Dispelling Some Myths: Dirty water? Drink beer!
Updated: Aug 21
For some reason it is often stated on popular television programmes that Mediæval Europeans drank lots of wine, ale or beer all day, every day because the local water was dirty or somehow fouled. Unfortunately for those repeating this myth, there is plenty of evidence that people regularly drank water. After all, what was the town, village or castle well for?
Water is a basic need for human survival, together with food and shelter. What is true today has been so since antiquity. In truth, very few civilisations have not been established near a source of clean water. The ancient Egyptians had the river Nile. The Assyrian and Babylonian Empires flourished between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris in Mesopotamia . The Spartans had the Eurotas, while for the Romans it was the Tiber. Nearly all European capitals are founded on or near rivers. To name but three: Parisiennes have the Seine, Londoners the Thames, and Buda and Pest sitting on either bank of the mighty Danube became the Hungarian capital of Budapest.
Medieval cities and water supply There was a very good reason why the Mediæval forerunners of these modern capitals were sited near a water supply. As the 15th-century architect Leon Battista Alberti noted: 'a city required a large amount of water not only for drinking, but also for washing, for gardens, tanners and fullers, and drains, and in case of sudden outbreak of fire, the best should be reserved for drinking, and the remainder distributed according to need' .
The importance of drinking water is evidenced by the recorded efforts of local leaders to give people access to it. Writing in the 7th-/8th-century AD, the Benedictine monk, Bede noted that King Edwin of Northumbria, 'established a benefit for his people in that in many places where clear springs or streams ran by well-used roads, where they were most frequented he ordered posts with bronze cups hung on them to be set up for the refreshment of travellers.' Scroll forward in time and it becomes clear that cities in Mediæval Europe were spending large amounts of money on creating and maintaining water supplies. In 1237, for example, the City of London acquired the springs of the Tyburn and built a small reservoir, a head of water, to help serve the city with a steady, free, flowing supply. Eight years later work began on the Great Conduit, a man-made underground channel that brought drinking water from the Tyburn to Cheapside in the City. Londoners were at liberty to draw water but even so wardens were appointed to stop them taking too much, the unpermitted taking or diversion, and to repair pipes. There are also records for the City noting the expenses related to maintaining and cleaning the Great Conduit. Yet despite this example, the myth of constant beer drinking persists.
Absence of evidence There may be a simple explanation. There are few references to people drinking water in the surviving Mediæval letters and chronicles. Instead, such sources speak of drinking ale or wine. Perhaps water drinking was so mundane it was just not worth mentioning. If truth be told few historians in the past rarely recorded the ordinary things that would be familiar to their readers. Rather, they seemingly focused on relating the novel, different or strange. That Mediæval authors seldom wrote about a love of water, does not mean people avoided drinking it.
The benefits of drinking water from a good source are often noted in Mediæval medical texts and health manuals. There are numerous references to when one should drink water or add it to another drink. The 7th-century Byzantine physician, Paul of Aegina, for example 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 [stomach] quickly, one cannot find a better drink' . In a similar vein, the Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum  advises drinking from a cool spring was good for thirst but adds that rainwater was even better. The treatise does caution against drinking water during a meal to avoid its chilling effect on the stomach. Wine, it notes, should be preferred.
Being on bread and water As well as medical texts, Mediæval religious manuscripts also mention provide further evidence of drinking water. Many of the saints, for example, are chronicled abstaining from drinking alcohol preferring water instead. Some of the more austere monastic communities advocated relying solely on water. Moreover, it became a standard practice throughout the Mediæval period for people to atone for their sins on a diet of bread and water. If said water was polluted, then it would be rather sadistic of the church to compel the penitent to risk illness or death. Rather, the idea of 'bread and water' was clearly intended to limit those seeking repentance to a bland diet, but one sufficient to sustain life while discouraging further minor transgressions .
Ale or Water? Water has always been the stuff of life. Access to good sources of clean water was prized and throughout history great efforts were undertaken to supply people with water not only for drinking but for washing, sewerage, firefighting and so on. People in the Middle Ages clearly understood that not all water was safe to drink. It was common knowledge that obtaining water from marshy areas or places of standing water was to be avoided. They also knew that, when making ale or beer, the boiling of the mash during the brewing process usefully killed any harmful bacteria in the water. Moreover, the mash gains nutrients from the barley and other ingredients, and the microorganisms can also produce vitamins as they ferment. For many people, therefore, the drinking of ale or beer was an excellent nutritional supplement.
So, it is true that people in Mediæval Europe drank large quantities of ale or beer during the day , but not necessarily for inebriation or because the water was unfit to drink. Rather beer drinking provided daily sustenance. Of course, where a water source was polluted, then it made perfect sense to consume ale or beer. But if water could be drawn from a good source, then people would commonly drink it. The myth it seems reveals more about our misunderstanding of the past. With more contemporary references to wine, ale and beer drinking than to water it would be easy to see how the 'dirty water' idea might take hold. But people in the Mediæval period did drink water and, because it was such a normal and mundane thing to do, they, like us, simply did not boast about it.
1. Literally '[land] between rivers' from the ancient Greek Μεσοποταμία which is formed by the root words μέσος (mesos, 'middle') and ποταμός (potamos, 'river').
2. 'Did people drink water in the Middle Ages?', Medievalist.net, (accessed April 17th, 2021).
3. The Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum is a Mediæval didactic poem believed to have been written in the 12th- or 13th-century. Even though the book bears the name of the famous mediæval medical school, the Schola Medica Salernitana, it is not certain if it originated there.
4. Chevalier, J., (2013), 'The great Mediæval water myth', Les Leftovers, (accessed April 17th, 2021).
5. In the 12th-century, the strength of ales and beers varied and were identified by marking with single, double or triple X’s. Lighter ales might be drunk earlier in the day and the heavier, stronger one later.
6. Marks, T., (2018), 'A sip of history: ancient Egyptian beer', The British Museum Blog, (accessed April 18th, 2021).