You Can’t Take It With You

Medieval coin

Recently, on the recommendation of a fellow history blogger, Toutparmoi, I read The White Company by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s about a group of mercenaries (the eponymous White Company) who, in 1367, go to fight in Spain with the Black Prince under the command of Sir Nigel Loring, who had whole book by Doyle to himself. In reality in 1367 the White Company was led by Sir John Hawkwood and was fighting in Italy, but why should facts spoil a good story.

Long before the hero gets to Spain, something occurred in the novel that gave me pause. One of the mercenaries had come to England to recruit new soldiers and he stayed at an inn in the New Forest.  When he went on his way the next day, he left all his worldly goods, which were quite substantial, in the care of the innkeeper. What a daft thing to do, I thought. They won’t be there when he gets back. But they were.

A couple of weeks after I finished the book I was reading about inns in the Middle Ages and it seemed that Doyle had done his research. Travellers did indeed leave things at inns to be retrieved later. Inns were also used by merchants to store their goods as they were transported from one place to another.

Some towns had public warehouses, where goods could be stored while their owners were elsewhere or while they were waiting for transport. Where these warehouses were not available, goods could be left in certain inns. Innkeepers would not only store goods, but could be trusted to act as part of the supply chain, sending goods on the next part of their journey.

Obviously this did not apply to all innkeepers. Some could not be trusted as far as they could be thrown, but merchants built up a network of inns all across Europe, whose owners could be trusted not to steal or cheat or collude with local officials.

These were wealthy innkeepers. They might have to hold onto the goods for some time, waiting for ships, boats, carts or horses to come through to take the goods on the next stage of the journey, and they needed capital in order to do all this. Storing and sending the goods on could involve them paying tolls and taxes, dealing with officials, and organising and paying carriers. These were often innkeepers who had either become wealthy initially in other trades or were inherently trustworthy, such as priests or notaries.

Some innkeepers acted as brokers, introducing parties who had need of one another. Others helped foreigners change money into the local currency, or other currencies if they had the means. In some towns, the inns were owned by moneychangers and coins were constantly being carried back and forth to make sure that merchants and other visitors could change currencies. Where they were not owned by moneychangers these inns would have close relationships with bankers, so that they could have available the range of currencies required.

In some places the inns were also near other ‘facilities’ required by travellers and merchants. Southwark, a town on the other side of the Thames to London, was where the roads from the Channel ports and Canterbury met before crossing the river. It was renowned for its brothels and bathhouses for centuries.

Travelling in the Middle Ages might have been more complicated than I thought.




Filed under Fourteenth Century

8 responses to “You Can’t Take It With You

  1. Fascinating. It’s so long since I read The White Company I’ve no recollection of the inn episode, and were I to reread it now my reaction would probably be the same as yours regarding the likelihood of his belongings being safe.
    However, inns having a wider function than providing accommodation and food makes perfect sense. And I suppose that goods sent long distance might have had to pass through several inns and be transported along the way by different carriers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. True! Now I’m wondering if some hotels in 19th century NZ also acted as storage depots. A friend who did an MA in medieval history mentioned she could see some resemblances to colonial NZ. Recently she was researching aspects of urban culture, and the problem of persistent polluters and nuisance neighbours in medieval London.

    Much of what she told me sounded very familiar; my great-grandfather was Inspector of Nuisances in Queenstown (long before it was the tourist hot spot it is now) and he was constantly having to deal with inadequate drains, wandering horses and cattle, and people dumping rubbish where they shouldn’t.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s an interesting thought.I know nothing of 19th century New Zealand, but I know that medieval towns used to have enforceable rules about what you could dump where. Butchers were only allowed to dispose of the (very few) leftover bits of animals in certain places, for instance and effluent in the street was a constant problem, because the rules were always disregarded. Wandering horses and cattle might have been less of a problem, though, as both were too expensive to be allowed to wander off.

      Liked by 1 person

      • So one would think, but perhaps people in London had less secure yards? I gather pigs were quite a problem. And my friend quoted a very strange case of someone killed as a result of getting too close to two stallions fighting in their kitchen! That’s the sort of death no historical novelist would be allowed to get away with.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m sitting in my kitchen now and that image made me laugh.
          I can see that pigs would be a problem, because they tended to be free range.
          Wandering cows can still be a problem in London. I used to live near some common ground where cows were grazed and they would regularly wander off, despite the cattle grids, and start eating plants in people’s front gardens.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yes – it makes me laugh, too. I think if a couple of fighting horses burst into my kitchen I’d run out the front door. Cows wandering off common ground makes sense – and I assume there would have been quite a bit off it in and around the city.

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  3. Pingback: Medieval Gambling | A Writer's Perspective

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