How was a waitress called in the Middle Ages? Handmaid, waitress, maid, ...? And is there a different name for the ones who did this kind of job inside a castle, in contrast to the women doing this kind of job in, for example, a tavern?

  • 28
    Is there any evidence that waitresses existed in the middle ages? And in which country?
    – MCW
    Commented May 30, 2019 at 20:13
  • 11
    @MarkC.Wallace Well, someone served the food.
    – iPherian
    Commented May 31, 2019 at 5:12
  • 20
    But if there were no commercial establishments, then the person who served teh food was a wife or household servant. "waitress" only has meaning in a commercial establishment. Although there has been some recent revision, my memory estimates that less than 1% of the population traveled and probably 90% of them would stay in the homes of friends.
    – MCW
    Commented May 31, 2019 at 8:32
  • 5
    @MarkC.Wallace, agree in general, but I bet there were some kind of pubs for the locals in most of the places. Just to gather around and socialize.
    – user28434
    Commented May 31, 2019 at 8:41
  • 15
    @MarkC.Wallace There were Inns, where travellers would stop to rest their horses (or, in some cases, change horses) and you could rent a room for the night and buy food to eat. For example, the Cott Inn in Cott, Dartington, Devon, England, dates from 1320 (i.e. late medieval), but Inns have existed since Roman times. Commented May 31, 2019 at 9:24

5 Answers 5


From the top of my head, I remember the word wench, which originally meant girl, then a servant, and later also a prostitute, which is likely why it went out of use for waitresses.

Here’s a somewhat confirming article from 1988. (If link is blocked for you, use Wayback Machine copy.) It describes the job of a wench at Medieval Times, a “dinner theater” which still exists (Wikipedia, Official site). So, even if it’s a misconception, the idea that medieval waitresses were called wenches at least exists in modern mass conscience.

  • 10
    Is 'wench' really confirmed to be in use in medieval England? This 'conforming article' is link only and already broken, in this case geo-blocked. Please quote the most relevant parts here. Commented May 31, 2019 at 8:57
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    @LangLangC While not a medieval example, the Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney used it in one of his poems a mere 100 years later: "I, like a tẽder harted wench, shriked out for feare of the divell.", or Shakespeare in "Alls Well that Ends Well" (Act IV, sc. 3): "he weeps like a wench that had shed her milk" in 1604 Commented May 31, 2019 at 9:31
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    Most likely, original "waitresses" were just children of the owner, so, probably, in every language it would be something like usual word for girl or boy at that era.
    – user28434
    Commented May 31, 2019 at 12:12
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    @LangLangC I added a description.
    – user28850
    Commented May 31, 2019 at 12:20
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    OED has "wench" in the sense of "girl" from 1290, expanding to "serving-maid" from 1380, so it's plausible. Either way, the term certainly does exist in "modern mass conscience", though it has an almost humorous, parody-like quality now... Commented May 31, 2019 at 13:27

[What] was a waitress called in the Middle Ages?

In Europe, they didn't exist as a recognized occupation.

And is there a different name for the ones who did this kind of job inside a castle, in contrast to the women doing this kind of job in, for example, a tavern?

At a castle, the servants in the great hall would simply be servants (pre-Conquest, þrǣl, ancilla, &c.; post-Conquest, servaunt, bond-womman, ancille, natif, &c.) and the traditional breakdown of roles concerned production and maintenance, not presentation. A large enough household would have separate departments for the table linen (napery), drinking vessels (ewery), alcohol (buttery), lighting (chandlery), &c. and various aspects of the food (larder, spicery, saucery, &c.). The guys who carried the food to the table from whatever department were just "bearers" (ber(e)-man and ber-knight). In Middle English, "waiter" meant "watchman".

Pubs don't seem to be attested between the Romans and the late 10th century, when there were enough ealahuses to show up in Æthelred the Unready's legal code. Breweries aren't attested as professional before the Central European monasteries in the 11th century. Inns were few and far between, with most travelers obliged to seek hospitality from the churches & monasteries.

