So how much ale did a medieval peasant actually drink? Much, much less than you think

I had a run-in with a clown on Quora recently who was repeating the myth that medieval peasants never drank water, only ale. After I smacked him hard with actual statistics, strangely, he never came back. Pity, really, I’d have appreciated at least an apology.

The usual argument for debunking the Great Medieval Water Myth is that water sources in the Middle Ages were, in fact, generally perfectly safe to drink, and numerous accounts from the time say so. But there’s far better evidence to prove that the idea of peasants only ever drinking ale is total nonsense: the irrefutable fact that England simply could not grow enough grain for that to be even remotely possible.

Indeed, the figures suggest that the actual average consumption of ale per week by an English peasant in the first half of the 14th century was less than half the UK government’s recommended maximum alcohol intake for English peasants in the first half of the 21st century. The average medieval villager 700 years ago was probably drinking less than you, dear reader.

Of course, despite multiple attempts to kill the myth, it’s out there in the mainstream, promulgated by people who really ought to know better, such as the historian Ian Mortimer (FSA, FRHistS, ffs), who wrote in the best-selling The Time-Travellers Guide to the Middle Ages in 2011: “As most prosperous peasants have an aversion to drinking water – which is liable to convey dirt and disease into their bodies – they drink ale exclusively. Only the single laborer and widow, living alone in their one-room cottages, drink water.” Mortimer also claimed that because peasants were drinking ale continuously, “the ale cannot be too strong, otherwise the yeoman’s judgment would wobble under the effect of drinking strong alcohol all day every day.”

To which the only response is: Ian, you’re making all that up. You have assumed that the water was undrinkable, you have assumed that therefore everyone drank ale all the time, and you have concluded that therefore the ale must have been weak. You have no evidence for any of that. You haven’t bothered looking for evidence, because if you had, you would have found that the facts totally contradict your assertions.

Today, historians have pored over manorial accounts, monastery and abbey records and the like, and have put together a pretty good idea of how much grain was produced in England in the 14th century, how much of that grain was turned into ale, and how much ale could be produced from that grain. The figures I’m using here are from English Agricultural Output 1250-1450: Some Preliminary Estimates, by Stephen Broadberry, Bruce Campbell and Bas van Leeuwen (2008), and Ale Production and Consumption in Late Medieval England, c.1250–1530: Evidence from manorial estates, by Philip Slavin (2012). Let’s look at what they have to say.

The population of England in 1300 was approximately 4.25 million. If we leave out those too young to drink ale, that equals about 3.5m “adults”. The recommended liquid intake is 3.5 pints a day. So if they are only drinking ale, those adults are going to require a little under 560 million gallons of ale a year, minimum – and much of their time would be spent doing hard labour under a hot sun, when the requirement for liquid might be as high as ten pints a day..

In the medieval period, one quarter of malt, according to Slavin, produced 35.3 gallons of strong ale and 60 gallons of weak ale, a total of 95.3 gallons. To make enough ale to give each adult their minimum liquid intake every day would require just over 5.86 million quarters of malt every year. A quarter is a volume measure, of course, and it only takes 0.833 of a quarter of raw grain to make a quarter of malt. (This is assuming the same ratio for wheat, oats et cetera as for barley – that may be wrong, but it won’t be far wrong.) So to get all that malt you need 4.88 million quarter of raw grain.

Thanks to messrs Broadberry, Campbell and Van Leeuwen, we know how much grain was being grown:

Quarters of grain produced in England net of seed and animal consumption 1275-1324

Wheat 2.25 million
Rye 660,000
Barley 1.17 million
Oats 1.8 million
Total 5.88 million

Thus to supply every adult in the country with three and a half  pints of ale a day, the minimum to keep hydrated if you are not drinking water, would have required 83 per cent of the country’s entire grain production to be used for brewing. This is, of course, nonsense on stilts. Even at ONE pint a day, that is 1.1 million quarters of raw grain, or 19% of total grain production.

In fact, according to Slavin (p66), only around eight per cent of total crop production was malted. That gives around 560,000 quarters of malt, enough to make just under 53.8 million gallons of ale a year, 15.37 gallons of ale per adult per year, or a third of a pint a day – 2.36 pints a week per peasant. You can argue that number is guess based on guess, but it would have to be wrong by a factor of ten to get anywhere near the figure required if everybody really did drink ale instead of water. Even if you said HALF people’s liquid intake was ale, not water, Slavin would still have to be wrong by a factor of five. I suggest that is impossible. Far from medieval peasants drinking ale all the time, they drank remarkably little ale. Instead, they drank water. Please feel free to batter over the head with these figures anyone in future who suggests otherwise.

(Slavin, incidentally, says before circa 1350, four per cent of ale was brewed from wheat, 59 per cent from barley, 31.5 per cent from dredge [oats and barley mixed], five per cent from oats and 0.5 per cent from “sprigentum”, a wheat and winter oat mixture. After 1350, ie after the Black Death, the figure was  three per cent wheat, 66 per cent barley, 27 per cent dredge, three per cent oats, and one per cent “sprigentum”.)

20 thoughts on “So how much ale did a medieval peasant actually drink? Much, much less than you think

  1. More good research Martyn.
    Surely nobody can seriously doubt that people would always drink clean water when it was available? And surely it was usually available to most people?

    Medieval Britain was a much, much more rural society than most places in Europe are today – problems with clean drinking water are going to be much more likely in an urban environment, where only a small percentage of the population lived in those days.
    There may also have been a cost implication – how much ale could a peasant afford? Do you have any information or views on that?

