Was water really regarded as dangerous to drink in the Middle Ages?

It’s a story I’ve been guilty of treating a little too uncritically myself: “In the Middle Ages people drank beer rather than water because the water wasn’t safe.” But is that correct? No, not at all, according to the American food history blogger Jim Chevallier, who calls it The Great Medieval Water Myth

Chevallier declares (and a big hat-tip to Boak and Bailey for pointing me in his direction):

“Not only are there specific – and very casual – mentions of people drinking water all through the Medieval era, but there seems to be no evidence that they thought of it as unhealthy except when (as today) it overtly appeared so. Doctors had slightly more nuanced views, but certainly neither recommended against drinking water in general nor using alcohol to avoid it.”

He quotes the book Misconceptions About the Middle Ages, by Stephen Harris and Bryon L. Grigsby, which says: “The myth of constant beer drinking is also false; water was available to drink in many forms (rivers, rain water, melted snow) and was often used to dilute wine.” And he concludes:

“There is no specific reason then to believe that people of the time drank proportionately less water than we do today; rather, since water was not typically sold, transported, taxed, etc., there simply would have been no reason to record its use. Did people in the time prefer alcoholic drinks? Probably, and for the same reason most people today drink liquids other than water: variety and flavor. A young man in a tenth century Saxon colloquy is asked what he drinks and answers: “Beer if I have it or water if I have no beer.” This is a clear expression of both being comfortable with water and preferring beer.

It is certainly true that water-drinking was considerably more widespread than many modern commentators would seem to believe, particularly by the less-well-off. In 13th century London, as the population grew, and the many wells and watercourses that had previously supplied Londoners, such as the Walbrook, the Oldbourn (or Holborn) and the Langbourn (which arose in the fen or bog that Fenchurch was erected near), were built around, covered over, filled in and otherwise made undrinkable, to quote John Stowe’s Survey of London of 1603,

“they were forced to seek sweet Waters abroad; whereof some, at the Request of King Henry the Third, in the 21st Year of his Reign [1237], were (for the Profit of the City… to wit, for the Poor to Drink [my emphasis], and the Rich to dress their Meat) granted to the Citizens, and their Successors … with Liberty to convey Water from the Town of Tyburn, by Pipes of Lead into the City.”

The “town of Tyburn” was the small settlement near what is now Marble Arch, about two and a half miles from St Paul’s cathedral, which took its name from the Tyburn River, the middle of three rivers that flowed down from the heights of Hampstead to the Thames (the others being the Westbourne and the Fleet). The water that was taken by pipe to the City came, depending on which source – pun – you believe in, either from the Tyburn river, or six wells at Tyburn village. The “Pipes of lead” eventually became the Great Conduit.

St Hildegard of Bingen

St Hildegard of Bingen

But is it true that “Doctors … certainly neither recommended against drinking water in general nor using alcohol to avoid it”? There were, in fact, influential voices who were not 100 per cent in favour of promoting water over ale. St Hildegard of Bingen, writing in the middle of the 12th century in her book Cause et Cure (“Causes and Cures”), said: “Whether one is healthy or infirm, if one is thirsty after sleeping one should drink wine or beer but not water. For water might damage rather than help one’s blood and humours …beer fattens the flesh and … lends a beautiful colour to the face. Water, however, weakens a person.”

Hildegard’s Physica Sacra of circa 1150 also has a fair bit to say about water and health, and while she says (in the section on salt) “It is more healthful and sane for a thirsty person to drink water, rather than wine, to quench his thirst”, she certainly seemed to have had some qualms about water. For example, talking about pearls, she said: “Pearls are born in certain salty river waters … Take these pearls and place them in water. All the slime in the water will gather around the pearls and the top of the water will be purified and cleansed. A person who has fever should frequently drink the top of this water and he will be better.” That would seem to suggest that she did not think water-drinking was automatically good for sick people without the water being purified.