If women were doing the serving instead of the men, especially if they were hired help or servants instead of daughters, their morals would've been highly suspect. Cleaning their depravity up would've fallen on the local lord; some, like the bishops of Winchester, were content to let 'single women' serve men to prevent more unnatural sins like masturbation and to skim the girls' earnings.

In any case, there wasn't a specialist term for "waitress", although you could coin "bearwoman" and "bearmaid". Instead, they would've used one of twenty-odd words for "hey you girl" (e.g., wench, maide, therne, shelcherne, &c.) or "servant woman" (e.g., ancille, slutte, malkin, ber-wif, &c.) or some local slang like the "Winchester geese" who worked in the bishops' "stews".

  • 4
    This answer ends the Middle Ages in the 11th century, it lasted much more than that. There were certainly more travelers in the 14th-15th centuries than in the 11th, and therefore more inns.
    – vsz
    Commented May 31, 2019 at 19:01
  • "Winchester geese" were prostitutes, not serving women.
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Jun 2, 2019 at 12:45
  • @vsz Mentioning that the entire industry didn't properly exist before the 11th century doesn't limit the era and words for servants in Middle English are mentioned and usages are available via link. When you've got a bit, swot up on your reading comprehension.
    – lly
    Commented Jun 3, 2019 at 14:46

The question does not specify the language, so... at least to refute the highly accepted answer there were no such establishments in the Middle Ages.

Old Czech word hospoda or hostinicě - German Obdach, Herberge, Wirtshaus - Latin hospitium - inn, pub
šenk, krčma - German Schenke, Wirtshaus - Latin caupona - rather a place to drink than to sleep

for the proffession:

šenk - from German Schenk, Mundschenk, Hofschenk - a cup bearer - , it was an office, the King of Bohemia was the Erzmundschenk, the Cup-bearer of the Emperor of the Holy-roman empire

the personal of normal inns or pubs:
masc. krčmář, fem. krčmářka or
masc. šenkéř, fem. šenkéřka, obviously from German Schenkwirt, not an office but a proffession, it may be the owner, his wife or an employee


An English popular song (printed in the 16th century but no doubt earlier than that) gives one politically incorrect answer:

He that will an alehouse keep
  Must have three things in store;
A chamber and a feather bed
  A chimney and a... hey nonny nonny no...

"Wench" is the wrong 5-letter word beginning with "w" here :)

Scan of a published version in 1611: http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/ravenscroft/melismata/mel33small.html

  • 3
    I don’t think “whore” ever meant waitress.
    – user28850
    Commented May 31, 2019 at 15:03
  • Which is fine as it goes: the serving girls were either the keep's daughters and/or 'working girls'. That said, it's still not the word for the girls as servants.
    – lly
    Commented May 31, 2019 at 15:04
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    The job didn't exist. It was done by men, not women if it was even done at all. The earliest attestation of "waiter" referring to a public eating house as opposed to a private house is in the 1660sm which is not "the middle ages". The word "waitress" didn't appear until the 19th century.
    – alephzero
    Commented May 31, 2019 at 15:22
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    @alephzero That is a very strange claim. I can find loads of mentions of qomen serving (possibly being the owners) in pubs in the Kingdom of Bohemia in the 16th century. It was a quick search on a mobile phone. I would be surprised if it didn't go much farther back in history. Commented Jun 3, 2019 at 13:34

You could try "Pot Girl".

From https://www.yourdictionary.com/pot-girl.

"A girl who works serving customers in an inn or public house".

  • 4
    When was that used? In what country?
    – MCW
    Commented May 31, 2019 at 9:01
  • 2
    Certainty British
    – Mawg
    Commented May 31, 2019 at 9:45
  • 5
    The term is probably of recent origin though, according to Oxford Dictionaries. Commented May 31, 2019 at 11:55
  • 2
    Pot girl isn't attested until the 18th century.
    – lly
    Commented May 31, 2019 at 14:59
  • A pot girl washes pots.
    – Richard
    Commented May 31, 2019 at 21:33

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