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From 'Vilest Beverage' to 'Universal Medicine': Drinking Water in Printed Regimens and Health Guides, 1450-1750

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journal contribution
posted on 27.03.2019, 15:40 by David Gentilcore
Historians tend to assume that in pre-modern Europe people avoided the water, as too unsafe, risky and generally unhealthy to drink. This assumption is clearly flawed: early modern Europeans knew, through experience, which waters were ‘best’ and to take certain precautions when it came to the consumption of water. Town councils enacted legislation to ensure water quality as well as more pro-active measures to keep water sources clean. Extensive and expensive water works in many larger towns and the presence of water-carriers suggests a demand for drinking water. And yet the history of both water control measures and drinking practices before the onslaught of Asian cholera and the bacteriological revolution in the nineteenth century have yet to be written. As a contribution towards filling this gap, this study seeks to understand the radically changing nature of medical advice on water consumption between 1450 and 1750, and what it can tell us about the place of water in early modern society. To do this, we consider printed dietary regimens and guides to good health and long life, a successful, varied and changing genre. They offer privileged access to the circulation of knowledge regarding water, in the context of the everyday regulation of food and drink in the maintenance of health. We explain why water went from being considered ‘the vilest of beverages’ in the mid-fifteenth century, the consumption of which, though necessary, had to be carefully regulated, to a ‘universal medicine’ three hundred years later, able to prevent and cure disease. In the process, wine gave way to water as the preferred healthy drink—at least, for medical authors. We relate the medical advice to the different local conditions (such as river water quality), practices (use of cisterns, boiling or filtering) and fashions (cold-drinking) discussed in the medical literature. If water’s very banality means that it is often invisible in the written evidence, the regimens provide ample evidence of the importance of drinking water and of changing attitudes and practices over the course of the early modern period.


This article was written as part of a European Institutes for Advanced Study (EURIAS) senior fellowship at the Institut d’études avancées (IMéRA), Aix-Marseille Université, 2017-18, co-funded by Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, under the European Commission 7th Framework Programme. Initial drafts were presented as papers at ‘Medical Materialities’, Medical Humanities symposium, University of Minnesota, USA, April 2017; ‘Scientiae: Disciplines of Knowing in the Early Modern World’, sixth annual conference, University of Padua, Italy, April 2017; and the ‘Things’ seminar, Centre for Research in the Arts Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Cambridge, UK, May 2017. I would like to thank all three audiences for their questions and comments.



Social History of Medicine, 2018, hky109

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/Organisation/COLLEGE OF SOCIAL SCIENCES, ARTS AND HUMANITIES/School of History, Politics and International Relations


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Social History of Medicine


Oxford University Press (OUP) for Society for the Social History of Medicine



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