A thatched roof over one’s head

Uncovering the lives of the common folk throughout history is never easy. While we may never know what the common man and woman was thinking in the eighth century, we do have some little information about how they lived. We’ve looked at food and drink, and now let’s look at their home sweet homes.

First let’s get the obvious out of the way – they built with what was available, which meant wood, and wood doesn’t last long unless it is preserved under unusual natural circumstances. Add that fact to the lamentable dearth of documentation that refers, in any way, to the life of the masses, and you’re going to come up short of everything you might want to know. But there is enough to catch a glimpse of an early medieval village through the fog of a dark age…

The basic form of a rural residential/farm structure is a one-story rectangular building. There were thick sturdy posts set every five or ten feet, which formed the framework of the exterior walls. The roof was supported by a double line of interior posts that went the length of the rectangle. These posts were higher than the exterior wall posts, to support the angled beams of the roof. This type of structure is called a longhouse.

Atop the roof beams, called joists, smaller sticks were tied in place, to support the roofing material itself. Marsh reeds or other long grasses, called thatch, were cut, dried, and tied into bundles. The bundles were then tightly and thickly woven onto the roof. While I was astounded to learn of it, apparently a well-thatched roof will last for several generations.1.Butt, Daily Life, p.64.

While thatch was the most common material, the sources also indicate that wooden shingles were used, although probably not for commoners. By the same token bricks were made in great quantity, but primarily for noble or ecclesiastical structures. Anything built of stone was generally re-purposed from Roman ruins or walls.

But as noted above, people built with whatever was available. Sod was used for roofs in northern areas, and archaeologists have also found dry stone foundations, rather than digging a post hole.

Back at our peasant family’s longhouse, between the large exterior posts smaller sticks were woven together in a tight lattice work. Then mud was applied to the lattice work, inside and out, thus creating a solid, if thin wall. The builder then applied a coating of water-based lime, what Huck Finn would call whitewash, to both sides of the exterior walls. The lime, naturally antiseptic, killed much of the various vermin that would have inhabited the walls. The lime also helped to brighten what was a pretty gloomy interior.

Any windows would have been covered with shutters, as window glass was unheard of in a village, and even a glass mug or bowl would have been a rare treasure. There was a hole in the roof for fire smoke to escape. Chimneys had not been invented yet, so the whole interior must have been smoky.

There were usually several doors into the longhouse, on the long sides. The doors were wide, simple plank affairs much like you would see in an old barn today. Door locks are actually mentioned in one of the law codes,2.Laws of the Alamans and Bavarians, X.2, tr. Drew, p.146. but it is doubtful that locks were widespread.

The reason that the majority of the buildings were so large is that they served as both residence and barn. Usually there were interior walls at both ends of the rectangle, where the cows and pigs lived. These animal areas can be identified by the high concentrations of phosphate in the soil.3.Hamerow, Early Medieval Settlements, p.25.

Besides that specific use, and the fire pit, which parts of the house were used for what functions is a wide open question. “It is, furthermore, impossible to identify from such evidence what may have been important distinctions between public and private, male and female, or sacred and profane space.”4.Ibid. Archaeology does reveal some of the different activities that entailed daily life in the home. Loom weights tell us about weaving, quernstones indicate the grinding of meal, spindle-whorls were used for spinning, and flint for making fires.

Be it ever so humble, that is the basic village house. A long structure, dark, with two rows of interior posts. Sometimes there would be only one row of interior posts, or even none, but those buildings were naturally shorter and narrower. Some smaller buildings were half-sunk into the earth, but living in those would have been nasty, as the humidity increases considerably. The sunken structures could have been workshops, or cool storage.

Furniture was limited to benches along the walls (most famously mentioned in Beowulf), three-legged stools (more stable on a rough floor), and trestle tables. “Chairs were considered somewhat extravagant.”5.Butt, Daily Life, p.64. Beds were sacks stuffed with straw, which was replaced every year. The rich could afford a sack stuffed with goose down, and Charlemagne wanted his manors equipped with mattresses, pillows, and sheets, but kings always live better. Families usually had a crib, but babies were moved into the parents’ bed in a year or so.

Illumination came from either sunlight or the cooking fire. Candles were for the rich, and even animal-fat lamps were an extravagance.

The toilet was probably a pit at some remove, and for water most villages would have had a common well.

In sum, and attempting not to be too depressing, home life was not that great, even if you didn’t know any better. The house was dark, cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and smoky year round. Privacy was completely unheard of, and everyone’s most intimate activities would have been heard and smelled by all, if that smell would have pierced the constant animal odor. Creature comforts were just about non-existent, while bugs and vermin must have been omnipresent. The threat of fire was constant.

Still better than being out in the rain.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1, 5. Butt, Daily Life, p.64.
2. Laws of the Alamans and Bavarians, X.2, tr. Drew, p.146.
3. Hamerow, Early Medieval Settlements, p.25.
4. Ibid.

2 thoughts on “A thatched roof over one’s head

  1. Excellent post – with some great explanations about things I had not thought about, such as the three-legged stools that would be better for an uneven floor. I would expect that some homes, depending on the region – like England and Scotland, would use sod roofs and stones.

    And yes, bugs and vermin and the people must have struggled not to be smelly, smoky, and oily, but perhaps they didn’t much care since everyone else was undoubtedly the same!

    • Xina, you are completely correct about the local use of different materials. I’ve added a note in the post to that effect. Thanks!

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