Bad Water Never Made People Drink Beer Instead

By Debra Kelly on Monday, March 3, 2014
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“Water, to be truly wholesome, ought to resemble air as much as possible.” —Pliny the Elder, Natural History

In A Nutshell

We’ve all heard it, and it sounds true: People in medieval Europe drank beer because it was safer than water. Water was dirty and carried all sorts of disease, after all. But taking a closer look at medieval texts has shown that it’s not the case at all.

The Whole Bushel

It’s one of those timeless myths that makes sense. It makes so much sense, after all, that no one really bothered to look twice at it. There were no water filtration devices in medieval Europe, and there were certainly no systems in place to separate sewage and other dirty wastewater from clean drinking water, so it must have been laden with disease and bacteria, right? And then it only makes sense that people would have turned to beer and wine, as the process would make it a much safer thing to drink.

Only it’s not true at all.

It was food historian and photographer Jim Chevallier who took another look at some of the writings of medieval Europe and even farther back into ancient history. What he found was that the idea of drinking beer and wine as a substitute for water is a fairly modern idea. Drinking water was mentioned in numerous texts, but there weren’t many that made a big deal about it.

That’s just because it wasn’t a big deal.

Somewhat ironic is the number of texts in which monks and saints alike swore off alcohol completely. We usually think of them as brewing their own beer in monasteries across Europe—but nothing ever says they actually drank it themselves. A diet of bread and water was often used as a punishment, as they would need to abstain from earthly pleasures and rely on their faith to sustain them.

Bad water certainly was a concern, but people had long established guidelines for telling the difference between what was drinkable and what wasn’t. The Natural History of Pliny, written in the first century A.D., outlined guidelines for determining how good water was to drink. He stressed that if there were “eels” in the water, then it was probably clean as it could support life. Bitter-tasting water was bad, and so was water that was slimy. He also suggested leaving questionable water in drinking vessels to see if it would stain over time; if it didn’t, the water source was a good one. He also noted that water shouldn’t have a bad smell, and it should get warmer after it’s been drawn from its source.

Pliny also said that it was Emperor Nero, who ruled at the beginning of the first century, who first used the idea of boiling water to rid it of impurities. It was well accepted that boiled water was healthier, and this became common practice.

They knew all this in the first century, and there were plenty of freshwater sources for people to get drinking water from up through the Middle Ages when we hear the most about the beer-drinking myth. There are plenty of texts that suggest water in moderation, because of the idea that drinking too much at one time would distend and weaken the stomach. There were suggestions for adding water to wine. By the 13th century, doctors like Arnaud de Villeneuve were recommending a person drink wine on a daily basis for its nutritional value. It was never suggested that anyone abstain from water, however.

So where did the myth come from?

It’s possible that it gained popularity with Benjamin Franklin, who pointed to evidence that 18th-century documents indicated that drinking beer would give a person more strength than drinking water. While the nutritional component of beer and wine can’t be denied, it’s possible that the whole thing came from exaggeration that generally replaced fact.

Show Me The Proof

Jim Chevallier: The great Medieval water myth
Natural History, Volume 5, by Pliny the Elder