Tag Archives: Ruth Goodman

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.

 

Earthen floor

Earthen floor in the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

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 Secrets of the Castle DVD: A review

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The Secrets of the Castle is the latest in the TV series about everyday (mainly farming) life in previous centuries presented by Ruth Goodman, Peter Ginn and Tom Pinfold (replacing Alex Langlands who has been studying for a doctorate). I’ve been watching them since the first series, Tales from the Green Valley in 2006, which was about running a farm the Jacobean way and which remains my favourite of the farming ones. The other series are A Tudor Feast at Christmas (2006), Victorian Farm (2009), Edwardian Farm (2010), Wartime Farm (2012) and Tudor Monastery Farm (2013).

This time they are not farming, but building a castle and they’re not doing it on their own. Guédelon is the world’s biggest archaeological experiment. It is a twenty-five year project to build a castle in Burgundy using thirteenth century methods. It is staffed by craftsmen and craftswomen and students. They work in seasons, March to September, as their thirteenth century counterparts would have done. As Peter says, the castle is the by-product; it’s the ‘chantier’, the building site, that is the reason for the project as those working there rediscover medieval methods.

It’s a lengthy project, taking longer to build the modern castle than it would have taken in the thirteenth century. This is partly because there are very few written records about how castles were built, so many of the early days were spent working out how things were done.

The team joined the project in its seventeenth season, so much of the castle has already been built. It would not have made such good television if they had gone much earlier, for they were able to take part in some very interesting work, such as making the parts for and putting together a tracery window, painting one of the private rooms and cooking in the kitchen. They were also there when the water mill was first put into use.

The craftsmen and women that we see are carpenters, masons, woodcutters, wood turners, rope makers, builders, potters, blacksmiths, bowyers, tilers, quarrymen, miller and dyers. The overall effect is to show the amount of physical labour required for even the simplest of tasks. There are many surprises: only two quarrymen are required to support the site and everything is designed on the wooden floor of the tracing room and there’s not a sheet of paper in sight.

On the domestic front Ruth shows how to turn a hovel into a home. Lesson one is to cover the earth floor with rushes so that you don’t sleep on a damp floor and lesson two is to hang your food in a net from the ceiling so that the mice don’t get it. Then the potter has to make her some pots, both to cook with and to eat and drink from. Then the carpenter has to make her a grain ark for storing grain and for making bread. We later see it being put to this use by Tom, rather unsuccessfully. We also learn that pig fat keeps your hands smooth when you’re working with lime, but makes every dog on the site your friend.

There is an expedition to see a trebuchet being fired – truly terrifying- and another to glimpse the interior of St Mary Magdalene, Vézelay, the inspiration for a black and white arch in the castle. This visit also includes a very brief examination of the medieval idea of pilgrimage, which is a bit of an obsession of mine at the moment.

The animals around the site also get a look in. There are pigs, horses, chickens, ducks and some very sleek and handsome cockerels.

There were two great revelations in this DVD for me. The first is rather obvious, so it should not have been a revelation. Most castles we see today are ruins and open to the elements and have bare interior walls. When they were first built, the walls would have been plastered and painted. This would have had the effect of making the rooms lighter. The second, more surprising revelation, was that the outsides of the castles were lime washed so that they would be white and therefore more visible, thus impressing, or striking terror, into anyone who saw it. Everything about a castle was designed to impress, either because its function was to cow those around it into submission or to defend part of the realm, or because it was demonstrating the wealth and ambition of the lord who built it.

I have enjoyed this DVD very much. It’s informative and quite cosy, although clearly some of the participants are a bit overwhelmed by Ruth’s enthusiasm. I watched the series when it was on television at the end of last year and enjoyed it just as much watching it again in the last month. I shall doubtless watch it again my times in the future.

The DVD was released in January and is made up of five one hour episodes, with a short discussion between the producer and the site administrator at Guédelon as the special feature. It’s narrated by Paul McGann, which is a huge bonus if you like his voice, as I do.

The site at Guédelon is open to visitors between March and September. The website is here. There are tours in English in July and August.

You can follow the project on Twitter @GuedelonCastle

This is a link to an amusing animation showing how the project came into being here.

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Filed under Castle, DVD Review, Thirteenth Century