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Were Medieval People Really Drunk On Beer And Wine All The Time?  

Genevieve Carlton
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A popular theory claims that medieval Europeans didn't have access to clean water. As a result, they were forced to drink wine and beer, since alcoholic beverages were safer than water. Even babies and children drank wine to protect them from the dangers of waterborne illnesses. But were medieval people drunk all the time from avoiding water?

Turns out the myth is completely false. In fact, water was the most common drink in medieval Europe. Medical texts recommended methods for finding the best water sources, and city planners devised elaborate ways to bring fresh water into cities. Doctors even prescribed mineral water to cure diseases like kidney stones. 

Of course, wine and ale were also incredibly popular during the medieval period, and people did get hangovers from overindulging. In fact, 12th-century doctors recommended treating a hangover by drinking water. But most medieval ales were much weaker than today's beers, and people often mixed wine with water to dilute its strength. While contaminated water could spread diseases, medieval people definitely didn't avoid water completely.

People Knew How To Avoid Contaminated Water
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Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Contaminated water was a problem in medieval Europe, but people generally knew the difference between safe water and unsafe water. Europeans knew that cloudy, muddy, or swampy water wasn't good to drink.

In the ninth century, Lupus Servatus, Abbot of Ferrieres, wrote: “Let us make use of a healthy, natural drink which will sometimes be of benefit to both body and soul - if it is drawn not from a muddy cistern but from a clear well or the current of a transparent brook.”

Europeans ranked water sources. Drinking water came from the best sources, while less clean water might be used for growing crops or washing. In the 15th century, Leon Battista Alberti recommended, “Since a city requires a large amount of water not only for drinking, but also for washing, for gardens, tanners and fullers, and drains, and - this is very important - in case of sudden outbreak of fire, the best should be reserved for drinking, and the remainder distributed according to need.”

Water Was Known As A Cure For Many Ailments, Including Heartburn 
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Photo: Guillaume de Boldensele/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Doctors recommended water to cure many ailments. In the fourth century, Oribasius recommended pregnant women cure heartburn by sipping warm water. Pope Boniface VIII claimed that drinking mineral water from a spring in Fiuggi, Italy, cured his kidney stones. Michelangelo later drank the same water to avoid kidney stones.

In fact, drinking mineral water was so popular that medieval Europeans traveled miles to "take the waters" at famous springs. Medicinal mineral waters might include herbs like violet, pimpernel, or hellebore to enhance their healing powers. In addition to drinking the water, people bathed in springs known for their curative powers.

Medieval Beer Didn't Contain As Much Alcohol As Modern Beer
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Photo: Jost Amman/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Medieval people weren't downing high-ABV beers. In fact, most ales and beers had a much lower alcohol content than today's beers. As a result, it was much harder to get drunk from medieval ales and beers.

The most affordable alcoholic beverages were often weak ale or small beer, which had a much lower alcohol content. Small beer, which provided calories and flavor without much alcohol, was almost more like a soda than a beer. Even George Washington enjoyed making small beer at Mount Vernon.

Most Medieval Keeps Had Wells Within Their Walls 
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Photo: Sensenschmied/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

Europeans drew water from several sources, including springs, rivers, wells, and cisterns, which collected rainwater. Many castles protected themselves from extended sieges by maintaining a well within their walls. In the UK, 80% of castles had a well inside their walls, while 25% had two or more wells. 

These wells incorporated modern technology, as in England's Rochester Castle, which built a system of buckets and ropes inside the castle walls so people could draw fresh wellwater from any floor of the castle.