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The Early Middle Ages

Saint Rémi became bishop of Rheims in 459, and we know that he baptized Clovis there on Christmas day in 496. He died in Rheims in around 533, and his relics are venerated in the Basilica of Saint Rémi. Legend has much associated Saint Rémi with the wines of Champagne. Following almost to the letter a text of Hincmar [1], Flodoard [2] tells of the miracle of the wine that the man of God, after blessing it, gave to Clovis as a promise of victory:

King Louis III was marching against Gondebaud and his brother Gondé Gisèle. Having received the blessing of Saint Rémi who predicted victory for him, he received, amongst the instructions that the bishop gave him, a recommendation to fight his enemies for as long as the blessed wine that he had given him sufficed for his daily use. Having put the Burgondes to flight and founded a church in Paris that is today called Saint Étienne-du-Mont, on the advice of Saint Rémi, his patron, he marched against the Arian King Alaric, and received from Saint Rémi, with his blessing, the assurance of victory. As before the Saint gave him a flask filled with blessed wine and advised him to pursue his foes so long as the flask continued to supply him, and anyone else that he chose, with wine. And so the king drank, along with several of his officers, but the flask did not become empty. He fought hand to hand with the Goths and put them to flight. He returned to his homeland victorious and covered with glory, and the flask only became empty on his return. [3]

This miracle is represented in fifteenth century costumes on one of the exquisite tapestries of the Life of Saint Rémi given to the chapter of the Basilica of Saint Rémi in 1531 by the Archbishop of Rheims, Robert de Lenoncourt, and kept in Rheims. The tapestry tells the story with the following verse:

To Clovis, as the story tells,
He gave a cask bunged tight and fast
And said, ’You’ll hear the victory bells
While this my wine will last.’

Another time, carrying out his Episcopal tasks, Saint Rémi was travelling through his diocese, and on the request of his cousin, Celsa, a consecrated virgin, he went to the village of Sault4, where she lived. When the Saint, as was his custom, poured some of his cousin’s wine of life from the a holy vessel, her store master came to tell him that they were lacking in wine. At this Remi merrily consoled him, and asked if there was a little wine left in any of the barrels.  [4]. He was shown one in which a little wine had been left to keep the barrel moist. Saint Rémi made the sign of the cross on the barrel and, going down on his knees near the wall, addressed a fervent prayer to the heavens. Wonder of wonders! At that same moment wine gushed from the bunghole and flooded over the floor. As soon as his cousin heard of this miraculous event she gave her land at Sault to Saint Rémi and to his church, and she confirmed this gift with a notarial deed.

This miracle is also shown in the tapestry mentioned above and described with the following verse:

His cousin’s barrel empty lay
But once blessed did fill with wine
For God did give a sign that day
And made a work divine

Of all the miracles recounted by Flodoard, and they are numerous, none involve a local wine production, which one would have expected to figure in matters of local legend. But what should be made of the vines and vineyard workers that are mentioned in the Testament de Saint Rémi, le Grand Testament, to which Flodoard devotes a chapter in his History of the Church of Rheims? After recalling that Saint Rémi instituted the Church of Rheims as sole legatee, several pages are devoted to detailing individual legacies, including vines located in a suburb of Rheims, which were to be divided between priests and deacons and the vineyard worker Mélanius, an ecclesiastical serf who tended them. Other vines are listed, and this is thus the first document to refer to vines in Champagne. But when was is drawn up? Saint Rémi died, as we have seen, in the first part of the sixth century, but for some historians, this account is apocryphal or has at the very least undergone major alterations. As Hincmar was writing in the ninth century and Charles le Chauve makes reference to it in a decree in 846, we can assert with some certainty that after the year 800 vines were well established in Champagne; there is general agreement they began to spread in the region at the beginning of the seventh century as a result of vineyards being developed by princes and noblemen, and by monastic and ecclesiastic organizations.

In his Civil and Ecclesiastical History of the diocese of Laon, Dom Le Long included a translation of a letter written in around 850 to Hincmar from Pardulus, the bishop of Laon. It contains the following, "I am delighted to hear that you have regained your health, for, after God, I consider you my best friend and my consolation in adversity. Look after yourself well, and finish your meals with a few well-cooked beans with some fat; this will help the digestion and purge humours. Make use of the mediocre wines of Epernay, Mailly and Cormicy. I will come and see you as soon as possible, and converse with you as with an angel of our Lord." Then there is Dom Marlot, in his History of the Town, City and University of Rheims, who refers to the same letter, but without giving the text, and writes that there is mention of the good wines of Epernay, Mont-Ebon, Rheims and Chaumuzy. A doubt could therefore exist as to the provenance of the wines, but not concerning their existence in Champagne in the ninth century. As for their quality, Dom Le Long is mistaken when he translates the Latin word mediocre as "mediocre", in the context of the letter it would have meant "average", in other words neither too strong nor too weak and therefore the most suitable for Hincmar’s health.

