If you watch any fantasy movies or any fiction taking place in the Middle Ages, you will probably think that travelers camped outside in the open with nobody around for miles.
As Joanna Arman explains in Quora, this is not the case. So, if you’re a fantasy or historical fiction writer, please take note!
The population of Medieval Europe was a lot smaller than it is today, but for the most part, there weren’t vast areas of uninhabited territory, and where they were, they were off the proverbial beaten track.
Medieval Europe, including Britain, had pretty good infrastructure. A network of Roman roads connected settlement within day’s ride of any given location, even if it was only a small village.
Churches and monasteries were also commonplace, and most monasteries and even small priories had a guest house where anyone could stay overnight.
Travelers could also stay at inns or in charitable institutions such as hospitals. Medieval hospitals were not simply places which provided medical treatment or palliative care: they could also be something like hostels or almshouses. Actual almshouses might also be able to provide lodging for the night for a traveler.
Life in the City
In larger settlements such as towns and cities, there would have been inns and other lodging houses with accommodation available for anyone who could pay.
For those of a better sort (i.e clerics, knights, perhaps the gentry), it would have been possible to be put up in a castle or manor house, by imposing upon the hospitality of the local lord or landowner. The church was expected to provide hospitality, but there was also a similar expectation upon the higher orders, even if it was only to provide hospitality for their social equals or superiors.
It would certainly have been considered a big no-no to throw out a fellow knight or Lord who arrived at your castle expecting a night’s lodging. It would also be shocking if you did him harm or, indeed, allowed him to come to harm whilst under your roof.
However, in the high middle ages, sleeping arrangements in castles or high-status buildings were Spartan, to say the least. Most, except the most important guests, would probably have bedded down on a pallet or sack in the Great Hall.
In the later Medieval period, things became a little more sophisticated. Bodiam Castle in Sussex is an excellent example. Originally, each of the 4 towers contained several small bedrooms for guest accommodation. Each was pretty basic, with just a window and a fireplace, but this was still an improvement.
Here’s my Wife
One of the most unusual hospitality perks, however, concerns the widely spread practice of offering sexual gratification as part of the hospice, as Dimitris Almyrantis explains.
This hospitality was common in pre-conquest England and the British Isles. The Saxon kings seem to have slept with the daughters of the noble households hosting them (also a handy way of asserting superior status); in the 13th c. Welsh Mabinogion, a compilation of oral tales, one of the heroes arriving at king Arthur’s court is told to go to a hospice for “food, drink, and a woman to sleep with.”
Similar customs existed until recently. Since the early Middle Ages and throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, travelers’ reports on the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia have recorded a kind of tribal hospitality that includes sexual gratification as part of the deal.
In the trade cities along the medieval Silk Road, it was common for merchants to lodge in townsmen’s houses, sleeping with their daughters and leaving a nice gift (like an expensive Persian rug) in return. When the merchant was leaving, the host family would hang the gift out of the window and loudly ask, “we got this out of the deal, and you aren’t taking anything away!”
These customs also existed in, to take a later medieval example, ‘Asir and Yemen in Arabia (called muraqqidah or tawrio). If the girl became pregnant, the guest was later expected to marry her or pay a lump sum for alimony. Here, where the people were all locals, a gift beforehand (as with the unknown Silk Road merchants, who were just passing by) would have been refused as disrespectful. The women, who in south Arabia could acceptably engage in some pre- and extra-marital sex, could veto their guest partners.
And the Mahabharata includes this enlightening quote (Anusasana Parva: Anusasanika Parva: Section II):
Do thou enjoy thyself, O Brahmana. It is a great pleasure to me. A householder obtain the highest merit by honoring a guest. It is said by the learned that, as regards the householder, there is no higher merit than what results unto him from a guest departing from his house after having been duly honored by him. My life, my wife, and whatever otherworldly possessions I have, are all dedicated to the use of my guests.
I can’t help but wonder if that might be the origin of yodeling in Switzerland: using the echo of the mountains to call out, “I made love to your daughter… and your old lady tooooooo.”
Now, I’d love to see you incorporate that into your story!