A History of the Minstrels of Wine
Including a record of the Defunct Houses

Acknowledgements:

 

Many thanks to those members of the Worshipful Institute who helped me compile this history of the Minstrels of Wine. A special thank you to House Archivist, particularly their wonderful provost, The Hon. Jacinda Rougegorgefils, for being so generous with their time (not to mention unfailingly polite as I pushed my luck attempting to gain access to the closed archives).

 

A note from Peter Stafford-Bow, site administrator:

 

Understandably, many readers are fascinated by the history of the Minstrels and the breadth of their present day activities. Any Minstrels, members of associated institutions, or keen amateur historians are welcome to email me with academic research, folk memories or scurrilous anecdotes regarding the Minstrels. Please email via the Contact page on this site.

N.B. The only topics that are off-limits are the political machinations surrounding the Siege of Damascus during the Second Crusade, the activities of House Sigurd, and the capture of Jerusalem by Saladin in 1187 AD. Submissions on these topics will be read but cannot be published. These incidents may have taken place nearly nine centuries ago, but wise students of history know that some wounds still bear scars.

A history, from origins to present day

Introduction

 

The Worshipful Institute of the Minstrels of Wine, founded in 538 BC, is the second-oldest continuously run institution in the world – the oldest being the Imperial House of Japan, which beats it by one hundred and twenty two years. The Institute’s longevity is credited by its members to their shrewd observation of the prevailing political climate throughout the classical, medieval and modern eras. This, together with the ability to up sticks and scarper when danger threatens, has enabled The Institute to stay a step ahead of forces that might otherwise have overwhelmed them, whether political pressure, religious persecution or barbarian horde.

A great advantage of selecting the Minstrels of Wine as a research subject is that they host a world-class academic body, House Archivist, beneath their own roof. The Archivists maintain a rigorous approach to risk assessment, and have kept at bay the forces of nature – fire, flood, earthquake, weevil and mould – that have degraded many other institutions’ collections. Thus, the Archivists have succeeded in preserving, near-immaculately, the greatest collection of artefacts pertaining to wine and viticulture on the planet.

Persian Origins

 

As every student of wine knows, the Worshipful Institute was founded in 538 BC at Byblos, the ruins of which lie in modern-day Lebanon. The previous year, the armies of Cyrus the Great had invaded Mesopotamia, the last remaining power in Western Asia not yet under Persian control. The Battle of Opis, fought in September 539 BC against the forces of Nabonidus’s Neo-Babylonian Empire, was a decisive defeat for the Babylonians, and allowed Cyrus’s forces to enter Babylon without a fight. Cyrus quickly incorporated the conquered territory into the greater Persian Empire.

This territory included Phoenicia. Cyrus the Great divided that ancient kingdom into four vassal states and it was in one of these, Byblos, that Teïspes II, the emperor’s satrap in Phoenicia, founded the Worshipful Institute of the Minstrels of Wine. Teïspes was a legendary oenophile and owner of one of the largest cellars in Babylon. His wine collection was famed across Persia and included amphorae from Shiraz, Denizli and Elazığ, and reputedly even as far west as Thrace and Kimmería. In order to create the Institute, Teïspes brought together three of the most important wine bodies of the ancient world:

·         The Jewish Wine Institute of Babylon, which had been suppressed into near-dormancy under neo-Babylonian rule before flourishing once more following Cyrus’s liberation of the Jews.

·         The Hospitality Division of The Pythia, the institution surrounding the high priestess at Delphi (better known today as the Oracle), an enormously important purchaser of fine wine in classical times.

·         The Phoenician Wine Traders Association, whose network of shipping had established the trading of wine and the planting of vineyards around the Mediterranean coast during the early first millennium BC.

It was personnel from these three institutions, swelled by several dozen landowners from the vine and olive-growing regions around Sidon, Tyre, Arwad and Byblos, who formed the founding members of the Worshipful Institute of the Minstrels of Wine.

Ancient Houses

Upon creation of the Institute, Teïspes II divided the Minstrels into four Houses: House Vitium, House Olivam, House Pythia and House Helios. These became known as the Ancient Houses.

House Vitium represented viticultural technologists. By far the largest House for much of antiquity, House Vitium ultimately broke apart in 1115 AD due to internal schisms. Most members formed a new grouping, House Cistercian, while the remainder joined House Archivist or formed new Houses. A few of these splinter Houses, such as House Aratrum (representing manufacturers of ploughs) and House Zizania (whose members were inclined to mysticism and named themselves after common vineyard weeds), enjoyed temporary prominence but all were dissolved or absorbed by other Houses within a few years.

