Coinage systems: western European models

This is a follow up to my earlier post on historical coinage in general (and how it differed from the tons-of-gold decimal system in the Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks). Here, I offer some usable currency systems; they are based on historical models, though mostly somewhat simplified.

I have chosen realms and periods where the coinage was made of precious metal, fairly pure. Historically, most authorities went through periods when the precious metal content of the coinage was reduced. As a result, prices increased and a later government needed to restore the coinage (or, in more developed economies, to transition to representative money or fiat money) to stabilise the economy. But I leave it up to you whether to feature such episodes in your settings.

Silver penny

This is based on English currency from the 8th to 15th centuries, but also resembles several other western European currencies of the middle ages.

The main unit is the silver penny. Three hundred pennies weigh one modern pound. A penny might buy a day’s labour in the high middle ages, or you might pay fourpence late in the period.

The one-penny coin is the most common and may be the only denomination minted. For smaller amounts you can cut a penny in half or in quarters; this is sometimes done by the issuing moneyer, and the penny may be stamped with a symmetrical cross design to make this easier. For larger amounts you simply use multiple pennies.

You can say there are larger silver coins in multiples of the penny (such as 2 pence and 4 pence), and/or smaller coins in fractions of it (such as half and quarter), but in play it will be easiest just to track how many pence worth of silver that a character has. The coin denominations don’t affect the total value or weight.

You can also add gold coinage to the system. It would be simple but not very historical to have a gold coin the same weight as the penny and worth 10 pence, or a large gold coin weighing 30 to the pound and worth 100 pence.

If you are up for a non-decimal system, the historical units of account are the shilling (12 pence), the mark (160 pence or 13 shillings and fourpence) and the pound (240 pence or 20 shillings). Gold coins might then be a shilling weighing about the same as the penny (actually issued only briefly in the early middle ages, perhaps because such a small gold coin was fiddly and vulnerable to loss and wear) and/or a noble worth 80 pence (conveniently 2 nobles to the mark and 3 nobles to the pound value) and about 50 to the pound weight.

If you wish to use DnD rulebook prices simply convert them all to sp and then treat 1sp as 1 penny. Very cheap items will need to be bought in multiples until the price reaches (or rounds up to) a quarter, half or whole penny. Luxuries for the wealthy who aren’t counting their pennies might be marked up to the next shilling, noble, mark or pound.


Researching this post, I was slightly surprised to discover that my own country did not adopt the familiar copper penny until the 19th century. So this is actually pretty modern, but may feel right for a gunpowder-age, piratical or steampunk setting.

The units of account are the pound, shilling and penny, with 12 pence equalling 1 shilling and 240 pence or 20 shillings equalling 1 pound. Prices are higher in this system than in the medieval system, with a daily labourer’s wage about a shilling or two.

The pound coin is called a sovereign (which I shall use for the money unit from here to avoid confusion with the weight), and is of gold, weighing about 50 to the pound (nearer 57 historically but let’s use a round number). Private banks and the national bank also issue paper money, in amounts over one sovereign.

Everyday transactions are often in silver. The silver shilling (12 pence and 1/20 sovereign) weighs 80 to the pound. Other silver denominations may include 3 pence, 4 pence (groat), 6 pence (‘tanner’), 24 pence (florin), 30 pence (half crown), 48 pence (double florin) and 60 pence (crown). The coin weights are proportional to value so in play you can just keep track of the value of silver coinage carried and not worry too much about denominations.

Small change is in copper or bronze. The penny varied in weight but was always quite big—24 to the pound for a time, which works out at 10 pounds of bronze for a sovereign’s worth of currency. There are also half-penny and quarter-penny (farthing) coins in the same metal and of corresponding weights.

You might have small change issued by local private sources rather than by the royal mint.


This is based on currencies of the Byzantine empire, the eastern Mediterranean survival of the Roman empire, which faded in power during the middle ages. You could use it if you want a slightly exotic feel compared to a western-Europe-style silver currency, and/or for a region where gold is relatively plentiful.

In this simplified version, the principal coin is the gold solidus, weighing about 100 to the pound (there were alternative names for similar coins under different coinage reforms, including the nomisma, histamenon and hyperpyron; in the west the coin was known as the bezant, for its origin).

Small change is provided by the bronze follis, of which 150 are worth 1 solidus and weigh 1 pound. At times smaller bronze coins were issued and in theory the smallest unit in the system is the nummus worth 1/40 follis and 1/6000 solidus, but at this size for the follis the smallest practical coin is probably the semi-follis.

Some emperors issued silver coins such as the miliaresion, which you may include weighing about the same as the follis and valued at 12 to the solidus. (If you want a gold-silver-bronze currency with simple ratios between all the coins you might adjust the follis to be worth 1/144 of a solidus so that it can be 1/12 of a miliaresion.)

The Byzantines were also fond of mixing metals. If you want to include an electrum coin (about ¼ gold and ¾ silver), you could have it weighing about as much as the solidus but with 1/3 the value. They also at times used billon, which is in general an alloy with a small amount of precious metal, but in Byzantine coinage tends to mean bronze with a silver coating. Coins in either of these metals could present a puzzle for those unfamiliar with them, because both more or less resemble silver (electrum at these proportions having only a pale yellow tinge and billon looking like silver on the surface but lacking weight for its size) but have different values.


This currency is based on that of Imperial Rome in its heyday.

The main unit of account, and a coin for small everyday purchases, is the sestertius, which at this time is a large coin of a gold-coloured type of brass called orichalcum. For a round number let us say it comes at 20 to the pound (it was actually larger still). There is also a half-sestertius in the same metal called the dupondius.

Very small change is in copper, including the as (40 to the pound like the dupondius, but worth only ¼ sestertius) and rarely the semis (half an as) and the quadrans (quarter-as).

Most business is conducted in silver, principally the denarius, worth 4 sestertii and weighing about 100 to the pound (another round number; in reality the weight declined to over 130 to the pound). There was also the half-denarius called the quinarius.

The prestige coin is the aureus, a gold issue worth 100 sestertii and weighing about 50 to the pound (again this is a round number and in history the weight started at about 57 to the pound and declined as the demand for coin outstripped the supply of gold). You also get a half-aureus.

Do you find these coin system models useful? Have you got something like this in your game? Let us know in the comments.

Coins and currency

This post offers some advice on coins and currency in fantasy game or fiction settings. It responds to the way coins are described in Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) rulebooks, with specific reference to the popular and influential current fifth edition of the game (5e), but I aim to give enough information and references that you can use this for other systems.

DnD is very keen on tons of precious metal. Literally—it is possible to randomly generate a hoard of up to 120,000 coins on the top treasure table in the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG), which would weigh 2,400 pounds or over one ton. But historically, there wasn’t usually quite so much shiny stuff floating around. If you want to run a game more flavoured like medieval Europe or other historical settings, I have a few suggestions.

Named currencies and coins

It is fine that DnD rulebooks call money things like ‘gold piece’ and ‘silver piece’ and there were some historical coins named for their metal, such as the Roman aureus and the German guilder. But, as the rulebook points out, a name that is more obviously in-world than just the English words for the coin type is a first step in giving your setting’s currency more flavour.

