A birch broom, fastened to a post, stands sentinel before a farmhouse in Germany’s vineyards. Red and yellow ribbons flutter from its handle. A board, bearing a hand-painted arrow pointing up the driveway, dangles below the broom.
Vintner’s bushes, as the brooms are called, are a centuries-old European tradition that advertises homemade wine and food in a temporary tavern on the farmer’s homestead. Winegrowers advertise by hanging brooms, bushes, ivy, and wreaths at the entrance to their homes. Shakespeare referred to the tradition when he wrote, “good wine needs no bush.”
Although pub signs replaced Shakespeare’s bush in England, the tradition continues in continental Europe, where the bush’s origins are steeped in controversy. Just how old is it and where did come from? Drawings of the bush date back to the 1400s, but then the trail goes cold. Folklore is harder to track through the history books.
Does the Vintner’s Bush Date Back to Charlemagne?
Continental winegrowers like to say the custom goes back to Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor. He reigned as king of the Franks starting in 768 and as emperor from 800-814. In response to a famine, Charlemagne introduced a critical piece of legislation called the Capitulare de villis. The emperor wisely required each of his estates to grow and preserve minimum amounts of food. In §22, he specified: “Those who have vines shall keep not less than three or four crowns of grapes.” Because the word for crowns, coronas, can also mean wreaths, many scholars say this statute is the first mention of the vintner’s bush tradition: Charlemagne required the vintners to display their wreaths and sell their wine.
This interpretation of §22 is not unanimous. The leading scholarly interpretation of the Capitulare de villis by the French scholar Guérard says the coronas were wooden wreaths for drying grapes and preserving them as raisins. And that better fits Charlemagne’s legislative intent of preserving the food supply.
Might the Romans Have Invented the Vintner’s Bush?
One scholar suggests we should forget Charlemagne and look much further back in history – to the Romans. In his short article for the American Journal of Folklore, Henry Carrington Bolton points out the diversity of bush types in Italy and pins the tradition to several Latin maxims, attributed to Publius Syrus and Columella in the first century B.C, that say essentially the same thing as Shakespeare: good wine needs no bush. Bolton claims the tradition dates back to the Romans.
A German scholar trumpeted an alarm one year after Bolton’s publication. The quotes Bolton attributed to Publius Syrus and Columella don’t exist. I’ve reviewed the maxims of both Roman authors and have to agree with the German scholar.
But the tradition might still go back to Rome. Consider this: the countries that historically displayed the vintner’s bush, England, Germany, Netherlands, France, Austria, Slovenia, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, correspond roughly to the European boundaries of the Roman Empire. And according to tradition, the founder of the Viennese bush tavern, the Buschenschank, was the Roman legate Galienus. He served wine and nuts to Roman legionaries in the Döbling district of Vienna.
Good wine needs no bush. But sometime the bush is just as interesting as the wine. And it might be much older than people think. So the next time you visit one of these taverns – a Besenwirtschaft or Straußwirtschaft in Germany, a Buschenschank or Heurige in Austria, an osmica in Slovenia, a frasca in Italy, a bouchon in Lyon, France, or furancho in Spain, lift your glass and toast some history. Shakespeare, Charlemagne, and some Roman legionaries might be smiling down on you.
Have you ever visited a farmstead tavern? What did it use as a vintner’s bush?
Literature on point:
Richard Andree, “Der grüne Wirtshauskranz,” Zeitschrift des Vereins für Volkskunde (1907) 17:195-200.
Henry Carrington Bolton, “The Vintner’s Bush: A Survival of Twenty Centuries,” Journal of American Folk-Lore (1902) 15:40.
B. Guérard, Explication du ‘Capitulaire de Villis’ (Paris, 1853)
Bartel F. Sinhuber, Der Wiener Heurige (Vienna: Amalthea, 1986)
In Spain and Slovenia, it’s an ivy bush. In France, a bundle of straw. Austria and Italy hang out pine branches and Germany and Switzerland birch brooms. You’ll often find them out in the country, dangling sentinel before a farmhouse.
The vintner’s bush is a centuries-old form of advertising. Many European countries allow winemakers to market their own wines by opening their farmsteads and setting up temporary taverns. The farmers need no restaurant licenses, and in some countries, don’t even need to charge sales tax, so the food is cheap. But there’s a catch. So that the vintners don’t undermine commercial restaurants too much, their opening periods are often restricted to a few weeks per year and they may serve only simple, homemade wines and food.
In Germany, these taverns (Straußwirtschaft or Besenwirtschaft) enjoy soaring popularity for their rustic, intimate atmospheres and good, inexpensive food. Expect home-baked bread, several kinds of sausages and pork, homemade sauerkraut, and in the spring, sometimes asparagus. But the cultural aspects are perhaps even more interesting. This is where people come to meet, chat, and linger for hours over a glass of wine. In Heilbronn, Germany, a vintner’s bush tavern is where people secretly met to plot against Hitler’s regime. The Nazis hated these farmstead taverns for precisely that reason, but they proved powerless stop such an old tradition.
It’s part of English tradition, too. J.R.R. Tolkien wove the vintner’s bush into his opening chapter of the Lord of the Rings. At an inn called The Ivy Bush, hobbits speculate about Bilbo’s upcoming birthday party. “Good wine needs no bush,” quipped Shakespeare in the epilog to As You Like It. Of course it doesn’t, but what Shakespeare doesn’t say, and what a lot of Europeans already know, is that the bush makes the wine a lot more fun.
Have you ever visited one of these taverns in Europe? Where were you? And what was your experience?
(c) 2014 Ann Marie AckermannRead More