House Olivam represented The Institute's olive growers. Many landowners cultivated both grapes and olives, some deriving the greater part of their revenue from the latter. The House was absorbed into House Vitium following the relocation of the Minstrels to Athens in 399 BC.

House Pythia represented supplicants to The Pythia, better known in the modern era as the Oracle of Delphi. The House’s importance derived from the founding role played by The Pythia in the establishment of the Institute itself. House Pythia was absorbed into House Helios in 79 AD at the time of the Minstrels’ move from Athens to Rome.

 

House Helios, also known as House Apollo, represented followers of Helios, Apollo and students of astronomy, and had its roots in the worship of Helios by the Achaemenid Persians. Its members studied the effect of solar and lunar movements on the agricultural cycle. It was an important House throughout classical times, serving as the inspiration for Aristippus of Cyrene’s House Hedonist and later sending scholars to Rome to aid Pliny the Elder in his writing of the Naturalis Historia. Membership of House Helios slowly declined during the early medieval period, particularly towards the end of the Minstrels’ residence in Constantinople. The House was finally absorbed into House Archivist in 1182 AD, a few years after the Minstrels’ move to Venice.

House Figuli was set up by artisans five years after the foundation of The Institute, so technically it is not considered a true Ancient House. House Figuli represented the manufacturers of wine storage vessels, principally potters and, much later, coopers. It deserves mention for holding the record as the longest-lived Minstrel House, having existed for 2,157 years before its absorption into House Archivist in 1620 AD as glass-blowing technology rendered earthenware jugs and amphorae obsolete.

Relocation to Athens

 

Though Byblos and the coastal cities of old Phoenicia flourished for some time under Persian rule, it was clear that the centre of intellectual life and vinous innovation was coalescing in Athens. Periodic unrest in Phoenicia increased the impetus for relocation. It was Aristippus of Cyrene who facilitated the move from Byblos to Athens in 399 BC (see the history of House Hedonist), a prescient move given the rebellion of Sidon in 350 BC, after which the area was razed by the vengeful Artaxerxes III. This also marked the end of any serious influence wielded by olive growers in the Minstrels of Wine (at one point there were more olive growers than grape growers in the Institute), though their ancient position is still recognised by the addition of the word Olivam to the gown of any present-day Minstrel who can demonstrate an association with the olive oil industry.

 

The Minstrels of Wine settled comfortably into their new headquarters, a Temple of Dionysus in central Athens. Prominent Minstrels at this time included Socrates (who recruited Aristippus in 416 BC) and Aristophanes, the comic playwright, who joined in 410 BC and built upon many of the rituals established by Aristippus.

 

House Dionysian, an offshoot of House Hedonist, was established in 221 BC by several dozen disaffected young Minstrels frustrated by (what they felt to be) the over-intellectual emphasis of the parent House. The nominal reason for the creation of House Dionysian was to honour Antigonus Doson, the successful Hellenistic general and Regent who had died earlier that year. But the real motive of the rebellious Minstrels was to stage larger feasts and more elaborate parties with a higher proportion of youthful, attractive attendees. The membership succeeded in its aim and the new House's social functions contributed to the increased fame of the Minstrels of Wine, far beyond the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean.

 

Other important Houses created during the Athens residency include:

 

House Cilician, founded in 110 BC by Medon Amphipolis, an Athenian agent of Isaurian chieftains. Isauria was the home of a rebellious tribe based in southern Anatolia and House Cilician represented pirates (or, in reality, their trading subsidiaries), who were the dominant naval power in the Mediterranean by the start of the First Century BC. Their wealth derived from trading slaves from Western Asia and their power bases included Cilicia itself (on the South-Eastern Turkish coast), Crete and the Balearic Islands. The House became defunct following the Roman Emperor Pompey’s final destruction of the pirate forces in 66 BC and its members joined Houses focused on more conventional trading and shipping.

 

House Divinus, an ancient House representing water diviners and irrigation specialists. Established in the first century BC, it had an important role as consultant to wineries keen to avoid the privations of drought. It existed unmolested for 1,500 years but despite (or perhaps because of) its resolutely secular philosophy, it was accused of being a witches’ coven in the Sixteenth Century Roman Inquisition, forced underground and apparently dissolved. House Divinus is understood to have split, its members absorbed by House Archivist and House Terroirist. There is evidence, however, that a distinct sect of House Divinus remained embedded in House Terroirist as late as 1860 AD. All later records on this matter are closed to ordinary Minstrels.

 

The Minstrels join the Empire

Gaius Plinius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Elder, joined the Rome chapter of the Minstrels of Wine in 55 AD. In 77 AD he founded House Archivist (see the history of House Archivist) and was the driving force behind the relocation of the Institute from Athens to Rome in 79 AD.

