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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

23 May 2008

Fine and Private Places ... Not!


As a writer I was shocked to read in my research that in those glorious, romantic medieval stone castles there was a dearth of privacy. Castle occupants ate with the other inhabitants, had little time to themselves, and very rarely occupied a bed alone. Knights, squires, clergymen, men at arms, ladies, visitors, serving pages, and children all thronged into the great hall for meals. The noise level alone would deter private conversations.

The medieval house was a public, not a private place. The hall was the center of activity: cooking, eating, entertaining guests, transacting business, as well as sleeping. At night male guests slept on pallets or benches in the hall; women slept with a sister or two, or a female guest, and maids occupied pallets at the foot of the bed. Very rarely did a man or a woman have a chamber to oneself, and most of their intimate moments were observed by the servants.

In early medieval times even the lord’s bed stood in the hall, perhaps curtained off at the far end, but visible to (and audible by!) all. Later, a chamber known as a solar was created on an upper floor where the family could retire in relative privacy. Of course, servants, squires, children and their nurses, and visitors often visited the solar as well.

It was noisy, dirty, drafty, and smelly but it was as close as knights and ladies of that the early medieval era came to the luxury of real privacy or actual quiet.

For a writer of historical fiction, that sure shoots down a lot of intimate scenes. In fiction, we give our hero and heroine their own private chambers and get rid of the maids at the foot of the bed. Solars are where family conferences occur, and children never appear unless summoned. Gardens are handy settings for seduction, and long passageways are deserted by bustling servants long enough to steal a kiss. In fiction.

The poor were without water or sanitation, had few possessions and little furniture. In towns their houses were tiny one-room hovels that offered shelter for sleeping and a hearth for cooking. There was room only for infants; older children were sent to work. And everyone slept together in one big bed. Sex education must have been absorbed by observation.

In summary, the concept of “privacy” or “intimacy” was foreign to the medieval mind. It was not until the 17th century that domestic life changed significantly, and it’s an interesting question whether architecture inspired the change, or vice versa. Houses of the wealthy in town were larger, often built of brick or stone; had glass windows, a plethora of fireplaces, and even glazed earthenware stoves (developed in Germany). Candles and oil lamps provided light; not until the early 1800s was gaslight adopted.

Within the home, personal privacy was still unimportant, even though later medieval houses were designed with separate rooms instead of one great hall. The visitor was greeted in a waiting room. Each room was connected directly to the next, and there were no corridors. But privacy? All traffic, servants, family members, and guests, passed through each room to get to the next. Most rooms did double duty (the entry or waiting room, for example, served as both reception room and servants’ sleeping quarters). Over time houses began to be constructed that met an unrealized need for privacy; the private sitting room, for example. Separate bedchambers...and the library.

Possibly these innovations would have occurred sooner had there been women architects designing the homes.

Source: Home, by Witold Rybczynski.

7 Comments:

Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Fascinating, Lynna -- and so difficult to get one's mind around, how different people must have been, living in such different spaces, their childhoods shaped by such different conceptions of family and kinship from ours. And didn't "family," used to include the servants, the retainers, and a little later the apprentices?

2:43 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

Wow! Great research, Lynna. Puts a lot of stuff in perspective, doesn't it? Would we all want that knight on the white charger to come and carry us away if we knew he would carry us away to live in a castle full of family, servants, retainers and God knows who else who would be privy to our every moment? I think not!

7:01 PM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Yes indeed, Pam. Our modern concept of "single-family house" was unknown in medieval times. Even a generation ago, "family" meant "extended family"--aunts, grandmothers, etc. living with The Family. Also servants, especially in the South. Now we have nannies, who may or may not live in; grandparents and siblings spread across the continent and beyond. I'm not saying those were necessarily "the good old days," but it sure is different now.

I also imagine the concept of "loneliness" was not common in the middle ages. (Unless, of course, you were a queen like Catherine of Aragon or Eleanor of Aquitaine or Mary Queen of Scots
shut up in a castle with only a few loyal servants.)

11:50 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I think about how to deal with this a lot, Lynna, since like you, I write medieval historicals.

In my next book, SHADOW RIDER, I put the hero knight in an abandoned cellar in the bottom of the castle (he was a loner--really kept to himself) and through circumstance, he ends up with the heroine--a freeborn woman so desitute and in trouble with the law, she must conscibe herself as his servant in order to avoid prision).

As his servant, she sleeps on a pallet on the floor beside his bed. ;-)

Well, at least for a little while.

That was my solution to trying to keep it all historically correct. She had the option of sleeping in the hall--a dangerous place for a single woman servant.

4:45 PM  
Blogger La Belle Americaine said...

Reading Robertta Gellis books, I was aware of this, and actually find it interesting to see how she deals with her characters' lack of privacy.

6:25 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Lynna, your fabulous post comes at an extremely serendipitous moment for my current research (for both fiction and nonfiction WIPs)!

It got my mind to wondering about all sorts of bodily functions and ablutions (some of which were not often performed, while others were all too often [and publicly] performed).

With the Great Hall paradigm firmly in my mind, I'm sure that most people got over any self-consciousness about having sex while everyone else was listening (if not watching them while pretending not to; or busy having sex with someone else). Did visiting knights and their retainers/squires, etc., -- all those people who slept on straw pallets before the hearth in the Great Hall -- EVER bathe during some of their sojourns? And where might they have done so?

11:58 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Regarding bathing, Amanda:
I've read in some "authentic history" books that, contrary to common misconception, noblewomen and some honored knight/visitors DID bathe often, and the lady of the castle did scrub a visitor's back.

It must be that in different parts of Europe, and at different times,
customs varied. I'm told that Anglo-Saxon and Celtic/Nordic descendents bathed; and certainly
in middle-eastern countries at the time (Syria, Egypt) baths were common, at least for upper class people. Maybe lower class, too.

It would be interesting to compare
research "experts" on this topic...
and that gives me an idea for my
next blog!

10:54 AM  

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