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Houses in the Middle Ages

Houses in the Middle Ages

When we study the types of houses that were built during the Middle Ages, it’s vital to bear in mind that nine out of ten people during most of this period were considered peasants and lived in conditions of dire property. Nevertheless, there is some interesting architecture to be found, as well as some surprising features in houses in the Middle Ages.

The feudal system, which was so strong during the Middle Ages, resulted in a class structure that was very hard to break out of. Peasants lived in the most basic structure imaginable. At the same time, the wealthy landowners and vassals of the king enjoyed life in houses of the grandest proportions.

The upper class consisted of royalty, noblemen, senior clergy, and knights of the realm, while the middle class consisted of professional people such as doctors, skilled craftsmen, and church officials. Those in the lower class were serfs and peasants. It’s convenient and logical to look at the houses of each class in turn, as they existed in the Middle Ages.

Houses Of The Different Classes In The Middle Ages 

The stark difference between the poorest and the wealthiest in the Middle Ages is nowhere better reflected than in the type of houses each lived in.

Houses Of Peasants And Serfs In The Middle Ages 

House in the middle ages.
CD, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s very easy to generalize, but it’s not true, as some articles have said, that peasant houses from the Middle Ages have not survived to the present day. There are several examples in the English Midlands that have stood the test of time

Methods Of Building Peasant Houses

  • What can be said is that the poorest peasants did live in comparative squalor, in huts made of sticks and straw, with one or two rooms to accommodate both people and animals, often with only small, shuttered windows in those rooms. 
  • More substantial peasant houses were built with timber frames made from local wood, with the gaps filled with interwoven wattle and then daubed with mud. These houses were larger in all dimensions, sometimes with a second floor, and comparatively comfortable. This wattle-and-daub method was used throughout Europe, as well as in Africa and North America, but because the houses were not maintained, they haven’t survived for us to study.
  • Later in the Middle Ages, as a sub-class of more productive, wealthier peasants emerged, so did their homes increase in size and quality of construction. A system called cruck construction was used in parts of England and Wales, where the walls and roof were supported by pairs of curved wooden beams that proved to be very durable. Many of these medieval homes have survived.

Characteristics Of Peasant homes

While the build quality and size of houses varied, there were certain features found in almost all peasant houses.

  • The entrance to the house was off-center, leading one way into an open hall and the other into a kitchen. The larger peasant houses had another interleading room or parlor at the other side of the hall.
  • There was a hearth in the open hall, used to warm the house as well as to cook on and congregate around in winter. 
  • The roof was thatched, and there was a smoke louver rather than a chimney built into it.
  • Sleeping was often around the fireplace in the hall, or in the larger wattle and daub houses, there would be a sleeping platform built into the roof area and reached by a wooden ladder or staircase.

It’s pretty clear that not all peasants lived in abject poverty. Many were able to put sufficient food on the table to satisfy the needs of their family and to provide adequate protection from the elements in a comfortable home.

Medieval kitchen.
Medieval kitchen

Middle-Class Houses In The Middle Ages

Most peasants lived in rural areas and depended on the land for their income and sustenance. Middle-class people, including doctors, teachers, clergymen, and merchants, lived in towns. Their houses,  by no means grand, were solid structures usually built from brick or stone, with shingle roofs, fireplaces with chimneys, and, in some wealthier homes, glass-paned windows.

Large medieval house on Market Square in the center of Stuttgart, Germany.
Large late middle ages house on Market Square in the center of Stuttgart, Germany

The middle class of the Middle Ages was a very small section of the population, and their houses appear to have been replaced by far more sophisticated homes as cities developed, and the effects of the recurring Black Death plague devastated Europe and decimated its population in the 14th century. 

The middle class grew rapidly in the 16th century as education, increased wealth, and the growth of secular society opened up a new life during the Renaissance. However, during the Middle Ages, we can only talk of a minimal number of middle-class homes, of which very little is known.