 

Other prominent Minstrels from the period of the Rome residency include:

 

Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, a member of House Divinus, who in 65 AD produced the most detailed work on Roman viticulture in his twelve-volume text De Re Rustica. Columella's work was one of the most important texts in the history of early viticulture, detailing methods of training vines on trellis systems above the ground, a huge improvement on the traditional bush vine method.

 

Claudius Ptolemy, the astronomer and geographer, who joined House Helios in 125 AD and set up the Alexandria Chapter (based in modern-day Egypt).

 

Apuleius of Madauros, the playwright and wit, who joined in Institute in 144 AD while studying rhetoric in Rome. Apuleius became provost of House Dionysian and was influential in the development of the Minstrels’ calendar of feasts and festivals. He introduced a bespoke Dionysian Mystery (a type of ritual, often involving intoxicants) to the Institute which is still performed to this day, virtually unchanged, by House Terroirist.

The Dionysian schism

 

The most perilous moment in the history of the Minstrels was not imposed by external strife but by a threat emanating from the very heart of the Institute.

 

House Dionysian had become even more popular following the Minstrels’ move to Rome in 79 AD, exceeding the size of House Hedonist by the middle of the Second Century and enjoying its zenith of fame under Apuleius, its most famous provost.

 

But the success of House Dionysian became its undoing. In 193 AD hubris overtook the leadership of the House, no doubt fanned by the heady political climate (the year saw the ascent and fall of no fewer than five emperors) and the outbreak of civil war. House Dionysian, under its provost Clodius Verus, a bad poet, worse bard and permanent drunkard, declared itself independent of the Minstrels of Wine and stated its intention to set up rival chapters throughout the Mediterranean. House Dionysian members created feasting clubs in Rome and other cities, collecting subscriptions and offering a debased membership of the Minstrels in return. The remaining Houses were appalled and a Grand Council of Minstrels was convened, unbeknownst to House Dionysian, in Tibur (modern-day Tivoli). Inspired by the ruthlessness shown by Septimius Severus, the new emperor, who had just eliminated his rivals, the Minstrels agreed that House Dionysian had to be disbanded.

House Dionysian’s provost, Clodius Verus, and his most loyal disciples were invited to Minstrels Hall to discuss terms. Upon arrival, the rebellious provost was seized and drowned in a barrel of Falernian wine. His followers were held captive for a day without food or water, then forced to drink the remainder of the barrel while Clodius Verus’s lifeless body bobbed and macerated within it. They were then expelled from the Institute. Encouragingly, in the eighteen centuries since, there have been no further attempts to secede from the Worshipful Institute of the Minstrels of Wine.

 

Those members of House Dionysian who were not considered to have fomented the secession were forgiven and, now fervently loyal to the Minstrels, established House Mithras the following month. Under the direction of a committee drawn from senior members of the other Houses, House Mithras continued to administer the feasting clubs created under the late, unlamented Clodius Verus, but these were placed under a clear administrative footing and their inferior relationship to the true Minstrels was codified. The feasting clubs developed into underground temples (known as Mithraea) where they became well known for pagan rituals and festivities in praise of the god Mithras. Membership of these temples was widespread and particularly popular amongst members of the Roman military and the merchant classes, including members of the wine trade who lacked the connections to join the Minstrels of Wine. Further information on House Mithras and the function of the external Mithraea is not available, forming part of the closed records of House Archivist. By the time of the Constantinople residency in 410 AD, there are no references to House Mithras at all. The assumption is that, by then, the House was defunct.

 

 

A return to the East

 

Rome’s position was becoming increasingly perilous. The empire’s stability declined from the Third Century AD as civil wars plagued the provinces and a smallpox pandemic ravaged Rome itself. In the east, the Asian provinces seceded, while Gaul and Britain also slipped from central control. Emperor Diocletian brought some stability from 284 AD but the Minstrels took the wise decision to distribute their personnel, investments and archives across a number of cities and operate more as a modern-day multi-national, with their nominal headquarters in Rome. In addition to long-standing chapters in Alexandria and Athens, the Institute set up branches in several regional centres, including Antioch (near the modern-day Turkish-Syrian border), Sirmium (modern-day Serbia) and Trier (Germany). But the most important new chapter was in the city of Nova Roma, also known as Constantinople.

 

By the late Fourth Century, Rome’s situation was critical. The empire was humiliated at the hands of the Persians following the Battle of Samarra in 363 AD and suffered a disastrous defeat by the Goths at the Battle of Adrianople in 378 AD. The capital of the Western Roman Empire was moved to Ravenna (in Emilia-Romagna) in 402 AD and that year the Minstrels moved all remaining personnel and artefacts to Constantinople, leaving Minstrels Hall in the hands of local caretakers. The Visigoths, under Aleric, sacked Rome in 410 AD and Minstrels Hall was burned to the ground.

