Alcohol in the Middle Ages – Were medieval people always drunk?

Have you heard the stereotype that people in the Middle Ages only drank beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages? And have you ever asked yourself how anybody could work (or fight in the case of knights and soldiers) when they started drinking alcohol in the morning and then continued drinking all day long?

Well, let`s find out if people in the Middle Ages really drank that much alcohol and if they were really always drunk.

While beer, wine, and ale were popular in the Middle Ages, the most common drink was water since every village, city, and castle had at least one source of clean water. When beer was drunk during the day then it was usually home-brewed low-alcohol ale. The low-alcohol ale and a certain habituation meant that people in the Middle Ages weren`t always drunk. Usually, they only got drunk on special occasions in their free time.

And there was not only low-alcohol ale in the Middle Ages, wine was also watered down before consumption. That was something that had also been done by the Romans to reduce the intoxicating effects of the wine. Here you can find out more about the diet of a Roman.

But the low-alcohol beer and ale that was drunk during the day and that was brewed at home, mostly by women, was not the only beverage in the Middle Ages.

The most common drink in the Middle Ages was water. And while there is the assumption that alcoholic beverages were drunk because there was no clean water (or no way to tell whether or not the water was clean enough for consumption) that assumption is wrong. The location of castles was carefully chosen not only to be easy to defend but also to have at least one source of clean water. The same can be said for villages and cities. Both were often developed at beneficial locations. And the availability of clean water was always on top of the priority list!

So generally most people in the Middle Ages had access to clean water which they drank daily. In addition to water, low-alcohol ale was drunk, not only to stay hydrated but also to get additional calories and minerals in. So water and low-alcohol ale were both drunk in the Middle Ages.

Speaking of getting in enough calories. The daily work of a medieval peasant was hard and so he had to eat pretty well to be able to work. However, most of us imagine medieval peasant food to be bland, tasteless, and low in calories. But that was not the case, medieval peasants ate pretty well. Here you can find out more about the diets of medieval peasants.

Ok, so during the day medieval peasants only drank water or low-alcohol ale that didn`t get them drunk but kept them hydrated while providing them with extra calories.

That however changed when the peasants had free time.

When medieval peasants didn`t have to work, for example in the case of a church festival or one of the social events (weddings/baptisms) which were celebrated by the entire village, then they liked to party and get drunk (just like we do today). The beer that was drunk on these special occasions had a lot higher alcohol content and was also not brewed at home. Instead, the high-alcohol beer was oftentimes brewed in monasteries.

Do you want to find out more about what medieval peasants did for fun in their free time? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


Ernst Schubert: Essen und Trinken im Mittelalter (2006 Darmstadt).