Top 10 wine saints
Throughout mankind’s early history peoples of various civilizations constantly sought to personify the world around them and the food and drink it provided.
Wine, beer, grapes and grain, as fruits of the land, were usually represented by deities connected to fertility or pleasure – sometimes both, with all the scurrilous ideas surrounding Dionysus and co that are now normally associated with worship of those old gods.
With the rise of Christianity, however, the role of gods as patrons was taken instead by the followers of the new religion who became spiritual heads of various trades due to their role in them during their lives and occasionally because of the way they died.
Thankfully none of the saints listed here died because of their dedication to making wine or beer – so we can still assume it be a relatively healthy profession – but several of them did become very literal martyrs for their faith.
What is more, it reveals that the church’s attachment to the drinks industry is deeper than just Dom Pérignon’s “invention” of Champagne and also stands as testament to the age and importance of the trade as part of Europe’s cultural and religious history.
Vincent of Saragossa
Died: 304 AD martyred by the emperor Diocletian
Feast day: 22 January
A saint honoured in the Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox communities, Vincent is perhaps the most well known wine saint and is particularly venerated by French and Spanish winemakers.
During the last great crackdown on Christians by Diocletian in the fourth century, Vincent and his bishop Valerius were imprisoned in Valencia by the local governor.
Valerius, due to his old age, was exiled but Vincent’s refusal to renounce his faith, even under torture on the rack and gridiron, led to his execution. Before this took place he was able to convert his jailer.
His body, having been thrown to the vultures, was said to have been protected by a raven before it was picked up by the incoming tide and was washed ashore again some time later and was buried by a pious widow who discovered the corpse.
Why he is associated with wine is a little unclear. One story is that winemakers identify with his suffering under torture as a result their yearly fight with the weather and the blights that afflict their vineyards, another is that the “Vin” in “Vincent” is of course the French for “wine” but the former is more likely.
Either way, he is considered one of the most important early martyrs of the Church and every January in Burgundy the Chevaliers du Tastevin hold the Festival de la Saint-Vincent Tournante – complete with flags and statues – in honour of the saint.
As well as a patron saint of winemakers, Vincent is patron of vinegar makers, as well as the cities of Lisbon and Vicenza.
Urban of Langres
Died: 390 AD
Feast day: 2 April or 23 January in Langres
Urban is a particular favourite of German winemakers, which makes him just about the most popular Frenchman ever east of the Rhine.
Urban was the bishop of Langres in eastern France until political turmoil and religious persecution forced him to flee in 374.
He is supposed to have taken shelter in a vineyard where he was looked after by the vineyard workers and he converted them to Christianity.
Moving from vineyard to vineyard and aided by his steadily growing flock he is said to have developed a great affection for winemakers and those that tend vines and has been associated with them ever since.
As with Saint Swithun in the UK, Urban is also associated with the weather – something very close to winemakers’ hearts – and is invoked against frost and storms especially – a particular problem for German vintners.
The Germans have several sayings to this effect, one going: “Ist Sonnenschein am Urbanstag/gedeiht der Wein nach alter Sag” (Sun on St Urban’s day/the wine thrives afterwards they say).
Saint Urban is also invoked against alcoholism and is patron saint of Dijon and coopers.
Martin of Tours
Died: 397 AD
Feast day: 11 November
Martin is one of the most famous Catholic saints, venerated around the world and considered a “spiritual bridge” across Europe because of his association with France and Hungary.
Born a pagan he served as a soldier in the Roman cavalry in Gaul, just as his father had served in Hungary where Martin had been born.
While stationed in Amiens one winter he famously encountered a beggar and, having nothing to give him on such a cold night but the clothes on his back, cut his heavy cloak in two giving half to the beggar.
That night Jesus appeared in a vision wearing the cloak. Martin was released from the army in Worms and after many years of wandering became bishop of Tours in 372.
He died an old man – about 80 – and was one of the first non-martyrs to be made a saint.
Martin obviously has a particular place in the hearts of Loire winemakers due to his association with the region.
However, his influence extends far and wide – the list of his patronages is too numerous to list here but includes France, Buenos Aires, Burgenland, soldiers, beggars and the Swiss Guards – even as far as the City of London, where, as well as St-Martin-in-the-Fields which is dedicated to him, he is the patron saint of the Vintners Livery Company.
Arnold of Soissons
Feast day: 14 August
Originally a career soldier, Arnold settled into monastic life at Saint Medard’s in Soissons and after three years as a hermit rose to become abbot.
He eventually became bishop of Soissons – a position he didn’t really want – and when the bishop of another diocese extended his influence over Soissons, Arnold took the opportunity to leave and founded another monastery in Oudenburg instead.
He began brewing beer soon afterwards due to its “gift of health” and encouraged the locals to drink it rather than water for the same reason.
Owing to the quite disgusting state of a lot of drinking water in the Middle Ages this was not a bad idea as the brewing process killed all of the pathogens although this was not understood at the time.
Arnold is the patron saint of brewers and brewing, particularly in Belgium and he is honoured every July as part of a parade in Brussels celebrating beer.
He is often depicted with crozier in one hand and a mashing rake in the other.