 

Constantinople proved to be the Institute’s longest residency. They remained at their headquarters near the Forum of Taurus for 760 years, from 402 AD until 1162 AD, after which they relocated to Venice. The Minstrels were responsible for the founding of the Imperial University of Constantinople in 425 AD, where Institute members taught philosophy, law and viticulture.

 

House Iconoclast, founded in 724 AD, was a relatively short-lived House from the period of the Constantinople residence. The House represented members responsible for painting over pictures of Christ with images from nature, an important task during the periods of the Byzantine Iconoclasm. House Iconoclast petered out as Eastern Church grew in power and was absorbed into House Hedonist in 850 AD, though House Iconoclast maintains a presence as a ‘subset’ within that House, responsible for maintaining the interior décor of Minstrels Hall. The House Iconoclast subset also funds the Minstrels Scholarship for Interior Design, open to first year students at Central Saint Martins.

 

House Terroirist, one of the Extant Houses, was founded in 1088 AD during the middle period of the Constantinople residency. Its founder was Botwulf of Thanet, an Anglo-Saxon nobleman exiled from Norman England (see the history of House Terroirist). Botwulf became an expert on the viticulture of the Kingdoms of Germany and Italy, and took up service in the Varangian Guard, an elite division of the Byzantine Empire’s military. From a cultural perspective, House Terroirist is considered the most important House of the last millennium due to its emphasis on the provenance and physiological essence of the grape. This contrasts with the more prosaic activities of the other Houses, who concerned themselves with the production, trading or history of wine.

Latin stirrings

At the end of the Eleventh Century, a group of monks based in Cîteaux, near Dijon, founded The Cistercians, a Christian religious order. In 1115 AD Bernard of Clairvaux, a charismatic young monk and wine enthusiast, joined the Cistercians with 30 followers and established a new abbey in Bar-sur-Aube (in modern-day Champagne). He was well aware of the Minstrels and petitioned the Institute to set up a chapter in France, based at his abbey. The Institute agreed and Bernard became one of the most prominent Minstrels of Wine of the medieval period. House Cistercian was formed that year from the decaying membership of the ancient House Vitium, declaring its mission to be the study of viticulture, while honouring God, nature and a rigorous work ethic.

 

Bernard never visited Minstrels Hall, which was based in Constantinople for the duration of his life. He was highly influential, however, sending several monks to live in residence in Constantinople and building strong links between the Byzantine-centred Institute and the Roman Church. He attended the Synod of Troyes in 1129, which recognised the Order of the Knights Templar, many of whom also joined the Minstrels of Wine (see House Templar). Bernard also encouraged the entry of winemakers into the membership of the Institute (at that time most members were traders, landowners, diplomats or artists) and re-kindled the Minstrels’ interest in the mystical.

 

Bernard spent the later years of his career attempting to mend the schisms in the Western Church and encouraging the Second Crusade, a project that did not find favour with all members of the Minstrels of Wine, many of whom disapproved of the zealotry surrounding the campaign. There is considerable evidence that a sect within House Archivist provided intelligence to the Seljuk Turks aiding them in their defeat of the Second Crusade. Much of the archive covering this period is closed to ordinary Minstrels but rumours abound of a conspiracy on a gigantic scale involving the Arab military control of Jerusalem and the Reconquista of Lisbon. Bernard died in 1153 AD and was buried at his abbey in the Aube.

 

Over time the Cistercian Order grew apart from their conventional religious counterparts and entered a period of decline in Europe. House Cistercian, however, endured within the Institute for several centuries, concentrating on matters viticultural, particularly methods of training vines and combatting rot. Its influence is still felt in the French names for several of the Institute’s procedures, particularly La Vendange. The use of the term ‘Frog’ to address the initiates’ guides during La Vendange is commonly assumed to originate from The Frogs, the Dionysian comedy by Aristophanes, a noted Minstrel from ancient Athens. In fact, the term is a reference to a rebuke of Bernard by Cardinal Harmeric, who wrote a self-righteous and public letter, supposedly on behalf of the pope, criticising Bernard, a mere monk, for having ideas above his station: "It is not fitting that noisy and troublesome Frogs should come out of their marshes to trouble the Holy See and the cardinals."

 

House Cistercian was absorbed by House Archivist in 1575 following the Minstrels’ move to Lisbon. The Sixteenth Century was a febrile time in the Church and the Minstrels were keen to avoid any accusations of unorthodox religious practice.

 

Despite their differences with the controversial Bernard, the Minstrels never abandoned him, even in death. In 1792, during the French Revolutionary period, a mob threatened to burn Clairvaux Abbey to the ground. A team of Minstrels was dispatched from the Dijon Chapter to disinter Bernard’s body and hide it in the better-protected Troyes Cathedral, where it remains to this day.

