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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

English Domestic Comfort in the Fifteenth Century

By Henry Hallam (1777–1859)

From ‘View of the State of Europe During the Middle Ages’

IT is an error to suppose that the English gentry were lodged in stately or even in well-sized houses. Generally speaking, their dwellings were almost as inferior to those of their descendants in capacity as they were in convenience. The usual arrangement consisted of an entrance passage running through the house, with a hall on one side, a parlor beyond, and one or two chambers above; and on the opposite side, a kitchen, pantry, and other offices. Such was the ordinary manor-house of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Larger structures were erected by men of great estates after the Wars of the Roses; but I should conceive it difficult to name a house in England, still inhabited by a gentleman and not belonging to the order of castles, the principal apartments of which are older than the reign of Henry VII. The instances at least must be extremely few.

France by no means appears to have made a greater progress than our own country in domestic architecture. Except fortified castles, I do not find any considerable dwellings mentioned before the reign of Charles VII., and very few of so early a date. Even in Italy, where from the size of her cities and social refinements of her inhabitants, greater elegance and splendor in building were justly to be expected, the domestic architecture of the Middle Ages did not attain any perfection. In several towns the houses were covered with thatch, and suffered consequently from destructive fires.

The two most essential improvements in architecture during this period, one of which had been missed by the sagacity of Greece and Rome, were chimneys and glass windows. Nothing apparently can be more simple than the former: yet the wisdom of ancient times had been content to let the smoke escape by an aperture in the centre of the roof; and a discovery of which Vitruvius had not a glimpse was made, perhaps in this country, by some forgotten semi-barbarian. About the middle of the fourteenth century the use of chimneys is distinctly mentioned in England and in Italy; but they are found in several of our castles which bear a much older date. This country seems to have lost very early the art of making glass, which was preserved in France, whence artificers were brought into England to furnish the windows in some new churches in the seventh century….

But if the domestic buildings of the fifteenth century would not seem very spacious or convenient at present, far less would this luxurious generation be content with their internal accommodations. A gentleman’s house containing three or four beds was extraordinarily well provided; few, probably, had more than two. The walls were commonly bare, without wainscot or even plaster; except that some great houses were furnished with hangings, and that perhaps hardly so soon as the reign of Edward IV. It is unnecessary to add that neither libraries of books nor pictures could have found a place among furniture. Silver plate was very rare, and hardly used for the table. A few inventories of furniture that still remain exhibit a miserable deficiency. And this was incomparably greater in private gentlemen’s houses than among citizens, and especially foreign merchants. We have an inventory of the goods belonging to Contarini, a rich Venetian trader, at his house in St. Botolph’s Lane, A.D. 1481. There appear to have been no less than ten beds, and glass windows are especially noticed as movable furniture. No mention, however, is made of chairs or looking-glasses. If we compare this account, however trifling in our estimation, with a similar inventory of furniture in Skipton Castle, the great honor of the earls of Cumberland, and among the most splendid mansions of the North, not at the same period—for I have not found any inventory of a nobleman’s furniture so ancient—but in 1572, after almost a century of continual improvement, we shall be astonished at the inferior provision of the baronial residence. There were not more than seven or eight beds in this great castle; nor had any of the chambers either chairs, glasses, or carpets. It is in this sense probably that we must understand Æneas Sylvius,—if he meant anything more than to express a traveler’s discontent,—when he declares that the kings of Scotland would rejoice to be as well lodged as the second class of citizens at Nuremberg.