Category Archives: Medieval Interiors

A Bed Is Not Just For Sleeping

Athelstan

A few weeks ago I read Beds and Chambers in Late Medieval England by Hollie L.S. Morgan. It was illuminating on many counts, especially on the, sometimes unexpected, uses of a bed and bedchamber.

Religion affected everything in the fourteenth century, despite the perceived failure of the church during the Black Death. It’s not surprising, therefore, that there should be a religious aspect to the bed, to waking and sleeping, and to the bedchamber.

For many, the bed was a place where one meditated and encountered God. The chamber was not necessarily a private place, nor, for that matter, was the bed. Few people had bedchambers and those who did rarely occupied them alone. In rooms like the solar we visited last week the lord would sleep with his family. This might not just be his wife and his children, but possibly a widowed mother or an unmarried sister, or more. Despite this, it was here that people expected to meet God as individuals.  It’s not clear what those without a bed or a bedchamber were supposed to do.

Apart from active meditation, there was also the expectation that God could and would speak to someone who was sleeping. The Bible is full of stories of God speaking through dreams or to sleepers. There was another side to sleeping, however. God was not the only one who could come to you while you slept. When you were asleep you were no longer in control of your thoughts and that might open you up to the devil’s influence. On the whole, the night was more to be feared than welcomed. It was a dangerous time.

It was the part of the day beloved of ghosts and demons, who could do harm to anyone coming across them. Then, as now, Christian teaching spoke of the contrast between light (good) and dark (bad). Beings and people who were abroad in the dark, who might even consider the darkness their natural environment, were not usually out to do good.

The night was not only full of spiritual dangers, there were physical dangers too. Your enemy, or a criminal, could creep into your chamber at night and harm you or kill you, since you would not know they were there if you were asleep and you would not be able to protect yourself. Even if you woke, there was probably little you could do. Unless your attacker brought a light with him, or a fire still burned in the bedchamber, you were in darkness. You couldn’t just flick a light switch or strike a match to see him. You had to find or make fire in order to light a candle. The odds were not in your favour.

There was a very real fear that you could go to sleep at night and not wake up in the morning. It was, therefore, sensible to pray for protection before you slept and to give thanks when you woke.

 

Since the bed was a place for praying and meeting God, it was also a place where other devotional activities took place. It is probable that those who were wealthy enough to own devotional books read them in the bedchamber, although they could also read them aloud to the household in the hall. Devotional reading included commentaries on the Bible, sermons, psalters (books of Psalms), works of the Church Fathers and breviaries. A breviary is a book containing all the readings from the Bible and prayers for each liturgical season and each part of the day. It could be used in communal worship in a chapel or a church, but also in private worship in the bedchamber.

 

Sources:

Beds and Chambers in Late Medieval England by Hollie L.S. Morgan

The Time Traveller’s Guide to the Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

 

 

 

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The Solar Revisited

The solar, Stokesay Castle (2)

The solar, Stokesay Castle

Some time ago I wrote about medieval solars in a rather general way, but I visited Stokesay Castle in Shropshire during the summer and now have a few photographs of a medieval solar. Stokesay is really a house with ideas above its station, but it shows, in many ways, how the living spaces of the wealthy functioned in the fourteenth century.

Although a seventeenth-century owner of the house covered the room with the wood panelling that was fashionable at the time, the elements of the medieval room can still be seen.

The solar was designed to be a comfortable room. There’s a fireplace to keep it warm and windows to let in light. The fireplace in the photograph is also from the seventeenth century, but there was a fireplace there in the fourteenth century. It was here that the lord of the manor and his family spent most of their time. The lord’s bed would be here and he would conduct his business here.

Whilst most people slept on the floor or on sacks filled with straw, the bed of the lord of the manor would be something that we would recognise as a bed today. A fairly substantial mattress would have rested on a wooden bed frame. He would have had pillows and sheets and blankets. A canopy would have hung from the ceiling and the curtains attached to it would be drawn around the bed to provide both privacy and warmth.

The solar, Stokesay Castle

The solar, Stokesay Castle

Chairs were almost as rare as beds, but the lord of the manor probably had one in his solar. Cushions would have made it comfortable, and it would have been brightly painted.

Solars were built at the opposite end of the hall to the kitchens so that they were out of the way of any unpleasant odours. Bear in mind that there were no fridges to preserve food and whole animals might be used for a meal. In the summer the kitchen was probably not a good place to be. Being at the other end of the house also meant that there was less risk to the solar and its inhabitants if the kitchen burned down, which was not an unusual occurrence.

They were also built on the first floor as a sign of the status of their occupants. In addition, it enabled the inhabitants of the room to look down into the hall to see what was going on there.  Here’s one of the windows looking from the solar.

