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The great Medieval water myth
February 27, 2014 9:04 PM   Subscribe

"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."
posted by jedicus (84 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite

 
Honestly, I've never taken that claim seriously, personally. It doesn't make sense to me. It takes a lot to work and industry to make beer and wine. Even now, in the greatest industrialized society ever to exist, it's just barely an affordable thing for most people to have some beer or wine to enjoy sometimes. For a whole society to produce enough of these liquids to satiate all thirst, wouldn't every single woman, man, and child be required to expend every waking moment in the singular effort required to churn out the gallons upon gallons of booze needed every week to keep the community from drying up and withering away?

Maybe I just lived in the high desert for too long, but that seems crazy to me. And anyway there are plenty of other silly things people say about the medieval period, so it's easy to lump that in with the rest.
posted by koeselitz at 9:16 PM on February 27 [12 favorites]


See also: food was heavily spiced to cover up the taste of spoiled meat.
posted by desuetude at 9:17 PM on February 27 [25 favorites]


Bummer.
posted by valkane at 9:18 PM on February 27


Wasn't it until the 1850s when cholera was associated with contaminated (well) water? Seems the association between disease and unprocessed water came late, if so.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:21 PM on February 27 [2 favorites]


It's partially true, though. If you don't have running water then you're dependent on drawn water that may have been sitting around for a while, or taken from a stagnant pond. It's yucky. Adding things like wine or honey makes it more palatable, even if it isn't necessarily healthier.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:23 PM on February 27 [2 favorites]


Yeah, several Islamic cultures managed to survive without drinking booze daily, right up until the Mongols all happy on spoilt mare's milk wrecked their decade. (Tho al'cohol is itself a loanword - ardent spirits were a medicine and fuel, not a tippler's delight, tho delightful they is.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:26 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]


Since alcohol has the ultimate effect of dehydrating the drinker, it seems water would have to be on the menu at some point. Only a society that has seen too many beer commercials could think beer was a sustainably thirst-quenching substitute for water.
posted by Max Udargo at 9:27 PM on February 27 [4 favorites]


koeselitz: "For a whole society to produce enough of these liquids to satiate all thirst, wouldn't every single woman, man, and child be required to expend every waking moment in the singular effort required to churn out the gallons upon gallons of booze needed every week to keep the community from drying up and withering away?"

Well geez a man can dream, can't he?
posted by invitapriore at 9:27 PM on February 27 [19 favorites]


So they drank beer for breakfast just cuz they could?
posted by valkane at 9:27 PM on February 27 [2 favorites]


Blazecock Pileon: You're thinking of Dr John Snow and the Broad Street pump. He correctly identified a well in Broad Street as the epicenter of a cholera epidemic, which was halted when they took the handle off the pump. Incidentally, that site says
Among the 70 workers in a Broad Street brewery, where the men were given an allowance of free beer every day and so never drank water at all, there were no fatalities at all.

posted by Joe in Australia at 9:29 PM on February 27 [9 favorites]


I actually didn't realize that there was a myth that people in the past exclusively drank beer and wine. I always thought it was more like the 7th century writer he quotes who said to boil water before drinking it if it seemed bad: if you had a choice between water that's bad or that you suspect is bad and something that's been sealed and fermented in controlled conditions, they knew the latter is safer.
posted by XMLicious at 9:30 PM on February 27 [5 favorites]


Since alcohol has the ultimate effect of dehydrating the drinker, it seems water would have to be on the menu at some point. Only a society that has seen too many beer commercials could think beer was a sustainably thirst-quenching substitute for water.

Alcohol is a diuretic, but that doesn't mean any alcoholic drink will dehydrate you more than it will quench your thirst. Beer is mostly water, you won't die of dehydration drinking it and nothing else. Same thing for caffeinated drinks, enough people in the US live exclusively on soda that it would be apparent if it could actually lead to dehydration. I don't really know if it's the same for coffee since it's more concentrated, but I'd bet it is.
posted by skewed at 9:31 PM on February 27 [22 favorites]


For a whole society to produce enough of these liquids to satiate all thirst

As I understand it (and have heard repeated) the claim is not that medieval people solely drank beer and wine, nor even that they preferred beer and wine to water for reasons of taste or alcohol content, but rather that they routinely drank beer and wine instead of water because water was viewed as unclean or unhealthy.

