Saturday, November 16, 2013

The great Medieval water myth

This is one of several posts on drink in the Middle Ages. The others are:
For looks at later water myths, see Old Regime water after the Middle Ages and Early America.

The idea that Medieval people drank beer or wine to avoid drinking bad water is so established that even some very serious scholars see no reason to document or defend it; they simply repeat it as a settled truth. In fact, if no one ever documents the idea, it is for a very simple reason: it's not true.

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.

Paolo Squatriti is a rare writer (in Water and Society in Early Medieval Italy, AD 400-1000) to look at this question. He writes of both Italy and Gaul:

Once they had ascertained that it was pure (clear, without odor, and cold) people in postclassical Italy did, in the end, drink water. Willingness to drink water was expressed in late antiquity by writers as dissimilar as Paulinus of Nola, Sidonius Apollinaris, and Peter Chrysologus, who all extolled the cup of water. 

In Misconceptions About the Middle Ages, Stephen Harris and Bryon L. Grigsby write: "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." Steven Solomon's Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization examines uses of water, including for drinking, going back to Sumeria.

UPDATE 10/28/2014 - A new article in Eä – Journal of Medical Humanities & Social Studies of Science and Technology examines Greek and Roman ideas of drinkable water, showing that these groups too regularly drank water.

Otherwise, modern examinations of the issue are rare. In the period itself, however, there are numerous, and always uncritical, mentions of people drinking water. When Fortunatus (sixth c.) says that Radegund drank water mixed with honey, there is no suggestion at all that the water itself might be dangerous. 

Gregory of Tours (sixth c.) writes that when one man "arrived at a village by the road, he went into a small habitation and asked there for water." He even favorably mentions a pond – that is, still water – as a source of drink: "In the middle is a large pond with water that is very agreeable to drink".  And in one tale a merchant uses river water from the Saone to dilute wine. Gregory also tells of a crowd finding the marks where a hermit had knelt to drink water from the river. St. Lupicin is said to have drunk the water of a local stream. When a child restored to life miraculously speaks, he tells his mother "Run quickly and bring me a cup of water." 

When Gregory mentions miraculous cures using water associated with a holy figure, the water has more power because of that association, but he never implies that it would have been undrinkable otherwise: "Since then a great number of the sick, after having drunk water or wine into which this gem had been plunged, were immediately restored to health.”; "Water left there by the rains is sought by the sick, who recover their health when they have drunk it.”; "Often the possessed, the feverish and other sick people recover their health in drinking water from this well".
It was not unusual in speaking of the devout or the saintly to say that they drank mainly water. Gregory says of a boy who received religious training that he became "so abstemious that he ate barley instead of wheat, drank water instead of wine, used an ass instead of a horse, and wore the meanest garments."  Patroclus, a hermit in Bourges, drank only water “a little sweetened with honey” Other writers share similar incidents. St. Paul Aurelian dipped his bread in water. A life of St. Clothilde tells how she brought a cup of spring water for builders at Les Andelys (only to have it changed to wine). 

The thirteenth century doctor Arnaud de Villeneuve said that water was better for quenching thirst than wine but recommended drinking it from a vessel with a small opening or a narrow neck in order not to drink too much. In the fourteenth century, Maino De Mainer (Magninus Mediolanensis) wrote the "Natural [drinks] are twofold, that is, wine and water. These drinks are in use among us."

In 1389, writes Jean Juvenal des Ursins, when Paris welcomed the Queen, "there were at each crossroad.... fountains pouring water, wine and milk." (Was the unpasteurized milk safe? That's a separate question.)

UPDATE 2/10/2014: A fourteenth century monk in Liège not only listed water as one of the preferred drinks, but recommended it over ale and beer.

It was also standard throughout the period to punish monks by putting them on a diet of bread and water – something that would have been frankly sadistic if in fact people of the time had believed water was likely to cause disease. Rather, the idea was clearly, as with prisoners later, to limit them to the minimum required to sustain Life.

People in the time certainly knew the difference between bad and good water. Pliny, in discussing drinking water, says: "It is a fault also in water, not only to have a bad smell, but to have any flavour at all, even though it be a flavour pleasant and agreeable in itself....  Speaking in general terms, water, to be wholesome, should have neither taste nor smell.”. Centuries later, Paulus Aeginata (seventh c.) wrote: "of all things water is of most use in every mode of regimen. It is necessary to know that the best water is devoid of quality as regards taste and smell, is most pleasant to drink, and pure to the sight; and when it passes through the praecordia quickly, one cannot find a better drink."

Bavarian law (c. eighth century) addresses the case where someone pollutes a fountain: "If someone pollutes or stains a fountain with any filth, they are to clean it so that there is no sign of pollution and pay six sols..."

Medical authorities of the time did have some reservations about water, but none of these reflected any concern that clear, odorless water carried disease. Pliny and Paulus both warned, as did others, against water that smelled bad. But even then, Paulus thought these might be used:
But waters which contain impurities, have a fetid smell, or any bad quality, may be so improved by boiling as to be fit to be drunk; or, by mixing them with wine, adding the astringent to that which is sweeter, and the other to the astringent. Some kinds of water it may be expedient to strain, such as the marshy, saltish, and bituminous.
Note that if he suggests improving bad water by adding wine, neither he nor any other medical authority says to replace water by wine or beer in order to avoid disease.

What many did say, and with reason, is that water was not as nutritious as wine and so wine was more appropriate for health overall. Both Villeneuve and de Mainer wrote that, if water was more appropriate for quenching thirst, wine was a more appropriate basis for a healthy regimen. But saying that (as is still true) wine was more nutritious than water is not in the least to say that water caused disease.

