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.

Yarmouth Ale, sweet and salty

Great Yarmouth in 1851

A festival-full of regional ales were available in Britain in the 19th century, including Reading Ale, Windsor Ale, Dorchester Ale, Stogumber Ale and Alton Ale, of which only two or three – notably Burton Ale and its close relative Edinburgh Ale – achieved much lasting appreciation. One regional style of ale that is effectively unknown today, despite it being mentioned briefly in William Marchant’s collection of aley anecdotes from 1889, In Praise of Ale, was Yarmouth Ale. Brewed in the Norfolk Suffolk fishing port of Great Yarmouth, Yarmouth Ale found a wide and enthusiastic market in London in the first 50 years of Queen Victoria’s reign, before vanishing entirely.

No recipe survives, as far as I know, for Yarmouth Ale, but enough evidence exists that we can say it was a strong mild, around 6.5 per cent alcohol, probably pale, considerably sweeter than most ales, and very much more salty, so salty that it was specifically mentioned in Parliament when MPs tried to draw up limits on salt in ale and beer. Continue reading

Look, will you all stop misusing the word ‘ale’. Thank you

I realise I’m whistling into a gale here. But if you want an expression that will cover everything from Kölsch to porter, taking in saison, IPA, mild, Oud Bruin and Alt on the way, then it’s “warm-fermented beers”. Not “ale”. Please. Because if you use “ale” in a broad, ahistoric sense to mean “any beer made with top-fermenting yeast”, then you’re making my job harder than it should be.

Now, I know that “ale” has already changed its meaning over the centuries. Many words have suffered semantic drift as they travelled downriver towards today. My favourite changed word is “soon”, which originally meant “immediately”. You can see the same sort of slow alteration in meaning at work today on “presently”, which is heading the other way, with many people using “presently” to mean “now”, when it used to mean only “in a while”.

Among the many other words that no longer have the meanings they used to, there’s “decimate”, which was first used to mean “kill one in ten” but now (presently?) means a much looser “subject to considerable loss”; and “fulsome”, which originally meant “abundant, plentiful, full”, then “disgusting, repulsive, odious”, so that “fulsome praise” meant praise so greasily insincere it made observers sick. It has now been reanalysed by many to mean “effusive, enthusiastic”, producing much spitting from pedants, who will insist that this is incorrect, and that a “fulsome welcome” shouldn’t, properly, be welcomed at all.

So with “ale”, a word derived from the Old English alu, which once meant “unhopped malt liquor”, in contrast to the continental hopped bere that arrived in Britain in the 15th century. By the 18th century, brewers were adding at least some hops to everything, so that “ale” now meant “malt liquor that is hopped, but not as much as beer is”. Thus the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1773 defined the word “ale” as “a fermented liquor obtained from an infusion of malt and differing only from beer in having a less proportion of hops.”

It’s important, if you study the history of brewing, to know this, to know that porter was a beer, not an ale, because it was heavily hopped, that all the many varieties of ale brewed around Britain – Burton Ale, Windsor Ale, Dorchester Ale, and others – were called ale because they were lightly hopped, to know why recipes for pale ale and pale beer in 1773 could differ so much, with the pale ale only lightly hopped while the pale beer was stuffed with hopcones; and to know that the London ale brewers were a completely different set of people to the London porter brewers. (Spot the two terrible errors at that link, btw.)

It also means that you’ll have the knowledge to see ale and beer as the two great rivers, the Euphrates and Tigris, one originally unhopped and then only lightly so, the other hopped from the start and then increasingly hoppier over time, from which all British beer styles are derived. Mild and old ale sprang up alongside the River Ale: porter and stout along the River Beer. Eventually, of course, the Euphrates and the Tigris run together, and so did the Rivers Ale and Beer, at a place called Pale Ale, the name of a lightly hopped fermented malt drink in the 18th century which became the name of a heavily hopped drink in the 19th century, after the success of “pale ale as prepared for the India Market”.

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Words for beer (3): the big mysteries

As I said when I wrote the first of these blog essays, the origins of the words “ale” and “beer” are a surprisingly tangled mystery, with no particularly obvious root for either word.

Nor has anyone ever explained convincingly why the “continental” branch of West Germanic (the one that eventually became German in all its dialects, and Dutch and Friesian) dropped the al- word for “beer” it had derived from a supposed Germanic root *aluþ- (that *, remember, indicates a word for which there is no direct evidence, but which has been reconstructed from later forms), and took up the word bier instead, while the “off-shore” branch of West Germanic, the ancestor of modern English, together with the North Germanic languages (Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and so on) stayed with words derived from *aluþ- – “ale” in modern English, Swedish öl and Danish and Norwegian øl.

