Domestic Life and Home Decor in the Medieval Era
When most people think of the Medieval Ages – that period of history starting in the 5th century and lasting through the 15th century – they think of knights, feudalism, the Crusades, and Chaucer. Beyond the stereotypes and mythology, few know about the everyday home life of people who lived during that time. Entire lifestyles were shaped by economy and social classes passed down through birth. The King ruled from atop the socio-economic hierarchy, and lords and nobles wielded incredible power over the poor.
The houses of medieval peasants reflected their meager economic means and low social status. The poorest people had their entire families related to one single 12-foot by 16-foot room. That’s less than 200 square feet; the size of most small, modern 21st century bedrooms exceeds 250 feet. Peasants with a little more money could afford cottages, but even they were small accommodations with two rooms and roughly 430 square feet – the size of a 21st century family room or living room.
Peasants who owned small pieces of land but were not considered wealthy or merchant class lived in structures called long houses that ranged from 50 feet long to 90 feet long and about 12 feet to 14 feet wide. However, the extra room was typically used for the housing of farm animals. Much of the additional space was used to create a barn-like division for pigs, goats, cows, chickens, sheep, geese, or other animals – essentially making the animals housemates and delivering a stench throughout the entire home. Because ale was the staple drink of peasants, it was not uncommon for many longhouses to have space set aside for a private brewery. This might sound like an extravagant amenity, but at the time it was considered a banal provision. Instead of a brewery, some peasant families had spaces to store farm food that they grew themselves.
The houses were built in farming villages; some in prime locations like the center of the village were rented, not owned. Whatever material was most plentiful in the village was used to build the homes. Often, this meant wooden houses that could be fortified to last only about two decades. The wood would not be uniformly cut into planks; instead whole tree trunks were often used along with tree branches. The lack of durability was partly linked to the poor materials used to insulate and create walls. Chalk, wood twigs, and straw mixed with mud were common wall filler.
Eventually many houses, however, were built of stone enabling them to last longer. Many peasant homes did not have floors, which meant families were subjected to wet, muddy, or frozen ground depending on the weather. Clay or mortar was often used to seal dirt floors. Some homes, however, used a layer of cobblestone for floors. To make the floors more comfortable to walk or lie on straw was often scattered on top of floors. Although rare, some peasant homes had attic-like second story rooms or lofts in the roof; while those could provide additional sleeping quarters, the attic space mostly became a place for food storage.
Most roofs were uniformly thatched with straw. They were punctuated with a hole large enough to act as a chimney. Only very well-off peasants could consider slate roofs or stone roofs. The chimney was necessary because families used indoor fireplace-style ovens for cooking and heating. The houses did have a few small, narrow cut-outs for windows. Even in those days locks were added to homes to prevent thievery.
Furniture and amenities were scarce inside the homes. Doorsills, which were used to plug up the entryway and keep rainwater out, became casual seating. Stools also provided seating. There were tables, too, as well as drawers for storing clothing.
The beds of the peasants were simply bundles of hay and straw. Often entire families slept together on large straw beds. Sometimes small farm animals would sleep with them, providing additional warmth in cold months. Most toilets were outdoors although some homes had ground holes straddled by benches which were used for indoor toilets. The toilets became not just a hygienic structure but a source of fertilizer for the crops.
The typical diet of medieval peasant families was anchored on grains and legumes. Meats were a rarity and considered sustenance for the rich. The poor made do with rye and oats as well as barley and wheat. Families were creative and learned to use those staples diversely. In addition to stews and pots of soup, the grains were baked into breads and porridges.
Grains were even used for drinks, forming the basis of lightly-fermented beer with a low alcohol content which was imbibed throughout the day by most families. At least a gallon of beer was drunk daily by family members of all ages. Beans substituted as meat for peasant families along with fish for those living by rivers and streams. Of course fresh fruit and homegrown vegetables like cabbage, carrots, onions and radishes rounded out meals. While the meals seem well-balanced nutritionally, peasants were subject to the capricious nature of their harvests and could become malnourished when crops were not doing well or in winter; this often led to death. Peasants with moderate income could have occasional meat-based meals with cheese and eggs.
Families were not huge. Children were few because even though many were born they did not live long. Roughly 10 percent of children did not survive childbirth. Many studies suggest that the poor medical and hygienic conditions caused between 50 percent and 70 percent of babies to die within their first year. Children that did live past the age of 7 were a cause for celebration; they also became field hands who could help with the harvest.
Chores were daylong events, with most male peasants doing strenuous farm labor from sun up to sun down, including children as long as they were 10 years old or older. Children under 10 looked after younger siblings. They also took care of menial chores like washing dishes. Still, they often found time for play.
Women were mainly domestics who kept the home running smoothly. They were the cooks, child-readers, and clothing makers. Most women cultivated their own gardens of vegetables to cook daily meals. They churned butter and made their own cheese. They also fed and cared for the farm animals.
Clothes for peasants were generally made of wool sheared from their sheep. Linen could also be used for clothes. For shoes, peasants wore clogs made of wood or leather footwear. Floor-length dresses were common for women. Tunics provided day attire for men. Both genders wore leggings made of wool.
Peasants made up more than 70 percent of society. Their accommodations were certainly not luxurious. According to Sherri Olson, a researcher and author of books on medieval times, however, the life of a peasant was not as cruel and harsh as some folktales allow people to believe. Olson said because peasants were farmers who had many rights they could often live very fulfilling lives.
The wealthy medieval families controlled the majority of community assets. They made up less than 30 percent of the population. They rented homes to peasants while they lived in multi-room castles or manors. They also leased land that could be farmed by peasants. In addition to collecting rent, they also collected taxes.
The homes of the wealthy matched their riches. They had floors paved with tile -- not the muddy ground covered with straw seen in the homes of peasants. While aesthetic flourishes were rare among the poor, the wealthy hung lush tapestries on the wall and had other decorations. The holes in the wall that served as windows in poor homes were replaced with wide, glass-covered openings in the homes of the well-to-do. The windows had lattices and were often covered with fine curtains. While the rich sometimes slept on bales of straw they could afford stands to lift the beds off the ground.
In contrast to the simple one- or two-room cottages of the poor, wealthy medieval families had spacious living quarters with multiple buildings. For example, wealthy families usually had a separate structure just for the kitchen with fireplace big enough to barbecue large, whole animals like hogs. Starving in the winter was not concern for the rich; their homes were outfitted with pantries that could store duck, lamb, boar, and other game.
Amenities in the homes of the rich included more than just basics like beds and indoor toilets. They had pottery. They ate with utensils made of pewter. They wore clothing made of silk.
Clearly, the rich had diets made of more succulent food than the poor. Daily with every meal they enjoyed foods made with beef, chicken, and pork. Rabbits, swans, and deer were also on regular menus. These meals were often cooked by hired peasants or indebted serfs who provided labor throughout the home. While the servants worked, the idle rich could enjoy live musicians and dramatic plays.
While the rich could afford to have larger families they often did not. The same mortality rate that afflicted the poor also affected the rich. Plus, many women feared childbirth as they, too, were at risk of dying from labor and delivery. Wealthy and poor families alike, however, strove to have children until they could have sons to carry on the family name.
For more information on medieval domesticity and culture:
Lives of Medieval Children
Daily Lives of the Medieval Poor
What the Peasants Ate
Book Summary: Animosity between the Social Classes
The Reconstructed Life of a Medieval Peasant
Directory: Medieval History Websites
The Feudal Hierarchy
The People of the Middle Ages
The Urban Poor