There is a strong misconception that people living in medieval times would primarily drink alcohol as it was believed that water was unsafe to drink. This misconception has been interrogated (changed word) by historians, bloggers, period dramas; throughout historiography, social media platforms and TV drama’s respectively. When we turn to today’s medieval period dramas like ‘The Tudors’, ‘Vikings’ and ‘The Borgias’, there is an image portrayed of medieval European nobles and notable families drinking red wine or beer as if it were the norm in their day to day lives and meals. How accurate is this portrayal of their drinking lifestyle? It begs the question that historians are grappling with; did medieval Europeans really take alcohol as their ‘routine drink’? In addition, is even asking that question with the sources available able to access beyond a particular demographic? For instance if we turn to the peasantry – did they too drank wine, can we access this information?

Adamson’s book on medieval food comes some way to addressing these disproportions in representation, defining alcohol as a type of beverage that was preferred by both upper class and lower class men. The nobles would drink wine and beer, wine being favourable, but the latter would only tend to be served during important celebratory occasions. More commonly, the majority of Europeans making up lower social class standings would consume drinks such as ale, fruit juice, cider and mead. In an attempt to distinguish themselves from the lower classes in society, the upper- middle classes would drink beer and wine as a distinguishable indication of their status, whether it be the deemed more nutritional value, they became more of a higher class hallmark drink.

Illustration of a Monk wine taster (13th century). Illumination from a copy of Li livres dou santé by Aldobrandino of Siena. British Library manuscript Sloane 2435, f. 44v.
Monk wine taster (13th century). Illumination from a copy of Li livres dou santé by Aldobrandino of Siena. British Library manuscript Sloane 2435, f. 44v. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

Even though nobles and commoners alike chose alcohol over water, both more inclined to consume something less tasteless, water still remained essential to their daily lives. For the poor, water was used to make staple foods – indicating that water consumption cannot be measured only via the physical drinking, but too by its necessary use in food. In addition and to debunk a misconception said to indicate water was consumed less during the medieval period, written chronicle texts provide evidence to prove that medieval water was drinkable. One record detailed a traveller asking for water to hydrate himself. In addition, there is documented evidence of how water was used for religious ritual, one example being when a pious boy drank water to prove his devotion. However, there are cases where people were dissuaded against drinking water, for instance in the 15th century an Italian writer advised pregnant women to drink wine rather than the local water. He reasoned that water “is bad for the child in the womb and creates deaths for many girls”. Although there are oral traditions, medical and dietary practices indicating a culmination of positive and negative perceptions of water, Medieval Europe was predominantly rural in character, thus access via nearby wells, rivers and lakes was more common and thus attainable for commoners. The peasants had enough awareness on the quality of the water that they did boil it, shaping a more water-reliant character for the peasantry than misconceptions would have people believe. 

Members of the nobility are too worth exploring, as they would also consume water regularly, but this is hidden in that they would mix it with wine or beer for easier more diluted consumption.Though they preferred wine, evidence suggests that the wine they drank was distilled and not concentrated so not as strong as the wine we have today. Notorious concerns indeed existed, like the fear of contaminated water and was one of, but not the main reason as to why the noblemen and royals did not consume water in the same way as the peasants practiced, who relied on its convenience. Culturally, the also disseminated belief that water was a low-class beverage and was generally thought to lead to terrible stomach pains and poor digestion. Such ideas circulated within and beyond social class boundaries, and so too did the idea spread by many medieval writers, that wine had a higher nutritional value when compared to water. 

Like wine, beer is mostly imported from France, Italy and Germany, and involved with tax and transportation fees. To delve into these differences deeper, it has been revealed that the rich rarely drank beer as it was cheaper than wine due to the low labour production cost and thus considered less a sign of social prevalence. Therefore, the rich chose to consume alcohol for its market worth. Beer, for the peasantry, was usually consumed by farmers and labourers during this period, for a reason beyond the everyday experience of the nobility. As beer was heavily loaded with calories which helped the workers rapidly replenish a short term fix for energy required for their backbreaking physical labour. 

In the medieval period, people preferred to drink alcohol over water. Reasons such as safety and social status contributed to this prevalent mindset. However, historical records and articles all imply that this topic is difficult to give a concrete conclusion on. It is important to recognise that people living during the medieval era recognised the value of water as fundamentally essential to human survival. So, though medieval people chose alcohol as their beverage of choice, there is no doubt that they still regarded water as an important drink too. However, and has been important to my assessment, so to is their intricacies in regards to wine and beer, that an assessment of social classes, oral traditions, and local records can illuminate.


References

Adamson, Melitta. W. “Beverages”, Food in Medieval Times, pp 48 – 51 (Westport, Greenwood Press, 2004)

About History. “Most Common Beverages in the Medieval Periods”, https://about-history.com/most-common-beverages-in-the-medieval-period/.

Davis, Lauren. [Review] No, Medieval people didn’t drink booze to avoid dirty water, i09, https://io9.gizmodo.com/no-medieval-people-didnt-drink-booze-to-avoid-dirty-w-1533442326.

Dove, Laurie L. “Did Medieval people really drink beer instead of water”, History: How stuff works, https://history.howstuffworks.com/medieval-people-drink-beer-water.htm.

Pictures

Black, Maggie., ‘An abbey cellarer testing his wine,The Medieval Cookbook‘, (London, 1992). Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Monk_sneaking_a_drink.jpg.

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