Wherein medieval inns are generally nice, except for stinking beds full of Englishmen.
Most fantasy role-playing games—and more than a few novels and movies (and even the Canterbury Tales)—seem to start in a medieval-like tavern or inn, where surly barkeeps and lusty serving wenches sling booze and provide rooms to weary travelers (don’t ask about the hair in your soup—you don’t want to know where that halfling washed his furry feet). While the stereotype works well for gathering random adventurers together to plunder a haunted castle in a game, and simple alehouses renting out a bed or two could somewhat resemble this image, the reality of European medieval inns was actually quite different. The business traveler of the Middle Ages could expect to stay at something closer to a modern hotel and conference center than a flea-ridden pile of straw shared with a troll.
Motel 6 (to a Bed?)
Before the Internet made booking a room in advance a simple procedure, modern travelers would watch for signs on the edge of the highway advertising upcoming clusters of hotels and motels. Medieval travelers could likewise look for inns as they entered a locale; a recent study says that by 1400 provincial capitals averaged ten to twenty inns, while smaller towns would at least have one.
It’s tempting to think of medieval inns as quaint bed-and-breakfasts (and some modern B&Bs are decked out in pseudo-medieval style to entice the most discriminating Renaissance Faire connoisseur), but inns were more often big businesses catering to big business. Innkeepers frequently became quite wealthy, serving in local governments and even offering banking services from their establishments.
A successful inn offered numerous amenities for business, including storage for goods, shelter and food for animals, and common areas for relaxing and conducting business. Inns were also typically equipped with dining facilities and kitchens for hosting feasts and other occasions.
The lodgings themselves were large, with multiple rooms—even up to seventeen—frequently containing multiple beds. It was not uncommon for guests to share a bed, although private rooms and beds became more common as the Middle Ages moved into the Renaissance. The rooms did not provide indoor plumbing, of course but, as we learned in an earlier post, most towns of any size offered bathing facilities (which, like rooms and beds, were shared).
Lookin’ for Love in All the Wrong Places
With strangers moving through the facilities with money and time on their hands, it is natural that a few would choose to engage in a little friskiness. The Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym (approximately 1320–1360) gives an example of how this could go disastrously wrong in Trafferth mewn Tafarn, where
I came to a choice town
followed by my handsome page-boy.
Fine merry expense, an excellent place for dinner,
I took a pretty dignified public lodging,
I was a proud / fine young man,
and I had some wine.
Spotting an attractive woman, Dafydd wines and dines her and, after the guests and staff have gone to sleep, attempts to make his way to her bed. After accidentally rousing everyone by crashing across and through stools, basins and the table, he is forced to flee from the innkeeper and “three Englishmen in one stinking bed.” He is fortunately able to dodge the pursuing mob, concluding,
…through the power of dear sincere prayer,
and through the grace of Jesus,
I got back (sleepless confusion)
without any gain to my own lair.
I escaped (thank goodness that saints are close by),
I beg to God for forgiveness.
So we see that, while medieval inns were generally pleasant places to stay the night, your sleep could still be ruined by one randy Welshman and three Englishmen grumbling in their stinking bed.