For a whole society to produce enough of these liquids to satiate all thirst, wouldn't every single woman, man, and child be required to expend every waking moment in the singular effort required to churn out the gallons upon gallons of booze needed every week to keep the community from drying up and withering away?

Modern beer-making is far more involved than early methods and requires much more effort. Early beer amounted to little more than soaking grain in water and letting it sit for a while, perhaps throwing in some herbs for flavor. Most households maintained their own beer production (which, by the way, was largely considered women's work until about the 16th century, apart from monasteries).

Since alcohol has the ultimate effect of dehydrating the drinker

Only after a point. Below about 10% alcohol it is a net benefit (note that the link repeats the medieval water myth).
posted by jedicus at 9:32 PM on February 27 [27 favorites]


You know what nails it? Gregory of Tours. He's citing contemporaneous sources and that's a great source. My best history professor ever was Jonathan A. Goldstein. In his class we read only primary sources with Gregory's History of the Franks as one of the books we had to read. We were required to get the rest from class, where he was somehow difficult to connect with but compelling in his review of Roman history which he took from the Roman Kingdom to 800 AD.

I messed up and forgot the final paper due date. He let me write it a few days later. I went over the Gregory of Tours book. The thesis of my paper was that "Religion was important to the Franks." And I just more or less listed dozens of references in the History of the Franks that common folk were recorded doing things for religious reasons. I got it back. A- with only "Pretty Good" written at the bottom. From such a great teacher, I loved it. I will never forget that paper because I taught myself to research and write right then.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:36 PM on February 27 [6 favorites]


I heard an academic historian on the radio repeating this myth the other day. It was disappointing.
posted by jb at 9:39 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]


I think it's funny that we always try to build up these elaborate reasons why people must've done the things they did. Maybe being drunk just owns considering we've done it for like all of recorded civilization.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:41 PM on February 27 [9 favorites]


I wonder if this doesn't just confused with the fact that drinking very low alcohol beer throughout the day was really common for New England apple farmers and field workers and the like?
posted by The Whelk at 9:41 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]


Imagine how it must have smelled back then and you'll have no trouble believing people drank all day.
posted by 2bucksplus at 9:44 PM on February 27 [4 favorites]


They teach this at the Genesee Country Museum, where the brewery is centrally located like a water treatment plant might be today.

I wonder if as more people settled near water, if indeed a brewery wasn't necessary.

You know, like a water treatment plant.
posted by valkane at 9:44 PM on February 27 [2 favorites]


It takes a lot to work and industry to make beer and wine.

I've made both in my kitchen. There was some work involved, but it wasn't that hard.
posted by valkane at 9:58 PM on February 27 [2 favorites]


So they drank beer for breakfast just cuz they could?

I did that with 3.2% beer when I visited a friend in Utah. You really could drink that all day whenever you felt thirsty and never really get "drunk" (with practice anyway).
posted by ryanrs at 9:59 PM on February 27 [3 favorites]


Alcoholic beverages have calories and nutrients so it may not be an overstatement to say that fermented-drink was important for civilization. Water is critical sure, but when malnutrition and even starvation were real risks 'your-local-brew' was probably an invaluable supplement.
posted by rosswald at 10:05 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]


Since alcohol has the ultimate effect of dehydrating the drinker, it seems water would have to be on the menu at some point. Only a society that has seen too many beer commercials could think beer was a sustainably thirst-quenching substitute for water.

Not sure about the Middle Ages, but the Romans and Greeks drank diluted wine, so they weren't getting the full impact of the alcohol.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:09 PM on February 27 [2 favorites]


Additionally, cholera epidemics only somewhat notwithstanding, drinking dodgy water isn't exactly a universal death sentence. Contaminated water will sicken or kill some people, some of the time -- especially those with weak immune systems or who are already at risk in other ways -- but won't kill most people most of the time. Substituting weak beer for some of the bad water probably improves your marginal chances, while also introducing some food handling risks that don't exist from freshly drawn well water.

It was also standard throughout the period to punish monks by putting them on a diet of bread and water

Recently I saw an account of this that said that "bread and water" meant water one day, bread the next, alternating the two so as to punish with perpetual thirst or hunger, never satisfying the two.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:09 PM on February 27 [4 favorites]


From the article:

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. 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.


Whomever wrote this needs another drink.
posted by valkane at 10:15 PM on February 27 [3 favorites]


I heard an academic historian on the radio repeating this myth the other day.

