Medieval folk didn't drink alcohol to avoid dirty water


It depends on how you interpret the question.

As the author of the article you linked points out, when Medieval humans were offered a choice of dirty or fetid water or an alcoholic beverage (beer, mead, or wine) they would choose the booze. The article abundantly documents this fact.

However, when water that had no detectable contamination was available, or when one could not afford the cost of prepared beverages, water was consumed without fear.

I don’t know if the the author is aware that filtering water through a honey-skep or adding wine or vinegar (aka spoiled wine) is a partial disinfectant, since he doesn’t mention this. It’s unlikely that most Medieval people knew it either, although it was known to some in antiquity.

Anyway, an article well worth reading if you are interested in the European Medieval period. Thanks Rob!


I don’t doubt this debunking, but just because there is a lot of evidence that people drank water doesn’t mean that people didn’t take advantage of preservative/sterile effects of alcohol. I’m willing to be debunked myself here, but I think grog, small beer, wine, and even tea did indeed serve real functional purposes in maritime settings in the age of sail, where water needed to be stored, and was not available in streams/ponds/fountains. They certainly had water on board ships that they drank, but from what I understand (from unreliable sources such as historical fiction), casks could get skunky after long storage, and rainwater collected off the sails could be noxious. Boiled tea would sterilize and flavor ill-tasting water. Casks of low-alcohol small beer might possible store longer/better. Mixed grog, after some scientific advances, was used to deliver lime juice and avoid scurvy, and might have been more palatable than skunky water as well. It probably was more useful as a motivation and entrenched by tradition, so it may not have served a real function other than as a way of getting limeys their lime juice. So I suspect there were cases where alcohol was indeed used for the purposes supposedly being debunked.


I’ve never heard anyone suggest that pre-modern peoples conciously avoided water and instead drank alcoholic beverages. That’d be absurd.

Obviously looking back with our present day knowledge we can recognize that alcholic beverages would have been more sterile than your average drinking water. But anyone with half a thought to spare would also realize that germ theory didn’t exist back then and no one alive at the time would have associated not-obviously-unclean water with illness, nor thought to avoid drinking water to avoid pathogens.

That said, drinking alcoholic beverages WAS beneficial to human survival, whether people knew it or not. Not only is it cleaner than most untreated water, but it also is a ready source of calories that doesn’t spoil. Sure, you could turn your grain into flour and bread, but they don’t keep - they grow mold, or get infested with insects, et cetera. Instead, make some beer - essentially liquid bread. Stick it in a keg and store it, and you’ve got “food” that lasts much longer than the other available options.


Winston Churchill bragged about drinking whiskey in dirty water. In some small way, this legend contributed to his alcoholism.

This is the only part of your cogent treatment that I would try to debunk. I doubt that an experienced skipper going on a long voyage would have attempted to take casks of low-alcohol ale. This is the specific reason that the IPA, aka India Pale Ale, was developed: to survive the entire long voyage to India from Britain. IPAs, as you may know, are strongly hopped, and medium to higher alcohol. These qualities made it a much better brew for not spoiling during a long journey.

How, exactly, a ship’s crew would have gotten its non-alcoholic water? I haven’t a clue. Maybe they tried to take casks of clean water with them as well. They must have, since pretty much any kind of old-timey ship’s cooking would have required non-salty water, such as for oatmeal and gruel. But this is where my knowledge leaves off and I have nothing further to debunk. Or spelunk. Or junk in my trunk.


Well, Medieval Jews avoided still water and considered it unclean, but that’s kind of a special case.

A nitpick, and irrelevant to the particular concept I was expressing, but ultimately an interesting tidbit I hadn’t been aware of previously. Huzzah for tangential learning!

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I’d never heard anyone say this about medieval folk (they were all batshit insane, who cares what they did) – I’ve always heard it said about prehistoric, ancient and classical people.

I have heard it suggested any number of times, and thought it a neat solution to early public health issues. O, tempora! You crush all my fondest unfounded beliefs…


.[quote=“Glitch, post:4, topic:24338”]
But anyone with half a thought to spare would also realize that germ theory didn’t exist back then and no one alive at the time would have associated not-obviously-unclean water with illness, nor thought to avoid drinking water to avoid pathogens.

Just because germ theory did not exist back then, does not mean that people cannot make (quite possibly incorrect) associations between causes and effects.

Genetic theory also did not exist back then, but the breeding of cattle and other animals was a well-developed practice and anyone with half a thought to spare would also realize that plenty of people alive at the time associated characteristics of the parents with characteristics of the children . Similarly, if drinking water was observed to be more deleterious than drinking alcohol, I’m sure some half-sozzled sage would have sussed it out.


They did, and long before anyone knew about germs, scalding the inside of the water barrels before refilling them was part of the regular shipboard chores. (And of course you’ve got a pretty good chance of being rained on at some point, if you’re running low on water.)

I too had never heard that medieval folk avoided water so much as enjoyed alcoholic beverages, which you can drink in enormous quantities if the ABV is low enough. Lots of water is safe to drink but less tasty than wine or beer. Maybe we need a meta-myth-busting here, to bust the myth that there’s this myth in the first place.


Yea, my ‘urban legend’ would have been more like: pre-sanitation city-people drank a lot of weakly alcoholic beverages because those who developed such a habit were a bit more likely to survive and reproduce. Probably not a well reasoned conscious choice other than that I would assume they would drink non-dirty beverages in favor of visibly dirty water.

Heck it was apparently a bit of a struggle to get 1850’s London to accept that the pump right next to the cesspit who’s neighbors were all dying of Cholera was actually a problem.


I don’t think the author adequately distinguishes the behavior of medieval people living in the countryside versus cities. The problem of water being unsafe to drink is primarily an urban problem and was so well into the 19th century (as in the cholera epidemics of London). Water isn’t intrinsically unsafe – it only becomes so if ill people infect it through improper separation of drinking/cleaning/elimination usages – which are much more of an issue where people are concentrated.


Oh, also the olden-days just sucked:

“Those were drinking days, and most men drank hard. So very great is the improvement Time has brought about in such habits, that a moderate statement of the quantity of wine and punch which one man would swallow in the course of a night, without any detriment to his reputation as a perfect gentleman, would seem, in these days, a ridiculous exaggeration.”


I have heard it said by modern-day proponents of temperance that the only reason the apostles drank wine was because there was no water fit to drink. That does qualify as arguing that pre-modern people consciously avoided water.

Yes, to you and I it’s an absurd claim, but if, like my grandmother, you believe alcohol is brewed by the Devil himself it doesn’t take much of a stretch to believe it.


They considered a bunch of things to be unclean. Hasidic Jews still do.

Except that in medieval times most people lived in the countryside, so most people weren’t exposed to the unsafe water conditions in urban areas. Don’t the cholera epidemics in London suggest that people were consuming water, because they mistakenly thought it was safe?

I ask myself: Do we really need another reason to drink alcohol?


To hasten your recovery from exercise… i.e. a little thirst quencher after wrangling a keg:

Lean Machine is developed as a sport recovery, low calorie, FIT BEER. We like to refer to it as 'Recovery Ale'. The concept is pretty straight forward. It will be produced in Calgary and should be available (funding permitting) Late this summer.

The health benefits of strict Jewish dietary laws were so pronounced in the Medieval era that during the Black Death the Jewish communities suffered noticeably less from bubonic plague… so their Christian neighbors decided that they were obviously evil sorcerers, and probably behind the plague to start with. Thus, several holocausts.

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