Saturday, July 12, 2014

The later water myths: Old Regime water after the Middle Ages

An earlier post addressed the tenacious myth that medieval drinkers used alcoholic drinks because the water was bad. But the Middle Ages differed from subsequent centuries in a number of ways. Notably, cities were in decline and many urban centers did not yet exist. Even as this changed towards the end of the period, industry had not yet reached the point which, by the eighteenth century, would require Abbeville, for instance, (in the north of France) to fill in some town waterways because they had become so polluted.

At the start of the twentieth century, “fully half of France's active population worked in agriculture”. (Crumley) France would remain a largely rural country into the nineteenth century, at least, and it is unlikely that mountain springs or simple wells sunk into unpolluted groundwater would have yielded anything but pure water. Still, as the centuries progressed, more industries and simply a growing population changed at least the urban landscape in important ways.

The question then is, after the Middle Ages, did the French continue to drink water as a matter of course or did it indeed become preferable to drink alcoholic drinks or other substitutes? Is there any reason, that is, to believe that Old Regime drinkers actively avoided drinking water? That is the focus of this post.

Preliminary thoughts

In one sense, it seems ludicrous to have to demonstrate a simple, even intuitive fact: human beings have always drunk water. But the idea that the water of earlier times was unhealthy and that people simply must have drunk other things in its place has long taken on a life of its own. Such claims are not made only about the Middle Ages, or even just about Europe; similar claims have been made about later centuries, not only in Europe, but even the American West.

The most striking thing about such claims is that they are always based, not on specific evidence, but on hypothetical reasoning; that is, “people must have drunk alcohol in place of water because.... [fill in the blank].” Having made this claim (based on whatever incontrovertible reason the person triumphantly pulls forth), the logical next step would be to demonstrate, by reference to period documentation, that this was indeed the case; only, that next step invariably is left out. Having demonstrated to their own satisfaction that something must have been true, writer after writer seems to find it superfluous to actually demonstrate that it was. 

Scholarship, ideally, consists of examining the facts and drawing conclusions from what they demonstrate. But on a question like this one (there are others), the process is reversed: the conclusion has become so widely established that most simply set out to defend it, rather that returning to the underlying facts and determining where they lead.

Two faulty assumptions above all seem to underlie ideas on this subject. One is that, because hygiene and medicine were, by modern standards, backward, water would necessarily have reflected the unhealthy state of many human beings. But of course this does not follow in the least; a spring or a well does not necessarily become contaminated because the people who use it are unhealthy.

The other is the idea that, if water was bad, people would not drink it. But modern day problems with water in Africa show that people will drink bad water, if that is all there is. One of the Africans quoted on the Clean Water Project's site says: “I feel now people understand how important clean water is and how it makes us healthy. Before we did not know and just drank water we could find.” (Alusine). On another site, we are told “the nearest source... is unprotected and likely contaminated”. Africans have ample access to, and indeed drink, alcohol; not only Western industrial products, but various local drinks. Yet many also continue to drink contaminated water.

Why would earlier Western drinkers, for whom obtaining alcohol was, at the least, less convenient, not have done the same?

With all this, there is the curious assumption that water gets safer in technologically advanced times. But a guide to modern France points out: “The main dangers to clean water come from the abusive use of chemical fertilizers, the illegal dumping of industrial waste, and the growing needs of the population.”

UPDATE 7-17-2014
Consider too this inventory from the Natural Resources Defense Council:
The first line of defense in ensuring the safety and quality of drinking water is to ensure that water sources -- lakes, rivers, streams and aquifers (porous underground formations that hold water) -- are protected from pollution. And as indicated above, there are many ways that contaminants get into source water, among them:
  • Municipal sewage
  • Polluted runoff from stormwater or snowmelt in urban and suburban areas
  • Pesticides and fertilizers from agricultural fields
  • Animal waste from feedlots and farms
  • Industrial pollution from factories
  • Mining waste
  • Hazardous waste sites
  • Spills and leaks of petroleum products and industrial chemicals
  • "Natural" contamination such as arsenic or radon that occurs in water as a result of leaching or release of the contaminant from rock

Are these "worst case" scenarios? Perhaps. But so are some modern imaginings of pollution in earlier eras. And earlier drinkers were in fact spared some risks we face today. Still, even in a less industrial time, “progress” was often the worst enemy of safe drinking water.

