medieval peasant houses

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It used to be thought that peasant houses of the 14th and 15th centuries were ‘impermanent’ structures that were built to last for decades rather than centuries, and that the techniques used in their construction were inferior to those employed in the early modern period. In fact, a remarkable number of late medieval houses belonging to people below the level of the nobility survive in various parts of England and Wales. The new view has emerged from dendrochronology, documentary research, and a reinterpretation of the archaeological evidence at excavated sites such as Wharram Percy (Yorkshire). See Stuart Wrathmell, ‘Peasant Houses, Farmsteads and Villages in North‐East England’, in Mick Aston, David Austin, and Christopher Dyer (eds), The Rural Settlements of Medieval England: Studies Dedicated to Maurice Beresford and John Hurst (1989).

The regional variation in the quality and survival of medieval peasant housing is striking. Few if any such houses survive in Ireland, Scotland, west Wales, Cornwall, the northern counties of England except Yorkshire, or the east midlands. They are found in their thousands, however, in the south‐east, particularly in Suffolk and Kent. Their present distribution reflects the contrasting wealth of the various regions in the two centuries following the Black Death. Within each region, there are also marked differences between the various pays; indeed, standards of building vary even in the same village, depending on the social status of the original owner.

The families for whom these houses were built cannot usually be identified, but they include franklins and yeomen, and the owners of small manors. The poorer farmers and cottagers lived in humbler dwellings which have long since disappeared. Numbers of surviving peasant houses increase with each succeeding century after 1350.

In part, the survival rate for medieval peasant houses depends on the materials used in building. The absence of suitable timber over much of the east midlands helps to explain why so little peasant housing survives there. In Wales and the Welsh Borders, by contrast, plentiful supplies of oak enabled carpenters to erect houses of good quality. See Peter Smith, Houses of the Welsh Countryside (1975). Devon houses have walls of granite or cob and massive timber doors and roofs. In neighbouring Cornwall there was little timber, but readily available supplies of suitable stone; the virtual absence of surviving medieval small houses seems to reflect the relative poverty of the county at that time. Varying standards of wealth also explain the regional distributions of cruck buildings as compared with the sturdier box frame. See also timber‐framed buildings.

The variety of building materials gives the buildings of each region a distinctive character, despite the similarity of basic plans. As with larger houses, the dwellings of the medieval peasantry were arranged around an open hall of varying length but almost standard width. The entrance to the house was off‐centre, along a cross passage, with a turn one way into the open hall and the other way into a service area, containing a kitchen, etc. At the other side of the hall, the larger peasant houses had an inner room, or parlour, sometimes with a solar above. This basic plan of three units—kitchen, hall, parlour—continued to be used in the post‐medieval period through to the 18th century. Such houses were normally only one room deep, though the better‐quality buildings provided extra space through the use of aisles. The earliest peasant houses relied on a louvre rather than a chimney, as in contemporary manor houses. Chimney‐stacks were inserted later, either in the cross passage to form a lobby entrance, or in the open hall backing onto the passage. The relationship of the chimney to the passage can be readily spotted externally and often provides a first clue when examining a medieval building which has undergone alterations.


Subjects: History.

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