Lawrence of Rome
Died: 258 AD, martyred by the emperor Valerian
Feast day: 10 August
Lawrence was an Archdeacon under Pope Sixtus II and in charge of alms distribution and keeper of the treasures of the church at a time when Christianity was not legal.
The emperor Valerian ordered the beheading of Sixtus and six deacons in August 258, leaving Lawrence as the highest ranking church official in the city.
He was ordered to bring the church’s treasure to the emperor before his execution but instead he used the four days grace to distribute it among the poor.
He arrived for his execution followed by beggars and the sick and announced that they were the church’s true treasures.
He was martyred on a gridiron – although there is some speculation that a later account of his martyrdom omitted a “p” so that instead of “passus est”, “he suffered”, it was noted as “assus est”, “he was roasted” and that he may simply have been decapitated as was Sixtus
Nonetheless, he is also the patron saint of cooks and brewers, as the manner of his reported death is reminiscent of the method used for drying out hops.
Morand of Cluny
Died: 1115 AD
Feast day: 3 June
Born near Worms, Morand entered the great abbey of Cluny in 1100.
Soon afterwards he was sent to Alsace at the behest of Count Frederick Pferz who appealed to the monastery to send someone to take charge at the church of St Christopher in Altkirch which had recently been restored.
Morand became counsellor to the count and was revered for fasting the entirety of Lent with only bunch of grapes for sustenance.
He is particularly revered in Alsace-Lorraine, Burgundy, Champagne, the Rhineland and Franconia.
Walter of Pontoise
Died: 1099 AD
Feast day: 8 April
Well-educated and a professor of philosophy and rhetoric, Walter was another Benedictine of Cluny who was made abbot of Pontoise by King Philip I – much against his will.
He fled Pontoise (which incidentally was dedicated to St Martin) twice but was ordered to return by Pope Gregory VII on each occasion.
He finally agreed to stay and spent the rest of his life exposing corruption and laziness among his fellow Benedictines for which he was beaten and imprisoned.
Principally a saint for the incarcerated, his association with vintners is due to his invocation by those working or living in stressful environments.
Amand of Maastricht
Died: 675 AD
Feast day: 6 February
Born into a noble family in Poitou, Amand was ordained at Saint Martin’s old monastery in Tours while in his early twenties.
Having evaded an attempt by his family to drag him back into the family fold, he set about evangelising in France, Flanders, Carinthia, Gascony and Germany – all good beer and winemaking regions from which the association comes.
On his wanderings he established monasteries in Ghent and Mont Blandin in Belgium but on his return to France he angered King Dagobert by trying to make him repent his wicked and sinful life (he was renowned for his concubines) and was exiled for his pains.
From 647 to 650 he was bishop of Maastricht but was quick to resume his missionary work when the opportunity arose and was asked by the Basques to help convert them.
He returned to Belgium before his death and founded more monasteries with the help of a reconciled Dagobert.
Goar of Aquitaine
Died: 649 AD
Feast day: 6 July
Goar was born into a noble family in Aquitaine in 585 and was apparently noted for his piety even in his youth.
In 618 he travelled to the diocese of Trier in order to live as a hermit, taking up residence above the town of Oberwesel on the Rhine.
While there though such was his holiness that he was regularly visited by pilgrims seeking advice.
His growing stature came to the attention of the bishop of Trier, Rusticus, who tried to defame him on charges of not living up to his vows of poverty and chastity.
However, Goar managed to turn the tables on Rusticus, apparently by revealing a child that Rusticus had fathered and then given away to an orphanage, and proved that Rusticus not he was the one guilty of hypocrisy leading to the former’s downfall.
King Sigebert of Austrasia (the modern day Low Countries and North/Western Germany), impressed by Goar, offered him the now empty bishopric but Goar declined and died soon afterwards.
His birth and death in two great vineyard regions links him to winegrowers – and also inn and hotel-keepers.
Charlemagne later built a church over his grave and around this eventually grew the town of Sankt Goar am Rhein which stands to this day, whose vineyards are part of the German Mittelrhein winegrowing region.
Benedict of Nursia
Died: 543 AD
Feast day: 11 July
Benedict does not make this list because of any particular attachment to winemaking per se – among many things he is patron of Europe, students, monks and spelunkers apparently.
However, winemaking and brewing would be much the poorer without the Benedictines, the order that so closely follows his rule based on the principals of prayer and work.
Benedict’s rule even sets out the right amount of wine that each monk should be allowed a day.
He would rather have not allowed any wine at all but clearly realised that this would be impossible to enforce.
This was probably just as well because the original rules were severe enough for some of the monks to try and poison him.
He wrote: “Each one has his own gift from God, the one in this way, the other in that. Therefore it is with some hesitation that the amount of daily sustenance for others is fixed by us. Nevertheless, in view of the weakness of the infirm we believe that a hemina [just less than half a litre] of wine a day is enough for each one.
“Those moreover to whom God gives the ability of bearing abstinence shall know that they will have their own reward. But the prior shall judge if either the needs of the place, or labour or the heat of summer, requires more; considering in all things lest satiety or drunkenness creep in.
“Indeed we read that wine is not suitable for monks at all. But because, in our day, it is not possible to persuade the monks of this, let us agree at least as to the fact that we should not drink till we are sated, but sparingly…”