!!!!!!! Even as pop history, the way I've always heard it was small beer was preferred to dodgy water, not that all water was dodgy or people never drank water. Or maybe I just always knew that "nobody drinks water" was so dumb that my brain interpreted it the other way.
posted by immlass at 10:19 PM on February 27 [3 favorites]


So, they didn't do it back then? But it's all right if we're drinking beer and wine and not water now, right? That's perfectly okay, right?
posted by Ghidorah at 10:22 PM on February 27 [8 favorites]


It takes a lot to work and industry to make beer and wine. Even now, in the greatest industrialized society ever to exist, it's just barely an affordable thing

Making beer is only about as difficult as making bread, and probably easier to do at scale.
Something like Old Milwaukee sells for about 25 cents a can, which hardly seems unaffordable.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 10:24 PM on February 27 [3 favorites]


Jesus God I hope so. *gulp*
posted by valkane at 10:24 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]


Isn't it also about nutrition? There's ancient Egypt's bread-like beer (Wikipedia) which is supposed to have been thick and squishy, like a supercharged protein slushie with booze. That's believable as something people would have regularly.
posted by viggorlijah at 10:26 PM on February 27 [2 favorites]


Yes, small (low-alcohol) beer is a good source of calories, compared to the effort that goes into making it. If you've got grain, you can malt it (let it sprout) and make beer. Or you can thresh it and make porridge. Or you can thresh it and grind it and make bread. Threshing and winnowing are laborious, and grinding is really hard work. But beer is relatively easy to make, it's nice to drink, and I suppose the fermentation process may even retain vitamins and minerals that would be lost when grain is milled and baked. This could be very important if you're on a subsistence diet.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:42 PM on February 27 [6 favorites]


lesbiassparrow: "Not sure about the Middle Ages, but the Romans and Greeks drank diluted wine, so they weren't getting the full impact of the alcohol."

So you're saying Dionysus was a lightweight?
posted by symbioid at 10:51 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]


I think the origin of the "water myth" might come from the fact that beer production is a good way to preserve and store both water and grain. So it's important, but maybe not to the point of being a replacement for water.

If you put water in a barrel and try to store it, it will very quickly become undrinkable. But if you put grain in there, boil it (or not), and let it ferment to a few percent alcohol, what you get will be both hydrating and basically shelf-stable. This was important in early long-distance sailing (the Royal Navy's famous rum ration originated as a beer ration). I'd imagine it was also useful in places with seasonally-fluctuating water supplies, or for anyone who had to spend time away from the local water supply for more than a few days.

It also, and perhaps more importantly, provides a way of storing excess grain in a usable form. Grain also goes bad quite easily (mold, vermin, etc.), but making it into beer preserves some of the calories in a shelf-stable form. It's both easier to make, as Joe in Australia points out, and a whole lot more pleasant to eat than a steady ration of hardtack through the winter.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:06 PM on February 27 [24 favorites]


Hell, during Prohibition in the US, Napa Valley wineries were selling grapes to people to make their own wine at home -- often immigrants who were used to having their wine with meals. A factoid from one of the books I'm currently in the middle of, Bottled Poetry: Napa Winemaking from Prohibition to the Modern Era.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:19 PM on February 27 [3 favorites]


Is there any truth to the idea that tea's origins came from a similar place (i.e. you had to boil it to make it safe, serving it boiled showed your guests you had done so, but then everyone had to wait for it to cool down to actually drink it, and oh, if we throw some dried leaves in there while we wait it'll actually taste good?)
posted by davejay at 11:37 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]


Wow, that's weird, because I was just reading up on Catherine of Aragon and the other wives of Henry VIII again recently, and I remembered this idea (drinking wine, mead or beer rather than water) being very clearly spelled out as a Thing That Happened.

So I went to refresh my memory, and there are letters the Duchess of York, Margaret Beaufort, wrote to Catherine, filled with advice about how to get along as the future Queen of England. In one, she wrote, "The water of England is not drinkable, and even if it were, the climate would not allow the drinking of it," and advised Catherine to drink wine instead.

That letter should count as some support for the idea, surely, as it was written by a contemporary? I suppose Antonia Fraser (the author of the book I read) could have made it all up, but that hardly seems likely.
posted by misha at 11:47 PM on February 27 [15 favorites]


So you're saying Dionysus was a lightweight?

Greeks and Romans looked down on being drunk, so that's why you have so many kinds of pottery dedicated to watering and serving dilluted wine in museums all over the world. Dionysus was the god of being so plastered that you lost control of yourself, which was this big taboo.