    There are lots of figures for beer/ale production in Unger’s “Beer in the Middle Ages and Renaissance” (I think mainly derived from – admittedly mainly Continental – tax records) – has anybody tried to compare those figures with the research quoted in your article here?

  2. Drawing on the previous comment it could be true that there was no uniform pattern for beer drinking I.e. people drank more ale if their water sources weren’t reliable. Presumably fast moving water that is close to a spring is generally the safest whereas if you were extracting downriver of a settlement then there would be much more chance of contamination?

      1. If you read about what went into the River Fleet from Smithfield Market then you would have preferred ale to water coming out of the Thames at London Bridge in that era.

  3. One of the worrisome things about historians is that they assume that the past is a different country. Now, I’d believe that your per capita ale consumption would have been higher in the Elizabethan era and that ale is a calorically dense choice of beverage, but all day every day? You write about beer. I write about beer. Neither of us wants to drink beer all day every day.

    If there’s a decent well or a useful spring, you’re going to drink water. For a peasant scything away in a field or collecting rushes, they’re going to blast through six litres of hydration over the course of the day. Periodically, I’ll work a physical labour shift and I’ll be able to tell how much hydration I need by the salt ring on a black t-shirt. Now, by medieval standards, I’m enormous. Your medieval English peasant might have been 5’6″ and weighed something like 150 pounds? I don’t see an assertion about the strength of the beer they might have drunk, but let’s assume weak means 3.5% or thereabouts.

    You mention 10 pints in hot weather? That’s 1750 calories. 3.5 pints would be 612.50. Just in terms of metabolic expenditure, those ten pints would represent something like three quarters of the calories you’d expend in a day, and that’s before any meals.

    Man’s talking bollocks.

    1. Thye calorie argument is an important one, though 18th century porters in London drank huge amounts of beer to fuel themselves.

      1. Sure, but in London, close to some of the largest breweries in the world and with wage that would have been purpose supplemented.

  4. Thanks Martyn, most interesting. The rural population mostly had had easy access to fresh water from wells or streams. The more a well is used, the purer the water. Another factor to de-bunk the myth is simply the logistical requirements for brewing, storing and transporting beer in such quantities. The concept of excessive beer consumption might be closer to the truth for urban populations living in squalid conditions and greater densities with less access to clean water supplies. The logistics would have been more practicable and a more concentrated market would have made it more commercially viable for brewers. The city of Bristol didn’t get a decent water supply until 1847.

  5. Living in the South Pennines I know of numerous cottages where the water supply was outside the property; either a running stream or a well. There was a concerted move to get all householders onto piped water for health reasons. That was completed in the 21st century! Yes, the local peasants were drinking water from their environment until very recently!

    One other observation about Mortimer’s writing: Since when were peasants yeomen? That statement alone shows how slipshod his understanding of medieval society is.

    Great research Martyn. Another enjoyable read.

    1. I used to live in a house in the City of Rochester, which was built in the late 17th century. It had a well in the garden. I would rather suspect that this was for drinking water.

  6. Yes, but in the medieval period ale/beer production was on a very much smaller basis so far as units of production were concerned.
    Ale brewing was almost part of everyday domestic housekeeping.
    You know, alewives, brewsters etc…
    I have no idea what “purpose supplemented wage” means in a Medieval context. Sorry.

  7. What do you think of this corollary argument, p. 57 of Drunk in China, 2019, emphasis * * added:

    “*cultures in Europe that relied on alcohol for hydration* developed alcohol dehydrogenase enzymes *through natural selection: if you couldn’t drink alcohol, you didn’t survive*. But in Asia people adapted to water pollution by boiling water, and as a result many of them never developed an alcohol tolerance. This enzyme deficiency—known informally as “Asian flush” for the way it reddens faces—affects more than one in ten Chinese, and as much as half of the population in the Pacific Rim, and provides a strong biological incentive against overindulgence in alcohol.”

    1. I’d really like to see actual evidence for cultures in Europe relying on alcohol for hydration, let alone that being the reason for Europeans developing alcohol dehydrogenase enzymes. Yes, Japanese people’s occasional intolerance of alcohol, is certainly something I have heard of, and I’ve witnessed the Chinese preference for drinking raw boiled water with meals, but since there’s a LONG history of alcohol production in China (I don’t know about Japan) and South East Asia, as you know, I’m not sure whether I would agree with the idea that they weren’t exposed to alcohol the way Europeans, according to this theory, were.

  8. If I might dispute some of the calculations – not that it will affact the conclusions…
    A quarter of barley 1s 448lbs. This will produce a quarter (336lbs) of malt. therefore the statement ” it only takes 0.833 of a quarter of raw grain to make a quarter of malt.” would appear to be incorrect.

    1. According to my sources, historically a quarter of raw barley was 400lb to 412lb. A quarter of pale malt was 336lb, a quarter of brown malt was 258lb. Henry Stopes says it took 100lb of barley to make 80lb of malt. If you translate that into quarters, it took 1.05 quarters of barley to make one quarter of pale malt, but only 0.8 quarters of barley to make one quarter of brown malt. Medieval malt, I suggest, was going to be much closer to brown malt than it was pale malt. So I stick by my figures.

  9. There is also a presumption that every adult, male and female, is a peasant…..some of the women must have been at home brewing the ale…..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.