Wine became a source of wealth and prestige for noblemen and bishops. In terms of hospitality the idea that the honour paid to the guest and the honour of the host was attached to the offering of wine gained a firm hold in the upper reaches of society in the early Middle Ages [5]. And thus it was around this time that the bishop of Rheims became the owner of vines at Epernay and Hautvillers and that the ecclesiastical and civil powers began to create their own wine producing estates in Champagne that continued to multiply until the Revolution. Convents and monasteries also established vineyards in order to provide wine for Mass, and for themselves and the princes and lords who frequently visited them, and, in a time when inns did not yet exist, for the travellers to whom they would offer food and shelter. They also supplied the nobility and local population with wine, thereby collecting a large part of the revenues necessary for their upkeep and for their charitable activities. Now, it just so happened that during the seventh century there was a great flourishing of abbeys in northern Champagne, founded by princes and bishops due to the monastic revival instituted by Saint Benoît in the second half of the sixth century and continued from Luxeuil by Saint Colomban at the begining of the seventh century. Noteworthy abbeys that date from this period include those of Saint Rémi and Saint Pierre in Reims, Saint Pierre in Hautvillers, Saint Pierre in Châlons, Saint Sauveur in Vertus, Saint Basle in Verzy, Sainte Marie in Avenay, Saint Pierre-Saint Paul in Orbais, the Abbey of Montiéramey and that which Saint Thierry founded near Reims, and which bears his name. Other abbeys were built in Champagne over the course of the following centuries, such as the Abbey of Molesme, those of Saint Martin in Epernay and Notre-Dame in Sézanne, and in Rheims those of Saint Nicaise and Saint-Denis, this last was due to Hincmar. In 1155 Saint Bernard founded the Abbey of Clairvaux, the spiritual heir to Cluny. Under his influence a multitude of Cistercian abbeys were founded, fourteen in just the area that is now the département of the Marne, again participating in the propagation of vines in Champagne. There were also priories built in the twelfth century, such as those of Tours-sur-Marne and Saint-Maurice in Reims. Jacques Madaule wrote in the preface of La France des Abbayes of Taralon:

The law of the monks is to pray and to work with their hands. Any part of their day that is not devoted to prayer must be spent working. Times were hard, the Roman roads had become unusable through lack of maintenance, and depopulated towns had scarcely any local commerce and even less industry. The only survivors were the relatively prosperous large estates that were virtually self- sufficient and where the rare local peasants could find refuge and protection. It was on this model of the large secular estate that Colomban designed his abbeys. Of the rest the Benedictine abbeys, which follow the rules of Saint Benoît, were organized in much the same way.

This is why so many forests were cleared and so many vines planted. It would seem that one of the earliest vineyards was established near Rheims on the land around the Abbey of Saint-Thierry, where Benedictine nuns still tend the vines, and that another was planted in the Valley of the Marne around the abbeys of Epernay and Hautvillers. Others were established later on the slopes of Vertus, that included vines owned by the burghers (bourgeois) of Châlons, and in Bar-sur-Aube.

Meanwhile in 843 the Treaty of Verdun had divided up Louis the Pious’s possessions, with the result that the administrative border, that had been determined by the organization of the Roman provinces, and was formed by the Valley of the Marne, was replaced by a north-south border that separated the kingdoms of Lothaire and Charles le Chauve. The vineyards of Rheims, the Marne and the Aube were all to the west of this line. Even though the North remained under the control of the Archbishops of Rheims and the South under that of the Counts of Troyes, the groundwork had been laid for the unification the vineyards of the Champagne region.

A few years later a document was drawn up that at last gives us concrete information about the social structure within the vineyards and production of wines in Champagne. The Polyptique de l’Abbaye de Saint Rémi provides an inventory of the abbey’s properties, serfs and revenues around the middle if the ninth century, and enables the identification of several communes as already producing wine, namely Beine, Courtisols, Crugny, Gueux, Hermonville, Louvercy, Muizon, Rilly-la-Montagne, Sacy, Taissy, Treslon. The wine producer was an important person, and is one of the few, along with the fisherman and the cook, whose profession is stated in the polyptique. Amongst the other offices mentionned the cellérier (cellarist or master of provisions) is also given a significant place. The abbey’s total "credit" in terms of both its own production and wine that it received as dues is listed as 1,567 large sized muids, which corresponds to more than 4,000 hectolitres or 88,000 gallons. The abbey also benefited from corvées (statutory labour) for the harvests, for the carting of wine (ad vini conductum) and even of the must (mustum), and at certain festivals there were obligatory offerings of bottled wine (butaculas, plenas vino). It is clear that vines and wine were very much part of life in Champagne.

