Olio e vino nell’alto medioevo

54th Settimana di Studio, Spoleto

The 54th Settimana di studio (study week conference), hosted by the Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo (CISAM) was themed ‘Oil and Wine in the High Middle Ages‘ and took place in the beautiful medieval town of Spoleto, Umbria (20-26 April 2006). I was fortunate to have won one of the borsa di studio awarded to ‘foreign’ students. The majority of the Settimana took place in the Palazzo Ancaiani where CISAM are based. The conference itself was highly varied with papers ranging from the theraputic use of oil and wine (Jacquart), to oil and and wine in Byzantine liturgy (Parenti).

While the subject matter varied, there were significant overlaps in the content of papers which sometimes made for a quite a difficult conference to engage with. Many narrative sources were used and re-used with surprisingly little on the material evidence for oil and wine, or charters such as those from southern Italy which are full of references to olives and vines. My other main criticism was that the broad remit of the papers was not reflected in the range of examples given. For example, in discussing the representation and symbolism of the vine and the olive in late antique and early medieval decoration (mainly mosaics) in the West (Bisconti) the vast majority of examples were from Italy. In addition, the many examples of oil, wine, olives and vines from the sources were simply described rather than interpreted to any great extent.


Overall, I felt that due to the breadth covered in the majority of the papers, the contexts and analysis were somewhat lost. This said, the interventi (questions) often made up for it. However it would be a diservice to CISAM and the Settimana if I were to give an unduly pessimistic impression of the conference. There were certainly highlights and food for thought. The two papers that stood out the most for me were Michael Matheus, ‘Continuità e nuovi sviluppi: la viticoltura nell’Europa continentale’ who gave a fresh perspective on the use and consumption of wine and oil and their significance to northern European peoples. Matheus also questioned the concept of taste and that we should understand consumption in the context of differing tastes which changed over time and space among the peoples of medieval Europe, not only for red or white wine for example, but also for where it came from (much like today). The second was the paper of Letizia Ermini Pani and Francesca Romana Stasolla, ‘Le strade del vino e dell’olio: commercio, trasporto e conservazione’, a truly excellent exposition of the issues surrounding routes of exchange, not just limited to trade routes and methods of storage but also ‘reading between the lines’ by asking what other things travelled with wine and oil and taking into consideration, for example, the use of non-ceramic storage (and therefore not just limiting their study to amphorae) and what this said about the varied nature of commodities and the people who traded in them. This was the only paper that demonstrated how the study of movements can inform our understanding of medieval communications and economies.

What I thought

It certainly gave me, as student of medieval material culture, much to think about. Oil and wine were simultaneously and separately commodities, symbols of belief, status symbols, ways of life, travellers, miracles and medicine and probably more. As Massimo Montanari explained in the inaugural lecture, yes, wine and oil have tended to go hand-in-hand in the Middle Ages and although they can be understood as ‘two cultural indicators’ both have distinct histories. Therefore, in spite of their mutual affinity both physically and conceptually, oil and wine have to be understood on their own terms. My thoughts turned to applying this to non-perishable moveable goods. Objects, whether the bed, mattress, pillow and sheets in the 11th century Pugliese dowry list, or the late 7th century earrings found in a Lombard grave in Senise, were also variously commodities, travellers, symbols and things that informed ways of life. So, understanding the ‘life-stories’ or biographies of objects may lead to a clearer understanding of how, and possibly why, they reflect the socio-cultural identities and economic activities of southern Italy. More about the theory of object biographies will be written in future posts.
Tehmina Goskar, May 2006