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Drunk History?


One thing we at Hysterical History hear quite a bit from folks is that people in the Middle Ages drank alcohol all the time because the water was unsanitary This rather gives the impression of all manner of folk, from toddlers to grannies to priests to masons, being sloshed day in and day out.

So, what’s the real deal with these tipsy toddlers and stoned masons? Some astute folks may point out that these alcoholic beverages just weren’t as strong…watered down, if you will. Wait. This is partly true, but drinks in the Middle Ages are varied and are likely to surprise you.

Let’s get the big bugbear out of the way first, though. Medieval folks did, indeed, drink water. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that people learned that illness was carried by wee beasties, such as bacteria, that might be found in water. So, water would not have been automatically suspect as a disease carrier. However, people can tell when water is not good because it is dirty or stagnant. More to the point, medieval people had access to well water (which is generally, by its nature, pretty clean). This doesn’t mean they were fans of water, though, so while it was drunk plain, there were many other options.

Think of it this way. What does it take to get YOU to drink water? Most of us today struggle to drink enough water. We’d rather have some iced tea, soda, lemonade, vodka. When I search my apps for “water tracker” there are easily a few dozen options. So, don’t pretend like modern people don’t also fail on the drinking water front.

It is a misconception to think that the only drink options were mead, cider, wine, and beer. While these play large roles in Ren faires and fiction, there was a larger selection available in history. But, let’s sip on these a second while we’re here. 

Mead was a regional offering that was not often found outside Wales, at least at first. What with the Welsh caring more about sheep than fields of grain, grain based alcohol was just not a thing, but honey wine was certainly a thing a shepherd could manage.

Apples, well, crab apples, have existed for thousands of years in Europe and Northern Africa. Those early apples were not juicy snacks, though, and it would take some time for anyone to be inspired to turn it into a beverage. The first real cider-like drink seems to have come from pre-Roman Britain and soon after first contact some serious apple cultivation got under way and by the 9th century the word “cider” appears in the English language. However, cider was never a hugely popular drink in the isles (or anywhere, for that matter – DESPITE today’s West Country adoration for it) until after Europeans settled in the north east of America where apples grew far better than barley.

Fruity fermented firewater has long been a part of human history and grapes were the fruit of choice around the Mediterranean. Wine was found throughout those areas of Europe adjacent to the Mediterranean or adjacent to those areas (where was THE WINE hexagon in Settlers of Catan?!). Wine was less common in Britain, but was imported by the wealthy. Eventually, as trade routes improved and prices dropped it became a far more common drink for knights and nobles.

Beer has been with us a loooooong time. Mesopotamians and early Egyptians made it. What we know as beer today is not precisely what was drunk by earlier cultures, though. And, until pretty recently there was a distinction between beer and ale, ale being an unhopped fermented malt beverage and beer being hopped. There is a whole history here, but suffice to say hops proved a better preservative than the gruit mix which came before and now is used across the board. Ale (and later beer) would have been what most people drank most of the time. But, what people drank daily was what is known as small beer, a beer with barely any alcohol content. Refreshing, but not intoxicating. The ABV% would have been 3% or lower. These would often be mixed with water. Stronger ales were served for special events or for the purpose of achieving various states of un-sobriety.

Now, onto these other bevvies. 

Tisane, or herbal “teas” were big. Boiling various herbs and spices in water was both a medical and culinary practice. Rosemary tea. Sage tea. Lavender tea, Coriander tea. You name it, if it grew in a kitchen garden or could be bought from the spice merchant someone at some point likely put it in some boiling water. One of the most popular was barley tea.

Things you ADD to water, sort of medieval Mio, were also popular. Rose and lavender water or syrups were fairly common throughout Europe. Some folks, if they lived in the Middle East or nearby, used sekanjabin, a sweetened, flavored, vinegar based syrup that could be added to a variety of foods and beverages, water included. Syrups derived from fruits, like grenadine were used. Simply adding honey (plain or flavored) to water was also popular. Basically, they, like us, just wanted water to taste more interesting. They even added ale or wine to water to get some kind of flavor.

Alongside water, and flavored water, milk was pretty popular. Milk came from cows, sheep, and goats. It was drunk straight or by adding honey or other flavored syrups, like medieval NesQuik. Milk was also used to create possets and other drinks thought to have some medicinal qualities.

So, no daily grog fests. No plastered priests nor glazed grannies nor wasted wives wandering the streets of medieval Europe on a daily basis. And when you get down to it, even if the drink isn’t water, water was likely used in the making of it. Boiling and fermentation helped kill bacteria, whether they knew it or not. So, the next time you host a medieval feast, try serving some tisanes, or flavored water, or a posset*!

*more on posset later!

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