What people actually did

From the late medieval period through the late eighteenth century there are numerous specific and matter of fact references to people drinking water. 

Jean Froissart (1337-1404) describes a siege of Mauvoisin where the town had one well outside its walls, but only cisterns within it. When these ran dry, "they had a plenitude of wines, which they did not bother with, since they lacked sweet water." The availability of alcohol, in other words, was cold comfort if one did not also have drinking water.

Monstrelet tells how in 1412 soldiers drank from wells in the suburbs – and began to die. Because the wells had been poisoned, in full expectation that the soldiers would (as was clearly natural) drink water from them. (The soldiers were then ordered to only drink from fountains and running streams, showing how safe these natural – and mobile – sources were thought to be.) 

In the sixteenth century, Jacques Le Lieur's Book of Fountains of Rouen (1525) showed that city with, among other things, “a whole system for supplying drinking water”. (Leguay) Montaigne (1533-1592) told a friend that water was the best drink in the world (the friend had thought it was wine). Marshal Montluc writes of how, in 1545, he would drink water along with soldiers in order to encourage them and gain their trust. In 1583, Henry III (reigned 1574 – 1589), was said to be doing very well after falling ill and to drink “his water better than the greatest drunkard of Germany drinks Rhine wine.” In 1587, Laurent Joubert wrote of an aunt who drank water before going to bed.

Moving into the seventeenth century, the count of Souvigny writes that in 1616 when he was sick he took to only drinking pure water and was soon well. In 1628, during the siege of La Rochelle, his ship was granted a barrel of fresh water a day (and a pint of wine a day for each soldier).

The count of Loménie de Brienne (1635-1698) writes of an Italian in France who "only ever drank water". Madame de Sévigné (1626-1696), in her voluminous correspondence, mentions, in 1676, a new pump being built: "One thinks with pleasure of this natural water, both for drinking, and for bathing." In 1677, she wrote her daughter, "I drink the healthiest water, and in the best weather".

In 1715, at the start of the eighteenth century, Louis XIV's doctor wanted the aging king to take medicine; when he refused, Fagon advised him to begin his meals with figs followed by a glass of water. In 1785 people in Senlis used “river water as their normal drink.” (Caix de Saint-Aymour) In her memoir of Marie-Antoinette, Mme Campan talks about courtiers regarding the right to give the queen a glass of water as a prized prerogative.

Note that many of these people were of a social rank where wine and other alcohol was readily available, yet they drank, in some cases, eagerly drank, water. A number of other references are made to “taking the waters” at various places known for the special quality of the water. Numerous references, too, are made to people being condemned to only bread and water (as they already had been in the Middle Ages); clearly, the water, though punitive, was not considered to be unhealthy.

As in the Middle Ages, then, there are numerous examples of people drinking water. Conversely, there are none of people drinking wine or beer because they feared water in general. (Fetid or still water is always an exception, as it would be today.)

The experts

Numerous experts of different sorts wrote about water all through this period. Here is a sample of some of these texts.

In 1363, towards the end of the medieval period, the surgeon Guy de Chauliac (c. 1298-1368) published a work on surgery. It includes a chapter on drink: "Drink is natural or artificial. The natural is water, and the artificial wine, cider, beer." He begins by looking at water, itemizing the qualities of good water:
The best water is that which is clear and limpid, light and without odor, which can be heated and cooled easily...
The good qualities of water of which I have just spoken are particularly found in the water of fountains and rain, rarely in well water. As to swampy and muddy waters, they have no good qualities and are only good to throw out, as well as the water of snows and ices...
When necessity obliges one to drink bad waters, one must boil them.
In many ways this echoes what is found in other writers before and after him; note however that several disagree on exactly which water was best to drink.

In his 1577 work on running a farm and living in the country, Liebaut writes:
it is not enough to find sources of wells and fountains, one must further see to the goodness and healthfulness of water; because since our life consists in the greatest part in the use of this element, it is quite reasonable that the master of the rustic house take care to have good water, given that water must be the main drink of his servants.
He goes into great detail about building cisterns and wells, and how to have "good tasting water" and to avoid it being slimy or tasting of earth. He warns against using lead in fountains, which, he says, contaminates the water "which often causes dysenteries". Though he examines various uses of water, its use as drink is certainly a prime concern.