By the eleventh century the terrible barbaric incursions of the two previous centuries had stopped, for in 882 the Normans had descended from Condé-sur-l’Escaut into Rheims and the region, and in 937 the Hungarians has pillaged and burnt the whole of Champagne. Years of pestilence and famine became further apart (in 873 and 1027 bodies were dug up and eaten), although there were still years of great shortage in 1145 and 1197 [6]. The Counts of Troyes became the Counts of Champagne, but did not yet supplant the Archbishops of Rheims in the northern part of the region. In 1095 Pope Urbain II, born Odon (or Eudes), Lord of Lageri (or Lagery) and Binson, of the house of Châtillon, born in Châtillon-sur-Marne, proclaimed the first crusade at the Concile de Clermont; a huge venture began, and the aggression of the nobility was aroused.

Once the terror of the millennium year had passed the vineyard workers were able, in comparative tranquillity, to tend the vines. Those of the princely, ecclesiastical and monastic estates were worked by free men and for the most part by serfs. Emancipation of serfs was not however uncommon. The following appears in the Testament de Saint Rémi, "As for you, Loup, bishop, my brother’s son,... you own the vines tended by Enée the vine grower; I would like Enée and Manulfe, his young son, to enjoy liberty" [7]. It was in this period that the production of wine began to link property ownership and peasant labour. Thus in the Polyptique de l’Abbaye de Saint Rémi we learn that the abbey’s vineyards were made up of those that were part of the estate, the mansus indominicatus, and of manses, which were parcels of land entrusted to tenants. The first were tended by the abbey’s lay brothers and serfs, and the second by the tenants, who would have been serfs or free men with an agreement by which they would give the abbey two thirds of the harvest every year, and kept the rest for themselves. Free men, including emancipated serfs, were gradually gaining access to property, buying vines with the income from their share, or through inheritance, as can be found again in the Testament de Saint Rémi, " I want freedom for Vital, my labourer. I give him the vines that I planted at Vindonissa"; today this area probably corresponds to Vandières or Vendeuil. In order to encourage the spreading of vines "contrats de complant" were instituted on the following basis (extracts are from a study by Roger Grand that appears in Roger Dion’s Histoire de la Vigne et du Vin en France).

A vine grower would approach the owner of some land that was not cultivated, or more rarely of some land or vines that had fallen out of use, and ask him to let him plant new vines on the land. The owner, whose interests would be served by the proposition, would give the vine grower total control of the land for five years, this being the time judged necessary for the establishing of vines, and for the various long, costly and delicate operations that would be required before the vines started fully producing.
At the end of the five years the land would be divided into two equal parts, one coming back to the original owner and the other remaining in the hands of the vine grower subject to various legal arrangements, which depended on the particular case, the period and the region, and which went from straightforward transfer of ownership to free use during the life of the vine grower, but which almost always required an annual payment, sometimes financial, but usually a share of the harvest.

In this way vines came to cover the area now known as Champagne. In a work entitled Carte historique des vignobles de la Marne (Historic Map of the Vineyards of the Marne) Raoul Chandon de Briailles identifies, amongst the boundaries of the current département of the Marne, 131 communes on which vines were planted at the beginning of the twelfth century. The region of Rheims was the most densely covered, followed by that of Epernay, and, much further behind, by those of Châlons-sur-Marne, Sainte-Menehould, Vitry-le-François and Sézanne. Vines were also widely established in the upper valleys of the Seine and the Aube. It may therefore be considered that by the end of the Early Middle Ages there were enough vines and organized wine production in Champagne to support the start of the commercialization of the region’s wines which was to follow.


[1Archbishop of Rheims and counsellor to Charles le Chauve, born approx. 806, died in 882 in Epernay.

[2Chanoine (Canon) of the Cathedral of Rheims, archivist, born in Epernay in 894, died in Rheims in 966.

[3FLODOARD. Flodoardi Historia Remensis Ecclesiae, History of the Church (of Rheims), translated with the support of the Academy by M. Lejeune. Rheims, 1854.

[4The invention of the barrel is generally attributed to the Gauls, but here is what Legrand d’Aussy wrote on this subject in his History of French Private Life, "The Latins agree that this ingenious invention is due to those brought by the Gauls, who went to settle along the River P�; but it is not known if the Gauls already knew of it when they left their country."

[5DION (Roger). Histoire de la vigne et du vin en France des origines au XIX e, siècle.(History of the Vine and Wine in France up to the Nineteenth Century) Paris, 1959.

[6GALERON (ME.). Historic Journal of Rheims from its foundation to the present day. Rheims, 1853.

[7FLODOARD. Flodoardi Historia Remensis Ecclesiae, History of the Church (of Rheims), translated with the support of the Academy by M. Lejeune. Rheims, 1854.