Characters in fantasy roleplaying games and stories seem to spend half their time staying in inns, gossiping in taverns and carousing in houses of ill-repute. So what blog featuring historical inspiration for gaming would be complete without a post on historical types of hostelry? This is part of a little series, so check out the ‘refreshment’ tag.
‘Taverna’ was the Latin word for a drinking place, and it sold wine, the main alcoholic drink in the Roman empire. Wine was made from grapes, which grew well on vines in many areas around the Mediterranean. Therefore vine leaves could be used (hung above the door, for example) as the sign for a taverna. I have no information on the names of individual tavernae, but I guess they might have been known by the name of the person running them, and/or by the street or locality where they were found.
If your setting has lands modelled on the Roman Empire (and I guess this may apply to mediaeval southern Europe too), then tavernae could give it a good flavour. I’ll come back to ‘tavern’ in English in a minute.
Domestic brewing and drinking
Ale brewing was literally a cottage industry in the middle ages, often conducted by ordinary peasants (and especially women) in their homes. Because ale didn’t keep for long, a batch of ale was usually more than one ordinary family could get through in the few days it would last. Therefore a peasant who had a batch ready would tell her neighbours and they would come round to share the ale. Presumably either the friends would brew their own ale another time and return the invitation, or they would bring food or goods to give their host in exchange. Maybe people kept tallies of ale drunk until someone’s tab reached a penny’s worth (I think something like three or four gallons, for peasant home brew) and they could pay it off with a coin. Or it might be a form of charity for village folk to look after their poorer friends by giving more than they took.
I have read that people signalled that they had ale to share by putting a recognised sign above their door—this might be a green bush or branch (the English version of the ancient vine leaf sign), a cup, an ale-wand (stirring-stick), or similar.
Occasionally someone would put together a large gathering with ale for sale to all comers; the gathering was itself known as an ale. An ale was a traditional form of wedding celebration, and the takings would provide a honeymoon gift to the happy couple.
Some people (especially those good at brewing and/or without another source of income) might find it worthwhile to regularly have a batch available to share or sell. Such ale-wives’ homes might have an ale sign up most of the time and would start to function as semi-regular ale-houses. This might be the typical form of ale-house (if any) in rural villages. I am sure that such places would be still be known simply as so-and-so’s house.
Richer households, with servants and employees receiving part of their pay in food and drink, might well find that they could between them get through a batch of ale before it went off. Therefore they might also have a constant supply of home-brewed ale, which would be provided to guests as well as regular household members. This would apply, with varying scale and perhaps quality of brewing, from prosperous peasants up to great lords, and also to institutional ‘households’ like monasteries or colleges. If adventurers on their travels can secure the hospitality of a local lord or other householder, they might get their drink in this way.
In certain regions, other drinks like mead and cider were consumed on this everyday basis, alongside or instead of ale.
The upper tiers of society of course drank wine as well as ale, and this might be served to honoured guests in a similar way. Wine was expensive, so this was the preserve of the upper classes, well-off townsfolk and perhaps yeomen so prosperous they were nearly gentry.
I have seen a statement that village churches might have a house for the use of the community, as a social venue and perhaps for other purposes. If so, I guess this would have served as a venue for ales, especially those put on by the church as fundraisers, and might sometimes have provided food or drink out of charity. It saw it claimed that this may be the origin of the village public house, or pub.
Commercial ale-selling premises, found primarily in towns and busy wayside stops, were called ale-houses. As far as drinks go, they generally specialised in ale, but they might also have provided fairly simple food (such as bread and cheese) or had an arrangement with a nearby cook-shop. In the middle ages, ale-houses did not generally have bar counters. I believe many had a separate barrel room in which drinks would be filled, and then taken by hand into the drinking hall. Simpler one-room ale-houses would just have had their barrels at the side of the room.
Note that ale was fairly cheap—or perhaps rather in the middle ages there was no small change. The smallest coin in England for much of the period was the penny, and a penny would buy you four pints of even the very best ale. Most ale-houses would have had nothing priced at over a penny a gallon, and common ale would sell at a penny for two to four gallons, depending on strength. (The price of ale also varied according to the price of grain, which was its main ingredient.) So people drinking by the pint or quart would open a tab. The ale-house would serve them until they had drunk a penny’s worth (typically over more than one visit), and then take payment. (I suppose trusted regulars might be allowed more credit.) Strangers would, I imagine, be asked to pay up front, especially if they looked like they might not have money. If they were only in the ale-house for one visit, lone patrons or even small groups might not drink as much as the minimum purchase, and so might have ale to give away—which would be sure to attract company.
Ale-houses would also have served as venues for various pastimes, entertainments and services. Drinkers would have played games of skill and of chance between themselves, often for money. I suppose buskers and street entertainers would have done the rounds of ale-houses or even spent a whole evening there, and the customers would also have added their voices and perhaps instruments to the merriment. Ale-houses also were used as meeting-places by prostitutes and their customers, and were regarded as meeting-places for thieves and other malefactors.
Town ale-houses typically had to close at curfew, an hour not long after sunset when all fires had to be covered (hence the name, from couvre-feu, cover the fire) and people walking the streets had to carry a light.
