Was water really regarded as dangerous to drink in the Middle Ages?

It’s a story I’ve been guilty of treating a little too uncritically myself: “In the Middle Ages people drank beer rather than water because the water wasn’t safe.” But is that correct? No, not at all, according to the American food history blogger Jim Chevallier, who calls it The Great Medieval Water Myth

Chevallier declares (and a big hat-tip to Boak and Bailey for pointing me in his direction):

“Not only are there specific – and very casual – mentions of people drinking water all through the Medieval era, but there seems to be no evidence that they thought of it as unhealthy except when (as today) it overtly appeared so. Doctors had slightly more nuanced views, but certainly neither recommended against drinking water in general nor using alcohol to avoid it.”

He quotes the book Misconceptions About the Middle Ages, by Stephen Harris and Bryon L. Grigsby, which says: “The myth of constant beer drinking is also false; water was available to drink in many forms (rivers, rain water, melted snow) and was often used to dilute wine.” And he concludes:

“There is no specific reason then to believe that people of the time drank proportionately less water than we do today; rather, since water was not typically sold, transported, taxed, etc., there simply would have been no reason to record its use. Did people in the time prefer alcoholic drinks? Probably, and for the same reason most people today drink liquids other than water: variety and flavor. A young man in a tenth century Saxon colloquy is asked what he drinks and answers: “Beer if I have it or water if I have no beer.” This is a clear expression of both being comfortable with water and preferring beer.

It is certainly true that water-drinking was considerably more widespread than many modern commentators would seem to believe, particularly by the less-well-off. In 13th century London, as the population grew, and the many wells and watercourses that had previously supplied Londoners, such as the Walbrook, the Oldbourn (or Holborn) and the Langbourn (which arose in the fen or bog that Fenchurch was erected near), were built around, covered over, filled in and otherwise made undrinkable, to quote John Stowe’s Survey of London of 1603,

“they were forced to seek sweet Waters abroad; whereof some, at the Request of King Henry the Third, in the 21st Year of his Reign [1237], were (for the Profit of the City… to wit, for the Poor to Drink [my emphasis], and the Rich to dress their Meat) granted to the Citizens, and their Successors … with Liberty to convey Water from the Town of Tyburn, by Pipes of Lead into the City.”

The “town of Tyburn” was the small settlement near what is now Marble Arch, about two and a half miles from St Paul’s cathedral, which took its name from the Tyburn River, the middle of three rivers that flowed down from the heights of Hampstead to the Thames (the others being the Westbourne and the Fleet). The water that was taken by pipe to the City came, depending on which source – pun – you believe in, either from the Tyburn river, or six wells at Tyburn village. The “Pipes of lead” eventually became the Great Conduit.

St Hildegard of Bingen

St Hildegard of Bingen

But is it true that “Doctors … certainly neither recommended against drinking water in general nor using alcohol to avoid it”? There were, in fact, influential voices who were not 100 per cent in favour of promoting water over ale. St Hildegard of Bingen, writing in the middle of the 12th century in her book Cause et Cure (“Causes and Cures”), said: “Whether one is healthy or infirm, if one is thirsty after sleeping one should drink wine or beer but not water. For water might damage rather than help one’s blood and humours …beer fattens the flesh and … lends a beautiful colour to the face. Water, however, weakens a person.”

Hildegard’s Physica Sacra of circa 1150 also has a fair bit to say about water and health, and while she says (in the section on salt) “It is more healthful and sane for a thirsty person to drink water, rather than wine, to quench his thirst”, she certainly seemed to have had some qualms about water. For example, talking about pearls, she said: “Pearls are born in certain salty river waters … Take these pearls and place them in water. All the slime in the water will gather around the pearls and the top of the water will be purified and cleansed. A person who has fever should frequently drink the top of this water and he will be better.” That would seem to suggest that she did not think water-drinking was automatically good for sick people without the water being purified.

She also wrote: “One whose lungs ail in any way … should not drink water, since it produces mucus around the lungs … Beer does not harm him much, because it has been boiled,” and someone who has taken a purgative “may drink wine in moderation but should avoid water.”

In addition, in the specific section in the Physica Sacra on water, Hildegard commented on the waters of various German rivers, saying of the Saar: “Its water is healthful neither for drinking fresh nor for being taken cooked in food.” On the Rhine, she wrote: “Its water, taken uncooked, aggravates a healthy person … if the same water is consumed in foods or drinks, or if it is poured over a person’s flesh in a bath or in face-washing, it puffs up the flesh, making it swollen, making it dark-looking.” The Main was all right: “Its water, consumed in food or drink … makes the skin and flesh clean and smooth. It does not change a person or make him sick.” However, the Danube was not recommended: “Its water is not healthy for food or drink since its harshness injures a person’s internal organs.”

Hildegard, therefore, did not universally condemn water, and indeed praised it as a thirst-quencher, but she certainly felt people had to be careful of water, on occasions, when drinking it.

