Wednesday 20 March 2019

Inspirational homes (1) by Carolyn Hughes

“Inspirational homes” might put you in mind of a strapline blazoned across the front of a glossy interior décor magazine, but that’s not the sort of inspiration I’m going to talk about. In this post, and my next two, I thought I’d reveal a little about the real-life buildings that “inspire” me as I write about the homes in which my characters spend their lives.

In my novels, set in 14th century southern England, my characters are peasants, artisans of various sorts, and the gentry. The peasants might be poor or wealthy, and free or unfree, so some are on the lowest rung of village society, whereas others, even if they owe service to their lord, are well off enough to be the equivalent of a middle class.

Depending on their station in life, these people would have lived in:
  • One-roomed cottages, barely better than hovels, in which every part of life for a family was spent in the same space;
  • Bigger two- or three-roomed cottages, perhaps with a platform for sleeping and possibly small storage spaces;
  • Houses with two storeys, a hall downstairs, and a solar upstairs for sleeping accessed by a narrow staircase;
  • Large manor houses with several rooms, but still centred on a main great hall, and with a solar perhaps divided into chambers. Some manor houses might be fortified. 

Above and beyond the manor houses there were of course great castles, but I have none of those kind of aristocratic folk in my novels, so I need no castles to inspire me!

To get some idea of what 14th century homes might look – and indeed feel – like, I am very fortunate to have quite close by, in West Sussex, the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, a living museum, whose mission is to rescue and conserve historic buildings from across the south of England. Buildings are saved from being demolished, or from simply falling down, by being carefully dismantled and rebuilt on the museum’s site. The museum has more than fifty buildings, spanning nine centuries. Most are open for you to go inside, so that you can get a real feel for what it was like to live and work in them. The museum is a wonderful resource.

As also is English Heritage, which manages over 400 historic monuments, buildings and other places of historical interest, including both some modest homes and wonderful castles.

The buildings I am going to discuss in these posts can be visited either at the Weald and Downland Museum or at an English Heritage site.

Today I am going to discuss the homes at the bottom end of the scale, peasants’ cottages. Because they were the homes of the poor, and were often built of materials that were given to decay – timber, wattle and daub, thatch – few such buildings survive to the present day. Of course some houses with origins in the Middle Ages are still standing, but they were likely to have been constructed of stone, and presumably will have been maintained and refurbished over the centuries to keep them structurally sound.

Two of the five mediaeval houses re-erected at the Weald and Downland Museum are the 13th century cottage from Hangleton in Sussex and a house from Boarhunt in Hampshire that dates from the 14th century. These are both small peasant houses.

Some peasant houses might have been designed to accommodate animals in one end of the building, but that is not the case with either of these. It must be presumed that animals would have been kept in a separate byre or barn.

The two-room cottage from Hangleton is a flint cottage reconstructed using archaeological evidence from excavation of the mediaeval village. The cottage was probably built in the 13th century and abandoned in the 14th. Hangleton itself, which is about 4 miles (6.5 km) north-west of Brighton, seems to have been already in decline by the middle of the 14th century as a result of the climatic and economic upheavals of the early part of the century. The arrival of what we call the Black Death in 1348-1350 might have been the last straw.

Oast House Archive/Mediaeval Cottage at Weald & Downland Museum,
Singleton, West Sussex/
CC BY-SA 2.0

Although this is an entirely flint-built cottage, other cottages from the area were built with a framework of wooden posts, and the spaces between filled with wattle and daub, though later this was replaced with flint. The walls of this cottage are about three or four feet (one to one and a half metres) high. Above the eaves is the timber framework of the roof, which is covered in thick straw thatch, although apparently the roof could have been wooden shingles or turf, some other type of thatch, or possibly even clay tiles.

The cottage has two rooms. The main room is where the family – on average five people – would have lived their entire lives: cooking their food, eating it, sleeping and carrying out all the essential tasks of everyday life. It must have been very cramped! I don’t have the exact dimensions, but I don’t think it can be much more than 15 feet (3 metres) square.

The second room has an oven, which is not usual for an ordinary cottage at a time when villagers were expected to have their bread baked in the lord’s oven, but perhaps the occupier of this house was a baker...

