One thing the Catholic Church doesn’t have to apologise for, I was thinking as I visited the Vatican last week, is its long connection with wine. This originated with the sacramental wine of the Eucharist, but the church from quite early on was not content that wine should be a mere symbol; more important for what it represented, or was transubstantiated into, than for what it was.

For centuries, the Roman Catholic church and especially the Cistercian order was at the cutting edge of quality in wine; acquiring and planting or replanting many of the world’s greatest vineyards, in Burgundy, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the Rheingau; carefully exploring their particularities of terroir, experimenting with different grape varieties and pruning methods, developing state-of-the art wine presses and barrels. The church cared about wine, because as Thomas Aquinas put it: “The wine of grapes is in some sort an image of the effect of the sacrament. By this I mean spiritual joy, for it is written that wine makes glad the heart of man.”

If wine makes glad the heart of man, then brandy makes it doubly merry, and healthy. That is not the opinion of Thomas Aquinas but of Vital Dufour, Franciscan prior of Eauze, who wrote a treatise in 1310 enumerating the benefits for mind, body and spirit of the brandy or aygue ardente made in what is now Armagnac country.

I had come to the Vatican to collect a copy of Vital Dufour’s treatise, preserved in a book kept in the Vatican library, with a bunch of Armagnac producers and professionals keen to demonstrate their product’s long history and connection with health, both physical and spiritual.

The willingness of the Vatican to lend its authority to what a cynic might call a publicity stunt could be explained by an infiltration of Armagnacais at a high level (there seem to be a surprising number of Gascon cardinals, monsignors and consiglieri). But what impressed me most of all during my short visit was the scholarly integrity of Louis Duval-Arnould, the Armagnac-born archivist of the Vatican library. The story he had to tell of Vital Dufour and his treatise, and the book it was preserved in, turned out to be more resonant and poignant than any press release.

Dufour lists 40 virtues of aygue ardente (taken medicinally and soberly): among them that it heals hepatitis, gout, cankers and deafness, that “it recalls the past to memory” (shades of Proust!) and “enlivens the spirit, taken in moderation”, that “if you hold it in your mouth it will delight the tongue and give courage” and even that, through “frequent anointment …it will restore a paralysed member to its former state” (not a virtue Vatican authorities would want to linger on at the moment).

Dufour was neither a quack nor a travelling salesman but an august and serious person who studied medicine at Montpellier. He eventually became a cardinal but not without engaging in passionate controversy with Pope John XXII on the question of apostolic poverty. Dufour sided with the Spiritual Franciscans who embraced extreme poverty, and found their justification in the poverty of Jesus. Eventually, John XXII ruled that the doctrine of the Spiritual Franciscans was a heresy; Dufour bowed to papal authority, while others were persecuted and exiled.

There is one vision of the papacy: an intolerant absolutist tyranny, more likely to side with wealth and power than poverty and vulnerability. But, within the Catholic Church, there have always been enlightened and liberal spirits prepared to risk their lives over matters of conscience and doctrine. The Vatican library, like the Vatican Academy of Sciences, represents a valuable humanist tradition; among other things, it is one of the world’s greatest repositories of classical manuscripts.

The book in which Dufour’s treatise is preserved was printed in 1531 but only entered the library in the 19th century as part of the private collection of Angelo Mai, the great philologist and Vatican librarian. Mai was one of the most skilful decipherers of manuscripts of the 19th century, responsible among other feats for the recovery of Cicero’s De Re Publica.

My visit to the Vatican left conflicting images and feelings: the Pope borne aloft in his Popemobile in the splendour of St Peter’s, receiving adulation like an elderly cream-coloured angel; the humble archivist in the tiny vineyard and orchard near the French church of the Trinità dei Monti. Above all, during the handing-over of Dufour’s treatise in the refectory of the Trinità, the warm copper-coloured glow of old Armagnac blending with the rich greens and reds of Fra Andrea Pozzo’s trompe l’oeil frescoes depicting the wedding feast of Cana, where water was turned into wine.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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