Save for the lowliest, all fourteenth century houses and castles had a hall. This was the largest space in the house and, in larger houses and castles, was built to impress. They were high and long. The walls would often be painted with secular or religious images. In richer buildings they would be covered in tapestries, which served to decorate the room, to keep it warm and to demonstrate the owner’s wealth. Although built much later, Henry VIII’s Great Hall at Hampton Court is a wonderful example of this. Amazingly, Henry’s hall was for his household, not for him.
The hall was the heart of the house and served many purposes. Meals were eaten there. In great houses the lord, his family and the most important members of his household would sit at table on a raised platform with everyone else arranged on lower tables in order of precedence.
Meals were taken at what were essentially trestle tables and the household sat on benches. These were easily put away after meals and the servants slept on the floor of the hall. Most fourteenth century furniture was capable of being taken apart and moved.
In many houses the floors were made of beaten earth covered in rushes. Much thought has been given by historians and archaeologists to how the rushes were arranged, since they were probably not just strewn about on the floor. There is an interesting discussion about it in the Secrets of the Castle DVD which I reviewed here. I’m not sure how the solution posited by Ruth Goodman would work in a large hall, though. She tied the rushes together in bundles, which seemed to work well in a tiny, single-roomed dwelling. It’s difficult to see how effective it would have been when people were walking over them every day. Another theory is that the rushes were woven into mats and placed on the floor. In the homes of the wealthy, the floors would be made of stone or tiles, depending on which materials were available locally. The Secrets of the Castle DVD also has an informative section about making tiles.
The hall was also the place where the evening’s entertainment took place. Once it was dark, very little work could take place outside, so everyone was more or less confined to the house. Tales would be told, usually well-remembered stories or tales of people’s own experiences from wars, travels and pilgrimages. In wealthier houses the stories would be read aloud from books. Other forms of entertainment were singing, music, dancing, table-top games and gambling, depending on the season of the year.
In houses where there was no solar, the family would use the hall for their daytime occupations. For women this would mean sewing, spinning or weaving. The men were more likely to be outside during the day, training to fight, hunting or attending to their business.
The photograph at the top of the post is the Medieval Merchant’s House in Southampton. It’s a fairly modest house and includes a shop, but at its centre it has a hall. The hall takes up both stories of the house and a gallery runs between the front and back bedrooms on the first floor. Halls were high because, in the days before fireplaces became common, there would be an open fire in the middle of the room, and the height allowed the smoke to rise away from the occupants.
The owner’s wealth would be on display in the hall. This could take the form of expensive furniture or furnishings, but was usually made up of plate.