« God And Gods | Main | Episode 78 »

Delanceyplace: Side By Side Toilets For Better Conversation

In the Middle Ages English houses had no privacy, writes Bill Bryson.

Practically all living, awake or asleep, was done in a single large, mostly bare, always smoky chamber called the hall. Servants and family ate, dressed, and slept together. - 'a custom which conduced neither to comfort northe observance of the proprieties,' as J. Alfred Gotch noted with a certain clear absence of comfort himself in his classic book The Growth of the English House (1909). Through the whole of the medieval period, till well into the fifteenth century, the hall effectively was the house, so much so that it became the convention to give its name to the entire dwelling, as in Hardwick Hall or Toad Hall.

Every member of the household, including servants, retainers, dowager widows, and anyone else with a continuing attachment, was considered family - they were literally familiar, to use the word in its original sense. In the most commanding (and usually least drafty) position in the hall was a raised platform called a dais, where the owner and his family ate - a practice recalled by the high tables still found in colleges and boarding schools that have (or sometimes simply wish to project) a sense of long tradition. The head of the household was the husband - a compound term meaning literally 'householder' or 'house owner.' His role as manager and provider was so central that the practice of land management became known as husbandry. Only much later did husband come to signify a marriage partner. ...

One thing that did not escape notice in medieval times was that nearly all the space above head height was unusable because it was so generally filled with smoke. ... What was needed was something that would seem, on the face of it, straightforward: a practical chimney. ... What made the difference eventually was the development of good bricks, which can deal with heat better over the long term than almost any rock can. ... So the development of the fireplace became one of the great breakthroughs in domestic history: they allowed people to lay boards across the beams and create a whole new world upstairs.

The upward expansion of houses changed everything. Rooms began to proliferate as wealthy householders discovered the satisfactions of having space to themselves. The first step, generally, was to build a grand new room upstairs called the great chamber, where the lord and his family did all the things they had done in the hall before - eat, sleep, loll, and play - but without so many other people about, returning to the great hall below only for banquets and other special occasions. Servants stopped being part of the family and became, well, servants. The idea of personal space, which seems so natural to us now, was a revelation. People couldn't get enough of it. Soon it wasn't merely sufficient to live apart from one's inferiors; one had to have time apart from one's equals, too.

As houses sprouted wings and spread, and domestic arrangements grew more complex, words were created or adapted to describe all the new room types: study, bedchamber, privy chamber, closet, oratory (for a place of prayer), parlor, withdrawing chamber, and library (in a domestic as opposed to institutional sense) all date from the fourteenth century or a little earlier. Others soon followed: gallery, long gallery, presence chamber, tiring (for attiring) chamber, salon or saloon, apartment, lodgings, suite, and estude. 'How widely different is all this from the ancient custom of the whole household living by day and night in the great hall!' wrote J. Alfred Gotch in a moment of rare exuberance. One new type not mentioned by Gotch was boudoir, literally 'a room to sulk in,' which from its earliest days was associated with sexual intrigue.

Even with the growth of comparative privacy, life remained much more communal and exposed than today. Toilets often had multiple seats, for ease of conversation, and paintings regularly showed couples in bed or bath in an attitude of casual friskiness while attendants waited on them and their friends sat amiably nearby, playing cards or conversing but comfortably within sight and earshot."

Author: Bill Bryson
Title: At Home
Publisher: Doubleday
Date: Copyright 2010 by Bill Bryson
Pages: 49, 58-60

At Home: A Short History of Private Life
by Bill Bryson by Doubleday
Hardcover ~ Release Date: 2010-10-05
If you wish to read further: Buy Now


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.