‘In Southwerk at The Tabard as I lay': Pub Culture, Pilgrimages and Poets

Molly Phillips

The medieval pub

The medieval pub Twelfth Century Bishop of Chartres, John of Salisbury, once wrote that the extortionate drinking habits of the English were such that it had made them famous across all foreign nations. Although an opinion expressed nine centuries ago, it is perhaps not too vastly removed from impressions of Englishness and, indeed, Britishness, still prevalent today. Many pubs lay claim to being the oldest in the UK. Much of these assertions are probably untrue, but this friendly competition does shed light on one fact: that your local comes from a lineage of changing, re-shaping, re-organising buildings and conventions. Yet, the word ‘pub’ itself doesn’t appear to have been used until the 17th Century. Medieval drinkers had a choice of three different establishments: The Tavern - mostly a single bar dedicated to selling wine, and decorated with vine leaves to advertise this fact. In this way, they emerged from Ancient Rome, and taverns were more common with the wealthy, because of their tendency towards wine, rather than ale. The Inn - Churches and Cathedrals often housed pilgrims on their way to holy sites and, realising that money could be made from this, began to establish inns. These buildings often sat on main roads, for this reason, and were responsible not only for the procurement of a good old drink, but also for providing stables for the horses, and food and rest for the riders. The Alehouse - perhaps most a staple of raucous English drinking habits, alehouses began life as a cottage industry. Because ale-brewing was as commonplace in the home as baking a loaf of bread, any surplus was often advertised by the family living there, and neighbours would pop round to buy it. As they did so, people would recognise other neighbours and they would stop to enjoy a drink together. As the Tavern’s vines proclaimed a call to wine, households would put a sign up outside their home to advertise the creation of a fresh batch of ale. Vines were wine-specific and not particularly easy to grow in an English climate, so early alehouses hung long poles or ale stakes (stirrers) outside. This signage became more and more ornate, and under King Richard II, an Act was passed, making it compulsory for alehouses and inns to have a sign which would identify them to official Ale Tasters (and that title is a whole other story, in and of itself!) These signs would often be emblems, including Richard’s own: a White Hart. Other examples included the Bishop’s Head (becoming the King’s Head after the Reformation), a Bishop’s Mitre, the Crown, the Rose, which you’ll recognise as our pub names today. So, the pub as we know it, seemed to come about almost by accident, through the very human urge to sit around with friends and socialise, rather than out of a necessity to buy booze. But what were medieval people drinking? And why did they like it so much?
‘In Southwerk at The Tabard as I lay’: Pub Culture, Pilgrimages and Poets
‘Robin with the Bagpype’: The Miller’s Tale is perhaps the quintessential drunken experience.

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‘In Southwerk at The Tabard as I lay’: Pub Culture, Pilgrimages and Poets
A monk sneaks a drink, while secretly pouring himself another.

