When I think of the medieval tavern, I see grim footage from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and grimy drinking scenes from Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings. While only the first of these uses an ostensibly historical setting, the imagery of them all is what we think of when we think of taverns. Huge casks in the corners, great, indestructible wooden tables and wooden mugs, signs with pictures instead of words; drunken singing and the occasional axe fight.
The crudely animated Simple History video above confirms these impressions, describing the taverns, inns, and ale houses that were ancestors of the modern pub as “places of drinking, gambling, violence, and criminal activity.” Art history and scholarship further confirm our impression of taverns as rough-hewn, rowdy houses where brawls frequently broke out and all sorts of shady business transacted.
Ale houses had an “ale stake or ale pole” that could be raised to show they had a brew ready to serve. Taverns had a pole with leaves, called a “bush,” for the same purpose. Wine might be pricey, but beer was cheap, as “taxing it would not have been well-received.” Barmaids poured drinks from pitchers of leather into mugs of wood. Food was… well, not so good…. Maybe we can visualize tavern life by extrapolating backwards from our local dive bars.
However, we might find it hard to imagine living in a time before beer. Milan Pajic, junior research fellow at the University of Cambridge, found that beer made a relatively late entry in the history of English drink, arriving only in the latter half of the 14th century when introduced by Dutch immigrants and demanded by soldiers returning from the 100 Years War.
Between around 1350 and around 1400, Pajic claims, all of the beer drunk in English taverns was imported from the Netherlands. “The first evidence of someone brewing beer” in England, Pajic writes in an article published in the Journal of Medieval History, “comes from 1398-9.” The brewer, a “Ducheman,” was “fined for buying ‘wheat in the market in order to produce beer, to the great damage of the same market.”
Such persecution could not last. In a hundred year's time, a few hundred brewers could be found around the country, most of them immigrants from the Low Countries. But in part because the English distrusted the Dutch, “it took almost a century from the moment it was introduced as an imported commodity and consumed largely by immigrants before it came to be produced on English soil and accepted by the natives.”
Tavern, inn, and ale house designs would have conformed to local joinery trends, but the medieval English tavern’s chief draw—cheap, freshly-brewed beer, and lots of it—was a suspicious continental import before it became a national treasure.