When someone says the word “medieval”, it may conjure up thoughts of knights, castles, Monty Python, or Medieval Times Restaurant. The Medieval Period, or Middle Ages, covers a lot of time-like, one thousand years a lot (about 500-1500 AD). And as we all know lots can happen in that amount of time – famines, wars, crusades, a Schism or two, Black Death, ya know, the usual. Within the medieval time period, humanity went through at least three distinct architectural styles: Pre-Romanesque, Romanesque, and Gothic (each of which could be further divided). The first two play off Roman architecture because that’s what people saw around them and understood, but it was a romanticized version. Then Gothic style comes along all high and mighty (for reals though those cathedrals were tall and mighty). Within these styles, architecture was focused mostly on civic, military, and religious buildings. Honestly, these don’t necessarily interest me, but people's homes do.
Between all the history, people in the Middle Ages were busy just staying alive. And maybe you are thinking, “Look, it can’t be all bad. They had castles and stuff." And I would look at you and say, “Wrong!” The everyday run of the mill person didn’t live in a castle – that’s way fancy. So let’s take a gander at how the serfs, peasants, and lower classes lived.
Fun side note: In France, there is an experimental archeological site where they are building a castle using historic techniques.
Medieval House Construction:
Homes were simple one room structures built with sticks, wattle, and thatched roof. Reeds or thrushes would have covered the dirt floor. You would not have been able to afford bricks or a tiled roof. This will be the standard for the lower classes throughout the Middle Ages. Then along comes the Black Plague that kills a ton of people, which means workers are scarce. So you can make more money and, in turn, afford better living accommodations. However, you may not survive the next several rounds of plague, so hedge your bets.
Communal living is all the rage. In the 15th Century, if you were part of a middle class or wealthy land owner’s estate, you may have lived in a “Hall,” a communal living space consisting of one large, tall room, that you would share with your family and servants. The fire would have been in the center, but without a chimney. Smoke would filter through openings in the wall or through the thatched/tiled roof.
By the late 16th Century, congrats – your middle-class family gets a chimney! Your home is built with exposed timbers that are load bearing and the space between is filled with plaster, brick, or stone.
You would go to a public bathhouse. Medieval people liked to be clean. The idea of cleanliness fell out of favor in the Tudor period. Near the bathhouses were communal public toilets. In London, the facilities would have been over the local river.
Covid-19 Medieval Hack: If you run out of toilet paper consider using straw or moss. If you have extra money, try a cloth rag or a sponge on the end of a stick.
2 Public Doman Image, Pietro da Eboli (13th century) " De Balneis Puteolanis "
Private bedroom, lol. The great hall, if you lived near / with the local Lord or landowner, would be your sleeping and living quarters, reinforcing the idea that you were dependent on the landowner. There was a central hearth for cooking and heating and the floor would have been covered in rushes.
Oh! You want a bed? Fill a bag with hay. Pillow? You get a log. Only the rich are getting a real bed and a soft pillow.
In the 16th C, the middle class was starting to get bedrooms WITH a bed (if you were willing to spend a third of your yearly wages).
The whole house was the kitchen. Oval hearthstone, wood fire, a pot, and wood spoon would make up your kitchen. Your bread would be sent to the manor house to be baked. This set up lasted for hundreds of years.
Kitchens wouldn’t become separated from the main hall until the late period when the middle class started emulating the wealthy. Eventually, you might get a brick oven to make bread.
Henry VIII had the largest kitchen at the time with 55 different rooms and around 200 people working in them. At Hampton Court, the kitchen was completely separated from the main hall which kept smells at bay and protected his living quarters in the event of a fire.
Covid-19 Medieval Hack: Use vinegar (anti-bacterial and degreaser), rosemary (insecticide), and salt (abrasive) to clean kitchen surfaces.
A few footnotes:
- Covid-19 Medieval Hacks should not be taken as serious life hacks. They are intended as comical and educational in regard to Medieval life.
- Construction methods, materials, etc., varied depending on where a person lived. What is written here is a small sample.
- If you’re interested in Medieval culture, food, etc. Try watching Supersizers Go… This show goes through various ages starting with Rome and focuses on the food of each period, but also discusses the various cultural goings on and how these affected the lives of people living in the various periods.
- If you really want to geek out with me, try watching the following:
- Mary Beard, Meet the Romans. She ignited an interest in Roman life for me because she focuses on the everyday lives of middle/lower class people.
- Ruth Goodman, Secrets of the Castle. I enjoyed watching the documentary regarding Guedelon Castle in France. She also hosted 24 Hours in the Past, which put celebrities in the Victorian Era working class to see if they could survive.
- Lucy Worsley, “If Walls Could Talk – The History of the Home”. She’s been involved with various documents and written several books.
- Have a young person at home who might be interested in castles? I loved The Castle, published by Moonlight Publishing / Self Discovery. It had transparent pages so you could “look inside” various parts of the castle.