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Recently Saved by jklp on July 10, 2014
First saved by zorca on February 28, 2014
The idea that Medieval people drank beer or wine to avoid drinking bad water is so established that even some very serious scholars see no reason to document or defend it; they simply repeat it as a settled truth. In fact, if no one ever documents the idea, it is for a very simple reason:it's not true.
Not only are there specific – and very casual – mentions of people drinking water all through the Medieval era, but there seems to be no evidence that they thought of it as unhealthy except when (as today) it overtly appeared so. Doctors had slightly more nuanced views, but certainly neither recommended against drinking water in general nor using alcohol to avoid it.
Paolo Squatriti is a rare writer (in Water and Society in Early Medieval Italy, AD 400-1000) to look at this question. He writes of both Italy and Gaul:
Once they had ascertained that it was pure (clear, without odor, and cold) people in postclassical Italy did, in the end, drink water. Willingness to drink water was expressed in late antiquity by writers as dissimilar as Paulinus of Nola, Sidonius Apollinaris, and Peter Chrysologus, who all extolled the cup of water.
In Misconceptions About the Middle Ages, Stephen Harris and Bryon L. Grigsby write: "The myth of constant beer drinking is also false; water was available to drink in many forms (rivers, rain water, melted snow) and was often used to dilute wine." Steven Solomon's Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilizationexamines uses of water, including for drinking, going back to Sumeria.
UPDATE 10/28/2014 - A new article in Eä – Journal of Medical Humanities & Social Studies of Science and Technology examines Greek and Roman ideas of drinkable water, showing that these groups too regularly drank water.
Otherwise, modern examinations of the issue are rare.