Original currency names were often based on weight (pound, lira, as, talent, stater, drachm, shekel) and sometimes on numbers (denarius, sestertius, farthing). These names could outlast or outspread the language that gave them their meaning, so those using dinars as currency might not hear the meaning ‘ten’ from the sound of the name. Other coins were named for the designs they bore, like the ecu (shield), the crown or the angel. Some were named for their place of origin, such as the florin, the title of their issuer, such as the ducat or real, or for a whole range of other reasons.

Smaller coins

DnD coins are all one-third of an ounce, 50 to the pound, or about 9 grams each. This is pretty heavy by the standards of medieval coins. The original Roman silver denarius was initially of 4.5g, but its main medieval descendants were 240 to the pound and the pound in that system was lighter than the modern general-purpose pound weight, so an English penny was officially about 1.5g of silver (in practice often somewhat lighter and/or of less pure silver). The 14th-century gold noble of King Edward III of England was originally 9g of gold, but was reduced in weight after just a couple of years of production and declined to about 7g in the following century. The Roman gold aureus of Julius Caesar weighed about 8g but was reissued at lower weights by successive emperors and the late Roman and Byzantine solidus stabilised at about 4.5g; its late medieval successors the Florentine florin and the Venetian ducat were of about 3.5g.

There were some larger coins: the Athenian silver tetradrachm of the 6th to 1st centuries BCE was about 17.2g and circulated widely, though it was a multiple of the base drachm unit of 4.3g. (And it was ancient rather than medieval.)

If economies were using lower-value metals like copper or copper alloys as metal-value currency, these might be considerably bigger. In the early days of the Roman republic, bronze pieces were cast with weights between 6.9g and 3.3kg. More advanced economies, using token cash for small transactions, used smaller coins of copper or other base metals for small change.

So I suggest that medieval-esque currency in fantasy settings should use smaller coins and especially smaller silver coins.

Higher purchasing power of precious metal

According to the 5e Player’s Handbook (PHB) 1 gold piece (9g of gold) or 10 silver pieces (90g of silver) is a skilled but not exceptional artisan’s daily wage, and 2 silver pieces (18g of silver) is a labourer’s daily wage. However, in the late 14th century in England you could hire a carpenter or mason for sixpence (9g of silver) a day and a labourer for 3½ pence (5.25g). And it was less before the Black Death when there was a much greater supply of labour: farm-workers’ wages rose from a halfpenny a day early in the 12th century to a penny by the end, and still only 1½ pence by 1300. (offline sources: The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer, and Making a Living in the Middle Ages, Christopher Dyer.)

Also according to the PHB that wage, 2 silver pieces a day, supports a ‘squalid’ lifestyle for one person. Nothing left to feed a family and no room for days without work. Whereas in reality a labourer would often be supporting a wife and children (who would earn lower wages if any) and day-labourers would not get paid work every day. That is, as well as buying the employer relatively little labour, DnD silver buys the labourer less still to live on.

So I suggest that a medieval-style currency should be worth more, weight for weight, than the official DnD pieces. An easy way of doing this would be to reduce coin weight while maintaining the rulebook prices in number of coins, but I hope to do more work on prices, so watch this space.

Silver standard

This isn’t true in all historical periods or regions but, in most of Europe for most of the middle ages, silver, rather than gold, was the main form of currency. King Pepin the Short of Francia in the 8th century established the silver denier as an influential standard for the rest of the middle ages, acting as a model for the English penny, German pfennigs, Scandinavian pennings, Italian dinari, the Spanish dinero and the Portuguese dinheiro, among others. (The Carolingian denier itself was modelled on the Roman denarius.) Units based on the weight of silver were the denominations even for very large amounts: for example, the ransom of King Richard I of England in 1193 was set at 150,000 marks (about 35 metric tons) of silver, or 24 million silver pennies—two to three year’s income for the English crown.

Gold was more plentiful in the east: the Byzantine solidus was that empire’s primary unit; the common small denominations were of bronze, and silver was minted only intermittently to fill the gap. The solidus was later imitated further west by cities such as Venice and Florence that wanted to support their high-value and international trading and banking—these coins circulated internationally among the elite. I think they did use silver for more everyday transactions though.

In northern Europe gold coins were also issued later in the era (leaving aside some transient failed coinages, the French écu came into circulation at the end of the 13th century, and the English noble in the middle of the 14th). I think they operated as prestige currency and enabled very rich people to carry plenty of cash without weighing themselves down, but they did not replace silver as the backbone of the monetary system. The gold coins were from time to time either altered in weight while retaining their value in silver or altered in value with reference to the silver standard. Gold did not become the basis for English currency value at least until the issue of the gold guinea in the 17th century.

So, if you want a western or northern European flavour, I suggest that you could convert price lists in your game to a silver currency, and have silver coins be the most common form of cash for all but the richest people. Silver coins would exist in greater numbers, and would make up treasure hoards and cash deposits put together from many small amounts (or intended for dispersal in small amounts, like a pay chest). Gold would be used mainly by (very) rich people, and for large sums cashed in one go by someone with access to a money-changer, bank or similar.

No platinum

Platinum has rarely been used for coins, and was not used in legitimate currency anywhere before the 19th century. (It was so cheap in colonial Latin America that it was used to fake silver coins though.) It was in fact entirely unknown in medieval Europe; its early occurrences are in South America and a little in ancient Egyptian artifacts. In both cases it is found alloyed with gold: in Egypt possibly as an impurity unidentified at the time; in the Americas as a deliberate alloy. Neither society made platinum money.

I’m aware that platinum has a function in DnD of allowing large high-level treasure hoards to be portable. But if you increase the purchasing power by weight of gold, you’re a long way to achieving that anyway.

Paper money

DnD rulebooks rarely if ever mention paper money, and you might think it too modern to feature in a fantasy game. I haven’t space here to go into the detail, but forms of paper money have been known since ancient times in civilisations like China and Rome, and it was also known in medieval Europe from the 10th century. It wasn’t quite government or central bank currency notes as we know them today, but there existed both paper, cloth or leather tokens or notes that would be redeemed for coinage by banks, and some more secure letters of credit that could be paid either to a specific individual or to any bearer if they also produced corroborating credentials to a bank partnering with the issuer.

Non-decimal denominations

Until the 18th century, and longer in most of the world, currencies were not structured primarily around powers of 10. Powers of 2, and multiples of both 2 and 3 like 6, 12, etc. were more common.

I realise that decimal currency is far easier to use since we count in base 10 and so non-decimal currency needs us to learn almost another counting system. So I won’t hold it against you if you keep your setting’s currency decimal. But if you want real historical feel you might consult your players about other systems. I’ve got a few examples in my next post.

Also note that gold was in medieval Europe typically worth a bit more than 10 times its weight in silver—usually the ratio was between there and 15:1.

Historically, there were attempts to price gold coins at the tempting 10:1 ratio, but it resulted in the coins often being melted down and converted into bullion worth more than their face value. In an invented setting you can tweak metal values to your convenience so you might use a stable 10:1 value by weight ratio. Or you could have a higher value-by-weight ratio and larger gold coins, with the principal gold denomination worth 20, 50 or 100 of the silver one.

In my next post, I offer a few usable coinage systems based on historical models from western Europe. I may later add some from other areas of the world.