Doctors also warned against drinking too much of it, as in Villeneuve's suggestion of using a vessel that limited how much one could drink. Galen, whose writings would be central to Western medicine for over a millennium, warns that an excess of water “corrupts, then breaks and destroys the stomach's strength and vigor; which being so weakened receives bad humors, which flow and drift through the whole body in its cavity; no more or less than those who fast and endure hunger for a long time.” To drink mainly water, that is, was like abstaining from solid food and would similarly make a person weaker and more prone to illness. 

Yet Galen certainly does not say not to drink water in general and in fact he says that those of hot natures should drink more water than wine. This is because, in humoral theory, water was believed to be cold (and so a balance to hot natures). For the same reason, several doctors, such as Villeneuve, recommended against drinking it with meals, on the grounds that it would retard digestion.

If modern doctors put no stock in humoral theory - and so would never condemn water as being "cold" - they certainly would agree that water on its own cannot support Life and that one should avoid water that smells or looks bad. The classic and medieval theories on water, then, did not substantially differ from modern ideas. And again no early medical authority said to replace water - good or bad - with wine or beer.

All of this is of course quite academic, since it is unlikely that many in the largely illiterate society of the time even knew what medical opinion was; to the degree that they thought they did, their information was probably as distorted as much that passes for medical knowledge on the Internet today.

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.

At the time, most prepared drinks were alcoholic drinks and those that were not intended to be would quickly have become so. The Gauls, for instance, were said to drink water that had been poured through beehives; that is, honey water. In Merovingian times, Fortunatus describes Radegund as drinking the same drink. But leave honey water sitting long enough and it will ferment, producing mead. In a time before refrigeration, this was true of many flavored drinks; in a sense, fermentation was a preservative process. That is, drinking something that was not water almost inevitably meant drinking at least weak alcohol.

It may be too that, as per Galen, it simply seemed fortifying to drink more substantial drinks. Even in the eighteenth century, Ben Franklin discovered that his fellow printers in London believed that drinking beer gave them strength. 

My fellow-pressman drank every day a pint of beer before breakfast, a pint with bread and cheese, for breakfast, one between breakfast and dinner, one at dinner, one again about six o'clock in the afternoon, and another after he had finished his day's work. This custom appeared to me abominable; but he had need, he said, of all this beer in order to acquire strength to work. 
I endeavored to convince him that the bodily strength furnished by the beer, could only be in proportion to the solid part of the barley dissolved in the water of which the beer was composed...

But as poor a method as Franklin found this for gaining nourishment, beer does indeed contain some nutrients; more, certainly, than water. And for people in a subsistence economy (as many were in the Middle Ages) that would have been as good a reason as any to drink it. When they could get it.

One would think that, confronted with the above evidence, those who insist medieval drinkers drank beer and wine to avoid water would at the least reconsider. Unfortunately, long-standing myths are not displaced by anything so flimsy as documentation. In previous discussions elsewhere, one person's response was simply to say, "The lack of evidence is not evidence." Another's was that since some doctors criticized some water, some drinkers might have considered this good enough reason to avoid water. Etc. This long-established idea then is unlikely to die anytime soon. But at the least, the next time you see or hear someone put it forth, you can always try asking: what is the evidence for this from the period?

Because that simple question has, for too long, been ignored.

UPDATE 10/18/2017: Why are people who have little or no firsthand knowledge of the Middle Ages absolutely convinced they know the facts on this issue? Some even after reading this or similar items? Here's a new item from the New Yorker: Why Facts Don't Change Our Minds: New discoveries about the human mind show the limitations of reason.

UPDATE 2/8/2018: One problem with the common myth is that it ignores the water actually available to most people - who, in early European countries, mainly lived in rural environments (pollution was primarily an urban problem, and actually became more of an issue AFTER the Middle Ages). One major source then would have been streams, which, as this article demonstrates, typically provide perfectly safe drinking water: Actually, Backpackers, You Don’t Need to Filter Your Stream Water.

UPDATE 4/21/2108: And if we needed any further confirmation that people will drink water from springs and streams, this look at the Raw Water craze is a reminder that, yes, natural water carries risks, but also that, modern hygiene or no modern hygiene, not only are some modern, sophisticated people doing that today, they are paying well for the privilege. How likely is it then that people with no knowledge of science would have avoided water which to them looked clean and fresh?

 A History of the Food of Paris: 
From Roast Mammoth to Steak Frites
Visit for more.


2019-5-22: "Since there was always a risk of contamination with water, fermented beer and wine were considered much safer to drink."

Israeli researchers brew 'ancient beer' with antique yeast


Paolo Squatriti, Water and Society in Early Medieval Italy, AD 400-1000, Parts 400-1000 2002

Stephen Harris, Bryon L. Grigsby, Misconceptions About the Middle Ages 2007

Steven Solomon, Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization

Sainted Women of the Dark Ages, edited by Jo Ann McNamara, John E. Halborg, Gordon Whatley

Saint Gregorius (évêque de Tours), Henri-Léonard Bordier, Les livres des miracles: et autres opuscules, Volume 1 1857

Joannes Bollandus, Jean Baptiste Carnandet, Godefridus Hanschenius, Daniel van Papenbroeck, L. M. Rigollot, Acta sanctorum: Ed. novissima, Volume 21 1867

Arthur Le Moyne de La Borderie, Histoire de Bretagne : topographie générale de la Bretagne de 57 av. J.C. à 753 de J.C 

Thomas Wright, Richard Wülcke, Anglo-Saxon and Old English Vocabularies: Vocabularies

Arnaldi Villanovani... Opera omnia cum (ejus vita per S. Champerium et) Nicolai Taurelli... annotationibus... (Carmen V. Thilonis) 1585

Magninus Mediolanensis, Johannes Van Westfalen, Regimen sanitatis 1482

Jean Juvenal des Ursins, Histoire de Charles VI roy de France et des choses ... advenues des l'an 1380-1422. mise en lumiere par Theodore Godefroy. -Paris, Pacard 1614

Ferdinand Walter, Corpus juris Germanici antiqui, Volume 1 1824

Galien, Le Livre de C. Galen traictant des viandes qvi engendrent bon & mauvais suc, mis en françois pour

Pliny (the Elder), The Natural History of Pliny, Volume 5 1856

Paulus (Aegineta.), Francis Adams, The Medical Works of Paulus Aegineta, the Greek Physician: Tr. Into English Vol I 1834

Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography an Essays 1864



  1. Thank you for this informative and useful summary. Thank you, too, for directing us here from MEDMED-L

  2. So...on another topic which seems to suffer from a lot of myth and no real evidence...what did medieval people wipe their butts with??