She also wrote: “One whose lungs ail in any way … should not drink water, since it produces mucus around the lungs … Beer does not harm him much, because it has been boiled,” and someone who has taken a purgative “may drink wine in moderation but should avoid water.”

In addition, in the specific section in the Physica Sacra on water, Hildegard commented on the waters of various German rivers, saying of the Saar: “Its water is healthful neither for drinking fresh nor for being taken cooked in food.” On the Rhine, she wrote: “Its water, taken uncooked, aggravates a healthy person … if the same water is consumed in foods or drinks, or if it is poured over a person’s flesh in a bath or in face-washing, it puffs up the flesh, making it swollen, making it dark-looking.” The Main was all right: “Its water, consumed in food or drink … makes the skin and flesh clean and smooth. It does not change a person or make him sick.” However, the Danube was not recommended: “Its water is not healthy for food or drink since its harshness injures a person’s internal organs.”

Hildegard, therefore, did not universally condemn water, and indeed praised it as a thirst-quencher, but she certainly felt people had to be careful of water, on occasions, when drinking it.

Four centuries after Hildegard, another doctor, Andrew Boorde, was even less enthusiastic about water. In his Dyetary of Helth, first published in 1542, Boorde wrote that

“water is not holsome, sole by it selfe, for an Englysshe man … water is colde, slowe, and slacke of dygestyon. The best water is rayne-water, so that it be clene and purely taken. Next to it is ronnyng water, the whiche doth swyftly ronne from the Eest in to the west upon stones or pybles. The thyrde water to be praysed, is ryver or broke [brook] water, the which is clere, ronnyng on pibles and gravayl. Standynge waters, the whiche be refresshed with a fresshe spryng, is commendable; but standyng waters, and well-waters to the whiche the sonne hath no reflyxyon, althoughe they be lyghter than other ronnyng waters be, yet they be not so commendable. And let every man be ware of all waters the whiche be standynge, and be putryfyed with froth, duckemet, and mudde; for yf they bake, or brewe, or dresse meate with it, it shall ingender many infyrmytes.”

The well on Ockley Green, DorkingSo: water – your doctor doesn’t necessarily recommend it at all times and in all places. But it certainly wasn’t condemned outright, and there is no doubt water was drunk, by the poor, and probably by others as well. The records of St Paul’s Cathedral in the 13th century show that tenants of the manors owned by the cathedral who performed work for their landlord, known as a precaria, were supplied with food and drink on the day, but sometimes it was a precaria ad cerevisiam, “with beer”, and sometimes a precaria ad aquam, “with water”. So the bald statement “In the Middle Ages people drank beer rather than water because the water wasn’t safe” is indeed, as Jim Chevallier says, plain wrong.

On the other hand, they drank a lot of ale (and, once hops arrived, beer as well). Those same accounts of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, in the late 13th century indicate an allowance of one “bolla” or gallon of ale per person a day. Still, while monks, canons, workers in religious institutions and the like might have been that lucky, I doubt strongly that every peasant drank that much, all the time. Indeed, there is a very good argument that the country simply could not have grown enough grain to give everyone a gallon of beer a day, every day, while also providing enough grain to meet the demand for bread as well.

The high allowance for beer in monasteries certainly suggests there was little water-drinking going on behind monastery walls: but out in the wider world, where brewing in the early Middle Ages, outside big institutions, cities or large towns, probably generally relied upon householders with the occasional capital surplus to buy some malted grain, knock up a batch of ale and stick the traditional bush up outside the front door to let their neighbours know to pop round for a pint, it seems likely alcohol was rather more of a treat than a regular daily occurrence. Since there was no tea, no coffee or fruit juices, and milk would not have lasted long, that left only one other drink for the thirsty peasant – water.

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31 thoughts on “Was water really regarded as dangerous to drink in the Middle Ages?

