparent. In this respect it echoes much of what he would write as an historian, of the role of Rome in establishing, defending and defining the European thing, and giving to our civilisation the form and functions with which we are familiar – not least in law, but also in politics (of a sort), in war-making, in technology and in the plastic arts.
Where cities were built, where roads led and bridges were fashioned are all part of the Roman work of Europe with which we still live. But much of this lies hidden. Not far from where I live was raised the second largest basilica in Roman Britain – at Calleva Atrebatum, Silchester – it lies hidden from view beneath grassy hillocks where cows now graze, inside the broken-down walls of that now deserted city. The largest basilica in Roman Britain was in London (one of the largest in Europe), and lies now, also invisible, beneath Leadenhall Market. But Belloc knew that the Roman thing was largely a thing of continuity. Silchester, like Wroxeter, or Viriconium, as it was known, was a statistical outlier, an anomaly, a Roman city that failed. Most of what Rome made is still with us, even if we don’t know it.
But it wasn’t just the history of the classical world with which Belloc was familiar – it was the culture of the worlds of Greece and Rome; and, as any fule kno, culture is founded upon cultus, religion. We will touch upon the successor religion to classical paganism a little later, but no-one could have written the opening stanzas of the Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine without being steeped in the myths and weltanschauung of that world of antiquity. So many of the references, now to us obscure, would have been known, and not just amongst the most highly educated, for centuries on end. And some of what he wrote is now for us difficult to grasp, shrouded in that obscurity which we have created with our ignorance.
I remember reading how, before a voyage, or each time when he left harbour, upon the decks of his ship the Master would pour a libation of wine to the gods, often accompanied by the recitation of a couplet from Homer or from Virgil. This might seem an odd thing for a devout Catholic to do, but there are many strands to the life of the Faith which reach back to what one might call noble pagan instinct. Classical texts are of course as replete with references to wine as they are to the sea – and all of those voyages in the great literary works of the Greek and Roman worlds, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid to name the three most obvious, are full of nautical journeying, where landfall at home is often signalled by the sight of vines ashore, the vine being the manifestation of home and civilisation.
For the vine represents longevity of settlement, order, and the hearth; where people tilled the soil for generations to draw from it the lifeblood for those who were to follow. Much as the vine symbolised to the Christian world the homeland of the Faith outside of which was the disorder of the vagrant barbaroi, the silent emptiness of the desert nomads or the alien order of those civilisations of the East which had forsaken wine, so the vine to classical man was the sign of home, and of the cultus of his patria.
How long does a newly-planted vine need before it can produce wine really worth drinking? How long can a vine last, and at what stage in its life does it produce its most concentrated grape juices, albeit from a dwindling annual harvest? These are things beyond a generation, for a vine truly to express itself from the terroir in which it grows, things of two, more likely three generations. Add to that the tradition of laying down wines for one’s children or grand-children, of clearing land so that your children can plant their vines for wine for their grand-children, and it is easy to see how deep the roots of that culture need to be to sustain the vine – a culture that was spread by Rome (and Greece before it) even if its origins lie murky further east.
Wine is home, wine is civilisation, wine is continuity with tradition and order – wine is also companionship: inns, taverns, friends beside a roaring hearth, or at table.
As the phenomenon of wine stands on the classical origins of ‘the West’, of Europe (which in Belloc’s time was seen as embracing north Africa between the Atlas and Middle Sea, as it had in Roman times), so Belloc’s interest in history was an interest in the story of ‘the West’, of how that classical civilisation morphed into the world he knew.
There has probably never been an historical writer in this country so able as Belloc to conjure up time and place, and to set before the reader with such vividness a scene of long past as though it were one remembered not fashioned – the sights, the sounds, the smells – and all drawn from contemporary texts, proximate narrative accounts, and from his understanding of the time, and often of the place where that scene was set. It’s not my task now to speak of ‘Belloc and History’; but his capacity to see the world now, and to see it then, to make connections between the two, to escry similarity and difference, and to gauge the whys and wherefores for those likenesses and dissimilarities, is a key part of his genius as a writer and a thinker.
