You’ve been traveling a long time to get to medieval Scotland and now you’re tired. In the distance you spy an inn.
Time to get some rest, right?
Well, you better brace yourself.
First of all, for what was a rough time, the men running inns had to be rough too. Lose all your money at a game of cards? Expect no sympathy. If you can’t pay your bill, you’ll be thrown out without your possessions, your horse, or even your clothes if you’re lacking the first two.
Finding a bed isn’t easy. It’s up to you to convince the innkeeper you’re worth taking in. Arrive on horseback and you might be seen as a profitable guest. On foot? Better hope he doesn’t call you a vagrant and toss you straight back out into the street.
Now, let’s imagine we’re riding up to an inn late in the evening. What can we see? A handsome wooden or stone building with an archway in the middle. We ride through into a courtyard of mud.
Either side of us are two wings of two storey timber framed accommodation blocks with steep roofs of shingle.
There’s a row of doors on the ground floor and another row up some sets of external wooden staircases. A stable boy will take our horse so we head inside. Here, if the innkeeper permits us to stay, his wife will prepare our room. Meanwhile, we look around at the high hall that surrounds us. A hearth sits on flagstones in the middle. Long trestle tables seat the other guests down the sides of the room, all eating pottage, bread, and cheese.
The smell is strong. Moldy food, stale drink, mud, horse manure trodden in on boots, even urine of the guard dogs soaking into the reeds on the floor. Candles are made of animal fat and stink. The toilet is a barrel and seat off to one side. If you’re lucky it’ll be behind a screen, if not expect to go in full view of the patrons.
After we've eaten it’s back out to the courtyard and up the stairs to our room. In each bedchamber there are several beds, each containing two, three or even four guests of the same sex. Expect to pay substantially more for a bed to yourself.
The beds themselves are wooden frames strung with rope, a straw mattress inside a canvas cover sits on top. As this is one of the better inns, there is a chest for our belongings and a basin for washing hands and feet.
Time to sleep but I hope you’re a heavy sleeper. Otherwise expect to be regularly awakened the sound of the guard dogs barking, guests stumbling in the dark to the toilet, and perhaps drunken shouting from other guests being thrown out into the street for fighting.
The next morning, after an interrupted night, it’s time to pay. One pence for the bed, another two for the meal, more again if you had wine. Then there’s one to three pence for feeding and stabling the horse and your innkeeper will expect a tip. You might be looking at a shilling per night’s stay. As Chaucer wrote,
“the welcome guest will not forget to tip the meanest page in the whole house and give his host and all the servants in the place some gift that is appropriate to their standing."
In a time when a cow cost twelve pence and a skilled mason could expect to earn five pence a day, you can see that enjoying a stay in an inn is not a cheap affair. Still, it’s worth it for a nice get away, right?
Want to see a few ancient inns for yourself? Take a look at this list of the oldest pubs in the UK.
(Parts of this newsletter were inspired by The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer. You can pick up a copy here)