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.