Most of the homes at this time (even relatively wealthy ones) would have had a hearth in the middle of the floor of the main (or only) room, and this is true of the main room here. A circular stone hearth has been laid on the floor, not quite in the middle but somewhat to one side. The room is open to the rafters, and the smoke from the fire would have risen and found its way out through the thatch. Most people assume that there would have been a hole of some sort in the roof’s ridge through which the smoke escaped, but I have read that the gaps in the thatch would have provided sufficient egress. It is also said that the smoke was good for keeping the thatch insect free, though I daresay creepy-crawlies were pretty abundant in mediaeval cottages.

The museum has dressed the room with a couple of small tables, a bench and a few stools, a fairly strong-looking chest, perhaps for storing linen, clothes and any valuables, and an array of baskets, tubs and cooking and eating utensils. Tools and other items are shown hanging from the rafters, or stored on the top of the wall, but there is clearly little space for much in the way of furniture or possessions. No bed is shown here, so we must assume that the family would lay down their pallets when they were ready for bed, at a suitable distance from the open hearth.

There is just one small window and, of course, it is not glazed. It has vertical struts offering a measure of security, and a sort of blind – oiled cloth perhaps – has been installed to keep out the weather. I suppose that a shutter might have been added for greater protection, but one isn’t shown here. It must have been very dark indoors, even with the blind open, and exceedingly gloomy with it closed. Given that these poor folk’s only source of light after sundown was the fire and smelly tallow candles or feeble rushlights, one presumes that, as soon as evening came there was no point trying do anything other than rolling out their straw pallets and seeking sleep!

I have spent a day (well, more like a few hours) in this little cottage, dressed in medieval clothes, learning how to spin, crouching round that central hearth, making soup (“sowpys dorry”) and cheese pottage. I discovered how very hot and smoky it was inside, and thought that maybe I wouldn’t have much enjoyed being a 14th century peasant...

The author, enjoying being "mediaeval" for the day

The “hall house” from Boarhunt, 7 miles (11 km) north of Portsmouth, in Hampshire, dates from the late 14th century (1355–1390). It is a bit larger than the Hangleton cottage, having three bays, and is built with a cruck frame over the middle of the central hall. In the museum’s view, this building was particularly well constructed for its size.

Keith Edkins / Boarhunt Hall / CC BY-SA 2.0

The central bay is the main living room – the “hall” – again with the hearth in the middle of the floor. The hearth is shown as a rectangle, taking up a surprisingly large portion of the space available. The roof timbers in this central hall show the blackening effects of smoke from the open fire. Although this is a somewhat larger house than Hangleton, the main living area is still quite small, say 20 feet (just over 6 metres) square. The furniture used to dress the hall is much the same as for Hangleton, and again there is no sign of a bed.

It is thought that the bay to the right of the main entrance was probably a service or storage room, while the third room accessed by a door to the left of the hall is thought to be a “solar”, a private room. This inner room has no windows, so perhaps it was simply used for sleeping. It was also completely sealed off from the smoke-filled hall, whereas the service room was only separated from the hall by a screen below cross-beam level.

I have spent time in both these buildings so, when I am writing about peasant cottages in my novels, I can recall what it felt like to be inside them and I try to replicate that feeling in my descriptions of domestic life. Some of my peasant characters do live in one- or two-room cottages, while others' houses might be a little larger. I have seen it conjectured that some people might have constructed sleeping platforms under the rafters and, liking that idea, I have given one or two of my families that arrangement. It would seem to me to be a safer place to sleep than clustered around the hearth, though it would presumably be quite unpleasantly smoky up there!

I think it would be true to say that, for mediaeval peasants, their homes would mostly be cramped from lack of space, dark from a lack of windows, smoky from the central hearth and, in bad weather, cold, draughty and damp. But I suppose that, if you know no different, you would accept that level of discomfort as simply normal, and be grateful that at least you had a place of your own in which to eat and sleep and spend time with your family.

Next time, I will discuss homes of a somewhat higher standing: one belonging to a wealthy farmer and another built by a Souhampton wine merchant.


Susan Price said...

If you're ever in the Welsh borders, you might like to see Stokesay Castle -- -- a wonderfully preserved late 13th century moated house. It escaped destruction because it was used as a cattle byre for centuries -- until a passing Victorian gentlewoman looked at it with fresh eyes and realised what it was.

Carolyn Hughes said...

Haha, Susan, yes indeed! This post is the first of three, and the third one is all about that glorious “castle”! It is one of my favourite places to visit, though I didn’t know about the cattle byre or the Victorian gentlewoman, so thank you for that snippet of information. Thank goodness she saved it - it is a wonderful building.