Let me know in the comments if you have any thoughts on these subjects, or about the flavoursome systems of coinage in your games.

Settlements: critique of the DMG guidelines

I’m spurred to write this post by the settlement generation section of the D&D 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG). It looks like it is giving a nice little primer on world building settlements for a medieval fantasy setting. But it isn’t really that historical, so here are a few notes on how I would tweak it to get a bit more period flavour.

(Back in the day, I also had some similar thoughts about the equivalent section in the 3e and 3.5e DMGs, so I will make a few references to the 3.5 version too. I know some of us grognards still play or have that edition.)

The Purpose section, beginning on page 15 of the DMG, is less about what settlements are like in the world than about how much the GM should invent and record about them. I think it makes good points.

I will deal with the Size section under its sub-headings of Village, Town and City.


The 5e DMG has (from a medieval history point of view) confused villages and small towns.

The DMG divides settlements just by population, and lumps together everything under 1,000 inhabitants as a village. Historians, in contrast, draw a strong distinction in character between villages and towns, whose population ranges overlap. Villages might be up to 500 or so people, most likely 2-400. Towns might be as small as 300 people or conceivably less. You could put your cut-offs between different sizes of town where you like, so I can accept 1,000 as an upper threshold for a small town for now.

(The 3.5e DMG has Thorp population 20-80, Hamlet 80-400, Village 400-900 and Small Town 900-2,000. You could for starters move all these labels to the next lower population range, creating a 5-20 category for Thorp, and labelling the 900-2,000 range Medium Town. But still population ranges for different settlement types should overlap.)

As discussed more below, villages were governed (more or less) by a lord of the manor, quite often resident at least part of the time. Such a lord was probably a knight or esquire but possibly a greater lord or a religious house (more likely to be non-resident). The lord would probably appoint someone to look after their business—this steward would cover a number of manors if the lord held them. The reeve, in contrast, was one of the villagers, and I believe was most often selected by them, rather than appointed by the lord. The reeve co-ordinated the villagers’ side of the manorial bargain, such as payments and labours.

A village would be unlikely to have soldiers except perhaps the local knight or esquire and maybe his grown sons or a brother or so. In time of emergency the men of the village would do what they could; in England in the later middle ages they were required to own weapons and perhaps armour, according to their wealth and status.

Even small towns would likely have a charter from the lord, giving rights of self-government to the merchants and craftspeople of the town. There would probably still be no force of soldiers.

Villages would be unlikely to have shops, inns or more than one or two full-time craftspeople. The lines about villages in the Commerce section (p19) are clearly more directed at making adventures easy than at period flavour.

Being food-producing centres, villages could supply food out of goodwill or at the right price. Local craftspeople might have everyday items like clothes, tools or pots in stock. Anything else would likely need to be something the residents were willing to sell from their own household or farmyard goods; peasants would have only peasant goods; luxuries might be found at the shrine or manor house. Small travelling merchants did pass through but, in most villages, I think fairly rarely, and perhaps carrying only goods they could expect to sell to villagers. (Villages on a highway between major towns or cities would see more and better-stocked merchants.)

A village on a busy highway might have an inn, but otherwise, accommodation for travellers would have to be in a local house if any were willing. Ale-brewing was a domestic affair and visitors might be invited to drink at the manor or a peasant house party, but would be unlikely to find a pub as such. (I have another blog post on pubs and suchlike, if you’re interested.)

In a highly religious society similar to medieval Europe, a parish church or local shrine would be likely in each village. Settings with different religions might differ. A large or prosperous village might support a local organisation like a guild which could collect and distribute money for the needy, put on festivals and so on.

Small towns might have more organisations—most likely multiple churches, shrines or temples, and one or more guilds, perhaps divided by trade. And of course, as the DMG says, towns did have shops and full-time craftspeople. Small towns like this would mainly provide goods that served the regular needs of folk in surrounding villages within about half a day’s walk.

Dispersed villages as described in the DMG did exist in certain regions, but villages in many of the more populous countries had the houses clustered at the centre and surrounded by the village’s fields (which would usually be large open areas in which different peasants cultivated scattered plots) and meadows (which would also often be shared). Villages would not have had a marketplace, but might have a central green which could graze livestock when not in use for village events. Villages would also probably have at least one well, one or more mills, any places of worship as noted above, and most likely a manor house. Many manors and churches had a large barn for collecting grain and other things due to them from the villagers.

Towns would usually arrange their main houses along one or more planned streets (shop on the ground floor, living above), with perhaps poor houses tucked away on back lanes. They would be likely to have a marketplace, which would be a prime site for inns or other businesses catering to visitors. As well as the obvious wells, churches, mills etc. even small towns might feature a guildhall.


The 5e DMG is not too far off in its description of a typical more substantial town, from about 1,000 to 6,000 in population. (The 3.5e DMG gives Small Town 900-2,000 and Large Town 2,000-5,000.)

As noted below under government, the townsfolk would certainly have a large measurement of self-government under a charter. The larger and older the town, the less likely it is that a single noble (other than the king or other overall ruler) would be the underlying lord, landowner and collector of taxes. A few places might have non-standard local rulers like a bishop (or in a fantasy world a college of wizards or whatever).

An army of professional soldiers based in one ordinary town sounds to me unlikely, though in a strife-prone land the town militia might be practiced and effective, and/or there might be a small standing guard. If the town is a centre of royal government for the area, like an English county town, then there might be a sheriff with his own force. The DMG town section does not mention walls, but walled towns were not uncommon, and would be fairly standard in times of prolonged strife or in towns that had existed through such times. Towns founded in an era of peace that is still going on would probably not have gone to the effort to fortify, though they might still erect a boundary or put gates on the roads into town, to control trade and other matters of town regulation.


The distinction between a town and a city is a matter for another post, but I will just say here that I take ‘city’ to include large towns and move on. The notes about self-government on towns also apply to cities. Capitals and suchlike prestigious cities would likely feature houses belonging to many nobles from other parts of the country. The nobles would probably only spend a minority of their time there, such as when dealing with the kingdom’s government or buying luxuries.

The larger the town the more I think there would have been professional soldiers there, though visiting knights and warriors in noble retinues might outnumber forces under command of the city council or sheriff.

Cities of over 25,000 were by no means as unique as the 5e DMG suggests, and for towns and cities of only 10,000 or 20,000 or so I would caution against taking to extremes the note about any goods and services being available. Around the mid-14th century western Europe had half a dozen cities over 50,000, and more between that and 25,000. Byzantium, the Islamic world and China had cities considerably larger. Super-cities would be the places to go for really rare and high-end goods.

To be fair, if you’re playing a Dark Ages or ‘Points of Light’ setting (which the 5e DMG hints at under Core Assumptions on p9 and with the ‘beacons of civilisation’ description in the City entry; the 4e DMG presented this idea much more clearly), then major urban centres might be absent. Western Christian Europe had no cities as big as 15,000 people in 1000 CE (though other parts of the world certainly did). But also at this date it had an underdeveloped cash economy, little literacy outside the church, and lacked many of the technologies in the equipment lists.


