At some point in every medieval fantasy movie or game, the heroes end up to an inn or tavern to rest their bones, fill their bellies with ale, and gorge on ridiculous amounts of food. In this article, I’m going to discuss the history of the medieval inn and tavern, and what it might have been like for the people who visited them. I hope you enjoy the article and please let me know what you think in the comments below.
The medieval inn
Medieval inn- and tavern-keeping was big business in medieval Europe. In England, inns were primarily found in towns and cities and most of them very quickly became landmarks of the settlement they were in. The inn of a town was usually located in a central location such as the town square, or in places where trade roads met. In France and the Holy Roman Empire, coach-inns also became important drivers of the economy – these coach inns were mostly found on big trade routes between distant locations. In some cases, these coach inns became trade hubs at their own right, since merchants would meet and exchange goods there without even having to reach a city.
Role of the medieval inn
Another important aspect of the inn was its place in the community. Inns were places where people met to socialise and talk. This made them cultural and political hot beds. Many of the early Renaissance ideas starting spreading from the backrooms and halls of these establishments. It was not rare for political uprisings and mobs to begin within a inn.
All this bustling business generated a lot of cash – and I mean, a lot. The innkeeper was a very rich and influential man in most towns. He was part of the urban elite, part of local government, and also acted as expediter and banking agent for mercantile transactions. As we mentioned before, many of these innkeepers were also involved with trade and commerce, and acted as deal brokers for merchants.
The medieval inn served both food and drink. The drink was sourced from the local vintners and breweries, while some inns had cellars containing the most exotic of wines and beer from all over Europe and the world. The food was, in most cases simple: pottage (stew), bread and cheese were quite common. Having said that, a medieval inn was also host to the largest banquets and feasts of the time, serving elaborately designed dishes. These inns would give rise to the restaurants of the Renaissance.
Medieval inns came in many sizes, but they tended to be rather large buildings, prominent in a town’s landscape. The basic layout of an inn consisted of the hall, the kitchen, the stables, a storage area (cellar), the chamber (loo/WC/toilet/poophole), and accommodation for the innkeeper and his family. As trade grew, some inns, and especially coach inns, added accommodation for travellers visiting or passing by. This accommodation varied wildly in quality, but for most medieval inns the quality was fairly low and consisted of several straw beds in back common room. An exception to this rule were inns constructed in major cities, which also sometimes included high class accommodation. Later on (in the 1400s), it was common that a medieval inn would also have one or two private function rooms, which could be hired by local guilds or for private events. In some cases, the inn became a place for people to store their gold and many inns had locked cellars or rooms filled with strong boxes.
The medieval tavern
Taverns were drinking houses; they could be found anywhere from the largest city to the smallest country thorpe, and the reason was simple. Drinking was an important part of medieval life. In towns, taverns were commonly owned by brewers of beer or winemakers (vintners). In places like London, the guild was able to secure a monopoly, making them the exclusive distributors of alcoholic beverages.
In villages the “tavern” was not a building exclusively used for drinking. Tavern was the name given to the house of the person who happened to be brewing beer at the time. People would amass every evening at one of these houses and quite often drink themselves silly.
The rolls of the royal coroners, reporting fatal accidents, spell out many in graphic detail: In 1276 in Elstow, Osbert le Wuayl, son of William Cristmasse, coming home at about midnight “Drunk and disgustingly over-fed,” after an evening in Bedford, fell and struck his head fatally on a stone “breaking the whole of his head.” One man stumbled off his horse riding home from the tavern; another fell into a well in the marketplace and drowned; a third, relieving himself in a pond, fell in; still another, carrying a pot of ale down the village street, was bitten by a dog, tripped while picking up a stone to throw, and struck his head against a wall; a child slipped from her drunken mother’s lap into a pan of hot milk on the hearth.
– Life in a Medieval Village by Frances & Joseph Gies
Architecture and usage
Taverns in towns and cities tend to be quite large structures – not as grandiose as inns, but able to hold a significantly larger number of people. The medieval tavern had multiple rooms. It was a very busy and loud place, people tended to be drunk, gamble a lot (read our article on medieval gambling – some of the facts are awesome), cry a lot (mostly after losing a bet or a woman) and sometimes even fornicate a lot. The medieval tavern was the comfortable meeting place for the masses to indulge in delinquency.
What was the difference between the medieval tavern and the inn?
The main difference between the two establishments was the fact that, medieval inns tend to focus on the accommodation and food aspect, while taverns were commonly owned by licensed brewers and vintners and thus, focused on the drinking. Having said that, in many towns where the guilds were closely associated – if not one and the same – it was not uncommon for brewers to own inns.
If visiting a place without an inn, where would I stay?
For travellers, adventurers, merchants and itinerant knights, the local lord of the manor would often host you for the night. This came in exchange for gifts, but even more importantly, for news, rumours and stories which were highly valued in an insular, medieval society. Travelling troops or troubadours and bards would often sing and perform in exchange for lodgings and food at the local lord’s manor. If the local lord was preoccupied, away or otherwise disinclined to host a traveller, villager families were happy to share their humble abode as long as you had a bright smile or a heavy money pouch.
Pleasures and Pastimes in Medieval England by Compton Reeves. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Life in a Medieval Village by Frances & Joseph Gies. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990.