Did medieval people drink beer instead of water?
Ok, let’s first get this out of the way. Did they? The answer is no. Water was mostly clean, and readily available. In fact, medieval settlements, like those in antiquity, were usually built close to sources of clean, fresh water, such as rivers or lakes.
Water was also the lifeblood of agriculture. Since the time of ancient Egyptians, people have cultivated wetlands and the fertile lands around them – this was no different during the medieval times.
“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.”
~ Lupus Servatus, Abbot of Ferrieres (9th century)
Of course, there was beer and people drank plenty of it, but it was not to replace their water supply. Also, beer was not exactly the product it is today – it was much lighter, and not as well refined. Beer was mostly made at home from the autumn barley or dredge (barley and oats) crop, and it was seen more as a nutritional supplement than as an alternative to water. After all, a day in the fields required an extraordinary amount of calories. There were, of course, instances where monks (in their various monasteries) created exquisite beer fit for kings, and they became famous for it, but the simple people (roughly 97% of the population) never even saw beer like that.
Small beer or Small ale
“Small ale” appears in the writings of William Shakespeare and other contemporary authors. It was a kind of medieval beer or ale which contained very little alcohol (about 2% or less). There are accounts of instances in which fresh water was not available, and sailors who engaged in heavy physical labour drank more than 5.7 litres of small beer during a workday to quench their thirst.
Small beer was produced in homes and it sometimes (if unfiltered) looked more like oat porridge than today’s beer. In many cases, it was eaten with oats as porridge for breakfast, and was also consumed by children.
Last but not least, in many cases water was boiled and mixed with other ingredients to form teas or other hot beverages. These flavours might range from herbs and flowers (like chamomile flowers, Linden or mint), to honey, or even to meat stock produced from boiling meat off-cuts and bones. These hot beverages were drank not only for their enjoyable flavour, but often were considered to have mystical, therapeutic or medical benefits.
Did we miss something? How do you use water-based beverages in your world and stories?
Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century (2011)
Hagen, Ann, A handbook of Anglo-Saxon food : processing and consumption (Pinner, 1992)
Kucher, Michael, ‘The Use of Water and its Regulation in Medieval Siena’, Journal of Urban History, Vol.31:4 (2005)
McNeill, John T. and Gamer, Helena M., Medieval handbooks of penance : a translation of the principal “libri poenitentiales” and selections from related documents(New York, 1965)
Squatriti, Paolo, Water and Society in Early Medieval Italy, AD 400-1000 (Cambridge, 1998)
Cornelis van Tilburg, Greek and Roman ideas about healthy drinking-water in theory and practice, https://issuu.com/eajournal/docs/articulo_-van_tillburg-_drinking_