The 5e DMG says that the governing nobility is based in towns. The lord of a village is usually absent; a town or city has a resident noble who rules the surrounding area and appoints one or more nobles, including a lord mayor, to take care of town business. Town and city middle classes elect councils to represent their interests to the ruling nobles. Occasionally, a local lord or lady lives in a keep or fortress with no nearby town or city. The mention of overarching political units such as kingdoms is rather late and short.

(The 3.5e DMG leaves DMs to do their own research into political systems, but has some interesting notes on monsters, magic-users and other nonstandard power centres, as well as some starters for the flavour differences between power centres of the nine D&D alignments.)

I may do a more detailed post on this but, in brief, I think the 5e DMG takes some weird departures from how medieval government actually worked.

Firstly, medieval government was structured in layers much more than the DMG acknowledges. Many villages (manors, actually) had their own local lord such as a knight or esquire, or shared such a lord with a few other manors. Others did have an absentee lord as suggested in the DMG. Small lords generally came under a higher lord, with a noble title such as baron or earl. In some countries, though not England, middle-ranking lords like barons might owe allegiance to greater lords like counts or dukes. And in many areas there was a still-higher ruler such as a king, prince, archduke or emperor.

(The royal government might have its own structure of royal officials such as sheriffs, justices and coroners, often with geographical jurisdictions forming a parallel structure to the aristocratic lordships. But you might find this too complicated for a game setting and prefer to stick with the aristocratic hierarchy.)

Second, medieval lordship was often not based in towns. Many manorial lords were resident in their one manor, or rotated between their few manors. The aristocracy lived at a grander scale, but similarly might live in one main seat, probably a country castle, and/or rotate between their other properties such as manor houses, castles, hunting lodges and town houses. (Continental European aristocracy may have more often had seats in the towns; I am less familiar with this.)

It was from the royal administration that I think English urban-based government developed. The king would travel between residences like any noble and spend time in country pursuits like hunting. But the administrative apparatus of the state, as it grew to handle more administrative business, settled increasingly in the capital. And as local royal officials like sheriffs increased in power, their bases in county towns became more significant.

Military force was often temporary, and when gathered together it was often based in or around a castle, which were more often in the countryside than in towns. The troops were composed in large part of feudal knights and their retinues and so when not gathered for war they dispersed to their various manors, mainly in the countryside. (Later in the middle ages more and more of the troops were hired professionals, but their contracts were not permanent, and out-of-work mercenaries could cause their own problems, as mentioned in my post on organised crime.)

Third, town government was much more independent of aristocratic lords. Often a lord would own a town (especially if it was fairly small or new), but would allow the wealthier townsfolk to govern their own business affairs and civic administration as long as they paid agreed taxes. Other towns might have a royal charter and the townsfolk hold their land from the king. Town mayors were generally elected from among the townsfolk, rather than being appointed nobles. ‘Lord Mayor’ was a respectful title for the mayors of some of the greatest and most independent towns such as London; it did not denote that the mayor was of noble birth.

Further reading

If you’re interested in learning about medieval English or European settlements, I can recommend:

  • Everyday Life in Medieval England and Making a Living in the Middle Ages, both by Christopher Dyer.
  • Life in a Medieval Village, Life in a Medieval City and Life in a Medieval Castle, all by Frances and Joseph Gies.
  • The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, by Ian Mortimer
  • Life in the Middle Ages, by Martyn Whittock

Did you find this useful? Can you contribute your own points on medieval or fantasy settlements? Let us know in the comments below.

Thieves’ Guilds

I’m posting this as a sort of starter for what may become a longer series on underworld organisations. It is rather long at the moment, but if I make follow-up posts I may shift some text to those and replace it with links.

Talking of links, please note that my links to further information and texts in the below will often take you to descriptions of violent crime, some of them rather gruesome. I’m not going to clutter the text with exhaustive trigger warnings but I’ve tried to give some clues within the flow of the blog. Think before you click if you are concerned about content. My text itself refers to some specific violent and sexual crimes so stop here if you really don’t want to think about them.

Thieves’ Guilds and organised crime in fiction, fantasy and history

The trope of a Thieves’ Guild has been built into tabletop roleplaying, perhaps especially Dungeons & Dragons, from early days. Related concepts are the Assassins’ Guild and the Beggars’ Guild. Where, I find myself wondering, did this idea come from?

Early fiction

As far as I have found, the earliest occurrence of the trope in fiction is Rinconete and Cortadillo, by Miguel de Cervantes. It was written around 1600 but set a generation or so earlier. The two title characters are a card-sharp and a cutpurse who meet up on the run in southern Spain and are recruited by a gang of thieves in Seville, based in a town house, led by a charismatic elder rogue and prospering by theft, violence and corruption.  This brotherhood has quasi-apprenticeships and something of a hierarchy, enforces a monopoly on theft in the city, and generally operates in imitation or parody of the craft guilds of the later middle ages and early modern period. I therefore suspect it is a strong influence on the trope of the thieves’ guild in later fiction and fantasy.

Link to story text (TW: violence within a relationship)

From the other end of the Mediterranean Sea we have The Sandal-Wood Merchant and the Sharpers , a story in the Thousand Nights and One Night collection, which references a city full of tricksters, and an experienced trickster posing as a beggar and issuing judgements to the townsfolk. This is said to be inspired by the thieves of Cairo in the Ottoman period. But the translation I have seen does not go into detail on any criminal or underworld organisation for this city. There is also the eponymous gang of rogues in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (which was added to the 1001 Nights by a European translator). The Forty Thieves’ methods suggest that popular perceptions of criminal gangs in the pre-industrial Islamic world recognised the violent as well as the witty aspect to living by sharp practice. 

I don’t have the research time or the space in this post to cover the many appearances of underworld gangs and criminal fraternities in later mainstream fiction. Fagin’s gang of young pickpockets in Oliver Twist is well-known and must be influential.  

Fantasy fiction

But I must give special mention to the Thieves’ Guild of Lankhmar, because Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories are an acknowledged and clearly strong influence on Dungeons & Dragons’ early days, and because the guild, with its master and lieutenants, its underworld law and punishments, and its guildhouse with hidden guards and horror-filled cellars, provides a model as well as the name for the trope thereafter. The Guild first appears in Thieves’ House, a short story appearing in a magazine in 1943 and then in a book collection in 1970. Further appearances are in The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar (1968) and  Ill Met in Lankhmar (1970)


So much for fictional thieves’ guilds. What is their basis in historical reality? What examples can we find of malefactors working together in medieval (and maybe early modern) times?

One note I would make overall is that historically there were very blurred lines between warriors and thieves, and most of the notable incidents of criminal confederacy that I have found in the middle ages were armed and violent, even where murder was not the primary purpose. I suppose solo crime was more often stealthy and deceptive, and vice versa. But group crime was often brutal, and its organisation was not infrequently part of, or similar to, the legitimate governance structure of the time based on the warrior elite of lords, knights and armed men.

Establishment power misused

The legal limits and obligations on powerful medieval people were much less than we are used to in functioning modern states. Upper-class power was closely based on coercion and violence, and was more personal than in our bureaucratic modern world. So there were many examples where lords, knights, officials and even clergy used their retinues as armed gangs to take what they wanted and make lesser folk do their bidding, contrary to any romanticised notion of chivalry. Whether they were in practice punished or removed from power was a very hit-and-miss affair. The self-confessed ringleader in the premeditated and grotesque 1445 murder of the lawyer Nicholas Radford soon after inherited his family title as Earl of Devon.