Were I now to set before you a bottle of Clos de Vougeot (were I fortunate enough to have such a bottle!), what would you see? Here is a wine, even beyond the expense of most other burgundies, fashioned from grapes grown in land enclosed by the monastic wall of a Cistercian holding, managed by the monks of Cîteaux, that Order’s mother-house. The land was passed to that Order in the twelfth century, and was land already planted with vines on a site that dates back for such viticultural use to the Merovingian period (and probably anterior to that).
When I see that wine, when I pull the cork and pour the liquid – say a white Clos, golden and buttery – into my glass, I can hear the chanting of the monks I can see their robed figures among the vines, while below, on the road from Beaune to Dijon march armies Merovingian, then Carolingian, Burgundian, royal then Republican French – I see the chain mail, the guerdons, then the plate armour and chivalric colours and the blossoming of heraldry; I see the white frock-coats of the Frederician wars of the so-called Enlightenment and then the vivid blue of the Republican armies. How expressive is just that one glass! Imagine what a whole bottle would do! And so was wine to Belloc, a messenger from Clio, Muse of History.
And then we come to the hill of Corton, and to Charlemagne.
“When he with his wide host came conquering home
From vengeance under Roncesvalles ta’en”
It’s not always possible to distinguish legend from history, nor is it always desirable. As the Master so often pointed out, local folk-tales about a place often record, in embellished form, something which sober narratives of the time omit or speak about only in adumbration, but which is true in its own way. Charlemagne stood atop Corton hill – some say it was already royal land, having been Imperial land under Rome – on his way back from fighting the Saracen (as the Chanson de Roland records). Vines were already there, not covering all the hill – they are recorded in a chronicle dated to c696 AD and no doubt were Roman in origin. He stood, the wind in his white beard and hair, and in a vox clara et alta – the voice high and clear, as Joinville has it, a description that makes me think of the voice of the Master too – declared the wine of that hill to be his favourite, and ordered casks of it to be brought to his train before setting off for the north, for Aix, his capital.
If you win the lottery, seek out a bottle of Corton-Charlemagne, or Charlemagne: they are not inexpensive, as perhaps befits a wine fashioned for an Emperor – they are white wines, although reds, designated as Corton or Aloxe-Corton, are also grown lower on that hill. His wife, it is said, preferred him to drink the white, as it would not then fleck his beard with red.
“Or when his bramble beard flaked with foam
Of bivouac wine-cups on the Lombard plain
What time he swept to grasp the world at Rome…”
And when, as I was saying, you drink that white, think of him atop that hill, on his horse, Tencendur, with his sword, Joyeuse, at his side – Carolus Magnus, great king and war-leader, first Holy Roman Emperor, the greatest figure of his generation, and of many generations to either side of his.
“Father Lenaean, to whom our strength belongs,
Our loves, our wars, our laughter and our songs,
Remember our inheritance, who praise
Your glory in these last unhappy days
When beauty sickens and a muddied robe
Of baseness fouls the universal globe.
Though all the Gods indignant and their train
Abandon ruined man, do thou remain!
By thee the vesture of our life was made,
The Embattled Gate, the lordly Colonnade,
The woven fabric's gracious hues, the sound
Of trumpets, and the quivering fountain-round,
And, indestructible, the Arch, and, high,
The Shaft of Stone that stands against the sky,
And, last, the guardian-genius of them, Rhyme,
Come from beyond the world to conquer time:
All these are thine, Lenaean.
By thee do seers the inward light discern;
By thee the statue lives, the Gods return;
By thee the thunder and the falling foam
Of loud Acquoria's torrent call to Rome;
Alba rejoices in a thousand springs,
Gensano laughs, and Orvieto sings...
But, Ah! With Orvieto, with that name
Of dark, Etrurian, subterranean flame
The years dissolve. I am standing in that hour
Of majesty Septembral, and the power
Which swells the clusters when the nights are still
With autumn stars on Orvieto hill.”
For to drink wine is to drink history.
Think of the wines of the Rhône valley, quite possibly the first part of France to be brought vines by the Greeks, perhaps by the Phoenicians before them; on the steep baked hills of Cornas and Côte Rôtie, the vintners still use caves there delved wherein are stone vats to store and then press the grape, vats that were there at least in Roman times, perhaps before.