FWIW, what I understood is that what people drank was all watered wine and weak beer.
posted by sukeban at 12:23 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]


The Roman equivalent of coke was posca, a watered sour wine/ vinegar thing, BTW. That was what the Romans gave Jesus to drink from a sponge.
posted by sukeban at 12:28 AM on February 28 [3 favorites]


Let them drink wine and beer!
posted by sour cream at 12:39 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]


Even now, in the greatest industrialized society ever to exist, it's just barely an affordable thing for most people to have some beer or wine to enjoy sometimes.

That's because it's taxed, not because it is all that expensive to make.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 12:55 AM on February 28 [10 favorites]


Also, table wine (in the European sense) is very cheap, at least in the countries where it is both produced and taken with meals.

My grandpa never ate with anything else than vino de mesa mixed with soda.
posted by sukeban at 1:02 AM on February 28 [3 favorites]


The ancient Greeks probably watered their wine because it was strong (and pretty rough) by modern standards, so it may still have been quite potent. Also, the level of dilution was variable; the custom followed in Plato's Symposium, for example, seems to have been that they would decide to dilute if the the party was about discussing philosophy, as they do at first, or knock it back less dilute or even neat when they they were partying hard - as happens after Alcibiades turns up with his flute girls and commandeers the wine jar.

It may be physiologically possible to drink weak beer all the time, but I really can't imagine society going on very well even in the admittedly somewhat irrational and violent way of medieval societies if they were all on a lifelong kegger from the moment they were weaned.
posted by Segundus at 1:11 AM on February 28 [3 favorites]


if they were all on a lifelong kegger from the moment they were weaned.

There have been lots of articles here decrying the Northern-European custom of binge drinking compared with the Mediterranean custom of drinking wine *at mealtime* and in moderate quantities. I think we're talking about two very different patterns of consumption.
posted by sukeban at 1:25 AM on February 28 [4 favorites]


The thing is, we probably don't have to go back to medieval times to look for evidence this is horseshit: in barely-industrialised developing world societies we simply don't see people eschewing water to drink beer or wine.

This holds across Asia, Africa and beyond. Where they exist, rural or semi-urban, largely subsistence societies do not devote significant time, effort and cost to cultivating crops for brewing/fermenting as well as the actual process itself when they are still struggling to feed, house and clothe themselves.

The view that medieval societies drank mostly beer or wine is fundamentally a romantic view of the past - it imagines greater urbanisation and higher incomes in medieval societies when the evidence suggests that most people lived in rural poverty.

Take post-medieval England, for example. Just before the beginning of the industrial revolution in 1750 urbanisation rates were just 15%. Doing almost anything in the countryside was expensive and time consuming, including the production of food and beer, because there were almost no economies of scale. Life was nasty, brutish and short and people simply weren't gadding about making flagons of beer to drink because they thought their well water was a bit smelly.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:58 AM on February 28 [3 favorites]


Celsius1414: "Hell, during Prohibition in the US, Napa Valley wineries were selling grapes to people to make their own wine at home -- often immigrants who were used to having their wine with meals."

Around here where grapes grow easily it's simpe to pick out the old Italian neighbourhoods by the massive grape vines. One of the vines on my property has a main stem at least 6" across and extends ~30' across the trellis I built for it over my stairs.
posted by Mitheral at 2:05 AM on February 28 [3 favorites]


Not sure about the Middle Ages, but the Romans and Greeks drank diluted wine, so they weren't getting the full impact of the alcohol.

People drank small beer in the Middle Ages. For whatever reason.
posted by three blind mice at 2:22 AM on February 28 [4 favorites]


The thing is, we probably don't have to go back to medieval times to look for evidence this is horseshit: in barely-industrialised developing world societies we simply don't see people eschewing water to drink beer or wine.

Now they've got coke. A few centuries ago they'd drink chicha or pulque or any local plonk.

Take post-medieval England, for example.