Several courtiers of Henry III of England were convicted of moonlighting as bandits in 13th-century Hampshire—to make up for late pay from the king, they claimed. Men like Eustace Folville and James Coterel, and their followers, rotated between legitimate lordship, mercenary service and crime. Even a royal-born nun might use a band of criminals to get her way, without losing her noble standing.

In the middle ages it could be hard to tell where war ended and theft began. An army in a foreign land routinely lived by plunder, and burning what the army could not carry away was a common tactic to undermine the economic support base of the enemy. A town that closed its gates to an army and was taken by force was commonly looted and subjected to arson and destruction. Violence, often murder and rape, against the civilian population routinely accompanied the plunder and damage of property—records in the chronicles of leaders attempting to restrain their armies are noted because they were exceptions, and were in any case not always successful.  

But this behaviour was not limited to forces in foreign lands. Where there was conflict between lords in the same realm, as there often was, then the forces of one lord might well subject the territory of unfriendly lords to this treatment. Even supposedly friendly forces might engage in rape and looting, such as that by the army of John, Baron Arundel in 1379. When both neighbourly relations and political control broke down badly, such as in England during the civil war between Stephen and Matilda in the 12th century, robbery and extortion of the civilian population by knights and their armed followers became general; with the scattered pattern of feudal land-holding and allegiance, every village and farm might be within a day’s ride of a hostile warlord.

As well as landed feudal knights and their resident followers, there were many itinerant mercenaries who would fight for pay. When between contracts, companies of such sellswords would terrorise and pillage common people and, if the company was strong enough, towns, castles and religious houses. In the 14th century France, Italy and the lands around them were plagued with such mercenaries.  

Outlaws and bandits

Imprisonment was little used as a punishment in the middle ages; prisons were largely for suspect awaiting trial. Punishments short of execution often tended to push the criminal out of respectable society: either directly by banishment and/or outlawry; or indirectly as with branding or mutilating criminals so that others could see they were not to be trusted. Many criminals fled before enforcement could catch up with them, hiding out in woods and hills, or moving to areas where they were strangers, with no criminal suspicions but also no position or property. So there were many who had fallen foul of the law, ejected from normal society and making their way as best they could. These sometimes formed groups, living in hidden camps off the beaten track and not infrequently led by men of higher birth (see above). Deprived of normal means of livelihood and with little left to lose they tended to survive by theft, waylaying travellers or robbing settlements. Roads through unpopulated areas were often known as haunts of these bandits, and travellers moved through them in sizeable armed groups whenever possible.

Tales of outlaws like Gamelyn of Boundys and Robin Hood were popular in late medieval England. These tales show that even very violent outlaws were not always popularly disapproved of and restoring them to their livelihoods was seen as possible and perhaps desirable.

Vigilantism, insurrection and other unofficial forces

A recurrent feature of the middle ages was the gathering of bands of people for ostensibly moral purposes, such as fighting crime, reforming religion or resisting oppression. Almost inevitably these unofficial forces, if they kept together for long enough, resorted to violence and theft to sustain themselves, and attracted habitual criminals and out-of-work sellswords as well as ordinary common folk.

One such episode was the Capuchonné movement in southern France in the 12th century. The country there had become overrun with bandits (out-of-work mercenaries: see above) and there was a church-sponsored movement of commoners to out-fight the brigands. However, within a short time the Capuchonnés themselves turned to general violence and looting.

The Jacquerie was a loosely-connected series of peasant uprisings in France in the early phase of the Hundred Years’ War. Their overthrow of and retaliation against local lords went to extremes, with atrocities committed against ladies and children as well as lords, and towns sacked.

Some of the Crusades drew volunteer forces, outside the commands of established leaders. They sometimes lacked the organised supply and transport arrangements of those leaders, and made their own way from their gathering-places towards Palestine. Many supplied themselves by pillaging lands they passed through. Large bands in the First Crusade, with the encouragement of some local rulers, particularly targeted Jews in France and Germany, killing them and looting their property. Antisemitic attacks and extortion were also a feature of later unofficial crusades.  Depredations were also severe around Constantinople, through which many funnelled on their way into Islamic territory.

One popular crusade, that of the pastoureaux in France in 1251 actually turned on Christian clergy. Driven initially by resentment against clerical luxury and corruption (see below), the movement gained respectable support by preaching religious reform, but went on to murder many priests and loot churches, before turning on Jews and rich lay people and eventually being outlawed and dispersed or executed. There was a somewhat similar movement again in 1320.  

The most notorious crime organisation of the western world, the Sicilian Mafia, also grew out of informal justice structures, but not until the 19th century.

Urban criminals

As society, and especially trade and commerce, became more urban in the later middle ages, so towns increasingly became a place of criminal activity. The availability of coin and portable goods provided opportunities for pickpockets and other thieves, and then in turn for fences, leading on to shopkeepers and merchants who would buy a second-hand item without asking awkward questions about its provenance. These networks were probably in most cases informal and shifting, and did not amount to thieves’ guilds. They were most often simply people who knew people.

Ale-houses, brew-houses and taverns provided venues for criminals to meet, if they did not wish to use their own homes. The authorities knew this and often attempted to require pubs to shut at dark or at curfew, or raided them in a crackdown.

Drinking establishments in towns were also often venues for prostitution, which was not generally banned outright in the middle ages, but was subject to regulation and tax which many sex workers sought to evade. Bath-houses were another very common venue for prostitution, to the extent that terms like bagnio and stew became synonymous with brothel. There was a trope much used by authorities and the establishment of the time that sex workers were immoral and in league with thieves and criminals; how much truth there was in this is hard to quantify. Given the shared venues there must have been contacts between criminals and prostitutes. People paying for sex must certainly have become vulnerable to thieves, especially if the sex workers did collude with the robbers. And coercive and exploitative pimps would very likely have overlapped with criminal strongmen, racketeers and robbers.

It was in a brothel in Dijon in 1455 that the authorities raided a criminal gang known as the Coquille or Coquillards, which perhaps provides the best medieval (or nearly medieval, depending on your cut-off date) approximation to the thieves’ guild trope. According to the official who busted the gang, they were engaged in theft by picking locks, sleight of hand with coins, loaded dice, cheating at cards, fake gold and jewellery, theft by stealth from travellers at inns, and highway robbery and murder. They had their own slang, known as jargon or jobelin, and their leader was referred to as their king. Their gathering at Dijon was reportedly for rest and recreation; they would disperse to steal elsewhere for a few weeks at a time and then re-gather to spend their loot.

Further information here is in French. There is a briefer reference in English here.