Think of Châteauneuf du Pape, a living memorial of the Avignonese Papacy, called at its time by those who lamented the departure of the Popes from Rome the ‘new Babylonian captivity’ – a phenomenon of the fourteenth century which blessed, if that is the term, a part of what is now France, then the Holy Roman Empire, with the seat of the Popes for some 67 years (and to which Popes or Anti-Popes, I forget which, returned during the Great Schism of the fifteenth century). Among those earlier Popes was John XXII, known to his enemies as ‘the fat Pope of Cahors’ (history records him as being thin and ascetic), who brought to the area his local grape variety, Tannat, in order to have close to hand the ‘black wine’ of his youth.
For the Catholic Church and the history of Europe are of course interwoven; and the Church and wine likewise, more existentially still.
The White Monks and their lay-brothers toiling in the vineyards at Clos de Vougeot were an off-shoot of the Black Monks, the Benedictines, who were themselves possibly the primary inheritors of the Roman thing in Europe: learning, rhetoric, reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, agriculture, science. As the power of local Imperial rule weakened, that rule in the cities passed to the local bishop, who took over management of the dioceses which the Romans had ruled (thus the term). The great rural estates, the latifundia, increasingly were passed on to the new monastic houses which sprung up through the seventh and eighth centuries or to the canonries of the cathedral towns.
The word basilica denoted where a Roman magistrate would sit to hear cases and give judgment: it is now associated with the Church, as so many of those basilicae became churches, as the Empire became Christian and the Church replaced the Empire. Just as the central doors of St John Lateran in Rome were taken from the old Senate House in the Forum, and the Pantheon renamed and remade as the Church of Mary and the Martyrs, so the ceremonies of a Pontifical Mass in the ‘extraordinary’ form (as some now call it) mirror Imperial ceremonial, with possible Gallican additions from the time of – you guessed it – Charlemagne.
As Dom Gregory Dix put it, the famed author of The Shape of the Liturgy:
“It is because it [the Holy Mass] became embedded deep down in the life of the Christian peoples, colouring all the via vitae of the ordinary man and woman, marking its personal turning points, marriage, sickness, death and the rest, running through it year by year with the feasts and fasts and rhythm of the Sundays, that the Eucharistic action became inextricably woven into the public history of the Western world. The thought of it is inseparable for its great turning points also. Pope Leo doing this in the morning before he went out to daunt Attila, on the day that saw the continuity of Europe saved; and another Leo doing this three and a half centuries later when he crowned Charlemagne Roman Emperor, on the day that saw that continuity fulfilled. Or again, Alfred wandering defeated by the Danes staying his soul on this, while medieval England struggled to be born.[...]. At Constantinople they “do this” yet with the identical words and gestures they used while the silver trumpets of the Basileus still called across the Bosphorus in what seems to us now this strange fairy-tale land of the Byzantine Empire. In ...[the] twentieth century Charles de Foucauld in his hermitage in the Sahara “did this” with the same [liturgical] rite as Cuthbert twelve centuries before in his hermitage on Lindisfarne in the Northern seas.”
The classical thing became the Roman Imperial thing which became the Catholic thing which became the European thing.
For wine is intrinsically necessary to the Catholic religion and its liturgical practice. Not only is its use attested to (and hallowed) by references in Sacred Scripture, but the centre-piece of each Catholic’s life, the Holy Mass, could not be celebrated without it. Where the Church goes, the vine goes – a lot of the earliest estates in New Zealand, Australia, America, north and south, and even South Africa, began under ecclesiastical aegis – to produce wine for the Mass (and, after Mass, for the priest’s refreshment!). The same is no doubt true in earlier centuries, as the Faith spread across eastern Europe and to places further afield.
And for a brief while, amidst the aridity and desolation of Tamanrasset, amidst the Sahara, vines grew. Blessed Charles de Foucauld, ex-aristocratic playboy and French hussar, raised these vines: as a priest he needed wine for Holy Mass, and supplies from the nearest French garrison were not always to be relied upon. Even if they had been, Blessed Charles saw the importance of growing grapes around his hermitage. It is appropriate for the dwelling of a priest to be surrounded by the drooping clusters and gentle tendrils of the vine.
“Though Man made wine I think God made it too;
God, making all things, made Man make good wine.
He taught him how the little tendrils twine
About the stakes of labour close and true.
Then next, with intimate prophetic laughter,
He taught the Man, in His own image blest,
To pluck and waggon and to – all the rest!
To tread the grape and work his vintage after.
