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
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”.)