Re-posting this question of mine from the Worldbuilding Stack Exchange:

I know it's common for shops and stores to be named in D&D and other fantasy settings, but how common was that practice in the medieval era (say, from 1000 AD onward)? It seems to me that inns and the like were named more often than, say, the workshops of smiths, traders, or other craftsmen and merchants.

I'm trying to be as "realistic" as possible with the campaign world I'm establishing, so if there's historical precedent, I'll feel better about it.

Edit: It's also been brought to my attention to clarify whether or not I mean this in a general or specific sense. The answer is the former. If the convention wasn't really present in Asian or Middle Easter countries, for example, but was in European ones, that information still helps immensely. I'm just hoping to find out how popular the practice was in the medieval era.

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    If I'm not mistaking, the practice of naming shops goes all the way back to classical antiquity. See for instance "Thermopolium of Asellina" or "Caseggiato del Termopolio". Commented Nov 3, 2019 at 8:01
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    How useful would be written name of your store if most of your customers (and store owner himself) was illiterate? Commented Nov 3, 2019 at 17:27
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    Pretty useful if you're trying to tell a random passer-by what you're looking for.
    – user15620
    Commented Nov 3, 2019 at 17:59
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    IIRC, 85% of the population were serfs who could not engage in commerce. Another 3-5 % were nobles and could not engage in commercial enterprise. Let's assume that the clergy are included in the nobility and the destitute in the peasants. That means that there are only 5/hundred who can occupy all commercial niches. There are only 210 cities in Europe with a population > 10K. that 5% potential commercial is shared among those cities and every village with a cobbler or skilled tradesman.
    – MCW
    Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 15:25
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    @MarkC.Wallace Your estimation of 3-5% nobility is very off in Europe, as far as I know only Poland and Hungary had anything close to this number. Also, nobility did engage in commercial activity, both as selling produces and buying e.g import products. See eg. " The consumer and the market in the later middle ages" Economic History Review, 2nd ser., XLII, 3(I989), pp. 305-327 (jstor.org/stable/pdf/2596436.pdf)
    – Greg
    Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 22:56

5 Answers 5


Short Answer

For the most part, we have little evidence for the naming of shops, especially before the Late Middle Ages in Europe. Visual evidence suggests that almost all shops did not publicly display a name but some did display an object representing their trade. A surviving example of a shop name from England is La Corner Schoppe, while in Italy at least a merchant might use his family name. In China, medicine shop names were common in the 10th and 11th centuries at least, examples including Infant Malnutrition Medicine Shop and Ugly Granny Medicine Shop.


Our evidence for medieval Europe is patchy. David Garrioch, in the article House names, shop signs and social organization in Western European cities, 1500-1900 (Urban History Vol. 21, No. 1 (April 1994), writes:

The history of shop signs reaches back at least to Roman times. In northern Europe, however, the earliest traces seem to date from the thirteenth century, although it is possible that they were in use before then. By the sixteenth century both signs and names seem to have been numerous all over Europe, and the evidence suggests that their numbers continued to increase in most cities until the eighteenth century.

In a footnote, Garrioch cites evidence from Adolphe Berty (1855). He

found two in Paris from 1206 and 1212. He argued that they were probably more numerous than the records suggest, but he adds that there was no doubt less need for them in the less crowded outer areas than in the city centre

In a study of one part of Paris by Berty published 5 years later

the earliest sign found...dates from the 1340s and the house-lists for this part of Paris in 1280 do not contain any.

For London, the oldest shop sign with a name found is from 1278, according to the BBC article La Corner Schoppe: the funny origins of shop names:

The earliest recorded shop name is La Corner Schoppe [sic]. The name was found in a document written in 1278 in Westminster, London. However there were numerous Corner Shops throughout the 1200s onwards, but most would have taken the name of the building.

The orginal source for 'La Corner Schoppe' (actually 'la Cornereschoppe') is the Calendar of Wills Proved and Enrolled in the Court of Husting, London: Part 1, 1258-1358 (ANNO 7 EDWARD I)

Readings in Medieval History, Volume II has primary source material on a Florentine merchant, Stagio, who used his own name for his shop, but it's not clear if this was displayed or not.

The history of signboards: from the earliest times to the present day is a dated source (1867) quite detailed:

...signs were of but little use. A few objects, typical of the trade carried on, would suffice; a knife for the cutler, a stocking for the hosier, a hand for the glover, a pair of scissors for the tailor, a bunch of grapes for the vintner, fully answered public requirements. But as luxury increased, and the number of houses or shops dealing in the same article multiplied, something more was wanted. Particular trades continued to be confined to particular streets ; the desideratum then was, to give to each shop a name or token by which it might be mentioned in conversation, so that it could be recommended, and customers sent to it. Reading was still a scarce acquirement; consequently, to write up the owner's name would have been of little use.