Bernard Palissy (1510 - 1589/1590) is best known for his wonderful ceramics. But he also left a classic work on water ("Admirable discourse on the nature of both natural and artificial waters and fountains", 1580). One of the points he makes is that even drinkable, natural water can include some toxins:
I do not say that there is not some tree, and so plants, whose salts might be toxic; and one must not think that all waters good to drink are free of toxins; but a little poison in a great quantity of water does not have the power to activate its bad nature.
In general, he says, all waters pick up salts in flowing underground, but these salts are not harmful. He admits however that there are exceptions, not because of pollution, but because of the nature of the salts in certain areas. In fact, he claims that in the Gascon region of Bigorre, many people had swellings (probably goitre) due to the local water. All of this of course takes for granted that people drink water and should be concerned with what makes it healthy or not.

Gérard François, one of Henry IV's doctors, left three volumes of a poem on health (1583) in which he writes:
As to drinking water no one is excluded,
It is true it helps some more, some less...
Wine is good. But water is more necessary:
Not everyone needs wine, all have to do with water.
At the start of the seventeenth century, in 1616, De Serres, in yet another work on agriculture, begins his section on water with a long panegyric on the liquid and its benefits to humanity. Further on, he particularly focuses on the water of fountains whose “abundance provides all our necessities, to guide it diversely according to the diversity of its services. That is, in part in close pipes, for ordinary drink, in order to be clean and cool, and in part in open canals for mills, waterings, feeding ponds, and such services.”

He then goes on at some length about developing fountains, cisterns, wells, etc. and on ways to keep the water clean and fresh. Again, he treats drinking water as a basic concern.

In a work from 1626 on “the medicinal virtues of ordinary water”, the author states:
We should only... drink water ordinarily, and it is pointless to limit its quantity for people who are in good health. Still two or three large glasses of Water or about, in rising, as many an hour and a half or two hours after each meal, is, to my mind, the most excellent preventative against all sorts of internal maladies.
The great surgeon Paré writes (1641):
There are several sick people, and also healthy, who never want or can drink another drink but water alone. Because of this the desire has struck me to show in writing the good water noted by the ancients; and it is quite necessary to recognize it, give that our life consists for the greatest part in using this. Because it is the principal drink...
Pare then recommends rainwater, fallen in summer and gathered in a cistern as the best; then those from fountains whose water comes down from mountains, through rocks and stones, then well water "or what comes out at the base of a mountain." Also river water, But "that of ponds or swamps is bad."

Like Pliny, he says that the best water has no taste, odor or color.

In 1714, Nicolas Lémery (1645-1715), a famous French pharmacist and chemist, also itemized the qualities of different kinds of waters. He advises river water as best for drinking, even if one has to sometimes filter it or let it settle. He even recommends taking three glasses of in the morning. He advises against drinking swamp water or other impure still waters without boiling them first.

Finally, in Diderot's Encyclopedia, one reads (1782):
Pure water is the most general drink of Man.
This healthy drink has for all time been covered with the greatest praise by philosophers and doctors; the most steady and the most vigorous health has been promised to drinkers of water, as an ample repayment for the passing pleasures which the use of fermented liquors can provide them....
Drinkers of water, in contrast with drinkers of wine,... more commonly enjoy good health than the latter. The former are less subject to gout, to redness of the eyes, to trembling of the members, and to other discomforts, that are counted with reason among the unfortunate effects of the use of spirits.

A sewer where each can drink”

All the above shows that water was considered, both in practice and in theory, a standard and even healthful drink. At the same time, several of the medical opinions show that people knew (as they already did in medieval times) not to drink just any water and in particular to avoid water that smelled or tasted bad.

But what if the most available water did have off-putting qualities? Did people then turn to alcohol? The answer here is: it depends.

In 1675, Barra wrote of people in Lyons who drank "with so much pleasure water chilled with ice". The image itself shows how natural it was to simply take water as a refreshment. But he then goes on to say that they would have done better to drink melted snow or ice than to drink this water, which came from wells. Why?
In Lyons the wells and the bags [sic] of the latrines are pell-mell throughout the city, the well water comes there from the rivers, and under earth where the flow from the latrine goes it mixes with it, so that everywhere the well waters are infected with it, and, in several places through the proximity of the latrines, the well water, though clear, has a bad taste and stinks.
The ice, on the other hand, came from the Rhône and Saône rivers "whose waters are much better than well waters".

