By Frey Micklethwait
ESSAYS / ARTICLES
What contribution was made by the alehouse to the life of early modern towns?
From the thirteenth century onwards, the alehouse became an ever increasing feature of English towns. Peter Clark, the sole authority on the history of English alehouses from the late middle ages to the early nineteenth century, in his work The English Alehouse 1200-1830, traces their development from rather rudimentary beginnings to their emergence as a "fully fledged" institution in the sixteenth century. In the middle ages, the selling of ale was a rather casual affair. There were laws appertaining to it, but ale-sellers, who tended to be women trying to earn some extra money, brewed and sold it to whoever would buy it in a variety of places; the market, the town, or from their home. Over the course of the fourteenth, and particularly the fifteenth century, the selling of ale became more sophisticated and located. Some women may still have taken ale to the market, but increasingly the selling and consuming of ale became located around the brewing place. Increasingly ale-sellers, who were now predominantly male, provided a "drinking room" where the customers could stay and drink their ale. As drinking encourages eating, so the provision of basic foods became common, such as bread, buns and cakes. Some of the larger establishments provided more substantial meals such as pies, and it appears that some London alehouses provided a variety of foods including fish and meat.(1) Also lodging services became an increasing feature. Generally speaking, the actual alehouses were small and shabby. The majority of them were little more than a one storied cottage, and had at best two drinking rooms and one lodging room. They were regarded as the most inferior of the drinking, hospitality institutions. The Inns and the Taverns were more sophisticated, offering wines and spirits, as well as beer, more amenities, and far superior lodging facilities. The social division was clear. Although it was not uncommon for wealthier individuals to frequent an alehouse - Samuel Pepys for example in the late seventeenth century went there often - in general the alehouse was the preserve of the lower orders,"handicraftsmen, workmen of all sorts, labourers, carmen," (2)"cobblers, tinkers, pedlars and porters"(3) as well as the humble poor. Peter Clark argues that the number of alehouses in England increased quite significantly during this period, which suggests a new found importance. In Canterbury between 1577 an 1596, it appears that the number of licensed alehouses doubled, and in Taunton, they rose by a third. (4) However, it is perhaps important to emphasise that the population of England was growing at a rapid rate in this period, and thus the number of social institutions had to increase if they were to keep a pace. To take the increased number of alehouses as evidence of a new found importance could perhaps be slightly distorting the picture.
Any assessment of the importance of any institution to the "life of a town" in early modern England is problematic. To begin with, the sources are scarce, and those that do remain can be contradictory, difficult to interpret, and perhaps biased. It is therefore difficult to try and reconstruct the importance of this institution, the role it played in society, and its prominence in the lives of the people. It cannot be said with absolute certainty who went there, much less why they went, when they went, and the experience of going. The history of the alehouse is rather like a jigsaw, but although some pieces may be missing, it is possible to put the rest together again and gain some insight into the role of the alehouse in the towns.
Peter Clark believes that one of the main reasons for the emergence of the alehouse as a prominent institution in the Tudor period, was the impact of the Protestant Reformation. In the middle ages, the parish church had dominated the life of the towns. It was in and around the church that the people celebrated the various Christian celebrations, festivals and feastings. It was where baptisms, marriages, and funerals took place, and where they watched plays and pageants. There were also the quasi-secular activities such as church-ales which were popular, and helped to raise money for the church and the indigent. The religious gilds of the town were also important in providing social occasions, as the members often got together for feasting and drinking. There were thus plenty of opportunities for people to drink in a communal fashion without having to frequent the alehouse. Neither was there an absolute need to frequent the alehouse for hospitality. In Catholic England, hospitality and charity to the poor was considered a moral obligation, and a "good work". It was therefore eagerly embarked on by the wealthy gentry who were eager to buy for themselves a place in Heaven. Monasteries also opened their doors to the traveller, providing him with food and a bed. Even if the monasteries did shut their doors in the face of the abject poor, these people could still resort to the welcoming huts of the hermits, or the solitary religious men and women who inhabited the towns. The religious and often the social gilds also offered accommodation. The Corpus Christi gild at York, for example, provided eight beds for the poor. However, with the Dissolution of the monasteries, gilds and chantries, under Henry the Eighth and his son Edward the Sixth, these provisions ceased. Protestantism was a more austere religion than Catholicism, emphasising sobriety of manners and surroundings. Protestants abhorred the ritualistic ceremonies and customs associated with the Catholic church, and after the Protestant regime was firmly established under Queen Elizabeth, following the brief reversal during Queen Mary's reign, there was a fervent campaign to suppress them. Church-ales were suppressed, as were many of the Church festivals and the religious plays. No longer was the church a centre of amusement and frivolity, but one of seriousness and sermons. Clarke argues that the demise of the church as a communal institution, and the rise of it as an elitist tool to control the behaviour of the masses, meant that the people of the towns now began to gather elsewhere, namely in the alehouse. By the late Elizabethan period the alehouse was an integral part of town life.