    1. Not a subject - being a food historian - I've explored. I've actually never encountered any statements about it, mythical or otherwise, but strangely enough there actually is a rich tradition in hagiographies of references to the main activity in question, often in regard to "privy death", a gruesome draining of one's substance from the lower regions visited upon those who offended saints in various ways. And as it happens I just ran across an account of a saint going into the bushes to satisfy a "need".

      There is a rich literature on "bum-wiping" in the eighteenth century:

      - notably a wicked exchange between Pope and a woman - but I haven't encountered anything medieval so far. Given that papyrus was often used for wicks (presumably old worn-out papyrus - it was an import), that might have been one possibility early on.

    2. There's some suggestion that they used moss, from examples found in medieval privies, but I can't remember where I read that.
      Or hay; in Gies' "Life in a medieval castle" they quote a story of Abbot Samson of Bury St Edmunds dreaming one night that a voice told him to rise, and when he got up he found "... a candle carelessly left by anothe rmonk in the privy about to fall into the hay."

    3. Actually they have found a fair bit of evidence in medieval cesspits and in written sources. The rich used linen or even silk rags. Some households and public latrines continued the Roman tradition of the sponge on a stick, soaking in a bucket of water or vinegar. Most of the populace used handfuls of straw/grass/leaves etc that was called 'arse-wisp'. Towards the end of the middle ages and into the 19th century, cheap pamphlets and newspapers were recycled as toilet paper, often referred to as 'bum fodder' or just 'bumf'. When all else failed…they used their hands (probably the right hand, as the left hand was the one that touched communal food when cutting pies etc).

    4. I thought the left hand was the one used for dirty jobs, as most people are right handed.

    5. I recall hearing that there were implements used, something to scrape one's butt clean, but I don't know how true that is.

    6. There is a joke, reputedly dating to the 16th century (when I heard it, the raconteur reported that it was to be found in "a book of jokes published in teh time of Henry VIII" - but he did not name the book and I have not seen it) which runs "What is the cleanest leaf in the greenwod? The holly - for no man durst wipe his arse thereon". If this is accurately reported as to provenance, then it seems clearly to support the view that leaves were usec, at least when toileting al fresco even if not in the garderobe.

  3. The stupid commenting system seems to have eaten my first post.
    So, toilet paper, I recall reading that they'd found some moss in a medieval privy, which makes sense, it's absorbent and can be picked up in lots of places.
    Then in Gies "Life in a medieval Castle" there is mention of a dream an abbot had, in which he was told to wake up. When he did he found that a candle left in the privy was about to set fire to the hay left there for use as toilet paper. Which would be painful if it was well dried I suppose.

  4. what about on boats, e.g. to the new world... I heard water didn't stay clean for many days on boats and passengers and crew drank beer or wine rather than water.

    1. Honestly, I haven't tracked this one down yet, so I'd be hesitant to say it was a myth out of hand. But it sounds like one more echo of the standard one.

    2. I've also heard this one - that keeping water in wooden barrels for such a long time would cause the barrels to rot. It would be a good experiment to see if it were true.

    3. One of the apocryphal origins for the issuance of the sailors' regular rum ration diluted with water (later referred to as 'grog') is that it made the water more palatable after sitting in butts for weeks or months. An equally valid reasoning is that the diluted liquor was less likely to get the sailors drunk. Officers would bring supplies of wine on board because it was a more 'sophisticated' beverage and, being officers, they were 'above' the common seamen. Overall, though, I suspect that it comes down to a question of taste -- wine and beer would taste better than the water in the butts. However, that water would still be used for cooking, even if the crew avoided drinking it when possible.

    4. I believe that the barrels would be made of seasoned wood, which would reduce rot. One of the factors favoring the English during the episode of the Great Armada was Drake's raid that burned much of the seasoned wood that the Spanish planned to use to make their water barrels for the trip.

    5. There were also water sources such as the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia that were high in tannins. Probably made the water taste dreadful, but it wouldn't get contaminated with bacteria, etc. as easily.

    6. I must confess to thinking that the problem of bun wiping is closely related to the one of which position one uses to defecate.

  5. A typo in the last paragraph? "One would think that, confronted with the above evidence, those who insist medieval drinkers drank beer and wine to avoid alcohol..." - replace with "water?"

    1. The bad news is: despite rereading and editing my own posts almost manically, I made a mistake.

      The good news is: there's at least one close reader out there.

      Thanks for the correction. :)

  6. Oh great space, this is a poor manipulation of history in order to get people to view your blog. Like many who could not understand something as simple as "why does the earth go around the sun; OR an even more dumb yet validly asked question, Why does the sun go around the earth?", these people aren't going to understand things like dysentery, cholera, and many other water born diseases, but for those who had to take care of those who got sick, they caught on REALLY quickly that the main culprit was, SURPRISE!, the water. Also, Arnold of Soisson ( literally saw that people around him were getting sick and dropping like flies from drinking the local water, so, he told them something very simple: "Dont drink water; Drink beer". The fault in your argument is that you're basing all your quotes and information from the higher born's and nobles, people that couldn't care less about science, peasants, or how the process of alcohol was even brewed, yet, were more inbreed than raisin's in dough.