Later in France there was supposedly a national criminal organisation, headed by the Grand Coësre or beggar king, who held court in the Paris slums. Stories tell of a provincial and local hierarchy, training and testing of apprentices, division into specialities (especially in dishonest begging), payment of profit shares shares up the organisation, and the enforcement of rules. But it is far from clear how much of this is true and how much invention. What historical evidence I have found comes from at least the 17th century, though Victor Hugo projected the idea back into the middle ages in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Urban crime, because of ubiquity of potential witnesses, was often quiet and stealthy, but some could still be rough and forceful. There was a case in Laôn in the 12th century where criminals reportedly lured country visitors to a large, lidded grain bin on the pretext of selling grain, but them tipped them into the bin and shut the lid on them to make them pay to get out. More common would have been simple mugging at knifepoint or with a surprise beating in a back alley or at night when there were fewer passers-by. And rivalries and disputes even between rich and respectable merchants might escalate to the level of armed raids (usually by hired goons).

White-collar crime and fraud

Dishonesty in literate occupations would I suppose often have been at the individual scale. If a priest spent too much of the parish funds on himself or a merchant’s clerk dipped his hand in the cash box, probably no-one else was involved.

But clerical dishonesty could spread through whole institutions, at least if their detractors are to be believed. An order of canons was accused of raising money for charity and for running hospitals but spending it on drink and immoral living, of raising money by selling forgiveness of sins and admission to their own order, and of harbouring thieves and prostitutes. Indeed from the repeated condemnations and failed reforms against self-serving clergy who neglected their duties, it might seem that the church itself amounted to an institution enabling those priests who were dishonest to find an easy life paid for by people’s tithes. A particularly flagrant example was Robert Colynson, who in the 15th century obtained money from nuns and would-be nuns on the promise of using it to intervene with senior clergy on their behalf. Although his deceptions became known he was later made Bishop of Ross in Ireland. In 1303 a large number of the monks of Westminster Abbey were accused as inside accomplices to the theft of valuables from the royal treasury (stored in the abbey crypt and to an estimated value of £100,000, equivalent to a year’s tax revenue from the entire kingdom).

The church, where it was institutionally corrupt, was really only reflecting the society of which it was a part. There were also frequent and widespread allegations of corruption on the part of secular officials, taking bribes, making decisions in favour of their relatives and friends, neglecting their duties, pocketing funds meant for their work and generally feathering their own nests.

In an age of precious metal coinage, currency fraud involved manual skills such as shaving metal from the edges of coins and making new coins with the clippings, but since many accusations were made against royal moneyers, we might consider that here as dishonesty in office. Private operators did also attempt this.

Another lucrative target of forgery was the royal seal (or other lesser official or personal seals), either by making a duplicate stamp that could impress a copy of the seal on wax on a document, or by carefully detaching genuine seals from genuine documents and attaching the seals to forged documents. Since documents under the royal seal could include orders for cash, transfers of real estate, credentials and instructions to officials, there was a good deal of money to be made in this way and a hands-on forger might embed themselves in a network of confederates and corrupt officials to take advantage of it.

There was also a good deal of low-level dishonesty and trickery, which hardly merits the label of organised crime, but might be perpetrated by groups, such as the three men who travelled Devon in 1354 and obtained valuables from householders by claiming to have magic powers which could duplicate the treasures. Also in this category might be considered the very widespread sale of substandard goods, lax service and short measure which town and royal authorities tried endlessly to stamp out.

Pirates and smugglers

Ship-borne piracy is necessarily a group endeavour, relying mainly on the pirate crew outnumbering the defenders of the ship or coastal settlement being attacked. The iconic age of Atlantic piracy was 17th and 18th century, perhaps another hundred years either side, but piracy was a regular feature of sea travel and coastal life from ancient times. Around medieval Europe, the most prolific pirates were Vikings in the early middle ages and corsairs from the Islamic world and southern Europe later, but there were many others. There were also pirates elsewhere in the world, especially south-east Asia.

Smuggling was also endemic, as most kingdoms imposed restrictions and taxes on trade and many people sought to get around these. Requiring a network for the onward trade of smuggled goods, this form of crime was also generally a more or less organised affair, though many of its participants had other occupations most of the time.

Ungentlemanly warfare

The expert and stealthy career killer, or spy with licence to kill, is I think a largely modern trope, despite its frequent presence in fantasy fiction and gaming. But there are at least a couple of medieval roots behind the later elaboration.

The original Assassins were an 11th-13th century sectarian mini-state in what is now Iran, notorious for its deployment of lone, dagger-wielding killers in civilian dress to target enemy leaders in non-battle settings. Note that they rarely deployed missile weapons and the extent of their stealth or subterfuge was usually to get close to the target; they did not strike undetected and willingly risked subsequent capture and/or death.

The Ninja were 14th-16th century Japanese mercenaries specialising in a wide range of covert operations and tactics considered dishonourable for samurai and other regular forces, including sabotage, arson, assassination and surprise raids.

Sources and further reading

Obviously I have plenty of online references in the text above. However, I must acknowledge an extremely useful book: The Medieval Underworld, by Andrew McCall. This provides a brief tour of most of the things I’ve mentioned above, plus a good deal of other useful material for anyone who wants to create a game or fiction inspired by medieval Europe.

Do you use thieves’ guilds in your setting? Do you know of other sources in history or fiction that have influenced the fantasy trope? Let us know in the comments.

Historical pub signs and names

I’ve seen people asking for inspiration about names for inns and taverns. So this post is all about pub names in real world history, and how they can provide inspiration for your game world. It is the third (and for now last) post in a mini-series on refreshment in the middle ages.

Generic product signs

In very early times (and throughout the middle ages in little-urbanised countries such as Scotland), drinking establishments did not have names in the way that they do more recently. They would have had a generic sign indicating the product they sold—such as a vine leaf for a taverna or wine bar (perhaps another green plant sign like a bush, in climates where the vine does not grow and the wine is imported), or a drink-related item such as a ale-wand (pole for stirring ale during brewing), a drinking cup or sheaf of grain for an ale house. You might tell one from another by specifying the location, or by the name of the owner.

This type of sign did not go permanently out of use with the coming of other names, and things like Wheatsheaf, Barley Mow, Malt Shovel, Tankard, Grapevine or Hogshead are often used as pub names even today.

Houses of refreshment might alternatively display or depict something related to their food offering, such as the Cony (rabbit), the Cheshire Cheese or the Panier (bread-basket).

Individual signs

By the high middle ages (specifically the 12th century, around the onset of the castles-and-kingdoms kind of period that provides the look and feel for much of the ‘fantasy’ genre) it was becoming common for specialist ale-houses and suchlike to have a more individually distinctive sign. Less so in country villages where there would be no more than one permanent pub and often just a rotation between the houses of various home-brewing alewives. And also not in some other countries such as Scotland, where apparently pubs were not individually signed or named until the 17th century.

In England it became compulsory under a law of 1393 for ale-houses to display a sign so they could be identified by the ale-tasters—local officials tasked with regulating the quality and price of ale. Scotland had a similar law requiring the display of an ale-wand, though I am not sure of the date.

Heraldic badges

Many ale-houses and inns were owned by the lord of the manor or the lord who granted the town charter (often the monarch), and would display his coat of arms or a heraldic-type emblem. Others (especially in the later middle ages) might be run by a guild or other organisation that also had a coat of arms (especially the brewers’ or vintners’ guild, but guilds for other trades might own one or a few). If the whole arms were used and were complicated to describe, then the sign would be referred to as, for example the Devonshire Arms, the Winchester Arms or the King’s Arms. If just a single emblem were used, or if the arms featured a central dominant emblem or pattern, then that name might be used—for example the Bear, the Talbot (a kind of dog), the Three Cups or the Chequers.

