The Middle Ages Weren't all Grim: Here's How Peasants Liked to Spend their Leisure Time

Peasants would often drink, but actual drunkenness was rare in the Middle Ages. The Toast.

2. Getting drunk was easy, cheap and a good way to deal with the grimness of Medieval life

When a peasant’s work was done for the day – or even for the season – there was often nothing much else to do. That meant that there were a lot of hours in the day to be filled. And many people filled them with drinking – much like they do today, of course. After all, getting drunk was fun, easy and, in most cases, a very affordable way of keeping yourself entertained (and, indeed, sane).

That said, however, proper drunkenness did not really become common until the late-medieval period, especially among Europe’s peasants. Up until this point, alcohol was only produced in very small quantities in peasant households, and the usual home brew was not very strong at all. Stronger drinks were available, though this was usually the preserve of the upper classes. In England, for instance, the nobility drank strong ale made and sold by monks, while on the continent, nobles drank wine. Of course, the grapes would have been harvested by peasants, but few would have been able to enjoy the finished product!

After around the year 1500, things started to change. From that point onwards, distilling started becoming a thing across medieval Europe. Whatever a farmer had leftover from market (and after the taxman had taken his share) could be distilled and sold in small amounts the following year. Of course, not all peasants could afford to buy these clear and potent spirits, but most would have found a way of indulging themselves at least a little.

According to most historians, however, while drinking was indeed a major part of peasant life throughout the Middle Ages, the idea that people drank weak beer in place of dirty water is largely inaccurate. Most peasants lived in villages and would have had access to clean water. As such, weak beer was usually made at home and consumed for relaxation. In many cases, the widows of a village would be the ones making the home brew, while the stronger stuff was brought to the villages by local monks to be sold at a time when the Church was in need of extra funds.