Yes, let's.
posted by sukeban at 2:47 AM on February 28 [2 favorites]


How do you think the pyramids were built? just a little under two drinks and anything is possible.
posted by asok at 2:50 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]


the Royal Navy's famous rum ration originated as a beer ration

By the 18th century, they served two separate purposes. The aforementioned "small beer" was given to sailors, when available, in place of water because it kept longer. Writings from the period are full of descriptions of casks of slimy water that affected the morale and health of the crew on long voyages-- they'd start out with a full ration of small beer, but would often have to replenish at faraway ports with local water. If the water wasn't contaminated to begin with, it didn't stay fresh very long in wooden barrels in the tropics. I read some article about the historical accuracy of Patrick O'Brien's books, and it republished a first-hand passage about British sailors in the Indian Ocean excitedly catching the runoff of a downpour. The ship had plenty of water on board, but it was full of floaties (might have been described as 'worms') and they had been drinking as little as possible. Then when the storm came, everyone grabbed whatever they could to capture the water streaming off the rigging and decks and chugged it down.

The rum served two purposes. It was mixed with citrus juice to ward off scurvy, but it was also probably intended to keep the sailors slightly inebriated so that it was harder to get their shit together and mutiny.
posted by Mayor Curley at 2:52 AM on February 28 [3 favorites]


Yes, sukeban, very good, people did drink beer in England in 1750. That isn't being questioned.

What is being questioned is whether people didn't drink water, and instead drank beer or wine.

Gin Lane was the great moral urban panic of the day in what was a highly ruralised society. In terms of relevance to the rest of England it is like fox hunting today.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:59 AM on February 28


If you look closely, Beer Street has this doggerel under the picture:

Beer, happy Produce of our Isle
Can sinewy Strength impart,
And wearied with Fatigue and Toil
Can cheer each manly Heart.

Labour and Art upheld by Thee
Successfully advance,
We quaff Thy balmy Juice with Glee
And Water leave to France.

Damned Cup! that on the Vitals preys
That liquid Fire contains,
Which Madness to the heart conveys,
And rolls it thro' the Veins.


It's not that people didn't drink water at all, it's that beer or wine were more preferable.
posted by sukeban at 3:03 AM on February 28 [6 favorites]


Anyway, by that time coffee and tea had already gone mainstream in Europe, too. IIRC this is more or less contemporary to Bach's Kaffeekantate.
posted by sukeban at 3:06 AM on February 28


Quite right, but what of gin?
posted by panaceanot at 3:36 AM on February 28


Is there really a body of scholars that claim no one drank water? The article is one giant strawman. It cites sources for the author's thesis but asserts the counter-thesis without any. Kinda ironic actually.
posted by forforf at 4:19 AM on February 28 [8 favorites]


I just figured everyone was so itchy, stinky, unwell, and infected that it was easier to stay drunk.

Good times!
posted by spitbull at 4:54 AM on February 28 [2 favorites]


I did that with 3.2% beer when I visited a friend in Utah. You really could drink that all day whenever you felt thirsty and never really get "drunk" (with practice anyway).

The thing about 3.2 beer is that it's 3.2% by weight, when we usually measure alcohol by volume. Your regular Guinness on tap is about 3.2% abw (as are most "light" beers). In a few weeks, we will all have the opportunity to prove that it's more than possible to get drunk by drinking Guinness from morning til night.
posted by uncleozzy at 4:56 AM on February 28 [3 favorites]


I don't know which subsistence farmers you're talking about, but my experience of working at a clinic in rural Tanzania was the exact opposite Muffinman - people made banana beer everywhere, and it sounds like this is pretty widespread in subsaharan Africa. People with more money would offer you a Coke or Fanta, but in the poorer places you'd get banana beer. It was seen as a nicer thing to offer guests than water, and the alcohol wasn't really the focal point. I can't imagine it was very strong. I'm not saying they drank banana beer to the exclusion of water (which is well-known to be suspect and is filtered through cloth and then boiled by absolutely everyone), but certainly even poor people in poor countries manage to brew alcohol from whatever's lying around.

Back to medieval england: ale, mead and cider would have been the only alternatives to water that could be stored. Maybe best to think of it as taking the place of a soda or coffee? I don't think anyone has ever seriously suggested that water never passed anybody's lips anywhere in the world between 400-1500. Is this similar to the "people surprised that some romans came from parts of the Roman empire that weren't Rome" thread? The conclusion from that thread was that some people had had weirdly poor/possibly racist history teaching in school, not that there was a widespread academic conspiracy. The fact that the linked article uses greek and roman sources to make claims about the whole medieval period (1000years), and makes no distinction between Italy and Britain, and urban and rural, makes it look a bit like it's drumming up controversy from nowhere.