  1. It is quit easy I would have thought to imagine that beer or ale in the middle ages was infected with lots and lots of bacteria of many different origines ?! Also think of all the infections people were suffering and dying from at that time !?

    So I find it quit acceptable to think that instead of water people drank LOW alcohol Ale or Beer i.e. possibly 1 % alcohol ?? Not the 5 to 10 % alcohol beers we know now !

    Gerard

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    • I can’t think of any human pathogens that can survive the brewing process, or even survive in beer. While beer may have been “infected”, it wasn’t with anything that could also infect drinkers.

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  2. Yes, this notion’s had been scratching my head on occasion too. Just because beer was boiled and fermented doesn’t mean it couldn’t get pestiferous subsequently. I can’t imagine medieval breweries and inns (etc) had high hygience standards, so surely people got ill from water and ale? A rural peasant may at least have had access to a spring here and there.

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    • Ale wasn’t necessarily boiled at all – there is no need to do any boiling, in fact it’s largely a waste of time and money, if you’re making a hopless ale. All you need to do is warm your water enough to mash with.

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      • Oops Martyn is ahead of me on this one.

        Pardon a light note but the post brought to mind the 1800’s-era remonstrance of a Scots countryman to a lass who offered him whisky and asked would he like water with it, and the reply was, “He must be uncommon hard to please who is nae satisfied with the water already in’t!”.

        Gary

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  3. Interesting. It really is one pf those myths that’s so easy to believe. Probably built on the basis that we imagine the Middle Ages to be the Dark Ages with ordinary people basically being stupid. The fact that people did drink lots of beer becamse somehow confused with the notion that they were drinking it instead of water.

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  4. I had recently found myself hesitating to state this as a fact, partly because I suspected you had already debunked it. I JUST DON’T KNOW WHAT’S TRUE ANY MORE!

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  5. I would check with Unger on this, especially to develop a methodology for assessing whether pervasive beer drink was a cultural habit. His work certainly directed me to the idea of daily drinking in the 1400s and specifically based on the volume of grain growing and brewing. Also, remember that the two are not mutually exclusive. A pint of ale may have taken care of other pints of water over the day.

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  6. Next thing you’re going to tell me is that medieval folks didn’t use pepper and nutmeg to disguise the flavor of rotten meat. ;)

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  7. Of course people will drink water whenever they have the opportunity. A fresh source of cool water will always be the preferred choice for any human being. After all, our bodies instinctively know that there is nothing more isotonic than water.

    But I think the discussion is somewhat mislead or rather mistimed. First of all I believe that it was not in the middle ages that beer became a necessity – it was later in the late-Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Secondly, one has to distinct between rural dwellers and townspeople. The Renaissance peasant did not need beer as the mandatory thirst-quencher. Rather it was for special occasions or to amusement. It was the townspeople that had the dire need for beer.
    In Denmark, most towns were basically just large villages up to the early Renaissance period. But in a city like Copenhagen the population grew dramatically in the 15th and 16 century. Since it was not allowed to build outside the ramparts, the concentration of people within the city limits increased significantly. This put an increased pressure on the city’s water infrastructure, both in terms of quantity and quality. In the 16th and 17th century the government (The Royal Court), attempted to improve the water supply by building trenches and pipes that brought water from the surrounding lakes and marshes to the city. But according to contemporary sources this surface water was both smelly and slimy – especially during summertime.

    I do not think people were necessarily aware that the water was bad or the beer was good. But I am convinced that the people clearly preferred beer, simply because it tasted and smelled much better. And if people furthermore noted that those unfortunates that regularly drank water from the wells, often fell ill with dysentery or similar, it has hardly been a major logical exercise to choose beer instead of water.

    So I would dare to say that the discussion is a little trite. Of course people would have been drinking water if they had the choice. But that choice became increasingly limited in the cities during the late Middle Ages, hence beer became important as a safe alternative. Beer lost this gained status with the introduction of a mainstream coffee and tea-culture in the 18th century and even more so with the installation of modern plumbing and waterworks in the mid-19th century.

