Happy ‘St Vincent’s Day’ – why is he the patron saint of winemakers?
There are only two things we know for sure about St Vincent of Saragossa. First, his feast day is on 22nd January. Secondly, he was martyred under the Emperor Diocletian in about 304. The rest – as they say – is mystery.
Vincent’s life and death
Vincent was a deacon in Sargossa. According to Prudentius, a roman who wrote about martyrs, Vincent was tried for his Christian beliefs alongside his Bishop Valerius. As Valarius suffered from a speech impediment Vincent became the self-appointed advocate for them both. He was so irritating that the sentencing Governor merely exiled the more senior Bishop but ordered torture and execution for the junior Vincent. Sadly, this is not the first time an inexperienced advocate has enraged a judge beyond reason, and – equally sadly – it is unlikely to be the last. Vincent was therefore imprisoned in Valencia, and tortured on a grid-iron. This is a ghastly torture instrument: a barbaric barbecue where an iron grid is placed over an open fire and the victim is put on top. Having refused to recant his faith, Vincent was executed.
Legend tells that ravens protected the corpse of St. Vincent from vultures until he could be buried. A shrine was erected at his gravesite and continued to be guarded by ravens. About 700 years later, in 1173 King Alfonso I of Portugal dug up the body and brought it to a monastery in Lisbon. History does not record how he thwarted a raven defence.
So, if Vincent had nothing to do with wine during his lifetime, why is he the patron saint of vintners and wine-makers?
The reason is not obvious, but here are the theories:
(1) His name starts with ‘vin’- the word for ‘wine’ recognisable across Europe. I admit it sounds a bit simplistic, but it might be an explanation.
(2) His name, Vincent, sounds like ‘vin – sang’ or ‘wine-blood’ in French. Perhaps when the Church was allocating patron saints Vincent sounded like an appropriate martyr for winemakers. Vines that are pruned late will drip sap – the blood of the vine – so perhaps there is an association.
(3) It is suggested – and I apologise for this disgusting explanation – that Vincent was crushed to death and the blood spurting from the body was reminiscent of juice bursting from a ripe grape. Hmm. This isn’t really credible. Many people were killed by crushing so why Vincent rather than some other crush victim? Moreover, – without going into the details – bleeding is not the most striking effect of a crush injury. Anyway, wasn’t he supposed to have died on a grid-iron?
(4) If that were not macabre enough, another suggested explanation is that relics of St Vincent (his dress and an arm) went to a Parisian abbey then named Sainte-Croix-Saint-Vincent. The monks prayed to St Vincent to bless the vineyards and to ensure good harvests. If this is true (and it probably is, because monks tend to pray to the saint associated with their abbey) either St Vincent did a poor job in the vineyard or the monks were particularly ungrateful because the abbey was later renamed Saint-Germain de Pres.
(5) Vincent was a deacon and a deacon pours the wine. Perhaps it was his religious office that elevated him to become the patron saint of vintners.
(7) But what about the donkey theory, you ask? You’re right – the donkey theory is my preferred hypothesis. Not because I personally believe it is true, but because the idea is charming. It is said that Saint Vincent was riding his donkey past a vineyard when he stopped for a chat. The bored donkey nibbled shoots off the nearest vine. At harvest that vine produced more and better fruit. Ta-dah! Pruning was discovered. In fact, Saint Vincent’s feast day, 22nd January, is about the mid-point between a vine’s mid-winter dormancy and bud-burst, so it is a good time to be pruning.
A political appointment?
St Vincent is celebrated across Europe, but particularly feted in Bulgaria and Burgundy. Significantly perhaps the Burgundians adopted Saint Vincent at about the same time as the Franks adopted St Martin as a rival patron saint of vintners. Might he just be a political appointment then? A way of the Burgundians thumbing their nose at the Franks?
At least Vincent is not lonely. So many saints have a link with winemakers:
– Saint Trifon the Pruner (who was forced to prune his own nose),
– Saint Morand of Cluny (who survived Lent on one bunch of grapes, making the 5:2 diet look tame),
– Saint Urban of Langres (who hid to escape persecution and preached among the vines),
Also Saint Amand of France, Saint Martin of Tours, St Lawrence of Rome, Saint Goar of Aquitaine and Saint Walter of Pontnoise.
Whatever the true story is – or even if there is no truth in the story at all – the feast day of Saint Vincent is a good excuse for Burgundians to parade in scarlet medieval costumes, and Bulgarians to bake special bread and elect a ‘Vine King’, and everyone to enjoy the fact that Winter is going and Spring is coming. Let’s get pruning.