Archive for June, 2018

Where to Stay in Medieval England

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018

The seventh chapter of Ian Mortimer’s book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, is entitled: Where to Stay.  It deals with places where people could stay when travelling in 14th century England.  In my May posting, I was describing medieval travel.  Now, I want to discuss various residential options a traveler might have on journeys that were longer than day trips.  There were many possibilities, and this was fortunate because medieval travelers often had to contend with unforeseen bad weather, and that meant making do with whatever was near at hand.

Residential options included inns, town houses, monasteries and hospitals, castles and fortified manors, and even peasant houses.  Hospitality was understood by medieval people as an act of Christian charity, so while many of these options were available, social rank and class made a great difference in how the traveler was received.

In our modern times, there is a great variety in the quality of hotels, motels, and bread and breakfast accommodations, but the inns of the 14th century were usually very modest.  They were often unsanitary and generally unsavoury, and if you arrived on foot, the innkeeper might refuse you accommodation.  Arriving by horseback, especially if preceded by a servant, would greatly enhance your chance of being admitted.  Innkeepers were always concerned with whether travelers could pay for their accommodation.  Many tended to be very demanding about this issue.

Assuming one’s admission to an inn, the bedchamber to which one would be assigned might have a dozen or more beds, each accommodating two or three persons.  Even a modern youth hostel offers more privacy.  The beds themselves had wooden frames strung with ropes to support a straw mattress, often of poor quality.  In the better inns, there might be two mattresses on a bed and only two or three beds in a chamber.  The cost of one night for one person could be as low as a half penny, but if one traveled with servants and horses who needed feeding and stables, the cost could rise appreciably.

The merchant class was coming into its own in the 14th century, and these merchants lived in town houses of great variety.  My heroine, Lady Apollonia, lived in various houses in my stories, starting with her favorite home in the village of Aust in Gloucestershire.  With her second husband, Edward Aust, she lived in Exeter House, their home in Plague of a Green Man.  She lived in Windemere House in Gloucester in Memento Mori and in another house of the same name in Cirencester in Templar’s Prophecy.  These houses were named after her third husband, Merchant Richard Windemere.  On many occasions in my stories, Lady Apollonia was hostess to friends and travelers in her various homes, all of which would have been on the high end of the spectrum of merchant town houses.

Monasteries and hospitals were important places for the medieval traveler to reside.  Monastic houses obviously saw it as a Christian duty to offer accommodation.  Indeed, the very name, hospital, is based on its medieval function of hospitality.  The modern meaning of the word involves medical and surgical treatment coupled with nursing care, but the historical meaning was that of a hospice providing a place for travelers to stay.

Because monastic institutions, abbeys and priories, were usually located where fresh water was available, they handled sanitary matters much better than many other places where travelers might stay.  In monastic houses, water for washing and for carrying away human wastes was always available.  In Effigy of the Cloven Hoof, the Lady Apollonia stays at a nunnery in Dunster, Somerset, going to and coming back from her visit to the fictitious village of Cliffbarton.  A modern picture of that nunnery is on the right in the picture shown below.

Monasteries welcomed many travelers, especially pilgrims, but parts of these monastic institutions were off limits to lay visitors.  Also, the treatment of medieval travelers was affected by their social status.  In my stories, the Lady Apollonia, as a noblewoman, was well treated when she sought accommodation in monastic institutions.  On the other hand, her son Alban’s squire, Laston Baker, had a very uneven experience in Memento Mori as he traveled across southern England from Kent to Gloucester in the rags of a beggar trying to return the deceased Alban’s heart to Alban’s mother.  Laston found that some institutions sought to take advantage of him for their profit while others welcomed him.

Many castles and fortified manor houses were improved in the 14th century beyond their mission for defense to also entertain upper class visitors and impress them.  Only select visitors were welcomed, yet they would usually have found their visits to be very comfortable if the lord was in residence.  If not, these homes operated with minimal staff, servants and furnishings to host visitors.  Nobles and especially royalty traveled in large courts when they were away from their castles and manors.

Sometimes, unexpected weather or other circumstances forced travelers to find immediate shelter.  If none of the options discussed above were available, what else could one find?  The obvious answer was a peasant home, but there was great variation in these accommodations as well.  A small percentage of these houses involved moderately prosperous peasants such as a reeve who managed a manor and oversaw other peasants.  Their houses had limitations but would have been very welcome in a pinch.  Most peasant houses would have been very modest by comparison, yet even these would have been better than sleeping rough as fugitives were often forced to do.