Persona, Vinegar

The Short of History of Vinegar and Oswyn Swann

I am excited. I have two personae. Oswyn of Baðon is who I am most of the time. He is a 10th century Englisc (Anglo-Saxon) from Bath. Through him, I do my service and Anglo-Saxon history. Oswyn Swann has been swimming (pun intended) around in my head but I couldn’t settle on who he was. Was he a wine merchant? That was my first thought. Was he a paper merchant? That didn’t work out. Was he a ciderman who runs a tavern? Maybe.

All this time, I am discovering what I love. I wanted to love paper but no. I love glass but I don’t do period glass and have no real desire to do so. I made cordials and had all of this leftover alcohol. What to do? I started making vinegar. And I resisted loving it, shamefully in darkened rooms grew to love it, and finally accepted my alcohol problem in the daylight. I do love it.

But let’s back up. I made a lot of cordials. For three straight years, I made every cordial I could think of. I have a four class series on making cordials. Most people were willing to take a cordial but occasionally, someone didn’t want one. They didn’t like sweet things. They didn’t drink. They preferred beer or wine. At one point, a good friend, somewhat joking (or maybe not) told me I wasn’t a brewer. And they were correct, I didn’t brew anything. And cordials, as we understand them, aren’t really period. Distilling is rare and difficult. There are few “period” cordials that aren’t medicines, etc. I needed to do something more period. I hit on vinegars. Then I decided that I would make my own wines and ciders to turn into vinegar. I had become a brewer and in my own terminology, an anti-brewer 🙂

In looking at into the history of vinegar, I learned it became “industrialized” in the 1380s in France. I then found an etching from the 1630s with a vinegar seller. I could do that. 1630 is just out of period but it is likely that this particular means of selling vinegar, door to door with a cask and wheelbarrow, had been true for a while. 1630 is close enough 🙂

Oswyn Swann is a vinaigrier (not sure the English had their own term). Swann is also a descendent of Baðons. Oswyn of Baðon starts a family somewhere around Bath. The first born male of each generation is named Oswyn for luck. There are about 600 years between the two Oswyns. The family maintains an estate in the countryside where their apple orchard is. So the Swanns grow apples on the estate, other family members make it into cider and Oswyn and his side of the family make it into vinegar. Now, French vinegar is all the rage as is French wine (had been for centuries and would continue to be for more centuries). Oswyn imports these things as well and sells them out of his shop on High Street in Bath. See map below. Some where near where the B is.

So I am excited that the persona is taking shape.

A brief history of vinegar

Vinegar probably existed nearly forever. Wild yeast turns sugar to alcohol; wild bacteria turns alcohol to vinegar. We have evidence of vinegar in Ancient China, Babylonia, and Egypt.

Helen of Troy is rumored to have bathed in vinegar to maintain her beauty. The Spartan made a blood soup made with vinegar. Hannibal supposedly broke rocks with heat and vinegar. Interestingly, Alexander is said to have done the same thing with heat and wine. Both stories are believed to be false because vinegar could only dissolve limestone and wine can’t dissolve anything. The doubters forgot about thermal shock. The liquid wasn’t important; only that it rapidly cooled the stones down and maybe got into cracks. But I digress.

Since Roman legionaires drank posca, a vinegar drink, and because this is Rome, there was probably a vinegar industry of some sort. We don’t know exactly. Agricultural manuals from Roman times tell us a little bit but we don’t have great information. We do know that the Romans valued the wine regions of Gaul. Burgundy becomes a major wine region from then on and where there is wine, there is vinegar.

Additionally, where this is wine, there is mustard. Mustard grows almost everywhere but it is purposely planted as a cover crop and as a companion crop to help reduce pests. To help protect their wine crops, mustard was also planted. This will be important in a moment.

Vinegar is also connected to alchemical practice.

Almost all alcohol can become vinegar so we get a lot of regional vinegars and it is easy to make at home. Whether it was another Roman industry collapse, we may never know. We do know around 1380, in Orleans France, they develop a process called the Orleans process to make vinegar on a large scale.

Again we back up a bit though. Prior to this, in Dijon, French wine becomes very popular and is a major export. They also start making mustard on a large scale. Orleans is on the Loire River which flows to Nantes on the coast. Orleans is also a little south of Paris with fairly flat terrain between the two. While it is certainly possible to go straight to Paris from Dijon, Orleans became a popular trading spot for both international shipping and for Paris. Land routes were favored until the early 1400s when Nantes was considered a favorable port. French wine would make its way to Orleans to be evaluated for where was the best place to ship it. Good wines might go on to Paris or to Nantes; lesser wines could be made into vinegar and then sent on those routes as well. Orleans became a center of vinegar manufacturing in Europe.

In 1394, the vinaigriers of Orleans form a guild which included mustard makers. The moutardiers of Dijon had their own guild by this point. By 1580, the vinaigriers of Orleans are allowed to form a corporation with a monopoly on vinegar. They are granted a coat of arms with a barrel, funnel, and cooper axes on it. Coopers were part of that corporation briefly until the next year when they are granted their own corporation. The vinaigriers were required to use barrels from the tonneliers (coopers corp).

By 1594, this corporation grew from 4 vinaigriers to 33. We get our first quality control law.

“if, the house of a master vinaigrier, are found barrels of vinegar which are slimy, rancid, or moldy, they will be seized and broken and the offender will pay a fine of one ecu (gold coin).” A jury of 4 members of the corporation were responsible for this inspection.

The inspections were needed because counterfeits were on the rise.

This is from 1630. This is how vinegar was sold to the public, door to door from a wheelbarrow and cask. Royalty would have contracts with the corporation for barrels delivered differently. As would large customers using vinegar on a “industrial” basis. But the average person in France, and presumably elsewhere in Europe, got their vinegar this way.

Swann is an English, not French, vinaigrier. His family makes vinegar but he imports wine for the Church and nobles and vinegar as well.

Things I need to make this work:

Wheelbarrow – working on it
20L barrels – have a source; just got to buy them
Pyrography for barrels – I know a guy 🙂
20 L of vinegar – I know a guy
a Shrub – I know a guy
A banner – just got to do it; I know some people
A Sign – just write on paper; explaining what I am doing
Costume – I have an inaccurate one I barely fit it; I will work on that.

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