In fantasy novels or roleplaying games it is very common for the characters to stay a night at an inn, hostel or tavern. But I'm curious of what it was like for real in medieval times. I'm particularly interested in Britain, but any references to other parts of northern Europe are interesting as well, like France and Germany, or eastern Europe for that matter.

I know that in Roman Britain they had, so called mansio that were run by the Roman government and meant for Roman officials, like tax collectors, to stay in on their travels to the far reaches of the Empire. Some of these even had bath houses.

But what happened after the Romans left, and we enter the so called "Dark Ages"? During Anglo-Saxon times the feudal system started to rise with Jarls and Thegn, but how much freedom of travel did people have in this period, and was there any need for travel? Didn't most people have a farm to take care of and lived a mostly self-sufficient life? I guess there were markets and fairs now and then where they sold surplus produce (if any) and that required some amount of travel.

In Norman times after 1066, weren't most villeins bound to their village in the Manor, and only a few freemen where allowed to leave the manor and travel? So how much need was there for inns and hostels and would there be enough travelers to make it a viable business? I suppose nobles had more liberty to travel, but would they settle for an inn in a village or would they rather stay at another noble's manor house or castle?

Did this change later during the period? The middle ages spans almost 1000 years so I suppose a lot of things changed during this time? What about during the Plantagenet dynasty and the Tudor period?

After the black death and the Peasants' Revolt in 1381 I can imagine that the travel ban was not so strictly enforced, and perhaps foreign trade had increase by now so that there were more merchants in the country, doing a lot more traveling.

In the Mediterranean world hostels seemed more common; even the Bible mentions an inn in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where a Samaritan takes a wounded traveller to an inn and leaves him there with a few coins for the innkeeper to take care of him.

But the restriction on commoners by the feudal system in northern and eastern Europe seems to have made traveling more difficult and thus lodging a rather uneconomic business. Am I right?

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    I think your timescale is far too long - England changed enormously from the post-Roman period to the Tudor age. The other suggestion I would make is monasteries, which had a history and principle of hospitality. But I really think you need to narrow your timescale.
    – TheHonRose
    Feb 24, 2018 at 18:49
  • @TheHonRose I agree that the time period is very long as I stated in the question itself. However that was kind of the point, I'm not really looking for list of inns. I'm more interested in an general overview of how inns and hostels changed over the time period. Feb 25, 2018 at 13:12
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    You may find 'The Medieval Traveller' by Norbert Ohler another good source of information on this period. Feb 25, 2018 at 16:03
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    What a great question, framed not just in history but in economics and society. Feb 25, 2018 at 20:46

2 Answers 2



Yes, there were, but information on inns and hostels before around 1300 is patchy at best and the evidence suggests that, for the early middle ages especially, travellers were often given board and lodging by locals, especially those higher up the social hierarchy. After 1300, though, there are an increasing number of references to inns and hostels as well as some physical evidence.

DETAILED ANSWER (this is mostly, but not entirely, chronological and refers to England unless otherwise stated)

Evidence of inns or hostels in Anglo-Saxon England and among the Norsemen is limited. In part, this may be because there were few of them as there was little need in many places (see below). There were fewer travellers than in later times and the custom in Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon societies was to provide food and lodging for travellers. In Icelandic society at least,

hosts [meaning everyone] were expected to generously welcome and provide food and shelter for passing travelers…guests were likewise expected to be polite…and sometimes even reimburse them in the form of goods, services, or labor.

In Anglo-Saxon England,

hospitality was always a duty, strictly limited and framed by custom. It may have been provided to a single traveller, to a member of a formal or informal network (particularly ecclesiastical), to a king or to his agents

This 'system' of hospitality was, in all likelihood, fairly widespread and dated back many centuries. Tactitus (c. 56 to c. 120 AD), in Germania, writes that:

It is accounted a sin to turn any man away from your door. The host welcomes his guest with the best meal that his means allow....No distinction is ever made between acquaintance and stranger as far as the right to hospitality is concerned.