Arguably the primal importance of the alehouse lay in its role as a social centre. It was a place where the locals could meet up of an evening, talk, make friends, and wind down after a hard days work. For the very destitute, the alehouse was perhaps somewhere to shelter away from the bitter weather, a place where they could curl up before a warm welcoming fire, and take comfort in the company of others. For the young, the alehouse was a brief release from either parental or employer control. At least theoretically, Tudor and Stuart society was a "moral" society, and there was much pressure on young people to conform. The alehouse was a place where they could relax with their friends and lovers. It was increasingly at alehouses that celebrations and feastings both secular and religious, took place. christening feasts, churching feasts, funerals, marriage feasts were conducted there. Indeed, arguably the alehouse played an important part in the making and breaking of marriages. It was common for dowry negotiations to be made there, the betrothal to be celebrated there, and even marriages themselves were conducted there. In the Tudor period, and for a large part of the Stuart, laws on marriage were fairly vague. A simple exchange of vows, so long as they were witnessed, was considered enough, even if they were not made in a church, or before a minister. Such marriages would be clandestine, but still considered valid. A couple who declared before a crowd that they took each other to be husband and wife, no matter how vaguely, and then consummated that union, would be considered married by the community. It is possible that such services took place frequently in alehouses, especially after a little drink had livened people up. If marriages failed, then the alehouse was a place where couples could go to to free themselves of each other. The scenario immortalised by Thomas Hardy in The Mayor of Casterbridge, when Michael Henchard sold his wife Susan in the market place to a sailor, no doubt occurred in Tudor and Stuart England. "Wife-sale", usually by mutual consent, was accepted as a legitimate separation by the community. Arguably the alehouse was important in that it provided an outlet. By coming together, revelling in gossip, and discussing the shortcomings of their "betters", the people could get rid of their angers and frustrations. Arguably this acted as a safety valve as potential rebelliousness was transmuted into laughter and the making fun of those in authority. The alehouse was a suitable venue for this, as the people could slander their superiors, blaspheme and curse, virtually do what they liked, with little fear of being reprimanded, as the alehouse was a refuge from the eyes of the legal, political and religious world.
The alehouse was very much an entertainment centre. There would perhaps be ballad singers, humble players, or "wonders" to look at - an exotic animal or a deformed person which intrigued and fascinated a society which although was afraid of them, at the same time marvelled at them. If these were lacking, customers could amuse themselves by playing a variety of games such as cards, dice, backgammon, and for the hot blooded male, there was always the attentions of the prostitutes to succumb to. If these women happened to get pregnant, then the alehouse would be a refuge for them, where they could stay and deliver their child. This contributed to the well being of the town, for it meant that such women were not on the streets, homeless and begging, or relying on parish charity. Into the seventeenth century, as alehouses became more sophisticated, reading material such as newspapers and books were increasingly provided. Also alehouse keepers began to plan outdoor games and activities; dancing, football, bowls.
The alehouse was also important in that it provided an invaluable service to those coming and going from the towns. Although Mary Coate argues that following the Reformation the amount of religious traffic ebbed as people no longer made "pilgrims", the sixteenth century was still a period of immense geographic mobility, especially from the country to the towns. London in particular was a magnet, and drew people from all over. As people were making their way to the capital city, they needed somewhere to stay. The alehouse was perfect. Although the rooms were not particularly luxurious - sometimes a traveller even had to share the same bed as the keeper and his wife, accommodation was cheap, and better than a field or a barn where the shadowy figure of Death was always lurking. Traffic into the towns was particular dense on market and fair days when people from within as much as a ten mile radius would come to the town to sell their goods and purchase what they needed. The alehouse was a perfect stopping point in the journey. People could refresh themselves there, or if local, it was a place to visit while taking a break. For those hoping to settle in the town, the alehouse could be the first step in this process, acting as Clark and Slack argue "as a door of entry for the would be urban settler." (5) Although it was illegal for alehouse keepers to lodge "strangers" for over a night, this law often went unheeded, and many a person stayed their until they had permanent work, and could set up their own home. This was especially true of apprentices. Once they left their masters house, they perhaps had no immediate home to go to, and so lodged at an alehouse until they could set up on their own. Also the alehouse was important in that it acted as a kind of "job centre", where newcomers could hear from the locals of any jobs or livings available. Indeed, the alehouse was in general a centre of communication, where people arranged to meet each other, and flocked to hear the latest local, national, and political news. As Clark argues, it was a "point of contact".