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I've heard that in the middle ages the water was so bad that everyone drank beer or wine. Is that true? Did pregnant women and small children also drink beer?

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Beer was commonly drunk in the middle ages (and renaissance), but what they drank is different from the beer we're used to today.

Beer and ale, being grain-based, were important dietary staples -- it's said that beer is liquid bread, and that's not far off. For the common man (not nobility), in particular, grain made up a substantial part of the diet, with meat being fairly rare. (Will try to update later with a friend's research on amount of grain/household consumed in medieval England, but it's substantial.)

Common beer was not aged for months or years like some beers today; rather, a batch might be produced in as little as half a week. These are "small beers" (or "small ales", for the unhopped variety), which are mildly alcoholic but drinkable in volume without unfortunate effects. These small beers/ales were produced in the home/manor; it was just one more task for the cooks. (See, for example, Markham's The English Housewife, 1615 -- so that's rnnaissance not medieval, but is consistent with earlier cooking sources I've seen.)

I'm not aware of exceptions being made for pregnant women and small children. Arguing from absence of evidence is risky, but I've worked with a variety of medieval and renaissance cookbooks and the occasional medicinal source, and I haven't seen anything along the lines of "drinks for the pregnant and young".

You may find the following helpful:

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The answer is complex, to be honest. In the Middle Ages? Where? When? These are important questions. Lumping around a thousand years and very different cultural eras (ranging from the Vendell-era Norse to the Byzantine Empire) into the same label is problematic at the very least.

The answer I think to the question as stated has to be "no" insofar as there were times and places in the Middle Ages where beer was a clear luxury (early medieval Iceland comes to mind). Similarly, it isn't always clear that beer was universally consumed by the lower classes in much of the Middle Ages (though certainly towards the end it became more common).

Example 1: Anglo-Saxon England

This being said, beer was an important dietary staple in much (though not all!) of medieval Europe at least among monks, merchants, and the upper classes. Heavier beers were used as bread substitutes. For the common man in Anglo-Saxon England, though, even bread was a luxury and most grains were cooked into gruel, porridge, either with or without fracturing (think of bulgur wheat). This would then be supplemented with vegetables, eggs, dairy, and sometimes meat (even for the serfs, at least in Anglo-Saxon England, meat was not out of the question). Well water was the primary source of hydration in this era (again see Hagen, below), and laws were passed to ensure that drinking water directly from someone else's well was protected, legal activity (in other words, a well owner could restrict what people could take away from the well, but not what they could drink on the spot).

If we separate out the lower classes and the areas where beer was not commonly available (Iceland, for example) the picture changes dramatically. Beer was very common, but not at all a homogeneous beverage. Bald's Leechbook (10th Century, Anglo-Saxon) contains the warning that while "ealu" (-> ale) may be consumed by pregnant women, "beor" (-> beer) causes miscarriage. Identifying these beverages is problematic. Ann Hagen ("Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink") suggests that "beor" must have been a strong mead instead of a malt liquor based on descriptions of specific gravity (she calculates a minimum alcohol content of around 20%). If it was a strong mead, it may have been further supplemented by herbs like mugwort, henbane, and hops, and therefore even more problematic than a strong mead might be. In this case, it would have been fermented grains would have been certainly consumed by children and pregnant women.

Interestingly the traditional fermented rice and cassava dishes here in Indonesia are acceptable to serve to children too.

Sources on history:

  1. Hagen, Ann. "Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink"
  2. Pollington, Stephen. "Leechcraft" (for an edition of Bald's Leechbook with facing page translation).

Example 2: Medieval Iceland

The early Icelandic settlers tried to grow barley for beer with only very limited success. Alcoholic beverages were thus very much a luxury item, and usually if someone was going to have it (going mostly by medieval saga evidence as ethnography), it was going to be someone who had gone viking and returned with a fair bit of wealth. A second point though is that Icelandic society recognized about three levels of society (godhi, bondi, and thrall) based on relationship to certain kinds of property: a godhi (priest-attorney-legislator-jurist) owned a godhord (the office was property and could be sold, loaned, or even put into partnership property). A bondi (free juryman) owned land. And a thrall was owned (though the actual requirements would have been more like early serfdom than slavery due to a lack of central administration and enforcement). In addition to successful bondi-turned-vikings, you would have had the fact that a godhi had sufficient economic benefits from office to likely be able to afford alcoholic beverages at least sometimes.

