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Gothic Architecture and wine

The restoration of Notre Dame continues


JUL 04, 2024

Before I get into this week’s topic, we are still offering free wine walks to anyone who sends us a photo of a vine or vineyard in Paris we have not yet found. You can check to see what we have found on our website here, which may not be entirely up to date, although we’re working on it.We’re also organising a leisurely vine-spotting outing on bikes this Sunday, 7 July in the west of Paris. Send us an email for details if you’d like to join (free of charge)pariswinewalks@gmail.comAnd if you can identify the five vineyards in last week’s post, you can also win a free wine walk.

The rebuilding of Notre Dame (photo taken 3 July 2024)

As Paris frantically prepares to receive the world for the Olympic Games, Notre Dame stands out in a glaring state of incompletion. It’s been five years since fire destroyed much of this singular icon of the Paris cityscape, and with all eyes on the French capital, there are many who have been wondering whether it will be ready when the world arrives for the ultra mediatised Olympic Games. The answer is no, but not by much. The date that it is scheduled to reopen is 8 December 2024. So only 3 months after the games.

Notre Dame with bleachers being built along the Seine for the OGs (photo taken 3 July 2024)

But that is already a truly prodigious feat as it took nearly two centuries (1163-1350) to build. Restoring it to its former glory (the spire added by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc in 1859 included) will have taken just over 5 years.

But what has any of that to do with wine?

Wine is the wellspring of Gothic architecture. This might sound like a rather fanciful statement, but it was the proliferation of the vine and the wealth garnered from the sale of wine that produced the necessary conditions for Gothic architecture to flourish. Gothic architecture was in fact created and developed in the Paris basin, which stretches north to south from Reims to Chartres and east to west from Senlis to Sens. The wealth generated from the sale of wine abroad brought enormous riches to the abbeys and the aristocracy. That wealth, coupled with architectural skill, a ready labour force and the requisite materials for building, made it possible for the great Gothic churches of France, most of which are centred in and around the Paris basin (Amiens, Reims, Chartres, Notre Dame de Paris, the Sainte Chapelle, the Abbey church of Saint Denis, Sens, Bourges, Beauvais…) to be built.

Both the profits and the quantities of wine that flowed through Paris from the sale of wine were prodigious. It is estimated that per-capita wine production in France was twice that of what it is today, creating a cash surplus that afforded this deeply religious society the luxury of building to the glory of God. The best vineyards at the time were indeed in the areas where the Gothic style was created and flourished. It can then be said that wine is the single most important economic factor in the cultural and spiritual growth of the time.

John James in his book, The Traveller’s Key to Medieval Francedescribes the economic boom, fuelled by the sale of wine, that inspired the surge in architectural experimentation that created the Gothic style:

“During the second half of the 12th century, northern France was more prosperous than at any other time before the Revolution. It was a confident, deeply religious and wealthy society that enjoyed the highest prestige in Europe. During this boom time, prodigious sums of money were spent on architecture. An enormous proportion of the labour force must have been employed on construction, perhaps one in ten of all able-bodied men.From this enthusiasm for building, the Gothic style was born in the small area known as the Paris Basin, that limestone massif which extends from Chartres to Reims and from Senlis to Sens. Yet it is strange that before the 1130s the Basin had not contributed anything original to the evolution of architecture.Three factors explain why most of the buildings in the new style should have been built only in the Basin: materials, skills, and a cash surplus. The best materials came from around Senlis and Braine and their export would have brought cash into the region. Some dozen of the larger builders came from these districts and probably travelled with their stone as far afield as Rouen and Bourges.Most of the cash surplus seems to have come from local wine production, much of it for export. Both the profits to be made and the quantity were enormous, for later documents indicate that just the export of wine through Paris was about twice as great per capita as that grown and exported in France today. Wine was produced for local consumption wherever it would grow, even in England where according to the French chancellor at the court of Henry II one had better gulp it down “with eyes closed and a tight jaw.” The best vineyards lay in the area where Gothic was perfected, and the years of their prosperity coincided with the time in which the new style was being created. From Laon to Paris, wine production brought enormous wealth to the owners of the vineyards. The areas that became famous after the thirteenth century, Bordeaux and Burgundy, were little known in the twelfth because the climate was different then.”[1]

The idea that Gothic architecture was the direct result of wine production is another example of the civilising influence of the vine. According to Georges Duby in ‘The Ages of the Cathedrals’, “The towers of Laon rose against a backdrop of new harvests and young vineyards… it was the work of the harvester sharpening his scythe, of the vine-grower pruning or layering his vines or spading about them, that had made the edifice rise little by little.”[2] 

[1] James, John – The Travellers Key to Medieval France, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1986 - p. 22

[2] Georges Duby – The Age of the Cathedrals, The University of Chicago Press 1981 – p. 93

The Olympic Games on the other hand, as already covered in my post of 25 April, have nothing to do with wine, and are rapidly (but happily only temporarily) transforming Paris into a vast arena for sporting spectacles. The very colourful, idealised illustration below makes it look like a fairytale wonderland of epic proportions. The reality may be somewhat different.

It makes one wonder. Just what would happen if the construction of the Olympic venues were inspired by and fuelled by wine…?

Thank you for letting me into your world and for reading the Paris Wine Walks Substack. Your support is invaluable as are your comments, suggestions, critiques, dreams, thoughts and remembrances. A little encouragement goes a long way, so please consider a paid subscription, which need cost no more than (a cheap) glass of wine per week. Or, book a wine walk!

My book, ‘The Hidden Vineyards of Paris’ (reviewed in Jancis Robinson’s wine blog, the Wine Economist, National Geographic Traveler UK, UK Telegraph) is available at ‘The Red Wheelbarrow Bookshop’ at 11 rue de Medicis, 75006 Paris. If you haven’t yet discovered this gem of a bookshop, now’s your chance. Open every day!

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