In some jurisdictions, ale-houses might all be required to display the arms or a personal emblem of a higher ruler. When king Richard II of England made ale-house signs compulsory in 1393, he required those in London all to display his badge of the White Hart (a type of stag) and it has been a popular pub sign ever since (I’m not sure how London pubs at that time differentiated themselves from each other—perhaps they displayed something else alongside the white hart?). Also I have read that James I of England (and perhaps also in his earlier role as James VI of Scotland), in the 17th century required the Red Lion from his arms to be displayed on all important public buildings, including pubs (it was earlier also the personal badge of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster). Other royal emblems that have been used as pub signs in England have included the White Lion of Edward IV, the Swan of Henry IV, the White Boar of Richard III and the red, white or white-and-red Rose, symbols of the Lancastrian, Yorkist and Tudor dynasties.

Religious emblems and concepts

In the later middle ages, religious pub signs were popular. This may have come about for heraldic reasons, with bishoprics, monasteries and other religious institutions being major landlords and having religious symbols in their coats of arms. There may also have been a contribution from the role of the church in providing village public houses for meetings and festivities, perhaps from the religious character of many town guilds if they operated pubs, or just the piety of the age.

Religious symbols that are or have been known as pub signs or names in England include: the Crossed Keys, the Mitre, the Angel (and Mary), the Lamb (and Flag); the Anchor (and Hope, or vice versa); the Lion and Lamb; the Salutation; the Shepherd (and Flock); the Three Crowns or Three Kings; the Saint George (and many other saints); the Holy Ghost; Our Lady of Pity; the Resurrection; the Holy Cross; the Trinity; the Bible. Obviously in a fantastical or alternate-history world with a different religion/s, the specific religious symbols are likely to be different.

In historical England this type of name became less popular with the break from the Roman Catholic Church under Henry VIII, and the Protestant Reformation that ensued. Many church properties were confiscated and the pub signs changed to reflect new ownership, and others may have been re-named to avoid the appearance of disloyalty or heresy. Likewise in invented settings, religious and political upheavals can result in changes of symbol display throughout society.

Services offered

Pubs might use their sign to advertise to passers-by services or entertainments they offered in addition to the obvious ale, becoming known as the Horse and Groom, the Horseshoe, the Wheelwright or the Fighting Cocks.

A variation, probably post-mediaeval I feel, might be for a pub sign to depict or indicate the kind of customer the pub catered to, such as the Coach and Horses, or the Jolly Sailor.

Geographical features

Pubs could be referred to as the Bridge, the Northgate, the Crossroads, the Riverside or the Hill according to where they were. The owner might or might not bother getting a sign to depict this.

A variation on this logic is a pub named for its own physical characteristic, such as the Crooked Chimney or the Hole in the Wall.

Miscellaneous objects

An owner or manager might lay hold of a handy object and hang it over the pub door by way of an identifying sign, effectively naming the pub the Boot, the Plough or the Old Copper Kettle. There have been pubs called the Bell, though I wonder if this was a functional rather than merely distinctive object, being rung at opening time or some such.

Painted signs

I’ve heard of a number of other pub signs which don’t seem to fit the above categories (some of them may be more obscure heraldic devices I suppose) and I guess just lent themselves to distinctive painted signs. These are mainly from the later middle ages or Early Modern period.

Animals: the Hedgehog, the Cat and Two Parrots, the Crane, the Ram’s Head

Representations of people (including legendary figures or personifications): the Bishop’s Head, the Pope’s Head, the King’s Head, the Maiden’s Head (actually I’ve seen the Maidenhead alternatively named the Virginity so I’m not sure what was really depicted on the sign), the Sower, the Wood Wose; Judith, Love and Death, Old Father Time

Astronomical features: The Rising Sun, the Moon, the Seven Stars

Representations of objects (that probably weren’t themselves hung over the door): the Lute, the Ship, the Sugarloaf, the Woolsack

Other later trends

Other types of pub name that may seem traditional now but I think are largely post-mediaeval include: historical events or their heroes, such as the Royal Oak, the Trafalgar or the Duke of Wellington; sporting activities such as the Cricketers or the Fox and Hounds; two unrelated things such as the Whale and Cow or the Shovel and Boot; puns such as the Dew Drop Inn; named ships such as the Golden Hind or the Prospect of Whitby—also other modern forms of transport such as the Railway; names evocative of old times or local heritage, but not actually associated with pubs in the period in question, such as the Foresters or the Roadmaker

Unofficial names

Bear in mind that locals or regulars might have a name for a pub that does not match the sign over the door. They might simply call it by its manager’s name, its location or its physical description, despite it having an official sign or name. They might call it by an old name that has stuck (at my old job we called the pub nearest the office the Camel for at least ten years after new management took over and changed its official name). People might also derive their own wording from the pictorial sign, subverting its original intent—the Black Swan might be called the Dirty Duck, or the Eagle and Child the Bird and Baby.


Medieval Tavern Names


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.

Public houses

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.

Coaching Inns

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.

Drinks in medieval England

Many games and stories feature foaming flagons of ale, fine wines, and suchlike. So this post outlines drinks of medieval England. You can use it to add detail to drinking in your historically-inspired settings, from a peasant’s humble table to a lordly feast or a raucous tavern. I plan to make more posts on some similar themes so check out the tags and categories to find more.

Ale and beer

From ancient times people often made booze from grain. In the middle ages, they would malt barley (or other crops), then extract the resulting sugars and other constituents with hot water. This liquid they would ferment into an alcoholic drink, cloudier and sweeter than modern beer with residual sugars and starch—which made it an important part of the diet. It would last only a few days before going off. Often they would add flavourings, such as bitter herbs (I’ve seen mentions of hyssop, heather, yarrow, bog myrtle, juniper, poppy, bay and even mushrooms) or sweet honey, especially to older ale starting to taste sour.

(To reduce waste, medieval brewers would make multiple batches from the same grain. The second extraction would be less sugary, and so the brew weaker, with less alcohol and lower calorie content—this ‘small ale’ or ‘small beer’ was sold at a cheaper price or given to lower-status people, including children.)

There were different names for this drink in different lands. Broadly, Germany, the Low Countries and England initially used a word similar to ‘beer’. But Scandinavia used a word similar to ‘ale’. When Vikings settled in England, many of their words were adopted into English—one of which was ‘ale’. So by the 11th century, the traditional barley brew was called ale in England. (Presumably also in Scandinavia, with local pronunciation; most of the rest of western Europe I think used variants of ‘beer’.)

Towards the later middle ages in and around Germany, brewing techniques developed. Brewers started boiling their water before soaking the malt, resulting in a longer-lasting product of more consistent quality. They also found that hops, one of the range of bitter herbs often used for flavouring, had preservative properties and some brewers started to consistently make their beer with them.