Houses Of The Wealthy In The Middle Ages

Castello Del Valentino in Turin (Torino), Italy
Castello Del Valentino in Turin (Torino), Italy

The grand homes of European nobility were far more than family homes. As the hierarchical system amongst the aristocracy began to gain momentum, noblemen made their mark at the upper level of society by building houses that reflected their wealth and standing.

Even royalty, the owners of all land in the country, were tempted to build lavish homes on the estates they controlled to illustrate the extent of their wealth and power. Some of these were then gifted to noblemen who had demonstrated their devotion and loyalty to the throne. This cemented their position within the upper class and reflected their status to the entire community. 

These magnificent homes and the estates on which they were built were far more than mere places to live. They generated enormous income for the nobleman owner through farming activity and duties, and they provided employment to hundreds of peasants and townsfolk.

While owning a magnificent estate and a mansion was a sign of wealth and status, it also placed an enormous financial burden on the owner regarding the upkeep and maintenance of the estate. Many a noble lord was ruined by changing political forces and loss of support from the monarch. Just as many were equally affected by the enormous expense of hosting royalty and their entire entourage should the king choose to pay a royal visit. 

The architecture of Medieval Mansions 

While castles and cathedrals followed specific architectural styles, including Romanesque, pre-Romanesque, and Gothic, it is more difficult to identify the style of the many places and homes built in the Middle Ages. They are often just labeled as being medieval in architectural style.

Characteristics Of Wealthy Homes In The Middle Ages

Many aristocratic family homes were more about ostentation than practicality, with ornate pillars, arches, and architectural extravagances that served no real purpose. In fact, the term “folly” was applied to small buildings, sometimes linked to the main house, which was built purely for decorative purposes and had very little practical use.

Reception rooms where family and guests would gather were lavishly furnished, as they were showpieces displaying the wealth of the hosts.   

A Great Hall would commonly be found in these homes, where the lord of the manor would hold court to handle local legal disputes and other issues, administer the business matters of the manor and also hold lavish functions.

The Great Hall in Barley Hall, York, restored to replicate its appearance in around 1483.
The Great Hall in Barley Hall, York, restored to replicate its appearance in around 1483
Fingalo Christian Bickel, CC BY-SA 2.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons

Many manor homes had a separate chapel, but it was also often incorporated into the main house. 

Kitchens were usually large and contained sufficient storage space to cater to large numbers of guests, cooking ranges, and often had staff quarters attached to house the workers employed in various ways in the manor house.

The family had bedrooms in a separate wing, usually upstairs. If there had been a royal visit, there was often a section designated as The King’s room or The Queen’s Quarters, which added great prestige to the home.

Bathrooms didn’t exist as such, as there was no such thing as running water in medieval homes. However, bathing was an accepted practice. Lukewarm water would be carried upstairs and used, more like a shower, to pour over the head of the person wanting to be cleaned.

Toilets were yet to be invented, and nobility used chamber pots to relieve themselves, which were then disposed of by servants who would bury the waste in a pit in the yard. However, in some castles and homes, there were small rooms built, known as garderobes, which basically had a seat over a hole connected to an external pipe so that the feces dropped down into a moat or into a cesspit. Enough said.  

Because manor houses were a reflection of wealth, they were also possible targets for raids. Many were fortified, to an extent, by walls with gatehouses guarding the entrance, or in some cases, by moats surrounding the perimeter. This was particularly true of the manor houses of France, where an attack by invaders was more prevalent, and those in Spain.

Conclusion

The feudal system, which was such a feature of the Middle Ages, served to divide the population of Europe into defined classes, ranging from royalty to peasants. The differences were no more clearly illustrated than in the houses the different classes occupied; we have highlighted these in this article. It’s a fascinating subject, and we hope we’ve done it justice.

References

  • https://archaeology.co.uk/articles/peasant-houses-in-midland-england.htm
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peasant_homes_in_medieval_England
  • https://nobilitytitles.net/the-homes-of-great-nobles-in-the-middle-ages/
  • https://historiceuropeancastles.com/medieval-manor-
  • https://historiceuropeancastles.com/medieval-manor-houses/#:~:text=Example%20of%20Medieval%20Manor%20Hous