Let’s look at “ale” first, the word that originally, in English, mean an unhopped fermented malt drink. It’s a word found across Northern and Eastern Europe: as well as in the Scandinavian languages, it occurs in the Baltic languages Lithuanian (alùs) and Latvian (alus), the Finno-Ugric languages Finnish (olut) and Estonian (olu) and the Slav languages Slovene (ôl) and Serbo-Croat (olovina, which means “yeast, dregs”, I believe). There is no evidence that the Baltic languages borrowed the “ale” word from the Germanic languages, or vice versa.

The word also appears away over in the Caucasus, in Georgian (apart from Finnish and Estonian the only non-Indo-European example) as ludi or, in a couple of mountain dialects, aludi, and in Georgian’s neighbour, the Iranic language Ossetian, as aeluton. Georgian linguists believe their language took the word ludi from the Ossetians, who are the descendants of the Alans.

The Alans ranged from their original home near the Sea of Azov, north of the Black Sea, as far west as France in the late 4th, 5th and 6th century AD, down into Spain and along the North African cost to modern Tunisia, as allies of other invaders of the Roman world such as the Germanic-speaking Vandals and Goths. After the final defeat of the Vandal/Alan kingdom in North Africa in 534, some of the Alans look to have returned to the border of the Roman Empire with Persia as cavalry in the Roman army. It seems more than possible they picked up the “ale” word from one of the Germanic peoples and brought it back to the Eastern Black Sea, where they met up with other stay-at-home Alans who had been pushed up into the Caucasus by the advancing Huns.

But where does “ale” come from as a word? One school wants to trace it to an Indo-European base *alu- (-d, -t), meaning “bitter”, a root found in the modern English word “alum”, the highly astringent salt used in, for example, leather tanning, and in the Proto-Slavonic root *el-uku, “bitter”, which has apparently given words such as the dialectic Polish ilki, “bitter” and the Czech žluknouti, “turn rancid”. This would make ale etymologically “the bitter drink”. Unfortunately there’s no evidence ale WAS originally a bitter drink: without hops and herbs (and English ale, at least, seems to have been drunk quite often without herbs) it would probably have been a sweetish drink to begin with, and then acidic or sharp, rather than bitter, as it aged and soured. Indeed, in a list of words in one now-extinct Baltic language, Old Prussian, compiled by a German writer in the 14th century, alu is glossed as meaning “mead”, fermented honey, which is definitely sweet, not bitter. So, no cigar for that idea.

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Words for beer (2) – was ‘beer’ originally cider?

Before we dive more fully into the tangled roots of the words “ale” and “beer”, we have to tackle one particularly knotted strand first, caused by the curious fact that, four hundred years before English adopted the word bier from the Continent to describe a malt liquor flavoured with hops (altering the spelling to “beere”), it already had a word beór that was used for an alcoholic drink. Around the time of the Norman invasion in the 11th century, however, beór disappeared from the English language.

(You might want to skip the rest of this blog entry, because it becomes a trifle word-nerdy, though it does range from Iceland to Babylon via Spain, and takes in gods, magical dwarfs and saints, and you’re more than welcome to stay.)

Most writers who touch the subject assert that beór, which is found much less frequently in old texts than the word that became “ale” in modern English, ealu in West Saxon (or alu in Anglian), was merely a synonym for ealu. They take their cue from the Oxford English Dictionary, which says, under its definition of “ale”, that “Ale and beer seem originally to have been synonymous.” To back up this claim the OED quotes from a poem called the Alvíssmál, or “Talk of Alvíss “, composed in the 11th or 12th centuries, probably in Iceland. This says (in Old Norse): “öl heitir með mönnum, en með Ásum bjórr,” that is, “‘ale’ it is called among men, and among the gods ‘beer’.”

But in fact this quote, (which the OED appears to have nicked straight from Bosworth and Toller’s Anglo-Saxon dictionary of 1882) although you’ll see it repeated regularly when the history of ale and beer in Anglo-Saxon times is discussed, doesn’t prove what the OED suggests it proves at all, that is, that öl and bjórr (ealu and beór in Old English) are synonyms, because the extract from the poem has been pulled totally out of context.

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Words for beer

There are four or five competing theories for the origin of the word “beer” and, frankly, none of them is particularly convincing.

