Monday, April 15, 2013


A long quote about life, houses and privacy in the medieval ages, from The Culture of Cities by Lewis Mumford, 1938.  Dissapointingly, I couldn't find a source for Heyne's plan:

"As for the plan of the house, it varied with the region and the century; yet certain features remained common.  Viollet-le-Duc has shown us the ground plan of a French house, with a shop on the ground floor connected by an open gallery wit the kitchen in the rear.  The two formed a court, where the well occupied a corner.  There was a chimney in the kitchen and in the living room or grande sale above the shop; from the latter there is access to the dormitories above.  Heyne's plan of an old house in Nurnberg is not essentially different; but, as in the surviving houses from the seventeenth century, there are more interior rooms, a kitchen and a smaller room on the ground floor, a heatable room above the kitchen, and a number of chambers, with a toilet on the second floor directly above that of the first.

"The only form of modern hallway was the open gallery; this was a common feature in houses not built around a closed court.  It survived in the design of inns, where a means of circulation was specially necessary, and the internal hall, because of the absence of artificial light, was not an attractive solution.  The main outlines of this type of house lasted right down through the seventeenth century, even later.  But as one went downward in the economic scale, arrangements would be less differentiated and the space more constricted: the one room apartment, still common among the poor in many countries, possibly had its origin in the more industrialized cities of the late Middle Ages.

"... the first radical change [to the design of houses], which was to destroy the form of the medieval dwelling house, was the development of  sense of privacy.  This meant, in effect, withdrawal at will from the common life and the common interests of one's associates.  Privacy in sleep; privacy in eating; privacy in religious and social ritual; finally privacy in thought.  In 1362 Langland, in Piers Plowman, chided the tendency of the Lord and Lady to withdraw from the common hall for private meals and for private entertainment.  He must have foreseen the end of that reciprocal social relation that had mitigated its oppressions.  The desire for privacy marked the beginning of that new alignment of classes which was to usher in the merciless class-competition and individual self-assertion of a later day.  In the castles of the period one notes the existence, not merely of a private bedroom for noble owners: one also notes the private toilet, perched over the moat: the first hint of the twentieth century arrangement ... Monasteries, however, had long had collective latrines in separate buildings.

"The separation of the kitchen from the dining room is not characteristic, probably, of the majority of the population in any country today.  It had taken place in the monastery because of the scale of the preparations, and it was copied eventually in the manorial hall and the fine town house.  But the common quarters offered this incentive to social living: they alone were usually heated.  That the medieval house was cold in winter perhaps accounts for the development of inner rooms, insulated from the outer walls by air.  Yet the cold could not have been unendurable, or else people in the Middle Ages would have worn nightdresses, instead of 'going to their naked bed,' as numberless illustrations depict them.  Privacy in bed came first in Italy, among the upper classes; but the desire of it developed slowly; even in the seventeenth century maidservants often slept in trundle beds at the foot of that of their master and mistress.

"Until the curtained bed was invented, sexual intercourse must have taken place for the most part under cover, and whether the bed was curtained or not, in darkness.  Privacy in bed preceded the private bedroom; for even in seventeenth century engravings of upper middle class life, and in France, a country of refinement, the bed still occupies part of the living room.  Under these circumstances, the erotic ritual must have been short and almost secretive, with little preliminary stirring through eye or voice or free movement: it had its intense seasons, especially spring; but the late medieval astrological calendars, which depict this awakening, show the lovers having intercourse in the open with their clothes on.  In short, erotic passion was more attractive in the garden and the wood, despite stubble or prickly stems or insects, than it was in the house, on a mattress whose stale straw or down was never quite free from musty dampness.  For lovers in the medieval house, the winter months must have been a large wet blanket.  An endless succession of pregnancies punctuated the married lives of all but barren women, and brought many of them to early graves.  No wonder virginity figured as the ideal state."

I couldn't resist including the last part.  1930s academia wasn't all dull.

