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.” โ€”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 โ€œeelsโ€ 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

  • Sampers

    Nice to see that I’m the first one to comment, while I’m here to inform you it truly was the case! And not even only in Medieval europe. Until the 1950’s that’s the reason why there was served (table)beer at schools.
    Beers at that time or all before weren’t that strong as we know them today.
    As there were for example ‘brewers houses’ witch sometimes didn’t do anything more than distribute clean water, only to breweries while it didn’t exist at that time just for the sake of water.
    Here in Belgium we have a rich culture in beer. And history proves just one thing, that beer goes way back to the eldest of civilisations.

    • lbatfish

      Usually, you’d want to say “first one to comment, while I’m STILL here to inform you”.

      However, the interesting facts in the rest of your comment just might spare you from that fate.

  • edzyl blane

    Glad you corrected me. I’ve read of this before and believed in it until now

    • TheMadHatter

      I know, right? Our lives are lies. I’ll just go find a deep hole and jug of beer and contemplate life.

  • percynjpn

    I’ve never heard that said about beer – it was always wine that the kiddies got, especially in France.

  • Nathaniel A.

    The best fact for me was learning that basic water filtration techniques had been around since the first century, which is really nice.

  • Check

    That bit on Ben Franklin sounds about right:

  • Hillyard

    Hmmm, now I need another excuse. Perhaps celebrating the fact that the sun came up today…

    • Lisa 39

      And its monday, that’s the best reason!

      • rincewind

        Also a good excuse for tuesday, wednesday, thursday, friday, saturday and sunday. Cheers!

        • Lisa 39

          Absolutely! I do try to limit that to weekends, this is how i spent this past weekend ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Joseph

      I only drink on days that end in day.

  • TheMadHatter

    Yknow today we associate beer with the…
    ” Red solo cup, I fill you up
    Let’s have a party, let’s have a party
    I love you red solo cup, I lift you up,
    Proceed to party, proceed to party”

    • Joseph

      I don’t have any idea what that means.

      • TheMadHatter

        It’s a song… See now it isn’t funny. You’re obviously not American ๐Ÿ˜›

        • Joseph

          I’m an American. I just don’t listen to pop music.

          • TheMadHatter

            It ain’t pop, sonny boy. Nvm I just wanted to say that, it’s actually country.

          • Cal

            So much “Country music” these days resembles pop to so much an extent that it crosses the line. Makes me think of the song “Murder on Music Row.”

    • 22062002

      I think that might be the most stupid but funny song that exists!

  • Wiley Peyote

    This article is absolute BS !!! … VERY poorly researched and served up on a site called ‘Knowledgenuts’ oh dear …

    The beer in those days was much weaker than today and WAS taken instead of water particularly in cities such as London where fresh potable water was not available.

    Debra Kelly – go do something else – you suck

    • Lisa 39

      Hi wiley, debra’s a new writer, she’s been getting a lot of constructive criticism for the majority of her articles, we’re hoping that she learns from it ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Joseph

    I drink Scotch Whisky! Only pu***** drink water! I stay away from water because of the fluoride the government puts in it for mind control or some other kind of nonsense.

  • Sean

    The version I received growing up was exactly the same, but about Ancient Egyptians, beer was their safe/healthy alternative, so much so that it wasn’t the alternative but the default, with water from any source being avoided due to disease/parasites.

  • ivr

    Pliny the Elder was dead for hundreds of years before ‘Medieval Times’ so anything he wrote would have been of no consequence. The medieval period was also know as the dark ages because all prior knowledge, such as Pliny’s writings, would have been ‘forgotten.’ How the Romans dealt with water in 100 CE would have been very different than how the English dealt with water in 1000 CE. Also, Monks and monasteries would generally have their own wells for fresh water. Getting fresh water into cities was a challenge after the collapse of the Roman empire as most building resources went to churches and not aqueducts. The Portuguese relied on Roman built aqueducts for many, many centuries after the empire collapsed. In Europe in the Middle ages, in the cities, where there was little or no sanitation services, no concept of hygiene or bacterial , fresh water would been highly prized and very susceptible to contamination.

  • Then what say you regarding Romans, Pilgrims and others who would cargo a 3 to 1 ratio of wine/ beer in order to mix with questionable water aboard ships for journeys? Multiple sources, not wiki, suggest its nutritional value in times other than when food was scarce? Glad I found your post tho and would love to hear more.