Four centuries after Hildegard, another doctor, Andrew Boorde, was even less enthusiastic about water. In his Dyetary of Helth, first published in 1542, Boorde wrote that

“water is not holsome, sole by it selfe, for an Englysshe man … water is colde, slowe, and slacke of dygestyon. The best water is rayne-water, so that it be clene and purely taken. Next to it is ronnyng water, the whiche doth swyftly ronne from the Eest in to the west upon stones or pybles. The thyrde water to be praysed, is ryver or broke [brook] water, the which is clere, ronnyng on pibles and gravayl. Standynge waters, the whiche be refresshed with a fresshe spryng, is commendable; but standyng waters, and well-waters to the whiche the sonne hath no reflyxyon, althoughe they be lyghter than other ronnyng waters be, yet they be not so commendable. And let every man be ware of all waters the whiche be standynge, and be putryfyed with froth, duckemet, and mudde; for yf they bake, or brewe, or dresse meate with it, it shall ingender many infyrmytes.”

The well on Ockley Green, DorkingSo: water – your doctor doesn’t necessarily recommend it at all times and in all places. But it certainly wasn’t condemned outright, and there is no doubt water was drunk, by the poor, and probably by others as well. The records of St Paul’s Cathedral in the 13th century show that tenants of the manors owned by the cathedral who performed work for their landlord, known as a precaria, were supplied with food and drink on the day, but sometimes it was a precaria ad cerevisiam, “with beer”, and sometimes a precaria ad aquam, “with water”. So the bald statement “In the Middle Ages people drank beer rather than water because the water wasn’t safe” is indeed, as Jim Chevallier says, plain wrong.

On the other hand, they drank a lot of ale (and, once hops arrived, beer as well). Those same accounts of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, in the late 13th century indicate an allowance of one “bolla” or gallon of ale per person a day. Still, while monks, canons, workers in religious institutions and the like might have been that lucky, I doubt strongly that every peasant drank that much, all the time. Indeed, there is a very good argument that the country simply could not have grown enough grain to give everyone a gallon of beer a day, every day, while also providing enough grain to meet the demand for bread as well.

The high allowance for beer in monasteries certainly suggests there was little water-drinking going on behind monastery walls: but out in the wider world, where brewing in the early Middle Ages, outside big institutions, cities or large towns, probably generally relied upon householders with the occasional capital surplus to buy some malted grain, knock up a batch of ale and stick the traditional bush up outside the front door to let their neighbours know to pop round for a pint, it seems likely alcohol was rather more of a treat than a regular daily occurrence. Since there was no tea, no coffee or fruit juices, and milk would not have lasted long, that left only one other drink for the thirsty peasant – water.

A short history of water

Christie;s of Hoddesdon artesian well

An artesian well dug at Christie & Co's brewery, Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire around 1926

In November 1799 a brief paragraph appear in the Times newspaper:

“A Porter Brewery is about to be established at Portsmouth, by a number of opulent Gentlemen, who have subscribed £5000 each. The Thames water for this undertaking is to be conveyed by shipping.”

The reason for the appearance of the second sentence is that many drinkers, at the time, were convinced that good porter, then easily the best-selling beer in London, and perhaps the most popular style in the British Isles, could only be brewed with water from the Thames. The “opulent Gentlemen” behind the proposed Portsmouth venture clearly felt that if they could say their porter was made with Thames water, it would give them instant credibility.

In fact, although several of the big London porter breweries stood by the banks of the Thames, including Barclay Perkins in Southwark, Calvert’s Hour Glass brewery almost directly opposite Barclay Parkins on Upper Thames Street in the City, and Hoare’s by St Katharine’s dock, even the Thames-side ones took their water from wells, or, like Whitbread in Chiswell Street, on the northern edge of the City, from reservoirs supplied by the New River, constructed in the 17th century to bring water to London from near Amwell in Hertfordshire.

In the “pre-scientific” era, writers on brewing knew that different waters had different effects on the final brew, and regularly recorded myths about which waters were best. A brewing book from 1719, A Guide to Gentlemen and Farmers for Brewing the Finest Malt Liquors insisted that “Upon the whole, the best Liquor to Brew with, is that which is taken from a small clear Rivulet or Brook, undisturb’d by Navigation or Fording,” though

“Possibly much the best Water in England is that at Castleton in Derbyshire, commonly called, The Devils Arss, Which Owzes from a great Rock, covered over with a shallow Earth … I have seen the Ale made of Castleton-Water as clear in three days after it was Barrelled, as the Spring-Water it self, and impossible to be known by the Eye in a Glass from the finest Canary Wine.”

Some had preferences that seem frankly bizarre today. A book called A Treatise on the Brewing of Beer, self-published in 1796 by one E Hughes of Uxbridge, declared that when it came to brewing liquor: Continue reading