 

 

Crusades and zealotry

 

House Templar was formed in 1129 AD to represent members of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, better known as the Knights Templar. The Templars were an order of warrior knights who achieved great wealth and power thanks to their fighting prowess and fundraising abilities. By the mid-twelfth century, the Institute’s membership boasted around sixty Templars, though House Templar Minstrels tended to be associated with the non-combatant wing of the movement. The Templars were heavily influenced by the Institute, basing their multi-national system of banking on that of the Minstrels (who had themselves developed it from a Phoenician model nearly 2,000 years previously) and deriving their initiation ceremony from that of the Minstrels’ La Vendange. By the Fourteenth Century, however, the Templars had fallen out of favour with the religious authorities and in 1312 the Order was banned by the Pope. The Minstrels were keen to avoid unnecessary conflict with the Church and House Templar agreed to be wound up and absorbed by the new House Mercantilist, which had been established just a century earlier. The new Templar members proved quick to take over the financial reins of House Mercantilist, however, and their influence is assumed to have continued long after their official disbandment.

 

In 1162 AD the Minstrels, concerned by the growing political disorder in Constantinople, relocated to Venice. The move was not made lightly – the Minstrels had made the Byzantine capital their home for over three-quarters of a millennium. The crisis that began the Institute’s search for a new headquarters was the Second Crusade, which began in 1147. Inspired the preaching of Bernard of Clairvaux, himself a Minstrel, the kingdoms of Europe sent armies to the Holy Land, where they caused havoc as they passed through territories of the Byzantine Empire. Upon arrival at the outskirts of Constantinople in 1147, a German-led army clashed with the Byzantine emperor Manuel I, though they were badly mauled by the emperor’s horse-mounted archers, after which the troublesome Germans agreed to continue into Anatolia. There, they were annihilated by the Seljuk forces, who (rumour has it) may have been advised by spies from House Archivist.

 

Tensions with the marauding crusaders from the west and the brooding Seljuks to the east were bad enough. But there were also internal tensions between the Byzantine Greek residents and the large Latin (Western European) population. These rivalries resulted in regular, lethal riots, which often left the city in anarchy. The Institute realised the time had come to move west. The obvious choice was Venice, by then an independent city state with huge military and economic power. The Minstrels had established a Chapter in Venice as far back as 719 AD, indeed the first Doge of Venice, Marcello Tegalliano, was a prominent Minstrel of Wine. The Institute also had significant commercial interests in the factories and ports on the north side of the Golden Horn, many of which traded with Venice.

 

The move to Venice was prescient. Twenty years later, in 1182, a religious riot escalated into a massacre of the Latin population and, in 1197, a large fire caused serious damage to the Latin Quarter. Worse still was the sack of the city in 1203, during the anarchic Fourth Crusade, from which Constantinople never recovered. A handful of Minstrels manning the city’s small remaining Chapter, under the aegis of House Archivist, managed to save several priceless artefacts from the rioting soldiers. These included books from the Library of Constantinople, silver iconostasis from Hagia Sophia and a large bronze statue of Dionysus, all of which were shipped back to Venice to avoid destruction. These artefacts are now preserved in the museum of House Archivist, in the depths of Minstrels Hall. Constantinople entered a period of rapid decline and was finally captured by the Ottoman Sultan in 1453.

 

 

The Minstrels in the Age of Discovery

 

The Venice residency was a prosperous period for the Institute. Continuing the precedent set by Marcello Tegalliano back in 719 AD, the Doge was invariably inducted into the Minstrels of Wine shortly after elevation to the premiership of the Great Council (Venice’s executive body). This facilitated an intimate and profitable relationship between the city’s trading class and the Minstrels themselves.

The Venetian residency saw the establishment of the Extant House Mercantilist in 1203 AD (coincidentally the year of the Sack of Constantinople) by Bordeaux and Gascon wine merchants, in honour of King John of England and his trade policies (see the history of House Mercantilist). House Mercantilist grew steadily, through the absorption of smaller Houses, to become the richest in the Institute, attracting financiers and influential traders to its ranks.

 

In 1494 AD, under the influence of Aldus Manutius, a printer and prominent Minstrel, the Institute sponsored the establishment of a printing press in Minstrel Hall. This was used to publish pocket-sized works of classical writings on viticulture including Columella’s De Re Rustica, Cato the Elder’s De Agri Cultura and Book XIV of Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia. It was while studying the classical texts preserved by House Archivist that Manutius developed a new cursive typeface that he christened Aldino, now known as Italic.

