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.