    1. An interesting idea of "manipulating history": citing it in detail. :)
      Not all the examples I cite are from the upper classes, but of course any material from that period was written by the privileged (including monks, who were often well-born themselves). No way around that when you're doing medieval history.
      I don't always distrust Wikipedia, but in this case the claim you mention is completely uncited. Looking into a biography of St. Arnulfe of Soissons (which amply cites his Latin hagriography). he turns out to be one of those saints who not only drank water but "squalid water":

      Otherwise, the work addresses his association with brewing and can find no specific basis for it; but it does roundly dispute a tale that the bishop made beer himself:

      " Il faut aussi reléguer au rang des fables, certaine tradition locale quia cours àTieghem, et d'après laquelle, une brasserie aurait été installée dans une dépendance du château de Fulbert, le père de Si Arnold; Fulbert au dire de la légende, aurait été brasseur, et sa brasserie aurait été pourvue d'eau par le « Ruisseau de St Arnold » (Si Arnaudtsbeke); pour alimenter la brasserie, on aurait même mené jusques là, par voie artificielle, les eaux « de la fontaine de St Arnold. » "

      Un Saint de la Flandre au xi siècle: vie de Saint Arnold ou Arnulphe
      By J. Ferrant

    2. @John Doe: I'm wondering what sources you have for the statement that those caring for "peasants" understood the source of diseases. It would seem that if this were the case, large-scale outbreaks of plague, cholera, etc. would have been much better controlled than they actually were in Medieval times.

      Misconceptions about the source of diseases continued well into the nineteenth century, and those "peasants" you talked about often had no clue what caused so many deaths. See for instance work by John Snow to identify the source of a cholera outbreak in London (the CDC article on him at is a fine summary).

      Even as late as the mid 1800s, people did not generally catch on quickly to what was causing them to get sick (the prevailing theory was that the poor air quality caused it), and at least one "higher born" as you put it did care about science and peasants.

    3. Excellent Chris.

      In fact one concern I almost touched on in my post was the question as to whether people SHOULD have been more concerned about the water - just as they should really really have been worried about large amounts of unpasteurized milk being served from public fountains (brrrrr....). In fact dysentery and other stomach ailments were quite common at the time (both Gregory and the physican Anthimus mention them more than once) and I forget which English king - that is, an upscale consumer - was shown to have had all kinds off intestinal parasites in his remains. So the well-documented ubiquity of drinking water does not necessarily mean they should not have been worried. This said, they ingested so many other things that could have done them harm that it's hard to narrow it down to just the water. The upper classes, for instance, loved pork. How safe does anyone think medieval pork was? Yet, probably because it was raised mainly to be eaten (unlike cattle, which typically were tougher from labor), it was considered a finer meat.
      There are still countries in the world where people thoughtlessly drink water because, well, it's there. And have the illnesses that result. So maybe medieval people should have been concerned. But if so, that concern only sometimes peeks through the written record and then only in terms of what water to drink or how to process it, not in any advice to drink alcohol (which at any rate was an indulgence for many people - it's not like someone with no monetary income could just go down to the local tavern and buy it, or use grain that was often already scarce to make beer instead of bread).

  7. Thank you for this article.

    There seems to be a typo in the second last paragraph:
    "One would think that, confronted with the above evidence, those who insist medieval drinkers drank beer and wine to avoid alcohol would at the least reconsider."

    That "alcohol" should be "water", I presume.

    1. Interesting. It appears that there are cached copies of my post sitting out there.

      Congratulations on your sharp eye. Another poster, also a careful reader, spotted that earlier and I fixed it hours ago. It seems to be there on my side. But it appears there are other copies out there without the change.

      Thanks for the heads up.

  8. GREETINGS!!! to all my new flood of visitors.

    I'm delighted to see so many people showing interest in this topic, and to be spreading the word about yet another food history myth (there are a lot of them). While you're here at Les Leftovers, may I remind you there's way more to the Middle Ages than water? If you look at top right at "Blog Archive", you'll find posts on Medieval food, Medieval drunks, Medieval whaling, Medieval peas and beans - not to mention a long look at the breads (yes, breads) which have been found by archaeologists (though mainly not from the Middle Ages, I'll grant you).

    I'm just sayin'....

  9. I've been working on some pretty extensive research into early-period fermented drinks (particularly Norse), and it involves reconsidering a lot of how we define "beer" and "ale."

    There is evidence of a daily or common grain-based drink in several cultures, but the vast majority do not appear to have been intentionally alcoholic. Rather, they're much more like a kvass or grain-based kombucha.

    Essentially, water with some extra nutrients in it. A light fermentation may help out-compete certain microbes, but it probably mostly existed as a way to consume calories - not unlike the way we use soda today.

    So I'm not sure if water was always a common drink - but I do agree that medieval people were probably not drinking an alcoholic drink as their common beverage.

  10. I feel like you've set up a sort of straw man whose misconceptions to "debunk" here. Was there anyone out there who thought that all water everywhere in the Middle Ages was so tainted that any recorded mention of drinking water from that period should come with a qualification or footnote? Of course there was potable water. But drinking from any random stream or pond you came across wasn't a good idea. Likewise, there were surely towns whose rivers weren't drinkable for exactly the reasons we assume. And so, beer and wine were a safer bet. For all your citations, you've basically just established that, in the Middle Ages, there were people (notably, those who were wealthy and educated enough to write) who had access to drinking water.