 

Ultimately, Venice’s star began to wane. In 1463, the city became embroiled in a costly war against Sultan Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople, during which it lost various Mediterranean possessions. Great seafaring explorers discovered routes to the new world that undermined Venice’s monopoly on the land routes to the East. Christopher Columbus sailed to the Caribbean in 1492, on a trip partially funded by the Institute of the Minstrels of Wine, while Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape in 1497, subsequently reaching India.

 

Disease also took its toll. Venice was no stranger to the Black Death, having experienced several outbreaks between the Fourteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. But the epidemic that swept through Italy in 1575 was particularly devastating and killed one third of the population. The Institute decided the time was right to move to the new centre of international trade, Portugal.

 

The New World

By the Sixteenth Century, Lisbon was the hub of commerce between Europe, Asia and the newly discovered territories of South America. The Minstrels had established a Chapter in the city over 400 years earlier, though the records of this outpost are closed to ordinary Minstrels. The only information available is that the Chapter was already in existence in 1147 AD at the time of the Reconquista, when Afonso I of Portugal besieged and captured the city from the Islamic rule of the Moorish Almoravids. There is a brief mention of a House Sigurd from this earlier period, though records of the history, purpose and fate of this House are also closed.

 

Lisbon was already highly prosperous when the Institute made the city its new headquarters in 1575 AD. They built a headquarters on the banks of the Tagus River and contributed to the construction of the Belém Tower just downstream. Five years later, the creation of the Iberian Union gave the Minstrels improved access to the Hapsburg Spain where the prominent Minstrel and artist Doménikos Theotokópoulos (better known as El Greco) opened several Chapters, the most prominent in Salamanca, Valladolid and his home of Toledo. El Greco had originally joined the Minstrels in 1567 while working as a painter and sculptor in Venice and he donated several original works to the Institute.

 

House Orbis, also known as the New Worlders, was formed by a rebel faction of House Mercantilist in 1585, a decade after the Minstrels’ relocation to Lisbon. Created by a group of Portuguese and Spanish wine merchants and Jesuit priests, it represented the interests of landowners and traders establishing vineyards in the newly discovered territories of South America, many of whom were dissatisfied by House Mercantilist’s preoccupation with European interests.

 

In 1642 Zacharias Wagenaer, a German-born trader and artist, joined the Minstrels and, with a group of Dutch merchants, commissioned the Amsterdam Chapter. Wagenaer had spent several years with the Dutch West India Company in Brazil and after a year back in Europe he entered the service of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), known in English as the Dutch East India Company. He subsequently travelled to the Dutch East Indies, Canton and Japan, commissioning what he described as the Minstrels’ first Asian Chapter on the island trading post of Dejima.

Unfortunately, the Institute itself disagreed with Wagenaer’s description of the Dejima office, refusing to recognising it as a Chapter and downgrading it to an ‘associated body’. Whether this was fair or not is a matter for technical debate but the outpost on Dejima did have a lasting legacy as a point of contact between the Minstrels and the Nagasaki Tamon-in, the pre-eminent sake authority in Edo-era Japan. The Minstrels have had a significant Japanese membership ever since.

 

It was Wagenaer’s time in the Cape of Good Hope that, with hindsight, proved to be his most influential period. Wagenaer succeeded the first governor, Jan van Riebeeck, in 1662 and expanded the experimental programme of vine planting begun by his predecessor.

 

In 1659 Simon van der Stel, a Dutchman who had spent his youth abroad as the son of a VOC official, arrived in Amsterdam and himself joined the Minstrels. He cultivated a substantial vineyard holding in Muiderberg before being appointed Commander of the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope in 1679 and travelling to southern Africa. Upon arrival he built Groot Constantia, his residence and the first wine estate in the Cape. He also founded Stellenbosch and set up the first recognised non-European Minstrels Chapter in the new town. Seeing the success of Wagenaer’s earlier plantings, he encouraged the commercial cultivation of vines in Stellenbosch, which was taken up with enthusiasm by recently-arrived Huguenot refugees from France.

 

One of the most famous Minstrels of the Seventeenth Century was a French Benedictine monk, Dom Pérignon. He joined the Reims Chapter in 1668, entering House Hedonist around the time he was appointed cellar master at Abbaye Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers. There, he worked alongside Dom Thierry Ruinart, another Minstrel, whose nephew Nicolas Ruinart founded Maison Ruinart in 1729 (a Grande Marque which operates to this day and is thus the oldest Champagne house still in operation). Dom Pérignon was pivotal to the development of Seventeenth Century winemaking, introducing rigor and hygiene to the vinification process. Prior to his work, poor winemaking practice frequently resulted in spoilage and unwanted re-fermentation – potentially transforming a cellar of maturing wine into a treacherous cave-load of unstable grenades. Pérignon and Ruinart’s original diaries are stored in the vaults of House Hedonist.