So did God make us, making good wine's makers;
So did He order us to rule the field.
And now by God are we not only bakers
But vintners also, sacraments to yield;
Yet most of all strong lovers. Praised be to God!
Who taught us how the wine-press should be trod!”
And let us not forget that Belloc also used to baptise some of his wine:
“All – nearly all – Red wine is the better for having just one or two drops of water poured into the first glass only. Why this should be so I know not, but so it is. It introduces it. This admirable and little know custom is called ‘Baptising’ wine.”
The ecclesiastical traditions of course extend beyond wine. Dom Perignon was said to be the first person properly to develop manageable fermentation of wine in a bottle (hotly contested by fellow monks from Limoux in the Languedoc where they make their rightly lauded Blanquette). The monks of Belgium are in particular noted for their brewing: so strong are some of the Trappist ales that there is no wonder that the monks are speechless. Then there is Chartreuse, Frigolet (a little-known Premonstratensian liqueur spirit from Provence), and Benedictine. Distillation itself was developed in monastic houses (the Church was for a long while the guardian of science, and its foremost proponent – the Cistercian houses of the north of England refined metal-working skills which allowed Henry VIII, of all people, to cast larger and more reliable cannon).
Wine and religion have a relationship which predated the Church – I have already mentioned Belloc imitating the actions of a Roman sailor (or Greek before him, or even Phoenician before them both?), pouring out an offering upon the deck of the Nona. The legions carried the vine wherever they went – they required wine for the oathtaking of new recruits, which they called the sacramentum, from where we derive our word sacrament. Wine, as an accompaniment to religious ritual, is particularly prevalent in the works of Virgil. The wine that was poured out in oblation was said to be the very god, Bacchus Lenaeus, himself.
In the Mass, the wine is transubstantiated into Christ’s blood, shed for all men – Christ the vine and thus the grape, trod upon in the wine-press of the Passion to provides new wine to sanctify the plebs sancta dei. In that sense, wine becomes God, and the classical and the Christian unite. And in drinking it, His Blood, we ourselves share in that Divinity.
So in that goblet, that glass, that you or I can hold, that we can share with family and friends, wine encapsulates so much of Belloc, because it encapsulates so much of the West, of the European thing, those traditions and the history he loved, whose culture he defended and which he himself had inherited and desired to see passed on. It truly is “leading all Creation down distilled/ To one small ardent sphere immensely filled.” In that goblet perhaps lies the Belloc that all of us can see.
“Had these been mine, Ausonian Muse, to know
The large contented oxen heaving slow;
To count my sheaves at harvest; so to spend
Perfected days in peace until the end;
With every evening's dust of gold to hear
The bells upon the pasture height, the clear
Full horn of herdsmen gathering in the kine
To ancient byres in hamlets Appenine,
And crown abundant age with generous ease:
Had these, Ausonian Muse, had these, had these...
But since I would not, since I could not stay,
Let me remember even in this my day
How, when the ephemeral vision's lure is past
All, all, must face their Passion at the last
Was there not one that did to Heaven complain
How, driving through the midnight and the rain,
He struck, the Atlantic seethe and surge before,
Wrecked in the North along a lonely shore
To make the lights of home and hear his name no more.
Was there not one that from a desperate field
Rode with no guerdon but a rifted shield;
A name disherited; a broken sword;
Wounds unrenowned; battle beneath no Lord;
Strong blows, but on the void, and toil without reward.
When from the waste of such long labour done
I too must leave the grape-ennobling sun
And like the vineyard worker take my way
Down the long shadows of declining day,
Bend on the sombre plain my clouded sight
And leave the mountain to the advancing night,
Come to the term of all that was mine own
With nothingness before me, and alone;
Then to what hope of answer shall I turn?
Comrade-Commander whom I dared not earn,
What said You then to trembling friends and few?
"A moment, and I drink it with you new:
But in my Father's Kingdom." So, my Friend,
Let not Your cup desert me in the end.
But when the hour of mine adventure's near
Just and benignant, let my youth appear
Bearing a Chalice, open, golden, wide,
With benediction graven on its side.
So touch my dying lip: so bridge that deep:
So pledge my waking from the gift of sleep,
And, sacramental, raise me the Divine:
Strong brother in God and last companion, Wine.”
|Folk singing at Rusper parish church|