By Sandra Alvarez
England is well known for being at the forefront of proper pub culture. What it is also known for in the Middle Ages was its thriving network of inns that crisscrossed the country and gave respite to the weary traveller, merchant, or pilgrim. What were medieval English inns really like?
We all have some vague ideas, albeit probably poorly informed ones, via medieval themed role playing games, period/fantasy movies, and cheesy Ren Faires. Ask anyone what they picture when you say “medieval inn” and they will likely conjure up some sort of image of the surly, portly innkeeper, a pretty serving wench in a low cut white blouse and corset, a bunch of brigands sloshing around tankards of ale, and an ominous stranger lurking in a shadowy corner. There are many misconceptions about medieval inns.
In this day and age, we have the modern version, the “Bed and Breakfast” which attempts to mimic the mainstream perception of traditional English inn by using quaint decor and faux medieval embellishments to keep the stereotype alive and well. In his article ‘Inns, innkeepers and the society of later medieval England, 1350–1600’, John Hare debunks some of these clichés while giving us a glimpse into the importance of the English inn during the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period. In spite of their popularity, inns have been a relatively understudied topic amongst medieval scholars.
Room Service!: Who was the Medieval Traveller?
During the latter half of the fifteenth century, England saw an increase in travel. The cloth trade was picking up steam so merchants required a place to stay that could comfortably accommodate their wares and horses. Alehouses, while much more common throughout the country, were inadequate for habitual travellers, especially those who were carting goods across the country on a frequent basis.
Hare explains, “Although individual alehouses may have provided some informal shelter, it was the organised provision of support for travellers, their horses and their goods that distinguished inns, and that was to prove a characteristic development of the later Middle Ages.”
The inn resolved that issue by providing stables an food for horses and ample space to host guests and their goods. Inns had a main hall, chambers (could be anywhere from 5 to as many as 17 with 1 to 3 beds a piece), a kitchen, innkeeper’s quarters, stables, and common area. Inns also seemed to attract a certain type of clientele – a more wealthy one. Inns often catered to the gentry and well to do, with many guests being merchants, members of wealthy families and government officials.
The Innkeeper: Medieval Superstar
Innkeepers weren’t just there to run the day to day activities of the inn, they often engaged in outside commercial activities such brewing, importing wine, and cloth trading. The Inn was more than just a place to crash, according to Hare, it was also a marketplace, a warehouse and occasional bank. It sounds like a lot of work but it wasn’t all bad – innkeepers were also some of the wealthiest people in town. They often came from elite families and could be found on administrative councils and other forms of town government. Take the example of Richard Kingsmill, a wealthy innkeeper between 1455 and 1470:
…he was active in local government serving as royal constable in 1455, as town bailiff in 1464–5 and 1487–8, as well as being a justice of the peace, a Member of Parliament and tax assessor, he acted as proctor for the villagers of Mapledurwell in a dispute with their rector. He played an important part in the urban economy, marketed cloth in 1467 and imported wine, fruit and fish through Southampton in 1463. He invested in land and agriculture beyond the town, buying land in the small neighbouring town of Whitchurch in 1470, was described as grazier, yeoman and gentleman, and possessed substantial sheep flocks, with over 200 wethers, and a lease of a demesne at nearby Ashe.
That’s quite the CV for a “lowly” innkeeper. Not only was Richard’s family prominent, but he passed on his success when his son became a Justice of the Common Pleas, an important local government official. What about women? Were there women inkeepers? Yes. However, female innkeepers appeared to only make up 10-20% of the owner population. Women tended find themselves as innkeepers after their husbands died and they inherited the property.
Show Me the Money: “Inn-vestments”
Inns were profitable, making local lords keen to invest in them. What did they normally pump money into? Decor and upkeep were the most common avenues of investment as they expected a decent rate of return on their efforts. Inns were a great way to increase a Lord’s revenue however, they were not without their own set of problems. Inns were frequently susceptible to fire during the Middle Ages and Early Modern period. It was hard to put a lot of money into building, decorating and maintaining something that large to have it all go up in smoke. Another issue was economic downturn, like the disruption in Italian trade in the mid 15th century. In spite of economic woes or, misfortune or natural disasters, inns were constantly being rebuilt. There was an inherent confidence that the tide would turn and they would always remain a rather profitable venture.
The article ‘Inns, innkeepers and the society of later medieval England, 1350–1600’ by John Hale, appears in the Journal of Medieval History, Vol. 39:4 (2013)
Top Image: The Mermaid Inn, in the English town of Rye, built in 1420 – photo by Richard Rogerson / Wikicommons