Window from solar to hall Stokesay Castle

View from the solar into the hall, Stokesay Castle

Here are both windows seen from the hall.

Windows at the rear of the hall, Stokesay Castle

Windows from the solar, Stokesay Castle

The rest of the household spent a lot of their time in the hall, even sleeping there, so the windows provided a means of seeing or hearing what was going on.

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Medieval Tiles – A Review

Medieval tiles

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’m interested in medieval floors in general and medieval tiles in particular. Tiles were very expensive, as they took a long time and a great deal of skill to make. They were mostly used in ecclesiastical buildings, although some people, like Laurence of Ludlow, were wealthy enough to be able to afford to have them in their houses.

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Medieval floor tiles, Stokesay Castle

When I saw Van Lemmen’s book in the English Heritage shop at Stokesay Castle, there was never any doubt that I was going to buy it. There are only 40 pages, but those pages are glorious. Since most of the pages are full of colour photographs and drawings of medieval tiles, there is not much room for scholarly text.

The photographs in this post are not from the book, they’re mine. The ones in the book are much better.

14th century tiles

Fourteenth century tiles, St Bartholomew’s, Hyde

Such text as there is is very informative, although I would love to know more about how tiles were made. There is a wonderful drawing of a fourteenth century kiln, which highlights what a hit and miss affair tilemaking could be. An imperceptible flaw could destroy a tile and it would be several days before this would be known. It took about six days to load, fire and unload the kiln. A medieval kiln looked like an earthwork. Given the number of days it took to fire a tile, there was no point in making them small. It was sensible to make as many tiles as you could.

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Medieval Tiles, St Mary’s Guildhall, Coventry

Until I read the book, I wasn’t aware that mosaics were made in fourteenth century England. There are some lovely examples in the book from Rievaulx and Byland Abbeys. I can’t share the exact photos with you, but those links are to other photos of the mosaics in question.

It is the pictures which make the book worth buying. They include many examples of medieval tiles from all over England. My favourite photograph is one showing Diana Hall’s modern replacements of damaged tiles in Winchester Cathedral. Her tiles have the colour and vibrancy that all medieval tiles must have had when first laid.

Making tiles was incredibly labour intensive and here are two videos showing how much time it could take just to get the clay into the moulds.

The first is from Guédelon, where a castle is being built in Burgundy using thirteenth century techniques. The second is a  documentary about Diana Hall and her life as a tilemaker.

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Wall paintings at Romsey Abbey

romsey-abbey-through-the-tuddor-garden

On a recent visit to Romsey Abbey I was reminded once again of how wrong my view of life in the Middle Ages is. When I went into the abbey I saw that the walls were just grey stone and it’s easy to assume that they’re unchanged since the church was built in the twelfth century, but that’s not the case.

Most churches would have had a depiction of the Last Judgement painted on a wall that could easily be seen. This would have shown Christ enthroned deciding who went to Heaven and who went to Hell. Hell would be shown as a dreadful place, and the demons leading the damned souls into it usually had sharp teeth and claws with which they tormented their victims. Heaven would be full of light, and the blessed would be led there by beautiful angels. This was supposed to make the parishioners consider their eventual fate.

painted-wall

Wall painting in the Chapel of St Mary, Romsey Abbey

 

This wall painting is from the Chapel of St Mary in the abbey and is thought to represent the life of St Nicholas. It is from the late thirteenth century. Nicholas lived at the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth centuries. He was made bishop of Myra and is said to have been one of the bishops who signed the Nicene Creed in 325. The colours are faded now and it’s hard to imagine how bright the whole church must have been when all the walls, columns and ceilings had just been painted. A church was considered unfinished until the painting was complete.

Not all wall paintings were there for instruction. Sometimes decoration was just decoration. The ribbed vault and the pillar shown below were painted just because all the stone in the church was covered in plaster and then painted. The effect of all the colour on top of the size of the building itself would have struck those inside it with awe. Although wealthy people decorated their own homes in a similar way, frequently with secular as well as religious images, poor people did not. Their homes would have been dull and drab. For them, coming into the abbey would have been a very different experience from their everyday life.

painted-vault

Painted ribbed vault, Romsey Abbey

 

Paintings were almost constantly being updated as tastes changed or a new patron took over a church. They were not considered permanent.

painted-pillar

Painted pillar, Romsey Abbey

 

In England the paintings were whitewashed over during the Reformation, but most were destroyed by the Victorians. Instead of exposing the pictures by removing the whitewash, they preferred to expose the stone by removing the plaster onto which the paintings had been painted. This was, of course, very far from the intentions of the medieval builders, who had gone to great lengths to cover over the stone, which was no more than the skeleton of the church, even when it had been beautifully cut and dressed.

 

 

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