Source: Tactitus, The Agricola and the Germania (trans: H. Mattingly, revised by S. A. Handford, Penguin Classics, 1970)

Nonetheless, at least some Anglo-Saxons were not unfamiliar with hostels. Clear evidence of hostels in Rome is found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle where there are

several references in ninth-century entries to the “ongelcynnesscole” (“Anglo-Saxon quarter”) in Rome, where English expatriates and visitors could stay in an English hostel or worship at an English church.

Although one might expect enterprising individuals to set up inns in areas where there was a demand, this does not appear to have always been the case. In early 12th century Norway, King Eystein I (reigned 1103 to 1123) set up a hostel in Dovre because,

As visitors such as craftspeople and merchants came in increasing numbers to Bergen, the traditional hospitality that travellers could normally expect would no longer suffice

A statute of King Edward I of England in 1285 mentions the ownership by foreigners of, among other things, hostels and inns; later, foreigners were barred from owning such establishments along the River Thames in London.

According to John Hare in his book Inns, innkeepers and the society of later medieval England, 1350–1600, inns "were a crucial part of the economic infrastructure of the country". Also, Phillipp R. Schofield, in Peasant and Community in Medieval England, 1200–1500, states

By the close of our period [1500], village inns and hostelries were establishing themselves as permanent features of the countryside.

This article, which uses Compton Reeves' Pleasures and Pastimes in Medieval England and Life in a Medieval Village by Frances & Joseph Gies as sources, states:

The inn of a town was usually located in a central location such as the town square, or in places where trade roads met. In France and the Holy Roman Empire, coach-inns also became important drivers of the economy – these coach inns were mostly found on big trade routes between distant locations.

As inns became more common in the 14th century, they began to put up signs (with pictures, for many people were illiterate) as a way of advertising themselves. By the time of Chaucer (died 1400) at least, one could find a wide range people when one walked into an inn or tavern. In addition to adventurers, among them were

foreigners…transient English, unspeakable Scots…a general rabble of rootless people…. honest peasants and artisans, respectable merchants…pilgrims, clerics…royal officials, nobles, knights, robbers, prostitutes, and con men

Unsurprisingly, the physical evidence of these establishments has mostly vanished but there are a few which have survived, at least in part. One such is in Paris, established by Nicolas Flamel (“today immortalized as an alchemist, thanks in part to J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter series”) in 1407 as an early charity to cater for itinerant workers.


Exterior of the Auberge Nicolas Flamel

Also in France, another example of a hostel was at Cluny monastery:

Adjoining the gatehouse was a large building that held the stables and a hostel for travelers, with adjacent latrines.

Source: J.L. Singman, 'Daily Life in Medieval Europe' (1999)

In England, The Angel Inn in Andover (Hampshire, southern England) has been in operation since at least 1456 in the current building (built between 1444 and 1455, although the façade is much more recent). Another example is The New Inn in Gloucester, built in 1450.

New Inn

A 1973 photograph of The New Inn, Gloucester—the most complete surviving example in Britain of a medieval courtyard inn. Attrib: Alan Longbottom [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

As to profitability (in the late medieval period at least), this abstract on Hare's book states:

Inns generated substantial rent and were evidently felt to be worth considerable investment. Innkeepers were among the rich and influential members of the town.

As European economies grew, there were increasing numbers merchants who needed a place for the night (business travellers, if you like). Pilgrims were, in some places at least, a source of profit sufficient for local authorities to target for for taxation. In Italy, for example,

At Siena on the Via Francigena in Tuscany, a special levy was exacted from innkeepers who stood to profit from the flow of pilgrims.

