Healthy wine, medieval style
Spiced, warmed red wine. Drink up—it’s good for you! Depending on what part of the world you’re in, you might call it glühwein (Germany), vino caliente (Spain), glögg (Sweden), vin brulé (Italy), bisschopswijn (Holland), vin chaud (France), candola (Chile), vinho quente (Portugal), kuhano vino (Croatia), or glintwein (Russia). In the later medieval period, mulled wine was frequently referred to as “hippocras” (also spelled hipocras, ipocras, and ypocras). (An earlier name was “piment”.)
So why call it hippocras? It’s all down to a borrowing a word from another language, then jumping to false conclusions about what it meant. Medieval scholars loved to etymologise—to explain the meanings and origins of words in ways that revealed their deeper, often spiritual, significance. Hippocrates was the ancient Greek father of medicine, and “hippocras” was understood to be a wonderfully health-giving drink. Thus, the necessary conclusion was that Hippocrates had invented hippocras. Alternatively, some posited that the name comes from the fabric used to strain the spices from the wine—the hippocras bag. (Hippocrates was said to have used his voluminous sleeves to sieve his plonk.) Actually, the word was probably adopted from a Byzantine Greek term for mulled wine, which I believe sounds like “hypo-cratos”. It means “lightly mixed” and had nothing whatsoever to do with Hippocrates (unless you count the shared Greekness).
Image 1. Hippocras being sieved with a hippocras bag (15th-century Tractatus de herbis, c142r Modena bib estense, ms.alfa L.2.98, Lat.993).
So why was hippocras recommended for medicinal reasons? Here’s what Bartolomaeus Anglicus says about spiced wine in his De proprietatibus rerum:
suche wynes with her savour pleseth the taste, and exciteth appetite, and comforteth bothe the brayn & the stomak with here good odour & smylle, & clenseth also the blood; & pureth and cometh into the innere partyes of the veynes & of the membres
(As the book title suggests, De proprietatibus rerum was originally written in Latin, but this quote is from the Middle English translation made by John Trevisa in 1397. I do love the spelling.)
If you really wanted to pump up the efficacy of your medicinal mulled wine, you could heat some gold and use the metal to warm your drink. The qualities of the gold would then transfer to the wine. So what would gold do for your wellbeing? As the medical authority Constantinus Africanus wrote in the eleventh century,
[gold] has the property of relieving a defective stomach and comforts the fearful and those who suffer from a heart complaint. Galen confirms that it is effective against melancholy and baldness.
Apparently, gold was also effective against haemorrhoids and warts. I can’t vouch for these effects, but I’m sure having enough gold to warm my wine would relieve any melancholy.
In case you’re wondering what set me exploring the medieval benefits of mulled wine in the first place, it’s all down to a recipe book ... and a friend with a vineyard.
I was asked to contribute to Dragonblade’s Historical Recipe Cookbook and I just happened to be helping with my friend’s grape harvest at the same time, so the solution was obvious. My friend paid me in wine, which I then dutifully mulled in accordance with medieval recipes. Of course, I had to taste my experiments extensively, but that's all right: doubtless my health benefitted as a result.
“hippocras, n.”. Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2023, https://www.oed.com
“When gold was medicine”, Medievalists.net, https://www.medievalists.net/2014/10/gold-medicine/
Scully, T., The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, The Boydell Press, 1995.