In Iceland, drinking was usually a social action and as far as the existing evidence goes would have been a specifically male activity limited to the sorts of ritualized drinking portrayed in Beowulf (such ritualized drinking is portrayed in the Volsung Saga, Egill's Saga, Njall's Saga, and many many others). Drunkenness was warned against in the literature, and there are very interesting questions of what else was put in the beverages, since poisoning was a pretty clear concern in the literature (Eddic poems such as Havamal and Sigdrifumal speak to both these concerns). From archaeological evidence from "continental" Scandinavia, we may surmise henbane was common, and this may to some extent play into the references to military drinking in Hrolf Kraki's Saga.

In short, in Iceland, as far as we can tell, beer and mead would have been limited to far more ritualized roles (reinforcing social obligations, certain forms of oaths, etc). Literature on women and alcohol is very sparse. It's probable that the bride drank at the wedding as part of making the wedding official. There's a lot of uncertainty beyond this however in terms of attitudes towards pregnancy and alcohol.

Further reading:

  • the various sagas referenced above.
  • The Poetic Edda (I usually recommend the Hollander translation if you are going to work in translation because he tends to be transparent about which emendations he is using).
  • Byock, Jesse: Viking-Age Iceland
  • Byock, Jesse: Medieval Iceland
  • Roesdahl, Else: The Vikings
  • Pollington, Stephen: Leechcraft (for some archaeological discussions of Scandinavian forts and brewing).
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I do not know much but I know there is a published book about that. Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance by Richard W. Unger. Some lines from the excerpt of the book:

Modern beer, however, has little in common with the drink that carried that name through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Looking at a time when beer was often a nutritional necessity, was sometimes used as medicine, could be flavored with everything from the bark of fir trees to thyme and fresh eggs, and was consumed by men, women, and children alike...

It was the beverage of choice of urban populations that lacked access to secure sources of potable water; a commodity of economic as well as social importance; a safe drink for daily consumption that was less expensive than wine; and a major source of tax revenue for the state.

Unger describes the transformation of the industry from small-scale production that was a basic part of housewifery to a highly regulated commercial enterprise dominated by the wealthy and overseen by government authorities.

These are some part I crop from the excerpt. Probably book have more but since I do not own it, I can not help you more.

update: There is a big excerpt in Google Books. It contains first a few tens of pages with some removed pages but I guess it will give you more ingormation about that.

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Beer is fermented typically (but not exclusively) via yeast. When live beer yeast, actually a fungus, is present, it creates a hostile environment for (potentially harmful) bacteria reducing their prevalence. Therefore, fresh beer could be considered a safer alternative to say, river water.

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Yes, it's true. There's been big debates over to what degree they were aware that water caused diseases while beer did not, but a big factor was that beer was seen as nourishing (which it is) while water was not. In an age where getting enough to eat was a recurring challenge, this contributed to making people prefer beer/wine. In practice it seems people preferred alcoholic drinks for both reasons.

Generally, people would drink small beer as an everyday drink against thirst (and that's what children got, too), and beer proper for celebrations. That's actually a Finnish saying: "small beer for work, beer for celebration" ("Kaljalla työt tehdään, oluella pidot pidetään").

Small beer was generally made together with beer. That is, they'd do a mash, and the first wort that's run off has the most sugar. As you keep pouring water through, obviously more and more sugar is washed out of the malts, and the wort keeps getting waterier. Eventually they'd stop, and make beer from the wort. Then they'd continue, and run off a much weaker wort from the remaining sugar in the malts. This was the small beer. Many places they would even do a third beer, which was so weak it would barely ferment. There were also other grain-based drinks, made from flour or bread, and typically sour and just barely alcoholic. Kvass is the best-known example, but there were many others.

Weak beer as an every-day drink continued for much longer than you might think. It was the introduction of tea/coffee that first started displacing it. Then, later, higher availability of milk, then juices and soft drinks continued the process. On Gotland, off the coast of Sweden, children were drinking weak beer as late as the 1960s. I lack data for exactly when this ended elsewhere, but it was long, long after the Middle Ages.

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