Hydration in a Medieval Context

Hydration is incredibly important, as the average reader may be aware. Proper hydration is a vital issue for overall health and wellness. This article is not about trying to convince you to hydrate, be it hot out or cold out, active or sedentary, you already know you should. My goal is to take all of the advice and tactics out there regarding healthy hydration habits and interpret them into medieval contexts suitable for spending a day or a weekend at an event.

Understanding Hydration

The left side of folio 41v of BL Royal 20 C VII Chroniques de France ou de St Denis

Hydration is the act of keeping healthy levels of water in the body. The human body is primarily water, and everything really comes down to water. No matter what form you bring the water into your body, be it pop, coffee, or sports drinks, your body ultimately separates the water from the not-water in the drink and uses the water itself. This is why straight water is the healthiest and most hydrating thing to drink. And replenishing the water in your body is a constant requirement, as the body is not a closed system. We are continually losing water through respiration, perspiration, and excretion; we have to keep refilling our water tank or we dry out. When we get dehydrated the entire system starts to run less efficiently. Everything from decreased blood volume to electrolyte imbalances cause all sorts of short and long term havoc on the body. And while complete dehydration will kill you, even mild dehydration can cause long term damage to the body over time, in the same way unhealthy dysregulation of the body through obesity or chronic stress place undue burden on our physiology which accumulates over time. Likewise, as with maintaining any other sub-optimal health state, the less hydrated we are the less resilient we become and the more prone we become to injury and the more likely we are to succumb to other health conditions such as heart attack or heat injury. As such, maintaining healthy hydration is a lifestyle more than it is a one-time thing. One cannot hydrate effectively in a single act of drinking a jug of water at the end of the day. And while treating mild dehydration can be done by consuming fluids, severe dehydration requires immediate medical treatment. Prevention is very much the name of the game here. Healthy hydration requires maintaining a routine level of liquid intake over time.

Despite knowing it is important to stay hydrated, most people do not hydrate effectively or thoroughly understand what it means to be in a state of sufficient hydration. The benchmark for healthy hydration is for people to consume 11.5 cups of water for women and 15.5 cups of water a day for men. This works out to less than a gallon a day (or about 3 – 4 liters depending on how you convert and round.) However, this is also for a sedentary person, and this also includes all the water someone intakes in a day, both through what they drink and any water contained in the food they eat. What is most important to remember is, this metric is a baseline, and the more you do things, the more you need to drink. Going on a walk? Giving a lecture? Beating back the barbarian hoards? All these things increase your need for water from the baseline. And if you’ve picked up on the trend, you’ll notice these three examples tend to be the kinds of activities people engage in all day at an event. As a culture we exist in a state of perpetual, chronic dehydration and then we’re running off to go be active all weekend, putting ourselves at risk of injury or succumbing to other trauma. Worse, the body does not have any preventative methods to regulate hydration, it is entirely reactive. By the time you feel thirsty you’re already 1-2% dehydrated. Good indications you’re properly hydrated are when you do not feel thirst and you’re regularly passing diluted and clear (but not colorless) urine. Of course it is possible to hyper hydrate one’s self into water toxemia, but doing so requires a concerted and unpleasant effort to achieve. Warning signs of dehydration are thirst and dark colored urine. Some, but not all, indications of dangerous levels of dehydration include extreme thirst, dizziness, and cramping. If someone is thirsty but cannot keep fluid down, becomes disoriented, stops urinating, or has bloody or black stool take them to a hospital immediately.


So now you are sufficiently terrified of being dehydrated and you’re ready to take control of your hydration and you want to do so in a medieval context.

From Folio 010r of ONB Cod.s.n. 2612 Speculum Humanae Salvationis


As mentioned above, prevention is the best medicine. So before you ever get to an event it is best to start practicing healthy hydration habits now, or at least the day before the event. It is far easier to keep hydrated at an event if you get there topped off, than to try to continually chase the mark as you start to dehydrate throughout the day.

Sippy Sip

We lose water all the time, and much of it comes in a constant, if small, trickle over time. The reason you can fog up a window by breathing on it is because there’s moisture in your breath. And while some of it is a result of heating up and condensing the humidity in the air, some of it is also water loss from inside the lungs. We also perspire throughout the day, even when we’re not working out heavily and soaking in sweat. One way to combat this slow loss is slow and constant replacement by sipping at water periodically throughout the day. While taking in large amounts of water can be beneficial in response to large losses of water, such as after a heavy fight in a tournament or a vigorous demonstration, your body can absorb more water by receiving it in small doses over time. There are a variety of ways to carry water on your person and it can involve everything from disguising a plastic water bottle to hollow gourds to clay pots on string to expertly tailored leather costrels. Any time you find yourself idle, take a sip of water; if you have been walking a bit and stop to listen to someone talk, take a sip of water; just sat down, take a sip of water.  

