“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)
“Ale if I have any, or water, if I have no ale’ ~ Ælfric’s Colloquy
One of the oddest myths about the Middle Ages is that people did not drink water. Many books and articles have repeated the notion that water was so polluted during this period that medieval men and women would only drink wine, ale or some other kind of beverage. However, there is plenty of evidence that people regularly drank water.
If one did a quick glance through medieval letters and chronicles, one would find few references to people drinking water. Instead, they would speak of drinking ale or wine. This is not surprising – water is relatively tasteless – and few people would have preferred it compared to the alternatives. Like today, one doubts that too many writers from the Middle Ages would have praised their hosts for providing a cup of water instead of wine.
While medieval people rarely wrote about a love of water, that does not mean they avoided drinking it. Several types of sources offer more insight into drinking water during the period. Medical texts and health manuals throughout the Middle Ages often note the benefits of drinking water, as long as it came from good sources. For example, Paul of Aegina, a 7th-century Byzantine physician, writes “of all things water is of most use in every mode of regimen. It is necessary to know that the best water is devoid of quality as regards taste and smell, is most pleasant to drink, and pure to the sight; and when it passes through the praecordia quickly, one cannot find a better drink.”
One can find numerous references to when one should drink water, or add it to another drink. Sometimes medieval physicians even gave advice on when to avoid water. The Regimen Sanitatis Salerni, for example, advises that drinking from a cool spring was good for thirst, but rainwater was even better. However, when having a meal the treatise finds that wine is preferable, as water will chill the stomach. Meanwhile, a 15th-century Italian writer told pregnant mothers to “beware of using cold water, it is not good for the fetus and it causes the generation of girls, especially here in our region, so keep drinking wine.”
Records related to medieval cities also note the importance of drinking water, and the efforts by local leaders to give people access to it. Leon Battista Alberti, the fifteenth-century architect and author of De re aedificatoria, gives the reasons why urban areas needed a good water supply: “Since a city requires a large amount of water not only for drinking, but also for washing, for gardens, tanners and fullers, and drains, and — this is very important — in case of sudden outbreak of fire, the best should be reserved for drinking, and the remainder distributed according to need.”
Cities would spend large amounts of money on creating and maintaining water supply sources. For example, in the thirteenth-century the city of London constructed The Conduit. Using a system of lead pipes, it brought fresh water from a spring outside the city walls into the middle of London, where people could freely access it. City records occasionally note expenses related to maintaining and cleaning The Conduit, and during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries this system was expanded to other parts of the city. Other medieval towns had similar systems to bring in water.
Medieval religious texts also mention drinking water. Some hagiographic accounts relate how saints abstained from alcoholic beverages and drank water instead. Some of the more austere monastic communities also advocated relying on water. Moreover, medieval handbooks of penance often punished people for their sins by taking away their finer food and drink. For example, the 11th century writer Burchard of Worms explained:
If thou hast sworn by God’s hair or by His head or made use of any other blasphemous expression against God, if thou hast done so but once unwittingly, thou shalt do penance for seven days on bread and water. If after having been upbraided for it thou hast done it a second or a third time, thou shalt do penance for fifteen days on bread and water.
While in this case drinking water is made to be a punishment, this does not mean that the church was trying to kill sinners. More likely, they figured that a drab diet for a week or so would be sufficient encouragement not to get involved in minor transgressions.
One can find references to people drinking water in many other sources as well. Bede notes that King Edwin of Northumbria, “established a benefit for his people in that in many places where clear springs/streams ran by well-used roads, where they were most frequented he ordered posts with bronze cups hung on them to be set up for the refreshment of travellers.” Centuries later, when Michelangelo was suffering from kidney stones, a doctor advised him to seek out waters from a spring outside of Rome. Afterwards the Renaissance artist wrote back, “I am much better than I have been. Morning and evening I have been drinking the water from a spring about forty miles from Rome, which breaks up the stone…I have had to lay in a supply at home and cannot drink or cook with anything else.”
People in the Middle Ages were also well aware that not all water was safe to drink – in addition to polluted water, which would be largely confined to urban areas, it was common knowledge to avoid obtaining water from marshy areas or places of standing water. However, if they knew the water was coming from a good source, they would not be afraid to drink from it. Like us, they just did not boast about it.
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)
O’Neill, Tim, What Was the Drink of Choice in Medieval Europe? – from Slate.com
Salzman, James, Drinking water : a history (New York, 2012)
Squatriti, Paolo, Water and Society in Early Medieval Italy, AD 400-1000 (Cambridge, 1998)
The great Medieval water myth – from Les Leftovers