From the above we can make a few assumptions about what buying a room at the inn was like: first of all, it would have been a group activity.  As the description above says, privacy was rare, and in a lodging house, impractical.  A central eating area, attached or indeed incorporated with the kitchen, was idea; the fire the cooked the beef would likely be the same fire one warmed by.  The idea of hiding the food production from the clientele would not have fit in a society where people ate together, shat together and slept together.  So as you asked for the beef and ale, you likely did so with the haunch turning slowly on the spit over the fire just a few feet from your outstretched hands.  The floor would have been greasy with dropped food, with sawdust regularly spread overtop of it to firm the floor and make it less slippery.  Meanwhile, the clientele would drop bones, nut shells, fat and so forth, anything that collected on their plates, either into the fire or on the floor, to intermix with the sawdust and slop.  Through the evening, this layering would have thickened, until it was possible to dig one's toes under it to keep warm ... though there would have been less under the tables than beside them - if there were tables at all.  Often, chairs would circle the fire, or around the walls, as the patrons jostled one another, or exchanged seats like everyone normally does at a party - particularly if a vacated seat, by a customer on his way to the privy, meant a few feet closer to the fire.

A private room was possible - obtained from the gallery - and it would have been more expensive.  It would also have been uncomfortably colder than the common room, and probably drafty.  A roomer would have probably stuffed wax, grease, anything into the edges around windows and between boards in order to counteract the free flow of air.  Too, it might be difficult to get a private room, for many people in a town, even with money, were homeless and were therefore paying for their rooms by the month.  A party rolling into town may have the money, but if the town were particularly well-to-do, the rooms might be full of masons and teamsters, temporary workers but long-term temporary, there for the season until the work played out before returning home to their families or moving to warmer climes in winter.

But the common room was probably less insecure than many modern players would believe.  One was in more danger from losing the goodwill of the majority than in having something stolen; it was in no one's interest to encourage theft, even on a small scale, and there'd be a small contingent there who would viciously defend their 'turf,' perhaps insisting the party sleep in the coldest corner or adhere to other 'requests' that were perhaps more humiliating than truly discomforting.  After all, these would be commoners who slept in the same room night after night, for months at a time, who would treat the newbies with the same respect most old-timers use for new fish.  They might be bribed, obviously ... but that might not make the management over-pleased, that money is changing hands without their benefit.

In short, the common room would be run a little like a protection racket, with the accepted people doing well and being made to feel part of the family, while the recalcitrant and surly were pushed out - possibly right out the door.  And any fighting, of course, might mean exile to the street - without compensation for the night's rent - and most certainly for those the management does not know well, who have come in suddenly and created trouble.  Thieves, more than anyone, would quickly find the climate less than pleasant, since any theft would mean automatic and immediate rifling through everyone's gear, participated in with a mob's mentality.

That's life on the road for you.  If anything would contribute to ennui ... to address the last post ... it would be that unpleasant business of going from unfriendly town to town.  That is why there's no place like home.


Josh Graboff said...

The same would be true of castles and halls: the lord and most of his servants slept in the same room (often the baron or count on his bed and his pages and other bodyservants on the floor).

The implication is fairly simple: people had sex in front of each other. Indeed, it was less to be feared in the middle ages from the sources I've read than it is today. Nudity was common (people always slept in the nude until the Renaissance) and since there was probably nowhere even in a townhouse where parents could copulate out of sight of their children, just something that was accepted. Indeed, a blanket was probably used, but still... the kids knew something was going on.

Jomo Rising said...

We can be thankful for very dark rooms. Sleeping arrangements aren't often discussed. I have been studying the Spanish military religious orders of the 13th. ce. Seems my Knights of Alcantara, much like the Templars, slept in their chain armor, and were expected to keep a Cistercian, monastic lifestyle outside of maneuvers. Very different people here.

Liliet said...

Wow, thanks. It`s so nice to find useful information in one blog you read, not having to dig through internet and encyclopedias when you suddenly start thinking about it.
It`s probably not necessary to replicate the details of that atmosphere in a game of D&D. There`s magic, after all, which can make people warm and give them light in individual rooms...
But it`s really nice to know where you should start applying your "modernisation magic". Thanks again!