Bathroom Breaks

One of the ways in which we lose the most water is through urination. However, it is important to remember you don’t expel water you’re using in your body as you’re urinating in real time. The water which has been used to create your urine has already been pulled from your body’s ecosystem prior to you actually using the toilet and has been sitting in your bladder for however long it takes your body to fill it up to the point where you have the urge to go. Drinking a glass of water every time you use the restroom is a good way to consistently replenish your water stores as you’re losing them. Your urine is also one of the best indicators of how hydrated you are. If you find you’re passing darker colored urine in smaller quantities you know you need to drink more, and if you’re passing large amounts of pale urine you know you’re drinking enough, or can even scale back some. Going off to use the toilet also means you’ve already made time to disengage from whatever activities you’re performing during the day, which means you have some time to stop and drink water without disrupting your day. If you drink when you pee, you can never say you were just “too busy” to drink some water.

Soggy Food

You take water in through what you drink and through what you eat. One good way to stay hydrated at events is to sneak water into your food. Dry food tends to keep longer, and store easier, which means we gravitate toward snacks which actively dehydrate us such as breads and salted meats and hard cheeses. If you can provide proper storage for them, there are a wealth of vegetables with high water content which you can eat as a snack such as cucumbers, celery, lettuces, and certain melons as well as most fruits tend to be juicy (your impression’s time period and location will dictate which ones are applicable.) If fresh fruits and vegetables are not your thing, or storage is an issue, many good medieval dishes such as porridges, pottages, soups, and stews contain a high quantity of liquid in them.

Hating Water

So far the message has been to drink water. This is because the most efficient way to combat dehydration is to drink water. It’s a simple answer, but not always so easy. If it were as easy as just drinking more water, there wouldn’t be gallons of ink spilled on all the tricks and methods to trick people into drink more of it. The fact remains, drinking water is a habit which people have to get used to and some people just plain do not like water. Drinking water, for some, is akin to eating dry toast or oatmeal with no fixings. There are options out there to replace or enhance water, but not all of them are medieval. This is a crossroads for you, the reader. Does it matter if what you’re carrying in your costrel is appropriate to your impression, or is it more important to keep liquid in with something you’ll actually drink? Even pop in a cup, as long as no one looks right in it, is indistinguishable from anything else in a cup. If you have a solution which works for you, and you are comfortable having inauthentic beverages in your cup, I encourage you to do what works for you as long as you’re taking in enough fluid.   

For those who want to take it a step farther and both remain hydrated as well as immerse yourself in the flavors and aromas of the medieval era being reenacted, a number of options are available to you.

The Elephant in the Room: Alcohol

Yeast, I’ve seen this photo in half a dozen places, not sure who it belongs to.

No one is going to try to convince you there wasn’t a massive consumption of products called beer, ale, cider, mead, and wine. No one is going to try to convince you these were not alcoholic beverages. Which poses an interesting paradox once one understand the how alcohol is a substantial diuretic (a substance which causes the body to expel water and thus dehydrates instead of hydrates when imbibed.) For thousands of years billions of people consumed gratuitous amounts of these drinks, in many cases as their primary form of liquid intake, and were somehow not wiped out by dehydration. The caveat here is the difference in quantity of alcohol in medieval beers and wines. The beer and wine our medieval ancestors drank as their water did not contain the same levels of alcohol as our modern versions do. Fermentation was intended as a preservation method, and it does not require 10% ABV to keep a drink from spoiling in the short term.

The author’s rendering of a yeast.

Without going into an article on medieval brewing, there are a number of factors which go into how densely alcoholic one can physically make a drink. The vicious irony of brewing is the adorable little yeast colonies which industriously convert sugar into delicious booze do so as a by-product; while we use them for this purpose the ethanol and carbon dioxide in fermentation is their waste product. Just like an unclean fish tank, eventually the amount of waste substance they’re swimming in becomes too inhospitable to them and they all suffocate to death in their own excrement. (Who wants a beer?) Different strains of yeast are more hardy and tolerate different concentrations of alcohol before they kick the bucket, and these strains have been developed over time. Really voracious and alcohol tolerant yeast does not occur in “the wild” where most medieval fermentation took place. Also, sugar is the food which the yeast eats. The amount of alcohol they produce is limited by the available sugar. If they consume all the sugar before the alcohol content gets too high to kill them, they succumb to famine instead. This is, of course, a gross generalization and intentionally satirical representation of the process.