    1. Unfortunately, it's not a "straw man' at all, and in fact the enthusiastic response to seeing the idea opposed is one sign of that. But I wrote the post soon after getting frustrated trying to demonstrate to yet another person who repeated this myth that that's what it was. One thing that frustrated me about the discussion was the attempt to reason the problem out without testing the reasoning against actual data. And I've seen a number of people now say some variant of what you say here, that, well, it must have been true because [fill in the blank]. A wealth of period references to people drinking show that it wasn't true. And these aren't just references to the rich; to the contrary, it was the rich who would have had the most access to alcoholic drinks. A number of my references are to ordinary people and in fact for many water seems to have been the ONLY drink they could have regularly. Bear in mind that many were living on bare subsistence, for a long time without even being paid in coin. If they had grain at all, they needed it first of all for bread (and several times over the centuries there were laws limiting brewing when grain became scarce). So it is not even obvious that they could always make their own. Otherwise, if you truly believe that only some people had access to drinking water (which one could get from any stream or natural fountain, at least in the countryside, where most people then lived), how many fewer people must have had access to alcoholic drinks, which required production and additional resources.?

    2. I suppose that such concerns might correlate with perceived proximity to pollution. folks in the countryside might have no fear of drinking from the stream, but a resident of Paris hesitate to sip from water that might have been drawn from the canal. Unfortunately, these sorts of questions hard to address with kinds of data available. perhaps more illuminating would be an intellectual history of this belief.

    3. An intellectual history of the belief (or of false beliefs in general) would certainly be interesting, and in fact I think some such efforts exist. But that is a separate issue.
      Before postulating why people would have done this, one needs to demonstrate that they did. And so in Paris for instance Julian wrote in the fourth century of the excellence of the water in the Seine; skip a thousand years forward and the Parisians were drinking water from fountains. So what facts we have simply do not show that the Parisians avoided water. To the contrary, by the eighteenth century, when the Seine certainly was polluted, the Parisians were still drinking from it (Beaumarchais said they drank in the evening what they put in it in the morning.)
      There simply is no evidence that people in this period avoided water that was not overtly off-putting. So before one can draw any conclusions from the fact that they did, one would have to prove the latter "fact".

  11. Gervase Markham, in his 1593 Discource on Horsemanship (although it's not directed at people) suggests that horses that need strengthening should drink water that has flowed from a sewer, or a river in which much garbage and blood and excrements have been found. He also advises that there are a number of dangers to a horse that drinks water (especially before a race, or any time preparing for a race, and limits the water to the horse severely - but does not replace it with either beer or ale, but with 24 hourly waterings with a bit of bran or malt to sweeten the water. Because horse people are odd?

    1. "horses that need strengthening should drink water that has flowed from a sewer, or a river in which much garbage and blood and excrements have been found"
      Those poor horses.

  12. Nice discourse - the idea of beer/wine over water is one thing, but not drinking it at all because it was "known to be poisonous" is another. The number of medieval recipes that call for "sweet water" indicates that there was a level of awareness as to what water was good and what was not. Logic dictates that whatever water source(s) the local village or town had would have been known to have been sweet or not simply through talk and gossip, just as we are well aware of certain restaurants that have been known to repeatedly give you an upset stomach or make you ill.

  13. I really don't know what the target is here. Your first sentence says "The idea that Medieval people drank beer or wine to avoid drinking bad water is so established that even some very serious scholars see no reason to document or defend it; they simply repeat it as a settled truth. In fact, if no one ever documents the idea, it is for a very simple reason: it's not true."
    But nothing you cite is evidence against this. That people drank water in villages. That people drank clear odorless water. That's only evidence against the claim that people *exclusively* drank wine or beer because they thought that *all* water was bad. Can you cite people making that claim? I've never heard it made. I've heard lots of mentions of the fact that much available water in the cities was obviously unhealthy and that this led to widespread substitution, but I can't see that you have given any reason to deny this. Indeed, the fact that people argue for the healthiness of water would seem to be evidence in the opposite direction. One doesn't publish arguments for something that everyone is already routinely doing.

    1. As to whether what I cite is evidence against the claim, I can only point out that many people seem to accept that it is, as shown by various follow-ups around the Web. The evidence I provide shows that people regularly drank water in the period and that there is no - absolutely none that I have found or seen provided by anyone else - evidence that they had qualms about water in general. This is in direct contradiction not only to what people often post casually on the Web, but to statements I have seen in books by respected professors, to the effect that Medieval drinkers avoided water because it was bad and drank beer and wine specifically to avoid this bad water. Neither anecdotes - about a wide variety of people from a wide variety of contexts - nor medical advice from the period supports this claim. To the contrary, mentions of drinking water are absolutely matter of fact in most cases, except in medical texts whose whole purpose is to examine the pros and cons of individual foods. To say that doctors were only arguing for the healthiness of water because most people DIDN'T think it was healthy is mere speculation which ignores the fact that such doctors were typically methodically passing the pros and cons of food and drink in review; what's more it sidesteps the simple plain fact that (again) no writing from the period expresses the reservations you are postulating.

  14. A very useful counter-blast to the received wisdom. However, I'm surprised that you don't quote Hildegard of Bingen. In Cause et Cure ("Causes and Cures"), she wrote: "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."

    Her 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 seems to have had some qualms about water. For example, talking about pearls, she says: “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 the she did not think water-drinking was automatiocally 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 OK: “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.”

    I take from Hildegarde, therefore, the idea that she did not universally condemn water, but she certainly felt people had to be water, on occasions, when drinking it

    On water aboard ships, incidentally, apparently algae grew in casks of water, rendering it undrinkable on long voyages: the English navy in medieval times allowed a gallon of beer per man per day, and Henry VII built breweries at Portsmouth specifically to supply the navy with beer. So that one's not a myth ...

