Tag Archives: Medieval House

The Medieval Floor

 

Encaustic tiles

Fourteenth century tiles

You might not have given much thought to medieval floors, but they were quite varied and offer good opportunities to a novelist in scene-setting or showing a character’s state of mind. In Beloved Besieged Elaine covers the floor of her father’s hall with rushes strewn with sweet-smelling herbs and flowers for her betrothal celebration. In my current work in progress, the heroine drops to the floor of the main room of the inn in which she’s staying, even though she suspects it will result in an unpleasant stain on her clothes.

Not all medieval floors were equal. In most houses, the floors of the rooms on the ground floor were simply beaten earth. It always sounded unpleasant, especially when I saw the state of the floors in castles that I visited. Thanks to them I had visions of lumpy, uneven floors being swept away when they were brushed or of bits of a floor sticking to shoes if someone entered the house from the rain or of it being scratched up by dogs or cats. Then I saw one in the Medieval Merchant’s House in Southampton. That floor is very solid and secure and would last for a long time with only a little maintenance.

It took a fair amount of effort to make such a floor and sometimes the neighbours were called on for help. As many people as the householder could get would walk on the floor for an afternoon (or longer) until it was flat and smooth. They literally walked round in circles until it was done. They would have a chat or a sing as they walked. This seems to me to be a very satisfactory way of providing a floor surface and is probably quicker and more enjoyable than laying a laminate floor.

 

The earthen floor would be covered with rushes. Rushes provided good insulation and could help to keep the floor clean. I know that I often point to The Secrets of the Castle for illustrations of many things, but the archaeologists demonstrate the practicalities of medieval life so well. When she moved into a labourer’s hovel near the building site, Ruth Goodman pondered how the rushes might have been laid, since loose rushes would not stay where they were put for long. She concluded that they would probably have been tied together in bunches and then laid on the floor. Other historians and archaeologists have considered whether the rushes might have been woven into mats before being placed on the floor, but everyone seems to be agreed that loose rushes were not strewn on the floor. Rushes weren’t just used in houses. Almost every domestic beaten earth floor would have been covered in them.

In a public building, an inn, for example, the rushes would have contained dreadful things trodden in from outside by people and dogs, but in a hovel, where the rushes would have doubled up as the bedding for the occupants, they would have been kept much cleaner. In the spring and summer herbs and flowers could be added to make the rushes (and the room) smell sweeter and to disguise less welcome odours.

Encaustic Tiles from Hyde Abbey

Fourteenth Century Tiles

Tiles provided a far more upmarket floor surface. Like everything else in medieval times, their production was very labour intensive. They required someone to dig the clay, which had to be cleaned and homogenised until it could be worked. Then it would be pressed into square, wooden moulds. After the tiles had been pushed out of the moulds, they would be dried and stacked in a kiln to be fired. A medieval kiln was more like an earthwork than an oven and firing could take twenty-four hours or more. Disaster was always close at hand. Bad weather could mean that the firing was delayed, or the tiles could be too wet and would explode when the water became hot enough to turn it to gas.

Tiles could be plain or patterned with different coloured clay. Decorated tiles were for the very rich or churches. The photographs in this post are of encaustic tiles recovered from the site of Hyde Abbey in Winchester. The patterns are made by using different colours of clay. Like the ones in the photographs, they were usually of two colours, but they could contain up to six different colours. Because the pattern is not just on the surface, it remains as the tile is worn down.

 

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The Medieval Solar

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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.

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The Medieval Hall

 

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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.

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How Many to a Bed!

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Following on from last week’s post about sleep, I thought I’d look at sleeping arrangements. You only have to go into a fourteenth century house or a thirteenth century castle to see that space was at a premium. These buildings took a lot of people to maintain them and, where their purpose was military, to defend them. There just wasn’t enough room for everyone to have their own bed, let alone their own bedchamber, although honoured guests in a great castle might be lucky enough to a have both.

For everyone who wasn’t a king or one of his barons, sharing a bedchamber or a bed was the norm. Even in reasonably well-off houses an entire family might sleep in one room, with the parents in one bed and the children in another, or on a mattress on the floor.

In one of my novels, The Winter Love, I give one of the characters a bed to himself, but he is unmarried and it is his house where he lives alone. Towards the end of the novel Eleanor is given a bedchamber of her own, but it’s clear that this is a particular honour and it is in the house of another bachelor. In The Traitor’s Daughter and His Ransom, however, Alais and Richard respectively share beds with other members of the household.

There was very little living space in houses and castles, and most of what there was was dual purpose. The hall, for example, was the place where meals were eaten, celebrations, including dancing, were held, guests received and the servants slept. It was the largest room, often of impressive, or even imposing, dimensions. Food was eaten off trestle tables and the household sat on benches to eat. All of these were easily cleared away. If there was entertainment, stools could be brought out for those who needed to sit, while everyone else stood. When everyone else had gone to bed, the servants slept on the floor, separated from the beaten earth by rushes, or possibly rush mats, and blankets.

The solar was a first storey room, usually at the end of the hall, in a great house or castle. It was here that the lord slept. During the day it was more like a drawing-room for his family and a place where they could be private. In this room the women embroidered and span and members of the family read or wrote. It would be a very comfortable room, often with a fireplace.

Apart from the lord, and, sometimes, his wife, no one had their own bedchamber. Since there was no concept of privacy, this was not a problem. The sexes were segregated, but that was the only concession.  Beds were expensive and not everyone could afford one. Really good ones were dismantled when the owner travelled and put together again when he arrived at his destination.

When travellers stayed in an inn they could find themselves sleeping in a room containing up to a dozen beds, each holding three or four people. They might share a bed with one or more strangers. There were occasionally separate rooms for women, but they rarely travelled alone and were usually accommodated in a bed with their husband even if it meant throwing a single man out.

 

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