In late mediaeval and early modern England the ‘tavern’ made a re-appearance. This fancy foreign name was for places selling fancy foreign drinks, such as imported Gascon or Rhenish wine, or maybe beer (which was not the same thing as ale). The prices were accordingly high, and the clientele drawn from people able to pay these prices—often the upper classes, educated people, warriors, and prosperous merchants and artisans—and of course successful adventurers. Not that taverns were necessarily respectable: a tavern catering to mercenaries or students might have a very different atmosphere from one catering to churchmen and administrators.
Other than the types and prices of drinks and the wealth and status of the typical customer, I think taverns were much like ale-houses, including in layout and in the types of other activity that went on there. I guess the food, if offered, would probably have been better, with meat available, and the richer clientele would probably attract entertainers and so on even more than ale-houses.
Eating-houses and cook-shops
Towns had many sellers of prepared food. Eat-in places were called eating-houses, though many would specialise in a particular kind of food and so might be called, for example, pie-houses. I think a cook-shop offered mainly take-away food. In busy towns cook-shops would also supply mobile vendors who would sell prepared food from trays or baskets in the street or door-to-door.
These food retailers did not specialise in drinks; in jurisdictions where the sale of ale and suchlike was regulated they might serve only water, but might well allow customers to bring their own ale or other beverage.
I will discuss here commercial premises offering overnight accommodation to the general travelling public, and call them ‘inns’, though in the middle ages the word ‘inn’ was also used for many of the places I discuss below as ‘hostels’.
Inns were places to stay. They would provide other services to their guests such as food, drink, stabling and horse-feed. I think that many would have served food and drink to non-resident customers if they had the capacity, and they may have been the best place to go for a celebratory feast with food and alcohol, if you could afford to pay for such a thing but didn’t have the space at home.
In the middle ages, buildings were mostly quite simple, and an inn would likely have one main room (called the hall, but not necessarily as big as that might suggest to us) which was used for eating, drinking and relaxing during the day, and for sleeping at night. In a very small inn this might be about it, with cooking done over the hall fire and the innkeeper (and family or staff) sharing the same sleeping space as the guests. Medium and larger inns would add a chamber (where the innkeeper and family would live, but which they might give over to high-status and high-paying guests), a kitchen (often a separate building to reduce fire risk), a stable block, brewhouse and so on. Very grand inns (and/or later in the period) might add an additional chamber or even more for guests who could pay to be away from the common hall—but rows of individual or small-group rooms in the style of modern hotels are not mediaeval to my knowledge. In any case I think the toilet facilities would be a privy out in the yard.
Inns would be found in towns (probably located near to the town gates, the central square or other obvious points for travellers), and perhaps at busy waypoints along main roads—especially at major crossroads and river crossings. They would not occur in typical rural villages.
By this I mean accommodation provided within or by greater establishments such as monasteries, colleges, lordly houses and so on. Note that the words hostel, hotel and hospital all share the same root—a place of hospitality. Only in more modern times did the provision of medical care overtake accommodation as the purpose of that which we now call a hospital.
An inn, or inn-like accommodation, would sometimes be provided by a religious house, a place of study, or a house belonging to a great lord. The purpose of this provision, and the people it was open to, might vary. A lord would want a place to stay for his agents travelling on his business. Therefore he might have his town house act as a hostel for his agents visiting the capital. An academic institution might provide a hostel for students who did not have their own lodgings in the town, or for visiting lecturers and so forth. A religious leader or institution might accommodate people for similar purposes to a lord or a college, and might also accommodate needy folk out of charity, including poor travellers and the sick. (It is out of the medical care that might be provided to sick residents that the modern hospital slowly grew, and I have read that in England the dissolution of the monasteries, with their hospitals, in the reign of Henry VIII was the catalyst for the spread of commercial inns across the country.) Also an expatriate institution might offer accommodation to people from its home country—and very useful networking services and local advice.
I guess these qualifying guests might have been put up for free or for a preferential rate. Some hostels might also accommodate other guests for a (higher) fee.
Since these institutional hostels were not generally competing for passing trade, they could be sited either wherever the patron already owned property, which might be anywhere in a town, or where the patron could buy property of sufficient size in order to establish one, which often seems to have been at the edge of town or in the suburbs outside the walls.
These are post-mediaeval, but could be a feature of economically advanced settings. They offer the services of a busy and probably more or less upmarket inn, with the addition of significant services for horses and coaches, including stabling, feed, water, and ideally repair and shelter from the elements for wheeled vehicles. This is likely to require a complex of outbuildings, and probably some sort of yard or court where coaches can be drawn off the road and turned. Such inns might buy, sell or rent horses to allow coaches to travel further and faster than one team of animals could manage. They may also feature signs, noticeboards or agents advertising the available coach services, their times, speeds, costs and other qualities. Being a more modern style of establishment, here you might find a number of guest rooms for separate parties.
They obviously need to be sited on routes for travellers. You would get major inns or clusters of inns at busy crossroads, around town gates, or outside large towns on the main roads away (close enough to the town proper that people leaving or arriving by that road can interchange between their long-distance coach and local transport). You would probably get smaller inns at intervals along the various roads.
You could get equivalent inns catering to other forms of transport, such as boats or light aircraft, if such exist in your world. Large transports like railway locomotives, seagoing ships or airliners are probably beyond the capacity of an inn to service and so the dock or station that directly services the vehicles and the embarkation of passengers might be separated somewhat from the inns or hotels that cater to passengers overnight.
As with all the posts in the refreshment series I’ve used Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guide books. I’ve also read Everyday Life in Medieval London by Toni Mount just before posting this one, and added a few snippets from that. See also electronic links in-line.