Thursday, January 12, 2012

At the Sign of the Bedbug

Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims, by William Blake

Having recently spent some time reserving lodging in several cities for an upcoming research trip, I found myself wondering how the people of Dante's time would have managed the task of finding places to stay while travelling. I had some ideas of the rigors of the road ca. 1300, but it was time to find out more about what sort of respite was available.

So many aspects of medieval travel are fascinating, and deserve blog posts of their own, but the amount of material is vast, so I decided this time to limit myself to public inns in Europe, particularly Italy. True, many travellers had the good fortune to stay in private quarters, with friends or friends of friends, and many more took advantage of the hospitality of religious houses along their route; merchants may have been able to stay in guesthouses specific to their nation and/or trade, at least in the cities. But some people had to depend on inns all or most of the time, and others may have sometimes found themselves in places where an inn was the only thing available.

San Giuliano l'ospitaliere

One thing Christian travellers likely would have done was to pray to Saint Julian the Hospitaller (San Giuliano l'ospitaliere) for good lodgings. This very old tradition sprang from a story (probably legendary) of considerable misfortune: Giuliano returned from a hunting trip to find two people sleeping in his bed. Enraged at the thought that his wife was unfaithful, he slew them both, only to find his wife standing there looking appalled. Giuliano's parents had arrived unexpectedly for a visit, she had given them the conjugal bed, and Giuliano had just killed his mother and father, in a scene best described as Lizzie Borden meets the Bates Motel. Horrified and repentant, Giuliano and his wife dedicated the rest of their lives to hospitality, housing and feeding strangers at considerable sacrifice to themselves.

A character in one of Boccaccio's stories in the Decameron says that when he travels, the first thing he does in the morning before leaving his inn is to say an Our Father and a Hail Mary for Giuliano's parents, and then to ask the saint to give him good lodging for the night to come.

Inns in the middle ages varied considerably, anywhere from private houses renting out a room or two to large complexes built specifically to house travellers, the latter probably including stables and quite possibly a courtyard to protect the carts, wagons, and other goods of travellers. Inns served rural areas along the most travelled roads, and also clustered around the main roads in cities. Northern Italy, an area with a lot of merchant traffic, had many inns in the middle ages, while Spain was notoriously deficient in them during the same period. Another hot spot for inns was Avignon, at least during the years the papal court was based there. Florence was said to have 235 registered innkeepers in 1353, and as many as 622 by 1394 (though that latter figure included the surrounding area).

Urban inns were subject to a city's laws and regulations. In some cities, innkeepers were among the people not allowed to form guilds (a distinction they shared in Bologna in 1288 with, for example, cheesemongers and barbers). They were generally exempted from laws requiring businesses to close on religious holidays, as they were providing an essential service. (Perugia in 1342 also exempted butchers, spicers, bakers, and smiths. I can understand the emergency need for horseshoes, and maybe even bread, but I'm guessing the spicers and the butchers had a good lobby.) City laws also sometimes dictated the minimum number of rentable rooms an establishment had to have to call itself an inn and serve travellers.

Urban inns also provided long-term accommodations at times, for example for university students, and for construction workers employed in cathedral-building or other long-term projects. Some inns specialized in serving a particular nationality (or at least a particular language group). Many were located near a major market or government buildings, and in Rome they clustered around the Vatican. Inns also could be found just outside the city gates, there to serve the unfortunate travellers who arrived too late to find the gates open.

As for planning ahead, that presented some difficulties. Guidebooks did exist, and word of mouth could give more or less accurate information about distances and the quality of lodgings, but one couldn't just make a reservation over the internet - it was a matter of showing up and seeing if there was room. And since the traveller might well be part of a large group, his own companions might well overwhelm a modest inn's capacity. Of course, in a slow-moving group, with some persons on foot or slowed by heavy carts or other impediments, someone might ride ahead and alert the innkeeper to the customers soon to arrive.

Some inns employed agents to go out and persuade perspective customers to come to their establishment. One of my research sources, a book entitled Travel and Trade in the Middle Ages by Paul B. Newman, tells a story of a pilgrim travelling by boat to Venice. An agent in another boat tried to persuade him to lodge at the inn he (the agent) was promoting, and when the pilgrim said he had already made other arrangements, the agent became so agitated he fell out of the boat.

But suppose you were a medieval traveller, on the road and without any special contacts or affiliations that would take care of your lodging needs. What sort of place could you expect?

Inns provided, at a minimum, a room and a bed and (probably) sheets, someplace to park your horse, a kitchen, and a common room for meals and drink. The room and the bed would probably be shared. If you were lucky and if you could afford it, you might also manage to obtain covers and pillows, cooked food, drink, a fire or brazier, bed curtains to retain warmth and provide a modicum of privacy, food for your horse or other accompanying animals, and maybe even a candlestick. Some innkeepers made loans, rented horses, stored property for travellers, conveyed messages and correspondence, and offered assistance with business if the traveller did not speak the local language. If you were really lucky, the food and wine would be good, the sheets recently washed and relatively vermin-free, and good fellowship and entertainment might lighten your stay.

Chaucer's pilgrims at table

You'd be paying a la carte, and the candle to put in that candlestick - as well as the food, the drink, the firewood, the stabling - would be extra. You might well be carrying your own food with you, to prepare yourself at the hearth fire or in the kitchen, or you might buy local ingredients. The cost of stabling and feeding your horse could easily double your bill. And how would you pay? In a city, the innkeeper could direct you to a moneychanger, and for whatever fee that moneychanger could get away with charging, you'd be able to convert your coins to the local currency. In rural areas, however, the sheer diversity of European coinage (and the fact that it was not standardized by weight or metal content) must have been daunting, for innkeeper and customer alike.

And if you weren't so lucky? The food would be meagre or inedible, the room crowded, several strangers sharing your bed, sheets not washed in recent memory, no fire, no covers, you'd be plagued with bedbugs, fleas, and lice,
some of your fellow guests (never you, of course) might become drunk and belligerant, your belongings were at risk
from thieves, and you might be in a position of having to either pay the innkeeper whatever he demanded or sleep outside, with all the discomforts and dangers that entailed. All in all, it probably paid to talk to as many people as possible and learn all that you could about the lodgings along your route before you ever left home.

Images in this post: Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims by William Blake, San Giuliano l'ospitaliere by Taddeo Gaddi, Giovanni Boccaccio by Andrea del Castagno, the woodcut of Chaucer's pilgrims, and Filippo Bonanni's flea are all US-Public Domain because copyright has expired. The bedbug and the louse have been released into the public domain by the artist, Pearson Scott Foresman (sounds a bit alarming, doesn't it?).

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