The Medieval Solar


I wrote a while ago about the hall in a medieval house or castle. Because the hall was a very public place with many busy people doing something there or walking through, lords in large houses and castles needed somewhere else to conduct their private business and to spend their days.

The hall was not necessarily the most pleasant place to sit in all day. Meals were served there, which usually meant that it was not far from the kitchen and cooking smells infiltrated the hall. Most of the household spent their days there, unless they had reason to be elsewhere, which meant it could be noisy and crowded.

If he was wealthy enough, the lord had a solar to which he could withdraw. Here he would have privacy and quiet. Although there was not a great sense of privacy earlier in the Middle Ages, it was becoming important by the end of the fourteenth century. In addition there would always be business that the lord would not want to be known by others.

The solar was the room in which the lord spent most of his time when he was indoors. Most importantly, it contained his bed. He was the only one, except possibly his wife, to have his own bedchamber, let alone his own bed. It would be a large bed and, when he travelled, it would be taken down and travel with him.

Where there was a solar it was upstairs on the first floor. Usually it would have a fireplace, demonstrating the status of the man whose room it was.

Some solars had windows looking down into the hall so that the lord could see what was happening in his absence. His clothes would be stored there in a large chest. He would also have a chair, with cushions and expensive fabric. He was probably the only one in the house to have a chair. Everyone else who was permitted to sit had to make to with a stool. Members of his own family, however, might also have chairs.

The name ‘solar’ doesn’t, surprisingly, relate to the sun, although many solars were built so that they got as much sunlight as possible. Rather it comes from ‘seul’ the French word meaning ‘alone’. It was the place where the lord could be alone.

Along with the hall, it was the most impressive room in the house. Guests and visitors were often received there. The room would be furnished luxuriously in accordance with the lord’s status and wealth. The floor might be tiled, rather than wooden. Elaborate windows might be glazed. There might be tapestries on the walls. All of these were very expensive. It was, ultimately, the place where the lord would know that he was lord.



Filed under Fourteenth Century

21 responses to “The Medieval Solar

  1. I often wonder how introverts coped in the days when people on every level of the social ladder had so little personal space.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll drive myself mad thinking about that now. I fret over the lack of privacy, but I hadn’t thought much about introverts. I suspect they coped because everything was so labour-intensive they could offer (or had) to do things that took them away from everyone else.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think the problem here is that you are seeing this dilemma through modern perspective. You have to imagine first how important it is to have family and community in a place where there is no surplus of food, shelter, clothing, and heat. Only when you can picture that place, only then you may see that lack of privacy wouldn’t be such an issue even for an introvert. Plus there were always monastic orders with strict “no talking” rules.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. That’s a point. Some people are sure to have noticed that they liked working in quiet or more remote places that others weren’t so keen on.

    I’m also wondering if one of the many delights of spring was that the weather allowed individuals to keep a little more apart from their families/households.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. How interesting. It’s easy to forget how packed together everyone was then, at least in the towns.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know. Hollywood hasn’t served us well. Whenever I visit a castle I always think how tiny the living space is. If a castle was in a town, visitors could presumably have been put up in inns and private lodgings nearby. In the country they must have slept in tents in the bailey. For obvious reasons, I’m rather obsessed by medieval sleeping arrangements.


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  7. Interesting, April! The solar was one of the things I wrestled with when I wrote my first novel set in the 13th century. I gave my narrator a “solar” and had him share with another young man, but I wonder if I should just have called it a bedchamber throughout. Perhaps that was inaccurate? I think I picked it up from the book “Life in a Medieval Castle”–that chambers in a castle were called solars. What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Gabriella, bedchambers or the lack thereof is one of the things I’ve struggled to come to grips with myself. The solar was for the lord and his family. Depending on the size of the house, there were either no bedchambers or very few. Last year I read a very interesting book called Beds and Bedchambers in Late Medieval England which underlined the fact that few people slept in bedchambers and even fewer slept in a bed.

      I’ve had a quick look at my copy of Life in a Medieval Castle and the first mention of a solar is a bit misleading.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. So would they have slept around the hearth in the Great Hall? Any small chambers there were would have been absolutely freezing in winter, of course. (My book was set in Kenilworth Castle, which would have been on the larger side, admittedly :))
    I really do admire your zeal for historical research and the interesting way you communicate it!

    Liked by 1 person

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