In Elizabethan England, they did a lot of things right. The theater was booming, they were progressive and inventive in a variety of ways. One specific life area that was abysmally lacking in forward progress however, was the public water works system. This system was so awful that it completely changed the food consumption and culinary habits of a century of humans while giving Englishmen in particular a world wide reputation for being able to hold their ale. Specifically, it meant Shakespeare did a lot of beer drinking (he’s even thought to have died as the result of too much partying). To give you an idea of the climate towards alcohol (and superstitions about water itself) from Shakespeare’s lifetime, here are 10 gross facts about water (and ale) in the late 16th and early 17th century that formed the main reason Shakespeare, and much of the rest of Elizabethan England, could likely drink an Irishman under the table. 

  1. Public works were extremely limited
    Contrary to popular belief, indoor plumbing technology existed during Shakespeare’s lifetime, it was just really expensive. Apparently, wanting water piped to your house was something you only did if you were snobbish and could afford exorbitant luxuries. While close to 400 people in London did have conduits running to their homes, it was not the norm, and it was illegal to tap into these pipes without paying for the privilege (though this fact did little to dissuade people from trying).
  2. Latrines were few and far between
    While landlords were required to provide a latrine to their tenants, it was expensive and troublesome to do that so many of the landlords simply omitted that option and never put one in. This meant that tenants in the houses along the streets of London had literally nowhere to go to the bathroom. This lead to people using the restroom in pots or buckets and dumping their waste into the street, which washed into the River Thames.
  3. The river was polluted
    The lack of a public works system or adequate plumbing, along with the aforementioned dumping of waste out of windows led to the main water source of the city of London being highly contaminated, polluted, and extremely gross.
  4. There was no filtration system
    While it was possible to boil the water during cooking, there was limited, if any, options for filtering out the nasty river water and if you drank it, it was at your own risk of peril.
  5. Doctors advised against drinking water
    So well known was the disease causing effect of the river water, and water in general, that doctors are recorded in their medical journals as formally advising against the consumption of water. Doctors recommend you drink beer or ale instead as water was known to cause damage. Additionally, when doctors acknowledge the human body’s inability to live without any water at all, they recommend that the best water is rain water (obviously, as it it’s least likely to be contaminated by dung in most cases.)
  6. Ale houses were segregated by class
    Like most places in Elizabethan England, drinking houses were segregated by class. Taverns were reserved for the middle class while inns and alehouses were for the poorer group. As it was also the poorer group who attended plays in London, the connection between alehouses and inns for early performances of public theater makes sense.
  7. Innovations in water works were poorly received
    There were engineers of the time period who came up with an innovative way to introduce public works and water filtration to the city of London but apparently the powers that were felt the expense and trouble of instituting such a system simply wasn’t worth the cost, so the project would not be implemented until well after Shakespeare’s death.
  8. The alcohol content was much lower
    While intoxication was a widespread problem in England during this time, it seems Englishmen were able to drink exorbitant amounts of beer because the alcohol content is thought to have been somewhat lower than today’s beer, although notably Queen Elizabeth did come out adn personally ban “double double beer”, which one can only assume was of higher alcohol content and therefore more likely to intoxicate the consumer.
  9. Public intoxication was rife throughout England
    People really did seem to wander around drunk most of the time. The Beatles are often credited with substance abuse being an impetus for their creative streak, one wonders if being drunk helped Shakespeare? It was certainly a common state for his fellow countrymen.
  10. Parliamentary laws against intoxication were just as popular as the beer.
    Paralleled directly with the massive amounts of public intoxication are massive amounts of laws against such intoxication. There’s little indication that this particular law was ever (Effectively, at least) enforced. It seems as if to do so would have overran the jailhouses.
  11. Queen Elizabeth’s court drank 600,000 gallons of beer in a single year
    Just doing the math there: That’s over 1600 gallons per day. PER DAY. Either she had a lot of people at court, or they did a ridiculous amount of beer drinking. No wonder this era fostered so much drama! And this consumption was going on while Elizabeth herself was passing laws against intoxication. One wonders if she was frustrated with her own court.
  12. The average person consumed 17 pints per day
    This number is based on the soldier’s ration of beer being 1 gallon a day. We assume the average person would have consumed somewhat more than the customary ration for a military person who was not constrained by rules of that nature. Still, at 17 pints a day, I’m confused as to how people functioned from day to day.

It’s clear that in Elizabethan England, beer drinking was not only popular, it was a way of life. There are reports of travelers giving Englishmen the reputation of being able to drink heartily and still fight well in battle. The Irish may like to say they are the kings of the alehouse, but it’s certain from studying Shakespeare that the English can hold their own.


Want to make your own Elizabethan Beer?

Download this list of Elizabethan Beer Recipes. This one page guide lists 5 resources where you can find recipes, forums, and modern beer brands based on recipes from Shakespeare’s lifetime.

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This article was based on the youtube episode : Did Shakespeare Drink Beer?