 

 

London Calling

 

Portugal rebelled against Spanish rule in 1640, its independence finally recognised by the Treaty of Lisbon in 1688. England had been the chief mediator in this treaty and Portugal, keen to distance itself from Spain, developed stronger ties with England, including those of commerce in wine. The Port wine trade with England, centred in Vila Nova de Gaia, grew in importance and by the early Eighteenth Century, there were more Minstrels of Wine based in Porto than in any other city.

 

Portugal’s maritime strength had been weakened at the hands of the new naval powers of Holland and England, which had fought several inconclusive sea battles against one another in the preceding decades. The Minstrels held several conclaves between the late Seventeenth and mid-Eighteenth Centuries to determine whether they should relocate. The Institute’s opinion was split for many years, with one third voting to remain in Lisbon, one third agitating for a move to London and the rest preferring other cities, principally Amsterdam. The placement of William of Orange on the English throne in 1688, however, led to a truce between England and Holland and the easing of the naval arms race between the two countries. This led, in turn, to the eclipse of Dutch sea power by that of the English, who were able to draw upon greater financial resources thanks to revenues from their American colonies. London thus became the undisputed centre of merchant trading activity, a fact not lost upon the Minstrels of Wine.

 

The relocation decision was forced upon the Institute by natural causes. On the morning of 1st November 1755 a gigantic earthquake shook Lisbon, triggering a tsunami and widespread fires. Tens of thousands perished including most of the membership of House Orbis, whose members were holding a committee meeting at the time. Minstrel Hall suffered severe structural damage, though the vast majority of the artefacts, stored in underground vaults, were recovered unharmed.

 

A special meeting of the Minstrels the following month voted overwhelmingly in favour of relocation to London. The few surviving members of House Orbis, mostly landowners with vineyard plantations in the southern reaches of the Viceroyalty of Peru (modern-day Argentina), joined House Mercantilist when the Institute moved to London the following year.

 

The Institute purchased land, including a popular tavern, on Long Acre, in what is now London’s West End. It built Minstrels Hall on the site the following year and by the late Eighteenth Century the Worshipful Institute of the Minstrels of Wine had reached new heights of prosperity and power. Its membership included merchants from London, Amsterdam and Paris, diplomats from Vienna, Rome and Moscow, influential politicians – William Pitt ‘the Younger’ was a prominent Minstrel – and powerful financiers. The Minstrels became involved in political lobbying in support of free trade, the relaxation of alcohol licencing restrictions and the recognition of viticultural heritage. One of the Minstrels’ early successes was forging international recognition of the protected status of the Douro Valley as the true origin of Port wine.

The Modern Era

The Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) caused a hiatus in pan-European trade, though the eventual victory of the British Empire and its coalition partners cemented London’s pre-eminent position at the centre of world trade. Minstrel Chapters were commissioned in the United States, most notably by Nicholas Longworth in Cincinnati (1835), Jean-Louis Vignes in Los Angeles (1851) and Charles Jaques in New York (1860). Gregory Blaxland, an English farmer who had the idea of transporting South African vine cuttings to Australia, commissioned the Sydney Chapter of the Minstrels in 1825. On the other side of the southern hemisphere, the Mendoza Chapter was commissioned in 1890 by Don Tiburcio Benegas, the founder of ‘El Trapiche’ winery, following the completion of the Buenos Aires-Mendoza railroad, a project part-funded by the Minstrels of Wine.

 

Minstrels Hall itself has been enlarged and extended several times in the 260 years following the move to London. The largest set of works was undertaken between 1900 and 1905, when a huge multi-floor basement was carved out of the earth beneath the Hall, doubling its floor space. This subterranean area now houses the museum of House Archivist as well as the Great Hall, venue for La Vendange. A private tunnel to the new Covent Garden tube station was installed in 1906.

The Twenty-First Century has seen a continuation of the Institute’s expansion, with the commissioning of Chapters in Mumbai and Beijing. In addition to viticulture and winemaking, the organisation’s activities span the worlds of academia, public relations, logistics, banking and global development. The Worshipful Institute is proud to hold the record for the oldest continuously incorporated entity in human history, with 2019 marking the Institute’s 2,557th anniversary.

Origin, history and present day details of the Extant Minstrel Houses

Timeline and key dates in the history of the Worshipful Institute of the Minstrels of Wine

 

539 BC   Victory of Cyrus the Great at The Battle of Opis, liberation of Babylon.

 

538 BC   Incorporation of the Worshipful Institute of the Minstrels of Wine in Byblos by Teïspes II, Cyrus the Great’s satrap in Phoenicia.