Whether or not Barra's advice was ever heeded, it is clear that the people of Lyons were happy to drink water which their senses might have warned them was unhealthy. For no better reason, it seems, than that that was at hand – and this despite the fact that Lyons is in the heart of a major wine region.

No doubt similar attitudes held in other cities. But the great example in this regard is Paris, and the water of the Seine.

Parisian water did not only come from the Seine, but it has always been one of the principal sources of the city's drinking water. Until the eighteenth century, says Roche, it was the principal source. In his study of "Scarce water from the Middle Ages to modern times", he vividly summarizes the nature of its water: "The Seine is a sewer where each can drink".

The reputation of the Seine's water in fact seems to have been a bad one even in France. The English doctor William Blakey wrote, around 1764, “And though the very French, from their provinces, have a bad opinion of the Seine water, it has always done me good.” 

It certainly did not help that the sewers did literally empty into the Seine, a fact that did not escape the notice of the medical community:
Some reports from the Faculty of Medicine which appeared at that time, on the danger of drawing the waters of the Seine below the outlet of the sewers, gave much importance to projects which different companies presented for selling filtered waters within Paris. Mssrs. Ferrand and Molin de Montbruel obtained, on June 2, 1763, patent letters from the King which authorized them to establish on the Seine river, at Port-à-l'Anglais, one or several boats in which would be placed diverse machines and apparatuses appropriate for drawing the waters and filtering them.
But the project failed; the filtered water did not sell. Which gives some idea of how little the water's quality concerned Parisians.

About twenty years later, the satirist Sebastien Mercier noted with indignation a new attempt to sell people... water. "What does one not turn into merchandise in this extraordinary city! A company is forming to sell us the water of the Seine." (Water bearers had long charged for water, but basically for the service of carrying it, not for the water itself.)

He goes on to indignantly point out that this company sought to profit by making people afraid of the same water they have always drunk:
What does this establishment prove? That the water of the Seine is muddy three fourths of the year, and that despite all the organization of the authority, its offices and its inspectors, one must purify the Seine's water at home, if one wants to drink it light and healthy.
One drank water, twenty years ago, without much thinking about it; but since the family of gas, the race of acids and salts have appeared on the horizon immediately after the puppets and the silhouettes [that is, children's shows], one thinks about the announcements of chemists; one has noticed that all the streams and underground sewers went right to the river: then everyone took up arms against mephitis. This new word has resounded like a terrible tocsin; harmful gases are seen everywhere...
And so we have begun to analyze water: and one reflects today, when drinking a glass of it, something our thoughtless ancestors did not.
Mercier was exaggerating, but only by a few decades. It was in the eighteenth century that municipalities began to show some concern with circumstances many had long taken for granted:
Town-dwellers all over France drank putrid water in the eighteenth century. The two main sources of cooking and drinking water – rivers and urban canals – doubled as latrines and public dumping grounds. Covered sewers, where they even existed, oozed malodorously into municipal waterways. Beyond the feces and sludge that muddied the waters, those looking to slake their thirst or bring home a bucket of cooking water – rich and poor alike – also had to contend with a fetid blend of pollutants that wound up in rivers: to wit, the contaminated runoff from dyers, launderers, cloth-makers, butchers, and other industries that required sites along water courses. All of the main rivers that flowed through city centers – the Seine and Bièvre in Paris, the Rhône and Saône in Lyons, the Garonne in Bordeaux and Toulouse – suffered from extensive environmental degradation yet nonetheless mostly kept humans and horses alive. Water filtration, usually done crudely with sand, occurred only on a limited basis. Wells, which existed in abundance in cities such as Paris and Lyons, contained toxins as well, since they generally tapped into groundwater infected with urine (human and animal alike) and the waste from corpses decomposing in poorly situated cemeteries....
The records left by the academies, paired with other sources, indicate that numerous municipalities in the middle and late eighteenth century confronted the problem of potable water supply. Indeed one could say that water management constituted a central focus for urban planners in this period. The growing awareness that city centers lacked sufficient quantities of salubrious drinking water appears to have been the byproduct of a double prise de conscience. First of all, new medical research illustrated the desirability of more hygienic forms of alimentation, inspiring men of letters and enlightened administrators to push for greater sanitation; and urban planners increasingly recognized the need for better management of unreplenishable natural resources.
Note however that all this awareness of the dangers of the Seine's water came into focus with the Enlightenment. For centuries before that, whatever its defects, it had been considered acceptable: “Lacking bacteriological analysis, obviously impossible, no one could prove the harmfulness of old waters and Parisian consumption had never ceased to depend on the river.” (Roche) People seem to have taken the side effects in stride:
For the people, for the average burgher the sickening water of wells or of the River, all on the street and the rare latrines are the ordinary horizon. One drinks the water of the Seine and fountains that has been left to decant and filter. The frequency of enteritis noted by medical topographies shows that the organisms adapt for better or worse, foreigners must get used to them and travelers denounce these regrettable diarrheas; sometimes they die of them, this is what happens to Mozart's mother.
In Roche's analysis, this may have been one situation where people did use alcohol - but not to avoid standard, odorless water; to avoid the overtly fetid water of the Seine:
On the eve of the Revolution the Parisian disposes of a good half liter [of wine] counting women and children... That is to say, one lifts the elbow from dawn to dusk. The organism requires, in the XXth century, 3 litres of daily water... In the XVIIIth century the daily ration of the Parisian must count on average between .5 l et 1 l of wine and perhaps .5 l of water....In a word, cities drink wine because the water is unappetizing.
Roche's conclusions here are arguable; he does not give his sources for his figures and even if accurate they do not conclusively show why people drank more wine in Paris (because they liked it? Because it was a distraction from other hardships? These too are reasonable explanations). But even taken at face value, they show only that at the end of the eighteenth century, when distribution made various qualities of wine more readily available and Parisian water remained overtly off-putting, a small part of the French population chose alcohol over water.