However, due to these factors, when you take your average barley mash and expose it to airborne yeast and let it ferment a bit, without introducing specially cultivated super-yeast and supplement the process with additional refined sugar (among other carefully controlled and highly technical variables) what you get in the end is what we would call a “small beer” with an alcohol content around 1% or so compared to an average modern beer which is anywhere from 3–11% alcohol. Even wines and meads, which doesn’t require much fine tuning to manage a double digit alcohol content, has extensive documentation of being diluted prior to being drunk. Diluting wine is detailed by Homer, Plato, Pliny, the Old and the New Testament all the way through to 15th century treatises, as much as 20 parts to one depending on the time and place. Which circles back around to the dissimilar nature of how much alcohol was in a cup of whatever someone was drinking. Strong spirits and distillates were, until after the medieval period, drunk as a medicine and not a recreation. The go to drink of someone, be it beer or wine, was most likely to have an alcohol content under 3%.

Which leads to a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology titled “Restoration of fluid balance after exercise-induced dehydration: effects of alcohol consumption” which does what it says on the tin. It effectively compares the diuretic effects of different concentrations of alcohol to the hydrating effect of the volume of liquid transporting that level of alcohol. The study is an interesting read, and worth going through, however the conclusion reached in this study was “In summary, it is clear that the addition of alcohol to drinks ingested after exercise-induced dehydration has a tendency to promote an increased urine output relative to that produced after consumption of an alcohol-free beverage with otherwise identical composition. This effect is small, however, at low (<2%) alcohol concentrations.” So this is how your average medieval person was able to drink all day, every day and not die. While a glass of water may hydrate you with an efficiency of 100% per cup (not really, there are many factors involved in how much water you actually absorb from what you drink, but it’s easy math and useful in this comparison,) a beer with a one percent alcohol content may hydrate you 90% and it’s only at higher concentrations, such as 4% and above, you see enough diuretic effect from the alcohol to make you more dehydrated with every cup you drink.

Do not take this observation as an endorsement to drink alcoholic beverages for hydration purposes. This simply mirrors studies into the diuretic effects of caffeine in tea and coffee or the hydration inhibition of sugar in sodas which find the diuretic effect is marginal enough to be overshadowed by the hydrating effect of the water the caffeine or sugar is suspended in. As example, Dr. Katherine Zeratsky states “Drinking caffeine-containing beverages as part of a normal lifestyle doesn’t cause fluid loss in excess of the volume ingested. While caffeinated drinks may have a mild diuretic effect — meaning that they may cause the need to urinate — they don’t appear to increase the risk of dehydration.” This does not mean you get to ignore the positive and negative effects the alcohol or sugar or caffeine has outside of hydration. Water will still hydrate you better. If you drink alcohol, do so responsibly and for recreation, not hydration. But, if you do want to be as medieval as possible, and you choose to do it with wine or beer, it only works the medieval way if you use heavily watered down wines and traditional ultra-low alcoholic content small beers.

But, Really, Water

Now the issue of alcohol is out of the way, I want to return to water. Even with all the booze medieval folk drank, they still drank water! Drinking water is period. Water was an incredibly important substance for a medieval settlement. There is a reason villages and towns from prehistory well into the modern era tend to crop up around rivers and wetlands and areas with a water table accessible by well. Water was required to grow crops, maintain livestock, run most industry, facilitate hydration, and keep your peasants from dying. You can’t even make the alcohol or soda you’d rather drink you don’t have water. Everyone needs water for all things. While sanitation was not perfect in the medieval eras, and there were notable exceptions such as the heavily polluted water resources in high medieval London, medieval people had access to running streams, rivers, clean ponds, well water, and rain water. If you can stomach water, the best thing you can drink at an event is water. Your body will thank you. Your family will thank you. I will thank you. Drink water.

Water Adjacent Drinks

Considering the lack of resources, such as access to the same panoply of spices and produce we have now, some interesting and ingenious medieval drinks were invented and are suitable in various ways for drinking. Below are some ideas you can use as a basis for more in depth research on authentic medieval alternatives to drinking water, weak wine, or small beer.

