From medieval herbal tonic to modern day global spirit, gin has a long and fascinating history
In Gin History in Snippets we explore the history of this complex and much-debated spirit.
11thC ~ Rumour has it that Italian monks were flavouring crude spirits with juniper berries as long ago as the Middle Ages.
This makes sense from several perspectives. There was a tradition dating from Roman times of using juniper berries in medicine as a cure for a wide range of ailments, including indigestion. Juniperis communis was growing on the monk’s doorstep in abundance and in fact, some of the finest, sweetest juniper berries still grow in Italy. Lastly, monks everywhere seem to make a hobby out of brewing and distilling. So no surprises if the rumour is true: that the origin of gin lies deep within the Italian countryside.
13thC ~ Skip forward a couple of centuries and the publication Der Naturen Bloeme (The Flower of Nature) by the Dutch poet Jacob van Maerlant (1230/35 ~ 1291) contains one of the first written references to juniper. This Dutch 13th-century natural history encyclopedia runs to 13 volumes and is adapted from De Natura Rerum (The Nature of Things) by natural philosopher Thomas of Cantimpr (1200 ~ 1272).
Bestiaries were popular in the Middle Ages and both these publications have their roots in these classical texts.
On the page Gewone Bomen (Common Trees) the juniper bush, both bark and berry in tonic form, are prescribed as cures for cramps and indigestion. A manuscript of the De Naturen Bloeme is held in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, the National Library of the Netherlands.
1348 ~ 51 A.D. ~ Flanders as we know it today was once part of the Low Countries, a region encompassing modern Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, parts of northern France and western Germany. In 1348 A.D. the Black Death arrived in the Low Countries.
A combination of bubonic plague, caused by infected flea bites; pneumonic plague, correctly believed to be transferred from person to person in saliva by coughing or sneezing; and septicaemic plague devasted the population of Europe. All forms of the plague cause neurological symptoms as the plague bacteria attack the central nervous system, resulting in what is known as the Danse Macabre.
So where does gin come into all this?
To ward off the ‘evil humours’ juniper wood was burned in people’s homes (to little effect) and plague doctors wore bizarre plague masks with beak-like extensions packed with herbs and juniper berries to protect them from inhaling infectious vapours from their patients. So once again juniper was being used for medicinal purposes.
But it wasn’t long before juniper tonics stopped being medicinal and became recreational. And we have the Belgians and the Dutch to thank for that!