This thread has also dragged in the RN rum ration (1655) and Beer Street (1751) - hardly medieval, and also not really applicable to the rural poor if that is what we are talking about. If people are saying that poor people were too busy eating mud to brew beer in the English medieval countryside, I'll just leave this and this here (really just an excuse to link to Maid Marion).
posted by tinkletown at 5:00 AM on February 28 [22 favorites]


Also, in the 15th century the local people could shut their stupid face! *hic*

I could do a lotta stuff if i had som'money.
posted by petebest at 5:18 AM on February 28 [6 favorites]


They teach this at the Genesee Country Museum, where the brewery is centrally located like a water treatment plant might be today.

Another myth exploded: after 4 years of drinking the stuff, I assumed the brewery was a water treatment plant.
posted by yerfatma at 6:07 AM on February 28 [7 favorites]


but certainly even poor people in poor countries manage to brew alcohol from whatever's lying around.

why am i not doing this RIGHT NOW?
posted by rebent at 6:23 AM on February 28 [3 favorites]


Yes, I'm inclined to think that as a people, we just preferred beer to water, not because it was deemed "unsafe" but rather it just stored better and tasted better. It seems pretty well accepted "fact" that the Puritans brought more beer than water on their trip on the Mayflower. These trips occurred well before John Snow's theory of waterborne contamination was more accepted, (and in fact even after the Broad Street Pump investigation, the miasma theory continued to be the widely held theory of transmission). It is certainly possible that they brought beer because some people thought it was safer, but it's also very likely that they brought beer because they liked to drink it and/or they knew that stored water just wouldn't taste good after months on a ship.
posted by gubenuj at 6:40 AM on February 28 [3 favorites]


I don't know which subsistence farmers you're talking about, but my experience of working at a clinic in rural Tanzania was the exact opposite Muffinman - people made banana beer everywhere, and it sounds like this is pretty widespread in subsaharan Africa. People with more money would offer you a Coke or Fanta, but in the poorer places you'd get banana beer. It was seen as a nicer thing to offer guests than water, and the alcohol wasn't really the focal point. I can't imagine it was very strong. I'm not saying they drank banana beer to the exclusion of water (which is well-known to be suspect and is filtered through cloth and then boiled by absolutely everyone), but certainly even poor people in poor countries manage to brew alcohol from whatever's lying around.

This was largely my experience in Burkina Faso, save the part about filtering and boiling water - awareness of waterborne illness isn't as high there. There and in Togo (and probably most of the sub-region, but those are the places I can say first hand I've seen it) millet beer is super common, and super easy to make - you just boil some dried millet in a big urn and let the mixture sit for a few days. In Ghana, Togo, and Benin, making palm wine is even easier - you just tap a palm tree, collect the sap, and wait a few HOURS. (Seriously, it's ridiculous how fast that stuff naturally ferments - I got some fresh and put it in a plastic water bottle, then left it overnight. The top blew off the next morning.) In fact, in Togo they even go so far as to distill it, making a liquor they call sodabi. Which, if you ever have the chance to try ... probably don't.
posted by solotoro at 7:47 AM on February 28 [9 favorites]


The filtering was interesting, it was yet another use for the tanzanian women's multi-tool, the kanga, and everyone did it as routine. I'm sure the boiling went out the window for some people when kerosene was too expensive.
posted by tinkletown at 8:38 AM on February 28


The filtering was interesting, it was yet another use for the tanzanian women's multi-tool, the kanga, and everyone did it as routine. I'm sure the boiling went out the window for some people when kerosene was too expensive.

I don't think guinea worm is a major issue in Tanzania now, but it's worth noting that filtration through even a simple piece of cloth will prevent transmission of dracunculiasis. Establishing that as an expected norm has been used effectively in the fight against the parasite in many countries.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:45 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]


I think the origin of the "water myth" might come from the fact that beer production is a good way to preserve and store both water and grain. So it's important, but maybe not to the point of being a replacement for water.

Early medieval beer didn't keep very well. In fact, there were laws in England saying you couldn't sell beer more than 10 days old, as it would be stale - until they started adding hops as a preservative.

If I recall correctly the conversation I had with a brewer turned medievalist I knew, hops were first used in Germany, but took off in England in the 1300s? and allowed the transport of beer long distances.