             Foundation of House Helios, House Olivam, House Vitium and House Pythia.

 

533 BC   Foundation of House Figuli.

 

414 BC   Aristippus of Cyrene joins the Athenian Chapter of the Minstrels of Wine, entering House Helios.

 

399 BC   Institute relocates from Byblos to Athens.

              Foundation of House Hedonist by Aristippus of Cyrene.

             House Olivam absorbed by House Vitium.

 

221 BC   Foundation of House Dionysian, an offshoot of House Hedonist.

 

110 BC   Foundation of House Cilician (the ‘Pirate House’) by Medon Amphipolis, an Athenian proxy of Isaurian chieftains.

 

66 BC    Dissolution of House Cilician.

 

55 AD    Pliny the Elder joins the Rome Chapter of the Minstrels of Wine, entering House Vitium.

 

77 AD    Foundation of House Archivist by Pliny the Elder.

 

79 AD    Institute relocates from Athens to Rome.

            House Pythia absorbed by House Helios.

 

125 AD  Claudius Ptolemy joins the Minstrels of Wine, entering House Helios, and commissions the Institute’s Alexandria Chapter.

 

144 AD  Apuleius of Madauros joins the Minstrels of Wine in Rome, entering House Dionysian.

 

193 AD  House Dionysian, under its provost Clodius Verus, declares independence from the Institute.

            Verus is drowned, House Dionysian dissolved, foundation of House Mithras.

 

284 AD  Minstrel Chapters commissioned in Antioch, Sirmium, Trier and Constantinople.

 

402 AD  Institute relocates all personnel to Constantinople.

 

410 AD  Sack of Rome by the Visigoths. Institute formalises move from Rome to Constantinople.

 

425 AD  Foundation of the Imperial University of Constantinople.

 

719 AD  Commission of the Venetian Chapter by Marcello Tegalliano, the first Doge of Venice.

 

724 AD  Foundation of House Iconoclast.

 

850 AD  House Iconoclast absorbed by House Hedonist.

 

1066      William, Duke of Normandy, invades England and overthrows the Saxon king Harold.

 

1069      Botwulf of Thanet joins the Minstrels of Wine in Constantinople, entering House Vitium.

 

1088      Foundation of House Terroirist by Botwulf of Thanet.

 

1115       Dissolution of House Vitium.

             Foundation of House Cistercian by Bernard of Clairvaux, commission of Bar-sur-Aube Chapter (Champagne).

 

1129       The Synod of Troyes, foundation of House Templar.

 

1147       Afonso I of Portugal captures Lisbon from the Moorish Almoravids.

 

1148       Siege of Damascus, defeat of the Crusader armies.

 

1162       Institute relocates from Constantinople to Venice.

 

1182       House Helios absorbed by House Archivist.

 

1203       Foundation of House Mercantilist by Bordeaux merchants in honour of John, King of England.

              Sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.

 

1312       House Templar absorbed by House Mercantilist.

 

1453       Capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II.

 

1492       Christopher Columbus reaches the Caribbean.

 

1494       Aldus Manutius establishes a printing press in Minstrel Hall.

 

1567       El Greco joins the Minstrels of Wine in Venice, entering House Hedonist.

 

1575       Institute relocates from Venice to Lisbon.

             House Cistercian absorbed by House Archivist.

 

1580       Iberian Union with Hapsburg Spain. El Greco commissions Minstrel Chapters in Salamanca, Valladolid and Toledo.

 

1585       Foundation of House Orbis (or the ‘New Worlders’), an offshoot of House Mercantilist.

 

1620       House Figuli absorbed by House Archivist.

 

1634       Commission of the Amsterdam Chapter by Zacharias Wagenaer.

 

1668       Dom Perignon joins the Reims Chapter of the Minstrels of Wine, entering House Terroirist.

 

1679       Simon van der Stel commissions the first non-European Minstrel Chapter at Stellenbosch.

 

1688       Treaty of Lisbon, recognising Portugal’s independence from Spain.

 

1755       Institute relocates from Lisbon to London following the Great Lisbon Earthquake. House Orbis dissolved.

 

1815       The Battle of Waterloo, the decisive battle in the Napoleonic Wars.

 

1825       Gregory Blaxland commissions the Sydney Chapter of the Minstrels, the first outside Europe and Africa.

 

1835       Nicholas Longworth commissions the Cincinnati Chapter, the first in the United States.

 

1851       Jean-Louis Vignes commissions the Los Angeles Chapter, the first in California.

 

1860       Charles Jaques commissions the New York Chapter.

 

1890       Don Tiburcio Benegas commissions the Mendoza Chapter.

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© 2020 by Peter Stafford-Bow