    1. Thank you for the very learned presentation of Hildegard's material. Honestly, my main reason for not including her work is that I have been slow to know it, not least because my own focus is on the Early Medieval era, so her writing is actually "late" in my world. :) But in fairness I did point out that doctors had some reservations about water, largely based on the idea in humoral theory that it was "cold" and not nourishing. Note that in none of these quotes does she say that water carries disease, which is the heart of the modern idea of Medieval reservations (which I believe essentially ascribes modern ideas of hygiene anachronistically to earlier populations). Also, the very fact that she inventories the effects of water from different rivers only emphasizes its importance; it would be redundant to point out that some waters were unhealthy to drink fresh if people did not habitually do that. - With all these early medical writers, too, there is always the question of how many people were familiar with their ideas at all in illiterate society. Probably not many. But Hildegard's ideas are certainly interesting (here as elsewhere) and I thank you for highlighting them.

    2. Given that the above post is unusually informed, some of my other readers may want to know about:

      Beer: The Story of the Pint
      Martyn Cornell - 2004
      From the lost beers of the past which have now disappeared from the bar, to the remarkable rise of larger, once seen as fit only for 'women and foreigners', this book tears down the myths and tells the real story of the origins of the pint.

      Amber, Gold and Black
      Martyn Cornell
      This is a celebration of the depth of our beery heritage, a look at the roots of the styles we enjoy today, as well as those ales and beers we have lost, and a study of how the liquids that fill our beer glasses, ..

  15. There's a bit of poorly done "scholarship." Let's point out what the author half says. The key phrase from the Squatriti quote near the top: "Once they had ascertained that it was pure (clear, without odor, and cold)."

    Then notice the water references such as "arrived at a village..."

    Now, tell me, in London, Munich and the other great cities of that time, how likely was it to have water that was "clear, without odor"? Not very likely. To have a factual base for the author's statement, he/she would have to study alcoholic v water consumption in cities versus rural areas. Nothing such as that was mentioned.

    The final bit of not just unscholarly but purely ignorant prose is in quotes such as "not only listed water (with wine)." We're talking about whether or not people drank alcohol instead of water because they knew (if not why) that the alcohol killed what was in water. To claim that mixing water with wine is somehow proof that they didn't drink alcohol instead of water is so purely wrong as to be laughable.

    1. First of all you misunderstood my "not only listed water (with wine" reference. The monk in question listed wine as one drink, water as another. Two different drinks. (And you can read the separate article on that through the link.) But I certainly offer a number of specific citations of people drinking water, only water, and from various sources: a river, a pond, a spring. More to the point, none of these quotes express the least hesitation about drinking water which wasn't overtly bad.

      The question of cities is a minor one for most of the period, since these were in decline and even when they began to revive, by far most of the population was rural. But as a practical matter I know of no proof that people drank alcohol to avoid water in cities either - do you?

      If you question my scholarship, let me call upon yours. What period sources can you offer that show definitively either that people feared that standard water caused disease or that they drank alcohol specifically to avoid drinking the water?

  16. Really interesting article! Thank you for writing it.

    You mention that the practice of drinking honey and water as a part of meals, in part to demonstrate that they did not drink alcohol. I think the more interesting side of this to study would be if they were drinking honey with the water to make the water better. Historically, honey was regarded as good medicine for intestinal and gastric issues throughout Europe and mentioned by composer Daude de Pradas in the 12th century according to several researchers (I haven't read anything about him myself) online. And the Greeks used honey as an antibacterial agent for burns. Diluted honey with water can also slowly produce hydrogen peroxide, as well. Were they onto the idea that the honey could help provide an antibacterial function and ensure the water was safe? That might be an indication that they knew the water wasn't 100% safe, but I don't know if anyone has ever looked into the topic. It's just a thought for a follow-up column, I suppose.

    In my own readings of the medieval world, I have always thought you couldn't drink alcohol all the time or you'd be too plastered to work, even at a greatly reduced alcohol content. I would more likely state my assumption to be that somewhat like modern folks, that they would be drinking juices, milks, or water in the morning, water, cider, or ale at mid-day, and water, cider, ale, and wine at the evening meal depending on the finances of the family (water likely being a mainstay of families that were poorer as ales/ciders, richer folks drinking more juices, milks, and wine).

    1. Thanks for the thanks. :)
      Honestly, I think the most likely reason they used honey is for the same reason so many today drink soda - because it was sweet. The Gauls, who don't seem to have had any sophisticated medical system (though the Druids probably had some form of folk medicine) drank water poured through hives, so drinking honeyed water preceded any more sophisticated culture.
      Medieval people certainly were sensitive to people getting drunk - I've got a whole separate post on that subject. At the same time, the consensus seems to be that most of the beer in this period wasn't really that strong. The wine was, and Roman writers were shocked that "barbarians" drank it uncut (in one famous tale, an invading group of Gauls, having taken Rome, then got roaring drunk and was easily picked off by Romans who had slipped outside the city. Strangely, juice per se is almost never mentioned (even though people making wine must have at least tasted grape juice). Milk was probably not drunk too far from where it was obtained, since it couldn't be kept.

      As for what people drank through the day, I don't know that we have any dependable information on that for most of the Medieval period, but it's always important to remember that one couldn't just stop in a shop and pick up a cold one in most places. Even for those who had cash (probably a minority until the end of the period), drink of any sort required some effort to obtain. So any drink but water was probably used sparingly by those who were in fields, riding, marching, building houses, etc.

  17. Interesting discussion, minus the impolite remarks of some. I can vouch for the author that my medieval history professor at an Ivy League college did repeat the idea that they avoided water purposefully due to perceptions of disease. Whether this is common among professors I have no idea, but it was told to me at the Ivies about 20 years ago. I am going to see what I can do to find references to water vs. other drinks in Rabbinic responsa literature from the medieval period in Europe. That would be an interesting complement to what is said here. I will also consult the indices of the five-volume work on the Cairo Geniza that sits on my shelf. Obviously a different society, but a related one, with lots of travel to and fro from Northern Europe.