What stands out above all in these accounts is that for a long time people drank water even in cities where its bad qualities were plain. Though purity of water was increasingly an objective, it was not a pre-requisite for drinking it.


Specific examples and the statements of doctors, agriculturalists and others show, simply, that people regularly drank water after the Middle Ages, as they had before. Conversely, even though documentation now becomes far more abundant than in the Middle Ages, there is no specific period record of anyone preferring wine or beer to water because the latter was considered unhealthy. This is the case even when, arguably, it was unhealthy, as it increasingly became in cities. Ironically, though the claim that people drank wine or beer instead of water is often applied to less developed periods, in fact it is progress that made urban water less safe: more people in a limited space, more toxic trades (dyers, tanners, etc) dumping their waste products, more bodies buried near the living, infecting ground water, etc. Even then, the only (and arguable) evidence that people drank more alcohol than water comes late in the period, towards the end of the Old Regime, and then (so far) for Paris.

It is important too to note that the problems of cities were not the problems of France, which long remained an essentially rural country. Nothing suggests that, outside cities and towns, the water from springs or streams would have been any less healthy than it always had been and wells would have been far less susceptible to contamination than when, for instance, they were close to urban sewers.

None of this is to suggest that those who could did not prefer to drink alcoholic drinks; even today many prefer drinks other than plain water. But, as with the Middle Ages, the claim that people regularly avoided regular (clean, odorless) drinking water and favored alcoholic drinks as a healthier alternative cannot be supported by evidence from the period. To the contrary, it is clear that water was a common and even recommended drink.


Froissart, Jean, Joseph Marie Bruno Constantin Kervyn de Lettenhove (baron), Oeuvres de Froissart: 1383 1870

Leguay, Jean-Pierre, La pollution au Moyen Age: dans le royaume de France et dans les grands fiefs 1999

Montaigne, Michel de, Charles Louandre, Estienne de La Boétie Essais de Montaigne: Suivis de Sa Correspondance, Et de La ..., V4 1862


Not all good drinking water free of poisons

Smith, John, Jean-Pierre Nicéron, Pierre Noguez, Traité des vertus médicinales de l'eau commune 1626

Blakey, William, Essay on the Manner of Preserving Children and Grown Personsfrom Ruptures: By Mr. Blakey, ... In Four Parts. 1792

Girard, Pierre-Simon, Recherches sur les eaux publiques de Paris, les distributions successives qui ont été proposés pour en augmenter le volume 1812

Mercier, Louis Sebastien, Tableau de Paris. Nouv. ed., corr. et augm. 1782-83

Caradonna, Jeremy L.,The Enlightenment in Practice: academic prize contests and intellectual culture in France, 1670-1794 2012

No comments:

Post a Comment