Access to water or drinks while travelling?

Feb 2018
5
The Netherlands
#1
I'm an avid Dungeon Master with a love of history. Although I like magic, I also like to put my players to the hardships of life in more medieval times.

However, I came upon a question that I couldn't find an answer to: how did people in medieval times have access to water or drinks? Did they take enormous amounts of water or ale with them while travelling?

Then again, in the Netherlands we have lots of streams and rivers which could provide water. But how did they travel in less forgiving climates, like Israel or the Mongol steppes?

I hope somebody knows more about this topic.
 

Scaeva

Ad Honorem
Oct 2012
5,472
#2
Medieval cities were filthy places that lacked anything resembling modern sanitation, with much of the human waste produced by their residents ending up in neighboring bodies of water. Rivers bordering cities were quite literally open sewers. As such much of the water was not safe to drink in cities, and city-dwellers would have gotten a lot of of their hydration needs from wine or beer, particularly small beer in the case of the latter.

However there could be sources of clean drinking water for cities. Medieval London had the Great Conduit for instance, which was designed to transport safe drinking water from the countryside to the city.

Out in the countryside away from the cities however there would have been more sources of potable water, from wells, to streams, to natural springs.

So the short answer I suppose is that it would depend on what part of the country your band of adventurers is passing through.
 
Last edited:
Feb 2018
5
The Netherlands
#3
They now travel across an England-like country, so I guess finding a source of water during a few day's travel wouldn't pose that much of a problem.

However, they're making plans to travel towards a steppe-nation, without any real cities. I guess finding water in such an area would be more difficult, but I cannot really fathom how hard it would truly be.
 

Scaeva

Ad Honorem
Oct 2012
5,472
#4
They now travel across an England-like country, so I guess finding a source of water during a few day's travel wouldn't pose that much of a problem.

However, they're making plans to travel towards a steppe-nation, without any real cities. I guess finding water in such an area would be more difficult, but I cannot really fathom how hard it would truly be.
Water would be available on the steppes as they would be in a place that mimicked England. After all without regular rainfall you couldn't have the sea of grasses that sustain the herds of horses, assuming your steppe mimics the Mongolian-Manchurian grassland.

Water being in short supply would be more of a problem when passing through a desert biome.

Here is an article describing the climate in Mongolia & rainfall (or lack thereof):

In Mongolia the climate is strongly continental, with long and frigid winters, and short and warm summers: the temperature range between winter and summer is definitely wide.

Precipitation is scarce, and is concentrated in summer, when the country is partly affected by the Asian monsoon; in winter, when a thermal high pressure system dominates, sky is often clear. Precipitation is more abundant in the north, where it exceeds 300 millimetres (12 inches) per year, while in the south, which is desert, it drops below 200 mm (8 in) per year. During winter, snowfalls are frequent but usually light, so that they create a thin white veil, which can be carried away by the wind; sometimes a light snow can fall even when the sky is clear: when temperatures are very cold, moisture can condense directly.
Climate - Mongolia

In the winter snow can be used as a water source:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXwiyX4uqFc
 
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Aug 2015
2,359
uk
#5
Taverns or village/town wells. Obviously you carry waterskins, but you plan your journey so that you pass such locations. If you are travelling on any relatively busy roads, you will certainly pass taverns and inns on a regular basis.
 

Asherman

Forum Staff
May 2013
3,214
Albuquerque, NM
#6
Actually during the entire Medieval period, very few people would ever travel more than a dozen miles from their place of birth during an entire lifetime. As already noted medieval urban areas had really "stinking" sanitation, but the number of urban areas was small relative to the larger population. Most folks lived in smaller rural communities where pollution was less of a problem ... usually. In some places the Commons were legally tied to the land they worked for their noble and church masters. Not even the nobility traveled much if travel could be avoided. Terrible and hazardous roads made even short trips something to be avoided. Called upon to fulfill their feudal duties and dues, many Masters made strong efforts to avoid the direct and indirect costs of going off on a season of war.

Strangers probably were more often viewed with suspicion than given the "keys of the City". Wandering peddlers might bring welcome foreign currency, news, and luxury goods, but they were just an accepted category of strangers who were in transit.