Animal Juice

If you have a way to keep it at a safe temperature, or have a pocket animal, medieval folk drank milk and they drank it from a wider variety of animals than we do today. Any livestock which produced milk was a viable option to consume milk from, be it a cow or sheep or goat or horse.

Appropriated Medicinals

Medieval recipe books have a variety of drinks which are non-alcoholic and designed for specific medicinal purposes. Many of these drinks were intended to treat ailments are not recreational drinks as they are written into these manuals. However, appropriating them for hydration purposes, as long as the reenactor understands they are making a compromise for the sake of a historical-ish experience, can be a method of getting more fluids into the body if the taste of water is the biggest hurdle. Examples of this kind of drink are sweet tisanes (barley waters) which were almost a tea made from boiling barley and sweeting the resulting water and rosewaters or lavender waters which were made by cold or hot steeping flower petals into water and then rendering with sugar or honey to form a syrup and then reconstituted into a drink. These are all recipes which can be documented in cook books and housekeeping manuals and are intended to help with things such as infirmity or indigestion.  

Recreational Beverages

Medieval recipe books are also filled with drinks which can only be concluded as recreational beverages. These drinks run the gamut of forms, being made from or imbued with the flavors from a variety of sources such as grains, sugars, spices, herbs, and flowers. Some of them have a strict purpose, such as sage and coriander water which were intended to be drunk between courses as a palette cleanser. Others appear to be just for the pleasure of the drink, such as granatus which is a very early form of grenadine made from pressed pomegranate, a variety of beverages made from diluted vinegar and sweetened such as sekanjabin, varieties of water mixed with honey and spices, and once lemons are introduced to the west varieties of drinks quite reminiscent of lemonade crop up. One thing we see, and this is likely an artifact of pre-refrigeration storage logistics, are the way in which these drinks tend to be cooked down into a concentrate or a syrup, and then reconstituted into water at the time of consumption. Which means you can take your good, clean, refreshing water and spike it with a medieval flavor glob to keep on top of hydration.

Hippy Water

Milks made from things which are not animals, such as oat and soy and almonds, are not an entirely modern vegan, alternative health craze. Medieval recipe books are also replete with many varieties of nut milks where powdered nuts were soaked in hot water and then strained out and though they can be drunk they appeared to be used much more as a cooking ingredient substitute for milk and cream.

A Note on Electrolytes

Competitive and endurance sports athletes have to worry about things called electrolytes during training. Electrolytes are just salts which the body uses to help regulate fluids and achieve certain physical functions in the muscles and brain. Electrolytes can be lost in sweat, and if you don’t have enough in your body (such as through depletion or through dilution in water toxemia) it can impede certain mind and body functions and even be life threatening. The problem comes in when pop physiology convinces the average person they are going to become dangerously low on electrolytes from their daily activities or even through moderate exercise. The intensity required to lose electrolytes fast enough to require mindful replenishment involves vigorous activity in excess of an hour in duration. However, if you are fighting at peak levels for two or three hours on end, or are jogging marathons, and the like electrolyte replenishment can be a consideration. If you anticipate a situation where you will need to be mindful of your electrolytes I encourage you to do research into the subject prior to the event, as there is some debate as to whether or not sugary sports drinks are the most efficient way (or even a healthy way) to stay topped up on salts. Suffice to say, the average person who spends a weekend at an event is unlikely to be at risk of electrolyte depletion, doesn’t need a sports drink to survive, and is better served focusing on proper hydration as a balanced diet will provide all the sodium, potassium, and magnesium they need to stay healthy.

Thank you!

A small cadre of select few are responsible for helping this project reach heights I could not do on my own. These commendable folk are ones who support me financially. I am pleased to present to you the newest Knight of Neep Manor, William Sembello. A rousing cheer for Sir William! If you would like to join him in honor, consider joining on Patreon.

Resources Used or Useful to the Reader

[ACSM’s Health and Fitness Journal] Drink Up!: The Science of Hydration
[American Heart Association] Staying Hydrated – Staying Healthy
[Mayo Clinic] Want to stay hydrated? Drink before you’re thirsty
[CDC] Get the Facts: Drinking Water and Intake
Some Basic Medieval Non-Alcoholic Beverages
Non Alcoholic Beverages of the Middle Ages
[Mayo Clinic] Essential to your body
[CDC] Water and Healthier Drinks
[USADA] Fuilds and Hydration.
[NCCIH] Energy Drinks
Medieval Cookery
Medieval Recipes

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