Source: D. Webb, 'Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in the Medieval West' (2001)

Other source

G. J. White, 'The Medieval English Landscape, 1000–1540' (2012)

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    This is a rather excellent respons with rather interesting source references, I've put them on my reading list! It kind of falls in line with my assumption that inns where available from the 13th century and onwards. However I'm still curious if you have any information from the early middle ages or Anglo-saxon and Viking period. I know they had like great halls for feasting perhaps travellers were allowed to sleep in there? Trade ports and market places perhaps also featured such a great hall, rather then having inns spread out across the country? Feb 25, 2018 at 13:22
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    Where inns and hostels only available in cities, towns and villages, or where there hostels alongside the roads at intervals about a day's march or ride apart so that you could stay at an inn every night, or did you have to sleep under the stars some nights between settlements? I think I read that Mongolia had hostels with rested horses available across the land, so that messangers could travel all night and day to cover more ground quicker, was there something like that in Europe as well? Feb 25, 2018 at 13:27
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    Also, you mentioned "There were also adventurers[...]" what kind of adventure would these people possible be on, other then a pilgrimage? It starting to sound a bit much like a fantasy novel now :) Feb 25, 2018 at 13:30
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    The existence of inns in Ango-Saxon England is hard to find evidence for, but there were plenty of taverns and pubs (we know this because of various laws against drunkenness), some of which may or may not have had lodgings for travellers (but I'm guessing here so I didn't include, but I did find something else - will edit into the answer). Feb 25, 2018 at 14:01
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    I, too, am keen to know about earlier examples @KristofferHelander As it happens, I do know that many monastic institutions had to put people up. Birkenhead Priory complained that it was overwhelmed with visitors who were using the ferry and so petitioned for a right to charge visitors. If that sort of thing was commonplace, then inns may have been rarer, but common law knows of the status of "Common Innkeeper" so it may go further back. Feb 25, 2018 at 20:03

Some of the early lines of Chaucer's prologue to The Canterbury Tales (circa 1386), tell of The Tabard inn in Southwark, just south of London Bridge.

In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At nyght was come into that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.
The chambres and the stables weren wyde,
And wel we weren esed atte beste;
And shortly, whan the sonne was to reste,
So hadde I spoken with hem everichon
That I was of hir felaweshipe anon,
And made forward erly for to ryse
To take our wey, ther as I yow devyse.

Nevill Coghill's very liberal translation of that passage into modern English is as follows:

It happened in that season [April] that one day,

In Southwark, at TheTabard, as I lay

Ready to go on pilgrimage and start

For Canterbury, most devout at heart,

At night there came into that hostelry,

Some nine and twenty in a company

Of sundry folk happening then to fall

In fellowship, and they were pilgrims all

That towards Canterbury meant to ride.

The rooms and stables of the inn were wide;

They made us> easy, all was of the best.

And, briefly, when the sun had gone to rest,

I'd spoken to them all upon the trip

And was soon one of them in fellowship,

Pledged to rise early and to take the way

To Canterbury, as you heard me say.

The fictional pilgrims as they journey to Canterbury agree each to tell two tales. One supposes that they stayed at other inns, such as the Tabard, in the Borough High Street near London Bridge. It had begun operating in 1307, and unfortunately it is not still there today but this will tell you a little about it, with a picture of how it looked in 1850. This is of course a much later building on the site.

Whether it was typical of inns of its time I know not.

  • 5
    The Canterbury Tales is a story about a knight, a monk, a merchant, a healer, a yeoman and others going on an adventure. It is clearly itself a fantasy novel (perhaps even a write-up of a role-playing game) and, as such, offers no evidence about whether these inns and taverns exist outside fantasy novels. ;-) Feb 24, 2018 at 21:35
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    @DavidRicherby The Canterbury Tales written in the 14th century by Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the most celebrated works of English literature. It is fiction, but describes characters, surroundings, and activities (e.g. a pilgrimage to Canterbury) contemporary to the period in which its author lived. Yes in the 14th century there were knights, monks, merchants, millers, reeves, Wives of Bath etc. So I would suggest its description of "the Tabard", a real inn, the site of which you can still visit today, was that of a man who had stayed there - namely Geoffrey Chaucer.
    – WS2
    Feb 24, 2018 at 21:43
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    The smiley at the end was supposed to indicate taht I wasn't being serious (but thanks for responding as it reminded me that I'd not upvoted your answer). Feb 24, 2018 at 21:47
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    Of course, things might be somewhat different along popular pilgrimage paths than in other areas of the country...
    – Jules
    Feb 25, 2018 at 20:16

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