  18. Why thank you Simon. The impolite doesn't disturb me so much as the tendency the same posters have to reject the evidence provided without offering specific texts from the period in their own responses. - It all comes down to the data, in the end.

    Material in the Rabbinic responsa would not only interest me but no doubt some on the MEDMED-L mailing list, which specifically explores Medieval medicine (should you not be familiar with it.)

    1. I was not aware of the list, and I will look it up. Responsa and codes literature is vast, and is just beginning to be studied with empirical tools. It requires specialized knowledge of rabbinics to make head or tail of it, so this will take time. There are some secondary sources out there. Jewish academic journals are in the same subscription services as most others, so you might be able to find citations. I confess that as an avid beer drinker I am rooting to for the beer, but no matter. Let the best beverage win. Have Piers Plowman, the Romance of the Rose, or the like yielded anything useful?

    2. I'm not actually an academic, so I have limited access to specialized journals. Also, honestly, my whole approach to this post (which dates back to November) has pretty much been de minima - once I had what I needed to make my point, I haven't looked farther. (My main subject is Early Medieval food, even if I keep taking side trips. :) )

      If you're a beer enthusiast, I hope you noticed Martyn Cornell's work above. Looks interesting.

  19. I looked up water drinking in the Cairo Geniza indices I have, and also in the Talmud, which though dating from an earlier period (sayings date mostly from the 3rd to 5th centuries) would have informed if not dictated the habits of Jews, whether on the Nile or the Rhine. First, the Talmud: The most interesting saying bearing on your topic is one in the name of Rabbi Yohanan at Hullin 84b: "Rather drink a cupful of witchcraft than a cupful of lukewarm water; that is so only if it is in a metal vessel, but in an earthenware vessel it does no harm. Even in a metal vessel we say (it is harmful) only if no spice roots were thrown into it, but if some were thrown in it does no harm. Even if no spice roots were thrown in we say (it is harmful) only if the water had not been boiled, but once it had boiled it can do no harm." Interesting. In practice it seems that there was much water drinking. There was a taboo (probably A local Mesopotamian one) against drinking water at night. Avodah Zarah 12b. The same page prohibits drinking directly from pools and rivers because of the danger of swallowing a leech. Eruvin 14b specifies the blessing to be said before drinking water. Berakhot 40a taught the virtues of following other beverages with water, lest halitosis and other problems ensue. A second saying there specifies washing down food with water, a cupful to a loaf. Bekhorot 44b has one saying prohibiting scholars from drinking water in public. I assume this means "even water," a fortiori other things. In the Geniza, which is an amazing and vast trove of documents of daily life from Old Cairo in the 900s and on, there is less food than scholars would like, but there are some shopping lists that include money for the water carrier from the Nile. The collection to feed an ill man housed at a judge's house listed his ration of "Nile water." Wine was dominant there, of course. And Egyptian beer, called mizr. On food see Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, vol IV p.226 ff.

    1. Love those shopping lists.
      Thanks for the rare material.

  20. Hey look - a kindred soul!

    If you enjoyed my own article, but wish there was something similar for England, look no further:

  21. I've had a hard time believing this myth as well. I've heard such extreme statements like 'alcholic beverages were the only safe sources of water'. But alcohol promotes water loss. Obviously, you can't drink only beer.

  22. 'Whilst the soldiers were there [Dover Castle] they ate freshly killed meat and drank water, with the result that many died of dysentery and many were so weakened as to be on the verge of death'. The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers. (Chibnall and Davis 1998, pp. 144-5)

    If I read this right, does that not mean that William de Poitiers understood that the act of eating fresh meat and WATER was the cause of the dysentery? I still think your research stands, but it is an interesting and very relevant quote nonetheless.

    1. Your comment raises two different issues.

      One is that when people postulate (usually on no evidence at all) that medieval water was mainly bad, they completely ignore all the other possible vectors for disease in the time, notably the food. Even if the meat was freshly killed here, the animals themselves may have been unhealthy. I don't think anyone's managed to do enough research to say for sure (though there are, believe it or not, archaeologists of meat), but it's been clearly shown that warehoused wheat in the Roman Empire, for instance, was riddled with infestations. And of course there's also human infection, poor personal hygiene, etc.

      The other point is that, aside from whether or not people drank water in practice (and considerable evidence shows that they did), this may not always have been a good idea. Parisians for instance have always drunk the water of the Seine, despite its sorry state by the eighteenth century. And I remember when foreigners still hesitated to drink it even though the French claimed it was perfectly fine (my early case of "Robespierre's revenge" begs to differ).

      What's more, dysentery was a very real problem in the era - more than one royal died of it. But we don't know if the organisms involved came from food or drink.

      So saying that people drank water as a matter of course does not in itself mean they were always wise to do so. Certainly, I think the dangers were greater in urban centers (and most of Europe at this point was still rural). But bear in mind too that doctors didn't even think it necessary to wash their hands until the nineteenth century. Germ theory and awareness are pretty recent developments. So it's an anachronism to portray medieval people as avoiding water because it carried infections.

      As for what William de Poitiers understood, hard to say. He may simply be referring to the very limited diet. Roman soldiers, for instance, once rioted because they were forced to eat nothing but meat (something the Franks and other "barbarians" were said to do as a matter of course). And to the degree that medical opinion played any role at all here (which is very iffy) it advised against having water with meals, not because of contagion, but because, humorally, it was "cold". So that idea might be in play here as well.

      But yes it is an interesting and relevant quote. Thanks for passing it on.

