An Animated Introduction to Medieval Taverns: Learn the History of These Rough-and-Tumble Ancestors of the Modern Pub

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Beer Archae­ol­o­gy: Yes, It’s a Thing

The First Known Pho­to­graph of Peo­ple Shar­ing a Beer (1843)

Dis­cov­er the Old­est Beer Recipe in His­to­ry From Ancient Sume­ria, 1800 B.C.

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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