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  8. Sorry to post a not-very-related question, but I have a question you might be able to answer. Do you know if ancient “beer” (e.g. Mesopotamian, Egyptian) would have been at all bubbly, when served? In the absence of more modern types of bottles, my assumption is that the gas from fermentation would dissipate quite quickly, and that the containers they had wouldn’t have withstood the pressure of secondary fermentation. And the same question goes for the earlier middle ages in Europe–when did the expectation that beer would be anything other than still and flat (like wine) begin? Or do you think it was generally served so soon after brewing that it would usually be at least “petillante”? (I read your post on the history of bottled beer, but I’m wondering about what it was like before that.)

    Thanks for any thoughts you might have!

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    • D’ye know, there’s little evidence one way or the other for that, although we have at least one story from around the 10th century AD of a cask exploding. I really wouldn’t like to guess …

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  9. Mmm. Interesting. WHat I do know is that when the water improved in the second half of the 19th century Table Beer pretty much completely disappeared after having been around for centuries. I wonder why that was?

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  10. I think it’s worth remembering that the causes of the Black Death (1348–1350), where 75 to 200 million people died, were not understood and there were all sorts of explanations at the time, one of which was that the water was responsible. In an atmosphere like that I think I would have chosen beer. It took 150 years for Europe’s population to recover, and I can imagine rumours would easily linger on for that amount of time. Just a thought.

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  11. I read the Chevallier article a few days ago, when B+B posted a link, and I’m afraid it just seems like anecdotal stuff, indicating that some people sometimes drank water, which surely no-one ever doubted. Rural people with access to a clean water source doubtless drank it, whilst in crowded sixteenth century cities with sewage-polluted water, hopped, boiled beer probably was far safer.
    I think that the only pathogen that can survive boiling is botulism (the toxins are destroyed, but the spores can survive) and the bacteriostatic environment created in the beer by the hops prevents the surviving spores from multiplying and, therefore, creating more toxins.

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  12. Ooh Rod, mate, have a rethink. I think you have it around the wrong way. Botulism is why preserves are boiled in containers with no air in them. I am not sure about the spores but cooking has no effect whatsoever on the toxins, so cooking that puffed up tin of tuna, won’t make it safe.
    Nice blog Martyn, it did seem a bit of an odd claim, and some of the thinking of the followers makes sense. Interesting that even in the 12C big rivers in Europe were recognised as being unsafe to drink from, even if the reasoning was a bit off by todays understanding. Those who survived polluted water as children would have been able to drink their local waters with impunity but may have still needed to be careful when travelling and if you can afford to travel then you can afford ale or beer if not wine.

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  13. grameu – I am not talking about heating up – ie cooking – I am talking about a rolling boil of three hours in a brewery kettle.

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  14. Botulism is an illness resulting from the ingestion of toxins secreted from the bacteria Clostridium botulinum. It is the toxin produced by the bacteria that causes the symptoms in humans. Clostridium botulinum is an obligate anaerobe, which means it prefers conditions with low oxygen. This is why it can grow in sealed cans. Clostridium botulinum form spores that allow the bacteria to survive under non-ideal environmental conditions. These spores can survive harsh conditions like boiling water and cold temperatures…….. C. botulinum spores can be killed by heating to extreme temperature (120 degrees Celsius) under pressure using an autoclave or a pressure cooker at for at least 30 minutes.

    The toxin itself can be killed by boiling for 10 minutes.

    http://scienceline.ucsb.edu/getkey.php?key=1307

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  15. Though spores of Clostridium botulinum are heat-resistant, the toxin produced by bacteria growing out of the spores under anaerobic conditions is destroyed by boiling (for example, at internal temperature >85°C for five minutes or longer).

    http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs270/en/

    You’re not arguing with me mate, you’re arguing with the World Health Organisation, so save your sarcasm for someone who finds it funny.

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