Having spent the best part of an afternoon this week buying, assembling and filling a flat-pack storage unit for the spare room, I thought we could have a look at medieval storage solutions. Using the word ‘solutions’ rather implies that there was the same problem with storage space then that many of us have today, but that wasn’t the case. Even in very well-off houses, there were very few things that needed to be stored and a few chests were usually all that was required.
All the photographs in this post are of reproduction chests and cupboards in the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton. I’m not sure that a house of this size would normally have had quite so many, but they’re all very striking in their own way.
So, what did medieval people need to store? Mostly clothes, bedlinen, tablecloths, towels, pots, pans and cooking implements. One of the most important things they kept in their houses was, of course, money. There were no banks in which people could deposit their money, although there were banks that loaned money and there were sophisticated banking practices that allowed money to be sent across Europe without any coins leaving England.
Cupboards in larger houses were used to display the owner’s plate, rather than to store it, although storage is obviously a function of a cupboard. In very wealthy houses the plate would have included fine objects made in gold or silver by master craftsmen. The medieval merchant whose cupboards are our example might have had a few pieces made from precious metals, so he probably didn’t display his pottery jugs and cups. That’s the choice of English Heritage who own the property.
One of our modern storage problems can be clothes. We never seem to have a large enough wardrobe or enough drawers. This was not something that was experienced in the Middle Ages. Everyone slept either naked or in the chemise they had been wearing under their clothes all day. When they took off their outer clothes, they shook them out and hung them over a rail. I think this was a fairly hygienic solution, as it allowed clothes to air overnight before they were put on again the next day. They didn’t put their clothes away as soon as they took them off.
Pots and pans not in use would have been stored on a shelf or on the floor, but there were unlikely to have been many of them, as most meals in ‘ordinary’ houses would have been made using a single pot over an open fire. It was only in very large houses where there was a requirement to cook different dishes for the main meal that more pots, pans, bowls and cooking implements would have been used. These would have been put away when not in use.
What, then, was kept in the very bright chests that were the models for these reproductions? There would have been some clothes, since outer clothing would have needed to be cleaned at some point and at least one change of clothes would have been needed. Since the purpose of the chemise was to protect the outer clothing from sweat and other bodily excretions, they were washed fairly frequently and spares were kept in chests. Mainly, though, it would have been bedlinen, tablecloths and towels. We tend to think of medieval meals being taken on bare tables, but tablecloths were an important part of the ritual of eating meals. Bedlinen would have been washed, so there were spares in chests where blankets were also stored when not needed.
My own biggest storage problem is books. I don’t know how many I have, but there are more than 150 about the Middle Ages. Storing books wasn’t a problem at all for most medieval people. Although many people could read, books were prohibitively expensive. They had to be copied by hand, but it wasn’t the labour that made books pricy; it was what they were written on. Paper was starting to be used in England in the fourteenth century, but vellum was usually used for books. It was made from calfskin, which had been treated and cured and stretched. Many skins didn’t survive the process, making those that did very expensive. Very few people who weren’t monks or kings or nobles owned books. If they did, they would have had a very small number, all of which would have been kept in a very secure chest.
The last time I visited the Medieval Merchant’s House, sadly more than a year ago, the chests were the stars of the show. They’re not just useful, but interesting to look at, with their bright colours and pictures that tell a story. My new storage unit is just a storage unit. It’s not a work of art.