Medieval professions: Innkeeper

Innkeeping was one of the most lucrative occupations of the Middle ages, but it also carried a lot of responsibility. 

Inns suffered from heavy taxes and levies by the local lords of the area, and they had to maintain bedrooms, dining rooms and often a tavern or alehouse. This also meant cleaning, maintaining and providing quality goods and services for visitors, ordering supplies, calculating bookings and even providing security – as the atmosphere inside inns and alehouses could at times become rather violent. 

The innkeeper had to, whether he liked it or not, receive and entertain strangers on a daily basis.

History of Inns and Innkeepers

Inn-keeping was formalised around the 14th and 15th centuries, when travelling was much more common that we normally imagine. The roads were bad, sometimes even impassable for loaded wagons (and not to mention, frequently visited by outlaws and robbers). Travelling on foot or with lightly loaded horses was, therefore, preferred. 

Between the villages, there were long stretches of forest. Travellers usually moved in groups and during the day. Because they wouldn’t be able to sleep safely outside in the night, this led to the need for the establishment of alehouses and inns.  

A regular provision of inns existed in accordance with the size and importance of the towns, and played a vital role in the evolving and prospering economic, social and political life of the different regions. The inn of a town was usually found in a central location such as the town square, or in places where trade roads met and usually became landmarks of the settlement they were in.

While medieval inns tended to focus on accommodation and food, taverns were commonly owned by licensed brewers and vintners and were more focused on the drinking. 

A tavern in a medieval manuscript, taken from the Tacuinum Sanitatis.
A tavern in a medieval manuscript, taken from the Tacuinum Sanitatis. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Life in an Inn

There was usually a minimal entry fee to pass through the door of an alehouse or inn, or at least a courtesy to help pay for any damages that may arise while visiting (modern day “bouncers” derive from the practise of inn guards testing the authenticity of coins by bounding them off of a wet piece of wood!). 

Inns were places where people met to socialise and talk, something that made them cultural and political hot beds. It wasn’t uncommon for political uprisings and mobs to begin within a inn.

The food served at inns was simple: pottage (stew), bread and cheese, as well as drinks from local vintners and breweries and sometimes exotic wines and beer from all over Europe and the world.

The basic layout of an inn consisted of a hall, kitchen, stables, a storage area or cellar (sometimes filled also with strong boxes), the chamber (for most medieval inns, this consisted of several straw beds in back common room), accommodation for the innkeeper and his family, and sometimes private rooms that could be rented to local guilds or for events.

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