What People drank in The Middle Ages and Renaissance
By Meroë M. Cahill (Rohese de Fairhurst)
Water was rarely drunk due to the difficulties in obtaining clean drinking water (typhoid and other water-borne diseases were highly prevalent). If water had to be drunk, spring water was preferred, as it was less likely to cause disease than river water or still water (pond water). Water was also believed to be bad for the digestion, as they believed that it would chill the stomach and hinder digestion of food.
Wine was believed to be very good for the health, and was commonly drunk with meals as it was also readily produced in many areas in Europe, and easily transported and stored. Good quality wines were the most popular mealtime drink of nobility, although poorer people could sometimes afford low quality wines.
Some wines contained a lower percentage of alcohol, and thus were more suitable for drinking relatively large volumes without intoxication (French fishermen were allotted a ration of 2.5-3 litres of wine per day!).
It was recommended that children under the age of 5 didn’t drink wine, as ‘it would curdle the milk they were drinking’, while children under the age of 14 should drink wine which had been watered down to make it less potent.
Both red and white wine produced from grapes were popular, but wine could also be produced from other fruits (anything containing sugar can be used to produce wine).
Spiced or mulled wines were also enjoyed. These were used as an aperitif, or to clear the palate after a meal. Spiced wines were also believed to have medicinal qualities.
Hippocras was a red wine which was flavoured with spices such as ginger, cinnamon, sugar, cloves, galingale or nutmeg. Claret was a spiced wine which was often made from a white wine, and was flavoured with cloves, nutmeg, mace, caraway, ginger, pepper and other spices.
Beers and Ales
Beer and ales were very popular drinks, although they were generally consumed by lower class people rather than the nobility (who generally preferred drinking wine).
Beer was made from grains such as oats, wheat, barley or rye, while hops were not added to beer in England until after their introduction to England in 1525 (although they had previously been used in beer production in Flanders for several hundred years). Hops add a bitter taste to beer, so most medieval beers would have lacked the bitter taste of modern beers.
Ales could also be flavoured with spices, similar to spiced wines. These spiced ales were called ‘braggots’.
Mead is produced by fermenting a honey and water mixture. Mead could also be flavoured with various spices, either during production or immediately before drinking. Mead was considered to be an ideal drink for invalids by the physicians of the time.
Cider and other fruit juices
Fruit juices were drunk as either fresh fruit juice, or were fermented to produce alcoholic drinks like cider or perry.
Cider is produced from whole apples, while perry is produced from pears. Murrey comes from blackberries or black mulberries, while prunelle is made from plums. A more unusual fruit juice is made from ground and strained pomegranate seeds.
Milk was not popular as a drink for adults- its use was generally confined to young children. Kumiss, which is an alcoholic drink made from fermented mare’s milk, was popular in the Middle East, but was only drunk in European countries when recommended by a physician.
Tea & Coffee
Tea & coffee were not commonly drunk in Europe during our time period. Herbal infusions were sometimes drunk for their medicinal qualities, but tea was not commonly drunk until after our time period. Coffee was extremely popular in the Middle-East, and was introduced to Constantinople in 1554, but did not become popular throughout Europe for another 100 years.
‘The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages’ by Terence Scully. Published by The Boydell Press, 1995.
“Coffee: The Wine of Islam” By Neil Robinson. Published in Tournaments Illuminated issue #128, 1998.