The tavern is an intrinsic feature of Western society. Contrary to the reputation commonly associated with drinking establishments as dens of debauchery, locations inappropriate to delve into subjects of religion or politics, the whole of Western civilization in fact owes much of it existence to the local pub. The roots of this tradition run back through the centuries and helped bring Europe out of the dark ages toward the Age of Enlightenment.
The historic progenitor of the bar or nightclub in the West is the Germanic and Nordic mead hall, popular especially during the European Dark Ages. Originating in the Germanic and European longhouses, from around the fifth century onward the mead hall was the primary residence of the king or chief and his theigns or other retainers. Often the most well fortified structure in the Anglo-Saxon village, the mead hall served a similar purpose as did the keep in later medieval cities. As the preeminent building of the Dark Age kingdom, the mead hall hosted the stately ceremonies and celebrations of the community.
The mead hall played such an important part in the religious and mythological system of Western Europe that even the gods lived in halls much resembling those of the people. In Norse mythology Valhalla is Odin’s hall and home of half of the valiant dead while the other half resided in Freyja’s hall Sessrúmnir. Much of the epic poem Beowulf takes place in the mead hall named Heorot where a lot of ceremony and merry making goes on. Such examples are the basis of the Sumbel, multiple rounds of ceremonial toasting still performed today by those whom practice indigenous Germanic religions.
The Medieval Era
As Western Europe became steadily more Christianized, amongst the aristocratic classes the Germanic mead hall along with its social and ceremonial focus was transformed into the banquet hall. But amongst the working classes and the poor, the social and ceremonial significance of the mead hall was transferred to the taverns and workhouses. In fact the word tavern is derived from the Latin taberna which was a workhouse or retail center for craftsmen as well as an apartment style lodging, housing freedmen and travelers. This is the origin of the public house or pub that is so common in Western Europe and her colonial nations.
Throughout the medieval period the public houses or taverns became centers for lodging travelers and merchants. They became the central gathering points of craftsmen seeking safety from bandits and highwaymen and thereby became the focus of trade meetings. It was within these taverns that the medieval guilds were established whereby craftsmen and artisans could share and protect the secrets of their trade such as architecture, glassmaking and other crafts. For this reason taverns and lodges became the few places in the intellectually oppressive medieval European society where freedom of speech, especially of a religious, philosophical and political nature could be exercised and protected, if only clandestinely.
There should be no wonder that during the Enlightenment era of European society that the tavern or lodge is where Freemasonry and other secretive societies emerged from the shadows. Freemasonry is the inheritor of the European architectural guilds transformed into a philosophical society complete with ancient rituals and respect for religious and political diversity. The four primary lodges upon which modern Freemasonry is established originally met at four respective taverns; the Goose and Gridiron Alehouse in London in St. Paul’s Churchyard, the Apple Tree Tavern, the Crown Alehouse, and the Rummer and Grapes Tavern.
In 1716 these four lodges gathered at London’s Apple-Tree Tavern where the first pro Tempore Grand Lodge was established, the eldest Master Mason was instituted as Grandmaster and an agreement was made to hold annual meetings amongst themselves to formalize and regularize the Craft. The following year; June 24, 1717 the four lodges met at London’s Goose and Gridiron Alehouse where the Grand Master was elected and the founding of the first regular Grand Lodge of Freemasonry was finalized.
Like Freemasonry briefly before it representatives from all over England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Brittany met at the Apple Tree Tavern on September 22, 1717 to form the Revivalist Druid order An Druidh Uileach Braithreachas (The British Circle of the Universal Bond).
The ancient tradition of the Tavern acting as meeting house for gathering warriors, the discussion of philosophy and politics continued in the American colonies. In the absence of a national media the Tavern was the primary place where early Americans heard the news and discussed their political opinions. The Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, like the Apple Tree Tavern before it was used by multiple groups and organizations. The St. Georges Society, a charitable organization devoted to assisting newly arriving poor Englishmen to the colonies was established here in 1720.
Hailed as the birthplace of American Freemasonry, in 1732 St. John’s Lodge No. 1 of the Grand Lodge of the Masonic Temple was established in the Tun Tavern. And like the St. George Society before, in 1747 the St. Andrew’s Society was founded here as another charitable organization, this time assisting newly arriving Scottish immigrants.
In 1756 Benjamin Franklin used the Tun Tavern as a recruiting station for the Pennsylvania Militia. In 1768 the New York Chamber of Commerce was founded in the Tun Tavern’s Long Room where its officers continued to meet until 1770. This same Tun Tavern Long Room was also used by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson for the meeting house of the Continental Congress and as the recruiting station for the Continental Marines, now known as the United States Marine Corps.
Fraunces Tavern in New York played a central role in the organizing of the American Revolutionary War. The Son’s of Liberty used this tavern as a meeting place to discuss their revolutionary activities. In 1774 Fraunces Tavern hosted a tea party much like the Boston Tea Party before it, in which the patriots dressed as Indians and dumped British tea into New York harbor. And in 1776 the New York Provincial Congress met at Fraunces Tavern.
According to the Memoirs of Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge; at the end of the Revolutionary War on December 4, 1783, Fraunces Tavern hosted George Washington’s victory banquet in the Long Room where this iconic general said farewell to his officers as he resigned his post in order to insure that the newly established United States did not become a military dictatorship. After the ratification of the United States Constitution, Fraunces Tavern was used to house the departments of the Treasury, War and Foreign Affairs.
Bars, pubs and taverns are the traditional establishments where the freedom to speak one’s mind and offer challenging and revolutionary ideas has been protected. Concepts like liberty, republicanism, democracy and rebellion emerged from these establishments throughout the centuries. The United States’ First Amendment freedoms owe their existence to freethinkers exercising their philosophical muscles over a pint of beer or a glass of wine. From its roots as a tribal ceremonial house to its later adaptations as a place of revolutionary thought and activism, the tavern has been the lifeblood of Western civilization.