It’s Tuesday, so I’m a day behind, but hopefully the adage “better late than never” applies and this post is worth waiting an extra day!
When we think of medieval building construction, our first thought is of castles, cathedrals, and the large, sturdy Tudor style structures. These types of buildings still remain today for us to look at and enjoy, even if only in video and photographs. But those were built by the well-to-do, and they were meant to last for a long period of time. However, this is not what the average person lived in, particularly in the early half of the Middle Ages. Peasant homes were far more temporary than what we’re accustomed to, and quite a bit less luxurious.
A standard home would have only one or two rooms with beaten earth floors, sometimes with an open breezeway in the middle. A larger structure might have a loft where people could sleep. Beds were nothing more than simple straw mats laid out on the floor–not especially soft or comfortable. But with space at a premium, mats could be taken up and moved out of the way during the daytime. Furniture was sparse; a trestle table which could be taken apart as needed, some benches for seating, and a couple of chests for clothes, linens, and anything else of value.
At the center of the home would be a hearth (basically a large stone slab) with an opening in the roof above it. Sometimes a hood came down from the ceiling to try to direct the smoke upward, or if there was a solid roof, openings under the eaves would draw out the smoke. Either way, a peasant cottage was a smoky place, so weather permitting, doors and windows were always flung wide open for ventilation.
Smoke was not the only strong smell to flush out. Crammed into a small peasant home would be not only the entire family, which could be quite extensive, but all of the family’s animals as well. If a cottage had two rooms, the animals would be kept in one, while the family lived together in the other. Animals were key to the family’s survival, so housing them with the family protected them from both weather and predators. Pests were a constant problem–it was difficult to keep out rodents and insects, since they were drawn to the thatch used for roofing, and there were no solid barriers to keep them out. Food would be hung from the ceiling in closed baskets in an attempt to keep these pests out of it.
The cottages themselves were made with wattle and daub—basically woven sticks and a mud mixture. Walls were thin, drafty, flammable, and not especially secure. But they kept the elements out, and provided a place for the family to gather, sleep, eat meals, and store their few belongings.
The short video I’ve included this week is really fascinating…and a bit gross too…showing exactly how wattle and daub walls were constructed. At the end they might be given a lime wash for a white appearance, or they might just be left brown. I now have a much greater appreciation for what it took to make these simple homes, and just how hard life was for the average medieval peasant.