Looking at images of medieval art seems to confirm the above. Most shops have no sign of any kind, but a few have objects - see, for example, and the images below.

enter image description here

Siena, 1300s.

enter image description here

"Pontifical de Sens, France, XIVe siècle". Source: BnF, previously posted by LangLangC in his answer to another question.

The webpage Merchants’ Stalls & Shops has links to more images from various European cities. The only sign with writing is this "Hand-colored 19th-century woodcut reproduction of a medieval illustration", but even here none of the other establishments visible seem to have any signage (there's a better image here). There are also a number of illustrations of shops (salt, cheese, butcher's shops) in the Tacuinum Sanitatis but none appear to have names displayed.

enter image description here

Selling salt in a shop, miniature from Tacuinum sanitatis, end of 14th century. Source: habsburger.net

Without saying so explicitly, it seems that medicine shops in 10th & 11th century China had shop signs. A Social History of Medieval China gives numerous examples of shops with names (including the imaginatively named Ugly Granny Medicine Shop), but doesn't actually directly say they had names on signs.

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    That matches my own experience and impression (completely non-structured and without references, thus not writing up an answer) - especially the part about shops having symbols indicating what kind of shop it is, but not a name. Also keep in mind that at least written signs would have been a waste for most of the middle ages, as literacy rates were low.
    – Tom
    Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 11:38
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    Just because the shop didn't have a sign, doesn't mean it didn't have a name (which is what the OP asked about). Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 14:30
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    @MartinBonnersupportsMonica Valid point, the OP doesn't explictely state that but then the name serves a limited purpose for the public if it isn't displayed (though it may have been needed legally in some places). Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 14:43
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    Does it really serve a limited purpose? If you want to meet someone at the pub, and there are two pubs in town, you need a simple way to tell them which pub. It's not like villages didn't get names until villagers got literate.
    – user15620
    Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 15:00
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    @GorttheRobot "hey i'll meet you at the pub by johns farm"
    – DatsunZ1
    Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 15:58

The Academy of Saint Gabriel is a group of volunteers who have compiled lists of historical names from the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Their compilations of Sign Names for Places include:

  • Dated references to inn and tavern names by Mari ingen Briain meic Donnchada (Kathleen M. O'Brien)

    Early name references for inns and taverns here include:

    • Lamme (attested 1320)
    • Ramme (attested 1707 and 1339)
    • Cok (attested 1327)
    • Hegle (contemporary for eagle, attested 1273)
    • Raven (attested 1344)
    • Swan (attested 1337)
    • Harp and Harpe (attested late 14th century)
    • Hat (attested 1273)
    • Ros and Rose (attested 1273)
    • Whytehors, Whytehorse and Whithors (attested respectively 1285, 1312, 1358)
    • Sevensterre, Seusterrys and Sevesterre (attested respectively 1355, 1379, 1384)
    • George and Jorge (attested respectivley 1472 and 1479)
    • Bosoms yn (attested 1522)
    • Mitford taverne (attested 1489)
  • Comparison of Inn/Shop/House names found London 1473-1600 with those found in the ten shires surrounding London in 1636

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    I'm surprised it doesn't contain a great reference: The Tabard Inn is referenced by name in the Canterbury tales.
    – user15620
    Commented Nov 3, 2019 at 18:06
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    I know the UK has a long history with Public Houses' signage, quite often going back to Medieval times. (The tradition being iconography that is invariably interpreted slightly differently among locals than is done with the official written name). According to the WP page, they were required by the king to have identifying signage starting in 1393. Technically that's still Middle Ages (but barely).
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 19:58
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    @T.E.D. In my research, I also came across a local law passed in Cambridge in 1420 that pubs had to have signs, but there was no such law for shops. These laws would at least partly account for Pieter's lists being so heavy on pub names compared to shops. Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 23:02
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    @LarsBosteen: I suspect you mean "inns" rather than "pubs" - establishments providing accommodation and stabling as well as refreshment. Yes - in a world with few or no maps or village/town signs but inns at many major intersections, directions would likely be in reference to those landmark establishments loated near those intersections. Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 23:24
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    "Bosoms yn" a popular inn for male travellers?
    – RobertF
    Commented Nov 5, 2019 at 20:43

Most villages didn't have shops.