  23. Nice article.

    I hate the persistent myth of "everyone drank beer". I simply isn't true. Analysing the Albigensian Crusade a lot, it became crystal clear to me that;
    - Towns were built on locations with two things in mind; strategical defense and a river nearby, and preferrably wells within the cities. Some walled towns even built extensive (and quite ineffective) corridors to wells and rivers (Carcassonne, Minerve) or outposts to protect the water (Termes) and help them get water during sieges.
    - Cisterns were used only in cases of emergency, and people were well aware that there was a risk of contracting dysentery
    - One of the major siege strategies was cutting a town off from the river, and wait for capitulation because of either dehydration or dysentery. This is how great castrae like Carcassonne, Termes and Minerve capitulated during the crusade.
    - On one occasion a troubadour even mentions during a siege that the defenders still had wine, but no water left, and therefor probably wouldn't last long.

    1. Interesting stuff, Ruitenjas. Thanks for the additional information.

  24. Re: Hildegard of Bingen's writings on the healthfulness of water in various rivers : She could have been misled about the poor quality of some of the rivers, if she received the information from other people and not her own experience, just like apparently reasonable people today are misled by supposedly informed people telling them that medieval people avoided drinking any water.

  25. Re: Hildegard of Bingen's writings on the healthfulness of water in various rivers : She could have been misled about the poor quality of some of the rivers, if she received the information from other people and not her own experience, just like apparently reasonable people today are misled by supposedly informed people telling them that medieval people avoided drinking any water.

  26. This is a very good article. I was always convinced that this was true, but I never examined the idea critically.
    I guess this is like that old "People in the past all believed the earth was flat" thing, which definitely isn't true.

  27. Watching an episode of Tales of Irish Castles on Netflix led me here. The claim was made that water was unsafe to drink and I immediately thought "that's not true". Before googling and finding your excellent post, it occurred to me that: to have beer you need water. Would mediaevals or ancients be so stupid as to use contaminated water to make beer? Beer requires other ingredients and wine had to be imported. What, economically, were the probabilities that the average peasant 365 days of the year had access to the ingredients, or the money to buy them or wine? Slim I should think. Water is ubiquitous; and in rural areas (where beer would in any event be easier to re oneself) tends to be clean, manure runoff not to be ignored of course. That said, running water tends to be cleaner; and the old test that if it's safe for animals to drink it may be safe for humans would also apply. In towns, usually along rivers or at their mouths, not only would there be running watter (although carrying all the pollutants from upriver), but there would be wells. Access to groundwater by way of wells is virtually a sine qua non for the building of fortifications from earliest times (and/or a riverside location). I do not think it likely that whilst under siege, sometimes for extended periods of time, it was a priority to turn the water into beer. Drawing water from wells, whether for washing, drinking, putting out fires or what have you, is attested in ancient sources (the Bible is full of such descriptions) and by archaeology. Of course as a preference medieval man would have drunk wine, beer ale or mead. That is still the case today, with the addition of our modern soft drinks. But Occam tells us, through his razor, that the reason we do not have as much record as we may wish of our forebears drinking water is the same reason why you don't see many toilet scenes on TV - it's too obvious to state by its very ubiquity, too uninteresting to record; and not contentious such that it would be necesary to do so. Then I read your blog :)

  28. If you assumed that people drank only beer would it not require A LOT OF TIME AND WORK to produce this much beer?

    1. Certainly a significant amount, though producing SOME beer was often among a housewive's duties. But there is also the question of how much grain was used; at times producing beer was banned entirely because of grain shortages. And aside from the grain tenants used themselves, they often had to give some as rents.
      As a practical matter, we see limited rations of beer being given as pay in some cases, so we know you couldn't just swill it all day.

  29. "at times producing beer was banned entirely because of grain shortages. " - do you have sources you could give me for that?

    1. Hi Martyn.

      Here's a modern overview:

      Otherwise, there's a long list of such interdictions over the centuries. I believe these go back to the early Middle Ages, but what I'm finding just now starts in the thirteenth century:

      "C'est ainsi que dans un temps de disette saint Louis considérant la cherté des grains défendit de faire de la bière en Normandie tandis que Philippe le Hardi en 1272 dans une circonstance analogue en vue de ménager le blé ordonnait que le galon de cervoise ne pourrait se vendre en Normandie plus de deux deniers tournois. En l'année 1304 Philippe le Bel revint à la mesure radicale de l'interdiction de la cervoise qu on trouve encore édictée en 1415 1482 et 1493."

      "Le grain manqua. Pour parer à la disette Charles VI par un édit de 1415 prohiba absolument et sous les peines les plus sévères toute fabrication de cervoise ou de liquides autres provenant de la fermentation des céréales. Tout le grain se trouvait réservé pour le pain: l'aliment liquide était sacrifié impitoyablement à l'aliment solide."

      "Ordonnance rendue au sujet d'une disette de grains et de fourrages, portant interdiction de fabriquer de la bière..."

      "En février 1623, lors de l'époque classique des ventres creux de l'après moisson mauvaise et ratée, les autorités promulguèrent l'interdiction de fabriquer de la bière, mangeuse de grain"

      "Enfin aux époques de disette le pouvoir défend d employer les grains à d autres usages qu à faire du pain On trouve à la fin du dix septième siècle plusieurs arrêts interdisant la fabrication de la bière ainsi ceux du 16 septembre et du 27 octobre 1693"

      "Comme la biere se fait avec des grains , on en interdit la fabrication quand les récoltes ont été trop mauvaises . C'est ainsi qu'en 1709 un Arrêt du Conseil d'Etat du Roi fit cette défense pour tout le Royaume , en permettant seulement ..."

    2. Thank you for taking the time to investigate this topic. I had teachers telling me this misinformation and I repeated it as an adult. I only recently heard otherwise and decided to google search the topic and landed on your blog. Excellent work. Thanks again!