As for the water issue: there are at least some academic historians who repeat the myth that "everyone was tipsy/drunk because they only drank beer or wine" - at least, I heard a historian (of coffee even!) claim so on a radio program. Maybe he wasn't really a food historian but rather a cultural historian with an interest in coffee houses. Of course people drank lots of beer and wine when they could. But they also drank water when they had no choice -- or else we wouldn't have had cholera outbreaks, etc.
posted by jb at 9:27 AM on February 28


Maybe tangential, but impossible not to remember from the way the comments here have flowed [1]:

Oh, water cold we may pour at need
Down a thirsty throat and be glad indeed---
But better is beer, if drink we lack,
And water hot poured down the back!


[1] Unintentional, I assure you.
posted by seyirci at 9:27 AM on February 28 [2 favorites]


Doing almost anything in the countryside was expensive and time consuming, including the production of food and beer, because there were almost no economies of scale. Life was nasty, brutish and short and people simply weren't gadding about making flagons of beer to drink because they thought their well water was a bit smelly.

I think you're underestimating how much people (actually primates in general) like booze and overestimating how hard it is to make fermented beverages. If you've got the grains and equipment to make porridge, and some source of yeast (which could be honey, fruit, the magic stick you used to stir the last batch of beer you made, or even just the yeast in the air), you've got the ability to make beer, and the process is basically the same but with a little bit more waiting. If you've got almost any fruit, you've got the stuff to make wine or cider (although cider was frowned upon as pagan). The other thing to realize is that beer wasn't just a way to not be thirsty, it was a way to not be hungry. For most of human history beer has been food.

Yeah, the water was bad myth doesn't seem to have much or any evidence backing it up, but that was the explanation for why people drank so many fermented* drinks, there's actual evidence for people drinking them separate from that theory.

*It's worth noting that the alcohol content in a lot of these wasn't high at all, and that the actual time spent fermenting was minimal.


If I recall correctly the conversation I had with a brewer turned medievalist I knew, hops were first used in Germany, but took off in England in the 1300s?


More or less. The original distinction between ale and beer was that ale didn't have hops, and beer did.
posted by Gygesringtone at 9:49 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]


it's just barely an affordable thing for most people to have some beer or wine to enjoy sometimes

I've been places where beer is cheaper than bottled water. I know places where people drink bottled water because of water on tap being barely potable. While I have no idea about the veracity of "medieval people only drank beer" and it doesn't sound right to me, I don't think you can really take the price of today's beer and wine as evidence of how hard it would have been to obtain over a thousand years ago
posted by Hoopo at 9:52 AM on February 28 [2 favorites]


It takes a lot to work and industry to make beer and wine.

I've made both in my kitchen. There was some work involved, but it wasn't that hard.


Your kitchen probably has potable running water and a dependable stove-top. Many medieval kitchens did not. A lot of work and industry go into running water and electric/gas utilities.
posted by Cookiebastard at 10:02 AM on February 28


You can brew ale without running water, gas and electricity. Medieval people had access to rivers/streams, and used wood/turf fires and ovens for cooking and baking.
posted by tinkletown at 11:12 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]


Pliny the Elder, Historia Naturalis XXXI.xxiii.38-40: "From what source then shall we obtain the most commendable water? From wells surely, as I see they are generally used in towns, but they should be those the water of which by frequent withdrawals is kept in constant motion, and which is filtered by the earth... It was a discovery of the emperor Nero to boil water and cool it in a glass vessel by thrusting it in the snow... At any rate it is agreed that all water is more serviceable when boiled... It purifies bad water to boil it down to one half."
posted by oinopaponton at 11:20 AM on February 28 [4 favorites]


Yeah, straw man argument - all of Europe, and probably the rest of the world, is filled with sacred springs and spas where people would go for great water a thousand years ago, and mostly still do. There are many amazing things about Rome and Roman cities, but what one can still experience is the abundance of clean clear water, brought in from the mountains into many Roman settlements at great expense. Every historian knows this. Everyone also knows that most settlements in the world are in places with access to sound water. I think the point during the middle ages was that good water could be hard to get in some remote places, and in those places, small beer was preferable to bad water. Diluted wine had to be diluted with good water, so that would have been a matter of taste rather than of health.
As far as I know, the really heavy drinking was not so much during the middle ages as during the 16th and 17th centuries, where large parts of northern Europe were suffering from huge ecological problems, caused by over-use of forest wood, including overuse of woodlands for livestock grazing, combined with the little ice-age, both leading to desertification in western Norway, Denmark, Scotland, England, Northern Ireland, The Netherlands and northern Germany, and struggles over resources and concentration of settlements in these areas. Concentration of settlements now and then can lead to pollution of the ground water. Several of the springs I know were inaccessible during this period, or very difficult to reach. I've even heard a lecture where these issues were presented as the main cause of Protestantism, which seems to me a bit wild, but still an interesting theory, since the border between Protestantism and Catholicism largely follows the line between the "green-grey desert" of the 16th century and the more balanced ecologies in the east and south.
posted by mumimor at 12:00 PM on February 28 [6 favorites]