Because of these changes, continental brewers were producing some high-quality drink that could keep for weeks, long enough to be exported. From the later 14th century, these long-lasting brews were being imported to England from the Low Countries and nearby areas. Since the foreign suppliers called their product something sounding like ‘beer’, and it was different from the familiar local ale, ‘beer’ returned to English—this time as a term for continental-style hopped drinks, while ‘ale’ remained the term for the older unhopped brew. This distinction in terminology persisted at least into Elizabethan times, and so would be appropriate for anything set in the time of swords, bows and plate armour. (In modern terminology late medieval hoppy beer would be classed as an ale, early medieval unhopped ale is now extinct, and the general term beer covers ales as well as other grain-brewed drinks like lagers, stouts and porters.)

By the 15th century, beer was being brewed in England, as an alternative to traditional ale, though it was not until the 16th century that it started to take over in terms of popularity.

(A note on lager, because I’ve seen several people assuming that the newer continental beer style was lager. In the 14th century it wasn’t. Lager beer is brewed at low temperatures, with a different type of yeast. The yeast is thought to have originated in the 15th century, and lager brewing and drinking really took off after the development of refrigeration in the 19th century. In a fantasy world you could have it but, in historical terms, lager is pretty much non-medieval.)

I have not heard of evidence from mediaeval times of named ales, or different styles of ale or beer being offered alongside each other as we find in modern bars. There might be differences by region or by brewer in things like the kind of grain used, or the herbs used for flavouring. But in any one establishment, I think you would at most have a choice between the best, second-best, and ordinary, based largely on strength. Later, in Elizabethan times, there is evidence of named beers, presumably from successful brewers supplying multiple outlets in a town or city. Names included Huffcap, The Mad Dog, Father Whoreson, Angels’ Food, Dragons’ Milk, Go-by-the-Wall, Stride Wide and Lift Leg.

Ale was cheap enough to be a staple drink for many people. The price varied with the price of grain, but in the 14th century everyday small ale might typically be a penny for 4 gallons. (A penny was a small silver coin, by weight at least 300 to the modern pound, and roughly equivalent in purchasing power to a DnD silver piece; I have now posted about the differences between medieval and 5e coinage, and about how to put a silver penny currency into a game.) The very best ale from a famous brewing region (Kent, in mediaeval England) might be eight times that price, 2 pence per gallon. You can halve the price for each drop in quality—good ale from ordinary regions 1 penny a gallon, and decent alehouse fare 1 penny for 2 gallons. The cheaper sorts would be weaker (fortunately—many working people would routinely drink several pints a day), but the best ale could be as alcoholic as modern brews.

There was typically a price differential between town and country. Country prices might be 2/3 or 3/4 as much as in towns.

Beer, when it was a high-quality import, might be twice the price of comparable ale, with cheaper varieties not imported. So perhaps 2 to 4 pence per gallon. With local brewing the price would I think come down to close to that for ale, and ordinary beer and small beer would be available. I’ve seen a reference about ‘double beer’ brewed in the 16th century with twice the concentration of malt and reaching an alcohol content to rival wine of the day—I guess this would be at least twice as expensive as the best normal-strength beer.

In lands that do not brew beer, I expect it would be rare outside seaports and main cities. (See the note below about shipping costs for wine.) Away from ports, commoners would drink primarily the local product. 

Cider, mead and other regional brews

Alongside, or instead of, ale, you might find drinks brewed from apples (cider), pears (perry) or honey (mead, or metheglin if flavoured with herbs). These were generally cheaper than ale, and more routinely made in the higher strengths. (I’m guessing this was because it was easier to get a strongly sugary liquid from these sources.) So a typical cider might be as strong as best ale, but cost only a penny for two gallons. But they were made mainly in certain regions—such as historically the west and south of England.


From a mediaeval English perspective, wine was largely an imported luxury. Most poorer peasants would rarely see it. But nobles, upper clergy and other well-off people would drink it more or less routinely.

Red wine was imported from warm southern climates—in later mediaeval England, especially from Gascony (including Bordeaux) in the south of France, which was held by the English kings from about 1154 to 1451. Gascon wine sold in English ports in bulk for about 3 to 4 pence per gallon, making it twice the price of even the very best ale, and several times the price of everyday ale. There were sweeter wines, called in English names like Romonye, Malvesey or Malmesey, from places such as Greece, Crete and Cyprus, and Spanish white wines such as Lepe or Osey, for similar prices.

The most prized wines were imports from the Rhineland. Rhenish wines fetched twice the price of Gascon—about 6 to 8 pence per gallon at the dock.

Note that imported wine rises in price further from the dock. Carriage inland might cost a penny a gallon, or more in very remote areas. Each middleman will also want to add their mark-up.

Grapes did grow in some parts of England, especially earlier in the middle ages, but not on a very large scale (and producing only white wine). Such wineries as there were mostly belonged to noble estates or monasteries, and the wine produced was generally consumed in-house. The small amounts of English wine sold tended to go for up to 2 pence per gallon.

Wine was quite often served spiced, sweetened and/or warmed, with names given to the resulting drinks like hippocras and claret (which apparently in mediaeval times was a white wine drink).


Spirits were not much consumed in the middle ages. Distillation was known to alchemists and suchlike from ancient times in several parts of the world, but making spirits from wine for human consumption begins to appear in the European record around the 13th century. These were used as medicinal elixirs, and their production gradually spread among monks and learned folk. They became slowly more popular, but they were still found in apothecary’s shops rather than pubs until the 17th century. Also from the late middle ages, the technique of distillation was applied to drinks other than wine. Wine spirit became known in English as brandy (short for brandy-wine, from the German brandewijn or ‘burnt wine’) or aqua vitae (Latin for ‘water of life’). Some other spirit names have similar derivations, such as whisky (from the Irish uisce beatha ‘water of life’), which is referred to in Irish and Scottish sources in the 15th century, or vodka (from the Russian for ‘little water’). Juniper was another popular flavouring for clear spirits and provides the derivation for the name gin.

(As a side-comment on an RPG trope: drinkable spirits do not burn easily. The liquid is not flammable; you need the alcohol to vaporise and mix with air. Modern spirits (40% alcohol by volume or 80 degrees proof) need to be warmed to at least about 26 degrees C (79 F) for this to happen, which is not usually reached in a pub cellar. So even if you place a barrel of brandy in your game, you don’t need to let the party set the inn ablaze just by pouring out the spirit and putting a spark to it. I suppose if a wooden structure is already well ablaze then spirits in it could be heated and their vaporised alcohol could then contribute to the fire while the water content douses the floor.)


You may hear that mediaeval people never drank water because it wasn’t safe, and that they only drank ale and other alcoholic brews. This is not quite true.

Ale was a daily drink for many people (likewise local alternatives like cider, or wine for the rich). But many poorer people could not afford to drink ale all the time. Some others may have avoided alcohol for other reasons. Water was a common drink, and people were aware that dirty water was unhealthy but clean water less so. The preferred source of drinking and cooking water was rainfall, and most houses would have a cistern for collecting rainwater off the roof. But poor and crowded areas, such as urban slums, would probably have issues with contaminated drinking water, and other places might too since the nature of disease-causing germs was not understood.


Cows’ milk in mediaeval England was considered a suitable drink for children and old people. It was also used as a cooking ingredient, and obviously for making products like butter and cheese.


I have taken a fair bit of information from The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England and The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England, both by Ian Mortimer and very much favourites of mine.

I have linked to online sources from the text where they are relevant.

This article is full of a miscellany of snippets with links to sources.