In 1395, the Hôpital Civil de Strasbourg, at the time an almost-300-year-old hospital, dug a wine cellar specifically to serve its patients—and not just with meals. From high cholesterol to herpes, doctors of the Middle Ages were prescribing wine for “pretty much any disease,” says Azélina Jaboulet-Vercherre, a wine historian at Ferrandi Paris, a culinary and hotel management institute. For instance, she notes that melancholia, as depression was called back then, was treated with thin white wine—never red. “You smell it first. It has to smell good,” says Jaboulet-Vercherre. “And if your case is not too severe you are allowed a little amount to drink.”
European physicians of the Middle Ages were by no means the first to use wine medicinally. A millennium earlier, the Greeks and Romans were using wine in concoctions to treat various ailments and as a wound cleaner. In the 11th century, the Persian scientist Ibn Sina (called Avicenna in the West) wrote in his influential textbook Canon of Medicine that wine “conserveth the body, expelleth disease from the joints, purifieth the frame of corrupt humours, engendereth cheerfulness . . . ,” according to a translation in Philip Norrie’s chapter, “The history of wine as a medicine,” in the 2003 book Wine: A Scientific Exploration. Ibn Sina’s list of wine’s nearly endless applications goes on, from aiding digestion to staving off gray hairs.
Continuing this long tradition, wine was in such regular rotation as a panacea during the Middle Ages in Europe that the Hôpital Civil would accept vineyard plots in lieu of gold for patients’ payments. “To stock all the wine that was produced, they had to build a cellar,” says Thibaut Baldinger, the cellar’s manager, via email. The “wine therapy” given to patients for wellness could be up to two liters a day, but Baldinger points out that it was at a much lower alcohol level than what modern drinkers imbibe.
Jaboulet-Vercherre says a number of hospitals in Europe had their own wine cellars. While physicians often offered wine as a tonic to patients, its principal use was for the treatment of wounds, says Norrie, a family physician and wine historian in Sydney. Clinicians soaked sponges or cloth in wine and applied it to the wound. “The most important thing in the Middle Ages was infection,” he tells The Scientist. “You were going to die of some infectious disease, and wine was a good antiseptic.”
Norrie says it wasn’t the alcohol in the wine that killed off pathogens, but the grapes’ polyphenols, and red wine was preferred over white because it contains more of these compounds. Hospitals would also use wine to clean their surgical instruments, as the water was sometimes contaminated. For the same reason, patients often got wine to drink. “If you drank the water you were going to die, and if you drank the wine you wouldn’t,” says Norrie.
Wine has since fallen out of favor as medicine. Doctors are no longer prescribing wine on the grounds that it “enforceth the liver,” as Ibn Sina advocated, and there is quite a bit of debate about its possible benefits versus harms. But Norrie is an evangelist of wine’s therapeutic advantages. He sells “the world’s first resveratrol enhanced wine” and invokes a concept credited to the 16th century physician-scientist Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (a.k.a. Paracelsus): it’s the dose that makes the poison.
Kerry Grens is a senior editor and the news director at The Scientist. Email her at email@example.com.