Water in the wilds in those days weren't as polluted as they've become since, especially since the Industrial Revolution. Herodotus tells us that the Persian Army was so large that they drank an entire river dry. Really? Nope, and it is such fabulous remarks that have undermined the faith we have in the "Father of History".
 
Feb 2018
5
The Netherlands
#7
Taverns or village/town wells. Obviously you carry waterskins, but you plan your journey so that you pass such locations. If you are travelling on any relatively busy roads, you will certainly pass taverns and inns on a regular basis.
This perhaps hold true for densely populated areas, but when traveling from, for example, Egypt to Israel, this might prove more problematic. And then you had the nomads, traveling a lot without having taverns.
 
Feb 2018
5
The Netherlands
#8
Actually during the entire Medieval period, very few people would ever travel more than a dozen miles from their place of birth during an entire lifetime. As already noted medieval urban areas had really "stinking" sanitation, but the number of urban areas was small relative to the larger population. Most folks lived in smaller rural communities where pollution was less of a problem ... usually. In some places the Commons were legally tied to the land they worked for their noble and church masters. Not even the nobility traveled much if travel could be avoided. Terrible and hazardous roads made even short trips something to be avoided. Called upon to fulfill their feudal duties and dues, many Masters made strong efforts to avoid the direct and indirect costs of going off on a season of war.

Strangers probably were more often viewed with suspicion than given the "keys of the City". Wandering peddlers might bring welcome foreign currency, news, and luxury goods, but they were just an accepted category of strangers who were in transit.

Water in the wilds in those days weren't as polluted as they've become since, especially since the Industrial Revolution. Herodotus tells us that the Persian Army was so large that they drank an entire river dry. Really? Nope, and it is such fabulous remarks that have undermined the faith we have in the "Father of History".
But take pilgrimages to the holy land for example. Were there made taverns across the route? I suspect the region there is quite dry and natural water resources are considered rare.
 

Asherman

Forum Staff
May 2013
3,214
Albuquerque, NM
#9
Most Medieval pilgrimages were to regional shrines, rather than to Palestine or Jerusalim. For instance we have that famous pilgrimage to Canterbury, but there were other sites both in the British Isles and on the Continent. The rise of Islam in the 8th century added to the pressures on the Eastern Roman Empire, and Byzantium's borders shrank, and Jerusalim became a Holy site for Muslims. The Prophet is said to have asended to heaven from a prominent outcropping on Temple Mount after a magical journey from Mecca.

Pope Urban ... something, for various reasons called for a Crusade to return the Holy Land to Christian occupation. Some Crusades did proceed overland, the disasterous Children's Crusade for instance. Most crusaders were however the flower of Chivalry, they were the aristocracy and some of the most notable were kings, like Richard Lionheart. They traveled by sea in relative comfort, often staying at nice hotels and resorts in the Mediterraian Sea. The Crusades were at least partially successful for a short period, and even had a European King sitting in Jerusalim. Perhaps more importantly, the Crusaders brought back with them luxuries and knowledge that survived from Classical Antiquity. Fortresses were built to defend key water sources and routes to and from Palestine giving rise to the military orders (Hospitalers and Templars, etc.).

Medieval society certainly had ample spirits, usually crudely crafted varieties of beer. Buying a pint might not be very difficult since actual currency was in scarce supply. Locals probably bartered for the potables, the local monastaries sold their products for income, and the nobility sat in their Great Halls and drank toasts to legendary warriors. One didn't often find B&Bs along their travel routes, but would spend the night either sleeping in the rough, or as guests of the local Monastary, or Lord. What did a traveler have to barter with? His stock of goods couldn't be squandered, so economy was the rule for most people on the few roads/paths that existed.
 

Scaeva

Ad Honorem
Oct 2012
5,472
#10
There were inns along frequently traveled roads. The Church also had hospitals that functioned as hostels for pilgrims. It also wouldn't be unusual for medieval travelers to ask for lodging at farms along their route if there was nothing else available, though I suppose with the latter there was a risk that the owner wasn't feeling hospitable and might turn you away.

The story of the birth of Jesus (if true) might be an example of the latter, though obviously not from the medieval period. That is at least if Jesus was born in a barn.
 

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