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.