Think of the population size. You grew up with these same people all your life. No one went anywhere. Peddlars traveled. Tinkers repaired pots. Gypsys had skills needed too. You either made it yourself or traded for it.

I live in extreme southwest Kansas. Raised on my grandmothers homestead. 11 children in my class until high school. The citizens here do their own work: welding, tree felling, horse breaking, milking, and no we're not Amish or something other. We didn't have street signs until UPS required them. Then we did the county. When we need someone with special skill or equipment, we ask around.

My address is driving instructions. 9 miles south, 15 miles west of the NW corner of a town because I live on a dirt track. The whole county except state highways are dirt roads- county seat excepting. Lots of rural anywhere in the world is the same now.

Imagine a thousand years ago, check the population of the region you are interested in, and extrapolate up as the population rises. By the way, even in metro USA, people tend to stay within their small corners of it. I have no idea why. I lived in Denver for a while and was all over the place.

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    "Most villages didn't have shops." -- That wasn't really true until the fall of the Roman Empire though. Until then you actually had merchants (not all with shops) who shipped goods right left and center, as evidenced for instance by the quantity of (North African) red pottery in most archeological sites across the Western Empire. The economy collapsed in the UK after the fall of Rome, but the same didn't happen everywhere else. In Northern France and Western Spain, the economy took a hit. In the Mediterranean basin, trade basically continued uninterrupted, albeit with different patterns. Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 17:24
  • @DenisdeBernardy Villages, town, market towns are all different things. Also, since Spain was mostly conquered during the medieval period, I really wouldn't call it typical to Europe.
    – Greg
    Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 23:03
  • They had fairs too, one-two times a year, during great holidays, one fair for whole region with a dozen (or more) of villages.
    – user28434
    Commented Nov 5, 2019 at 9:18
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    You live in a homestead, not a village. These days, you may be relying on deliveries from the Internet or large companies or on traveling to shop in large towns and cities, but in the middle ages those were not really options (I mean, you could travel to someplace large but if it takes a week then you would very rarely do it).
    – einpoklum
    Commented Nov 5, 2019 at 21:40

One point is that trade went through a massive expansion in the 12th/13th centuries. Here is a review of a beautiful and fascinating book on the subject: Spufford: Power and Profit. Other books also by Peter Spufford cover similar territory and are similarly worthwhile. So in major cities, at least, you might need to be more specific about which period you are interested in.

Stretching the question, it might help to look at English cities in the early-modern period, just because then we have some humble, everyday publications that advertise their printing shop:

Those are two early examples out of many in the Bodleian library's collection of broadside publications. You can find more, though later, examples (search for "sign" in the "Imprint" section of Advanced Search). The printers' shops are referenced by address and a nearby sign, presumably of a pub in most cases. We can stop searching for "sign", but stay in the 16th century, to find some addresses without signs (all from the Bodleian broadside website mentioned):

  • "Imprinted at London by Abel Ieffs, and are to be soulde by William Barley dwelling in gracious strete neare leaden haule";
  • "Imprinted at London, by Richard Iones, dwelling neere Holburne Bridge";
  • "Imprinted at London in Fletestrete nere to S. Dunstons church by Thomas Marshe";
  • "Imprynted at Norwich in the paryshe of Saynct Andrews by Anthony de Solempne. 1570".

If we accept that these are (partially) relevant to your question, it seems that the name of the printer is how the shop was identified. (At times, there would have been a legal requirement to name the printer, as each publication required a licence, but the first example makes it clear that this is also an advert for trade.)


Short and very general answer -- if the town was big enough to have shops, a common practice was to have pictorial signs. These might be standardized tools of the trade as another poster mentioned, or might just be a memorable and easy to describe image. The location of an inn might then be given as "under the sign of the dancing pig." These references still persist in traditional music and stories, for example "I live at the sign of the ups and downs" in the song by the same name.

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    Sources to support your assertions would greatly improve your answer. Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 23:20
  • According to Wikipedia house numbering, as opposed to naming began to come in in Britain in the Eighteenth century. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_numbering#United_Kingdom. Before that it was customary for houses and commercial buildings alike to have pictorial signs by which they were known, a custom continued by pubs today. In Charles Dickens' early novel 'Barnaby Rudge' the locksmith Mr Varden and his family live at and trade from 'the House of the Golden Key' distinguished by a Golden Key sign hanging outside, which gives the house its name and advertises its occupants' business.
    – Timothy
    Commented Nov 6, 2019 at 19:39

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