The Holy State of Inebriation

There is a common misconception that people in medieval times were drinking alcohol to avoid foul water. In busy cities like London, this may have held an element of truth but really, ale was an excellent way to consume calories, and, crucially, it was fun! As today, people just enjoyed the feeling of being drunk. So much so, in fact, that The Magna Carta issues standardised measures of ale and wine in an attempt at instituting some sort of countable moderation. We know, then, that as early as the 13th Century, drinking was a chosen pastime rather than a necessity. Alcohol, of course, pre-dates pub culture as we know it. Ancient societies seem to have discovered the fermentation process and archaeologists have discovered 13,000 year old residues of porridge-textured beer, used in ritual feasts. In ‘The Alchemy of Culture: Intoxicants in Society’, Richard Rudgely discusses drunkenness as fulfilling a universal need to be free of everyday mundanity, and author Pete Brown suggests that, in early cultures, ‘we didn’t have a clue about yeasts and how alcohol occurred [so] the state of inebriation was regarded as a divine experience.’ Booze is written about by the Ancient Egyptians, and appears in the oldest known narrative poem, ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ when Gilgamesh is given beer by the gods as a way of coping with the harsh and sudden reality of death. Death and alcohol merge in many spheres throughout time, not least with regards to The Black Death. Although drinking was already an established pastime by the time the Black Death took hold in 1348, many historians and archaeologists point to the infamous Bubonic Plague as the turning point for British pub culture. The reason for this is the labour shortage created by The Black Death. By the 1370s, around 60% of the population had died, and this meant an enormous shortage of people able to work, resulting in calls to reassess social structure. In many ways, this was a positive thing for 14th century peasants, who were able to demand more money and better working conditions in exchange for their work. In the same way, the beer sold in pubs went up in quality, and brewing became more commercialised, alehouses becoming places in which to drink and play games: the spirit of the modern-day pub. And drinking and playing games in a pub is where we find Geoffrey Chaucer’s Pilgrims in ‘The Canterbury Tales.’ ‘In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay’ In many ways, it seems fitting that, 'The Father of English Poetry', Geoffrey Chaucer, set his most famous poem at a pub. 'The Canterbury Tales' begins in Southwark, at The Tabard Inn, which was established in 1307 and sat at the intersection of a road from London, headed towards Dover and Canterbury. As such, it became well-known for housing pilgrims on their way to the shrine of the martyr, Thomas Becket. It is this demographic that Chaucer makes use of, compiling a conglomeration of misfit pilgrims (monks and priests and knights, and reeves, etc, etc...) who take part in a story-telling competition as they drink at The Tabard. In return for the best, most moving and exciting tale, the winner receives a meal, paid for by the pilgrims on their return journey. Chaucer uses voices from across medieval society, and brings them together using the central frame of an innkeeper, Harry Bailly, and his establishment. What is special about the beloved ‘Canterbury Tales’ is the sheer breadth of stories and voices we get from reading it. Not only does each of the pilgrims have a distinct voice and background, but their stories reflect their personality and depict a truly wide variety of thoughts, concerns and, indeed, bum jokes, from all different walks of life. From adulterous spouses, idealised love affairs, to discussion of what women want; of serious matters like clerical greed and widespread simmering social prejudice, and then back again to the silliest of fabliau, ‘The Canterbury Tales’ is able to touch on everything that might have been forefront in a medieval listener’s mind. One is put in mind of what might have been dredged up in drunken conversation with friends. It is, in many ways, typical of a night at the pub, and it is absolutely the careful setting of the inn that allows Chaucer to show off the diversity of his talent and reflect on so much of life’s varied experiences. What is more, we see that it is the promise of food and drink that brings all these stratas of medieval society together. In no other situation can we imagine the nobility (represented by the Knight and Squire) in the same conversation as a Franklin and a Reeve. In no other situation would the wealthy, the everyman and the cleric be able to poke fun at each other, and so openly discuss taboos and secrets and politics. Chaucer’s setting is unprecedented in this way. But it is allowed to happen because the Inn, as a place between two destinations and a place where alcohol is consumed, can be recognised by each character as a wonderful exemption from the rules and stratification of everyday society. The Inn is as central to the story, and to this group of people, as the religious zeal that has taken them on a pilgrimage in the first place. (After all, who among us can deny the sudden ability to converse with complete and utter strangers after a pint or two…?)
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What can we learn from a trip to the local?

What stands out across medieval pub culture is that pubs (or, at least, their predecessors) were the homes of everyday life. They met both business and pecuniary needs, but also social ones, and came about as a result of the very human desire to escape day-to-day life for a time, with friends. For this reason, they were also, if not entirely exempt from class distinction, certainly able to model themselves as apart from it. Which, realistically, is not too different to today. The lineage of our public houses draws attention to the fact that food and drink has never been merely a matter of sustenance, but an important aspect of day-to-day human life.
‘In Southwerk at The Tabard as I lay’: Pub Culture, Pilgrimages and Poets
The Tabard Inn was sadly pulled down in the Victorian era, but people can still visit the site.
‘In Southwerk at The Tabard as I lay’: Pub Culture, Pilgrimages and Poets

Molly Phillips

I am a graduate of the University of East Anglia’s Master of the Arts in Medieval and Early Modern Textual Cultures.
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