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Monday, April 8, 2013

Inns, Taverns, and Alehouses

Picture Credit: http://skyrim.nexusmods.com/mods/27425#


Around 43 AD, the invading Roman army began influencing medieval England as they introduced roads and shops called tabernae (singular is taberna).

In Rome, taberna was a general term indicating a shop of any kind--but the tabernae left behind in England sold food and wine. Once left to themselves, the locals quickly added ale and mead to the menu so they could suit lower budgets. Over time, the word tabernae became corrupted into the more-familiar tavern.

In the seventh century Ethelbert, the King of Kent, placed the first known drinking-establishment restriction, which limited the number of brewers in any given city or village. At this time it seems that taverns (or alehouses as they were also called in his day) had largely stopped selling any food items and specialized in alcoholic drinks.

In the twelfth century traveling became more customary and inns began to develop. An inn took the idea of a tavern and developed it by adding lodging and re-introducing food. During this same period, the words tavern and alehouse began to take on different meanings as they concentrated on different classes. Alehouses specialized in cheaper drinks (such as ale and mead) and taverns served only wine to attract the higher classes. By the end of the thirteenth century, inns, taverns, and alehouses were separate and distinguishable.

The thing about changes in establishment names over a large area is that they always take time. There was no overnight change in definitions. In my fantasy book, I have taken on this idea of transitioning that happened in the twelfth century. While it is pure fantasy and therefore does not claim any century--and it definitely does not take place in any real country--I have created a village where the idea of any travelers other than merchants would be cause for shock. They have kept the name tavern for their drinking establishment even though the tavern keeper has adjusted to traveling merchants enough that he offers lodging. However, when the main character winds up in a city, she finds inns.


The importance of inns is obvious. Travelers needed somewhere to stay in a growing world where they could not continue to rely on the generosity of locals.

What about taverns and alehouses? They were community centers. This is where locals would go to relax at the end of the day. It was also where social gatherings were held. Even the occasional wedding took place in taverns and alehouses. Yes, there was drinking. But there was also singing, and gossiping, and gambling. Men and women both frequented drinking houses.  In fact, many of the early inns, taverns, and alehouses were run by monks and as a result a large portion of the tavern songs were written by monks and other clergy. See more about tavern songs, including lyrics, here.


  1. I didn't know there was a difference between lower class and upper class taverns (or alehouses!) I'm glad I read this! I'm glad you researched it!
    My characters also find places like this, but they're usually very lower class and I called them taverns. Whoops.
    Pays to research right? Just like me and ghouls. Sigh. :)
    Thanks for posting this.

    1. Yeah, I've done that one a million times. It seems like I'm always learning new helpful facts or new ways to do things. I guess it's good we'll never be done learning!

  2. Great article, Rachel and good research! I tweeted this one. Enjoyed reading it and adding the knowledge to my medieval store. :)

    1. Thanks! I always think it's interesting learning new things.