Via blort: Sexual Orientation in the Middle Ages
posted by homunculus at 1:48 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]


sukeban touches on something that occurs to me - so much of our understanding of Western / medieval history is filtered through the lens of academic / affluent projection because pretty much anyone in those times with the literacy to record anything had stacks of money and/or stacks of education (which during those times implies lots of money; i.e. schooling through the Church which was primarily populated by the castoffs of the nobility and soforth).

what if drinking water was mainly viewed as a class / socioeconomic marker of lower status, i.e. something peasants and animals do out of necessity thus beers and wine are given more social cachet simply owing to the fact that regardless of other factors, they're still significantly more costly in both time and resources than drinking rainwater off the roof or whatevs.

so much of western history is filtered through this sort of lens. I even get a whiff of it in the lauding of the ascetics "oh look, they're so godly/devout they are willing to suffer in poverty / forego luxury" and all that.

but that's just idle conjecture, tbh.
posted by lonefrontranger at 2:18 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]


My twentieth century rural poor English ancestors all found time to make their own booze; not all of them had running water or electricity. As others have said upthread, it's not that hard if you know what you're doing - especially if you've got a fire going for other cooking. I've also known older family members who barely drank any plain water at all - tea being the main drink.

I never thought that in the medeival period people never drank water - I can call to mind offhand an interesting reference to public drinking bowls at springs from Bede, just for starters - but the idea that it water would not be a preferred drink, and would be drunk only when, for example, working in hot weather, just isn't implausible to me. Ale is not that much harder to make than tea.
posted by Vortisaur at 2:29 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]


This strikes me as a Star Trek bathroom kind of issue. Perhaps it was just assumed that people drank water along with all of the other drinks that have been listed and the writers saw no need to mention it.
posted by tommasz at 6:52 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]


Your regular Guinness on tap is about 3.2% abw (as are most "light" beers). In a few weeks, we will all have the opportunity to prove that it's more than possible to get drunk by drinking Guinness from morning til night.

OK, OK, maybe I was drunk the entire time I was in Utah. One night we broke into a pizza place and baked our own pizzas. Which I suppose supports that theory.
posted by ryanrs at 4:17 AM on March 1 [6 favorites]


One night we broke into a pizza place and baked our own pizzas.

Can you tell me about this dream I've not yet experienced...
posted by hal_c_on at 12:21 PM on March 18


Way late to this post, but I even asked Metafilter about this back in the day...
posted by pravit at 6:44 PM on March 18


Is there any truth to the idea that tea's origins came from a similar place (i.e. you had to boil it to make it safe, serving it boiled showed your guests you had done so, but then everyone had to wait for it to cool down to actually drink it, and oh, if we throw some dried leaves in there while we wait it'll actually taste good?)

No.

At first, tea was an exotic delicacy from the East, so serving it meant you were rich and cultured.

After that, keep in mind, caffeine is addictive. You don't need a thin veneer of hygeine to enjoy a cup of tea in the morning, and by the 19th century the poorer classes were pretty much living on the stuff.
posted by Sara C. at 8:17 AM on March 21


There are a lot of forms of "tea" that don't involve caffeine or the actual tea plant -- mint, camomile, rose hips, sassafras... The history of drinking leaves and twigs in boiling water predates the caffeinated variety.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:52 AM on March 21


In Europe during late Medieval/early Modern times, tisanes would have been taken medicinally but AFAIK were not a popular beverage on the order of beer, wine, coffee, and tea.

BTW anyone interested in all this should definitely read A History Of The World In Six Glasses. I don't think it perpetuates the fiction that water was never drunk, but it gives a really good rundown of how beer, wine, distilled spirits, coffee, tea, and soda happened.
posted by Sara C. at 9:00 AM on March 21


Also, it is very recent -- like probably since the 70s or 80s in the US -- that herbal teas are considered one and the same with black tea.
posted by Sara C. at 9:01 AM on March 21


they still aren't at my house. tea is tea - and herbal infusions are not tea.
posted by jb at 9:42 PM on March 21 [2 favorites]


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