The same is true of the word “ale”, as it happens: despite “ale” and its sisters, such as öl in Swedish and alus in Lithuanian, being found in languages from Britain to the Black Sea via the Baltic, no linguist has any good idea how it originated, with some of the ideas put forward being way out there in the unlikeliness ionosphere.

Of the four “great” families of words meaning “alcoholic drink made from malted grain”, however, we can be reasonably certain about the origins of the other two, the Slavonic “pivo” group and what might be called the “cerevisia” group, after the Latin word for “beer”. (Or, to be accurate, one of the Latin words for beer, since as well as the spelling we’re familiar with in the name of brewing yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the word also occurs in various Latin documents in the forms cervisia, cervesia, cervese, cervesa and cervisa.)

Taking this “cerevisia” group first, the Romans, who were wine drinkers rather than beer brewers, nicked their word for beer, in all its spellings, from speakers of a Celtic language. The original Proto-Celtic for “beer” was probably something like *kormi (that asterisk is the etymologist’s symbol indicating a word that has not been attested, but whose form can be worked out on the basis of later variants), going back to an earlier Proto-Indo-European word *kerm- (that dash means there was an ending on *kerm but we don’t know what that ending was.) *Kerm looks to be the root of a few other words in the Indo-European family, such as Russian korm, meaning “fodder,” an old Slavonic word krma, meaning “nourishment” or “food”, and Latin cremor, meaning “broth”, or “pap”.

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The long battle between ale and beer

How long did ale and beer remain as separate brews? Most* drinkers, I think, know that “ale” was originally the English name for an unhopped fermented malt drink, and beer was the name of the fermented malt drink flavoured with hops, a taste for which was brought to this country from the continental mainland about 1400. Some might be able to tell you that ale and beer then existed alongside each other as separate drinks for some time: but that eventually ale started being brewed with hops as well, and finally any difference between the two drinks disappeared, with “ale” and “beer” becoming synonyms. But when did that happen?

I used to think that their merger into synonymity was pretty much complete in Georgian England at the latest, agreeing with the historian WH Chaloner, who wrote in 1960, reviewing Peter Mathias’s great book The brewing industry in England, 1700-1830: “By the end of the seventeenth century the terms ‘ale’ (originally a sweetish, unhopped malt liquor) and the newer ‘beer’ (a bitter, hopped malt liquor) had come to describe more or less identical products following the victory of the latter drink.” But as I read more and more, I slowly realised that this was untrue: that in English, “ale” and “beer” maintained differences through until the 20th century that were, ultimately, from their origins as unhopped and hopped drinks respectively (and nothing to do with the modern American habit of referring to all “top-fermented” beers as “ales”, regardless of their histories and origins).

Beer geekery warning: if teasing apart the knotted and tangled threads of brewing history is your bag, stick with me for the next 2,500 words as we range over five centuries of malted liquors and watch meanings mutate: if you’d rather read something contemporary, Rob Sterowski, alias Barm, at I Might Have A Glass of Beer is always an interesting and often a provocative read, and he maintains an excellent list of other beer bloggers as well.

For those of you still with me: here’s a quote on ale and beer from 1912, less than a century ago, from a book called Brewing, by Alfred Chaston Chapman:

“At the present day the two words are very largely synonymous, beer being used comprehensively to include all classes of malt liquor, whilst the word ale is applied to all beers other than stout and porter.”

Why weren’t stout and porter called ales? This is a reflection, 200 years on, of the origin of porter (and brown stout) in the brown beers made by the beer brewers of London, rivals of the ale brewers for 500 years, ever since immigrants from the Low Countries began brewing in England with hops.

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How to brew like an Anglo-Norman knight

There are almost no descriptions of brewing processes in Britain from the medieval period, a reflection of the universality of ale and the universality of the knowledge of how to brew it: similarly “everybody” in the British Isles today knows how to make a cup of tea, and nobody wastes their time writing down a narration covering how to mash the Assam and when to add the milk.

One odd account of brewing “cerveyse”, or ale, was recorded in a late 13th century collection of poems written as an educational guide called the Treatise of Walter de Biblesworth, or, in his own words and spelling, “Le treytyz ke moun sire Gauter de Bíbelesworthe”. Biblesworth, or Bibbesworth, who was born in or before 1219 and died some time in or soon after 1270, was a knight who owned Bibbesworth manor, in Kimpton, Hertfordshire, and he was friends with some powerful people in the England of Edward I, such as the de Lacys, earls of Lincoln, and the de Veres, earls of Oxford. His rhyming treatise is written in the Norman French of the 1200s, with many obscure words. Here is the section on brewing:

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