PHYSICAL FABRIC Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval urban services civic works town planning public health water supply sanitation fire prevention waste disposal maintenance streets lighting market cross bridges construction industry buildings artisans houses kitchen latrine shops cellars roof doors windows guildhall

 Earth, air, fire and water 

One of fundamental duties of a government is the coordination and regulation of tasks for ensuring and maintaining the physical infrastructure and public services necessary to the well-being of the community it represents. In the medieval town, the infrastructure included defences [here treated under Government – Defence], places for the supervised conduct of commerce [here treated under Economy – Regulation], access routes, buildings both communal and private, and utilities such as those for sanitation and water supply. Governments that are not highly bureaucratized rely, for the provision of services to such an end, on marshalling the members of the community to undertake responsibilities for mutual support.

The growth in population of medieval English towns during the High Middle Ages created the conditions under which problems became acute enough to require action by government. On the whole, population growth continued into the Late Middle Ages, although tempered by fluctuations in the local economy (which varied from place to place and remains a hotly debated issue). Archaeological findings in several towns suggest that during the eleventh century an increasing density of occupation in central, or commercial, areas resulted in reorganization of streets and properties to provide for more regularity in construction and layout, more efficient use of street frontage (gables facing onto the street), and deepening of properties into areas not previously in use, so that properties took on a rectangular shape, although there were many variations on this theme. In areas outside the town centre, plot width remained large enough for houses to stand with their eaves sides facing the street. A growing interest in income from rents was a major factor behind subdivision of properties and rebuilding –often with sturdier materials –, which allowed for a larger number of rental units (down to the individual room level) within a property; buildings with multiple tenants became increasingly common. Some speculators financed new construction with a view to renting out 'apartments' and/or shope. In contrast to the heavily built-up residential areas were larger properties owned and occupied by individual wealthy families, or stretches of land given over to gardens, orchards, meadows, or industrial uses, along with precincts consumed by religious houses. Medieval urban topography was was a patchwork quilt that cannot be done justice in this very summary description.

In addition to regulating the areas assigned to private property, developing public property was a concern for the community. Marketplaces with appropriate facilities were needed. Their paving, and the paving of at least the major thoroughfares, received attention. The streets needed to be kept in good condition, for pedestrians and vehicular transport, and this entailed acting to remove obstacles and ensuring that domestic and commercial activities did not result in hazards to passage. The onus was on householder responsibility, but some communal iniatitive is occasionally evidenced, such as in the provision of sewage along the streets.

One of the most pernicious problems was dealing with the disposal of refuse (garbage) – in particular animal waste, given that many citizens kept animals that nowadays are found only on farms – which people tended to dump outside their property, causing a nuisance and a health hazard. In some towns it was primarily the responsibility of the householder to dispose of their own refuse as well as to keep the part of the street in front of his property clean. Refuse disposal was dealt with by digging burial pits on one's property, dumping on nearby vacant land, or in the case of the less conscientious just throwing it into the street, until authorities ruled that it had to be carted away – which meant to vacant land outside the populated area or to a nearby river. In other towns, minor officials were appointed to be responsible for sanitation, street-cleaning and/or refuse collection, with the cost being covered by levies from householders.

Related health problems stemmed from the keeping of what would now be considered farm animals by private citizens. Despite repeated ordinances prohibiting it, pigs were allowed to roam the streets – presenting a variety of health hazards – while larger beasts were pastured on wasteland adjacent to city walls and ditches. If their excrement jeopardized a communal water-source, so too did that of humans, for privies were often constructed at the edge of rivers or over ditches draining into rivers. Butchers above all, as inevitably with their work, were offenders when it came to animal excrement, offal, and remains of carcasses; butchery was carried out in the streets and the slippery congealing blood of butchered animals likewise posed a risk to pedestrians.

Towns were centres for industry, and many of the urban industries, notably treating leather and finishing cloth, placed demands upon water sources also needed for drinking, and/or involved chemical or organic products that became pollutants at the end of the industrial process. Domestic wastes likewise threatened the drinking-water source; privies drained into the water-table or, via conduits, nearby ditches, while some were built to jetty over the local river.

For all these reasons, the cleaning of rivers and ditches therefore became another concern of the local authorities, in which citizens were required to do their share. Tradesmen and artisans were the targets of local regulations to ensure that they acted responsibilty in disposing of their refuse. Archaeological evidence suggests such efforts had some effect, and that towns in the Late Middle Ages were somewhat cleaner (or less dirty, depending on one's perspective) than in the High Middle Ages. Townspeople of the fifteenth century were more health-conscious than those of the thirteenth. Nonetheless, urban conditions overall were hardly healthy and this was one of several factors explaining the high mortality rate, the particular susceptibility of urban populations to contagious diseases, and the reliance on immigration for sustaining population size.

A less common problem was air pollution caused by industrial processes. The use of coal in brewing, baking, smithing, dyeing, and the burning of lime in particular, was a leading culprit here. Lime-kilns were kept out of residential areas where possible. In overcrowded London, there were frequent complaints about air quality, especially during the summer months when the construction industry was most active and required lime mortar.

The threat of fire was a recurring problem for any community, particularly cities or large towns, where most buildings were of wood and other highly flammable materials and were closely packed. By the fourteenth century, the population density in the central areas of towns may have been higher than in modern cities. Street frontage had been minimized even from the early days when urban land was first divided into plots for settlers, and the subsequent process as immigration increased the local population was to subdivided it further or to partition buildings so that more than one family might rent living space there. (This impacted not only on the risk of fire, of course, but also on sanitation problems.) Furthermore this was a time when chimneys, which serve to contain fire, were relatively uncommon – in the poorer houses an open hearth or brazier was used to hold a fire for warmth and cooking. It was not until the fifteenth century that we see any real trend in the introduction of stone or brick chimneys; although this was not merely a matter of protection, for chimney-stacks also made it possible to introduce fireplaces into more rooms, and therefore improve general heating.

London for example experienced devastating fires in 961, 982, 1077, 1087 when St. Paul's and many other churches were among the losses, 1092, 1098, 1100, 1133 (reputed to have begun in the house of Thomas Becket's father), and 1135. Fires during the reigns of Stephen and John prompted sets of ordinances to regulate construction, targeted in part at fire prevention and suppression. The London authorities required householders to replace thatched roofs with less risky materials. Other towns were much slower to follow suit, and thatchers continued to find employment until the end of the Middle Ages.

Obviously such provisions as outlined above were prompted partly by concerns for public health and safety. But the motivations for town planning go beyond that. If we consider the number and range of public services provided, and of civic works undertaken, by those who held leadership roles in their communities, despite the strain on resources available to local government, we must acknowledge that the motivations of those leaders go beyond simply addressing day-to-day issues and matters of practicality. Some of the initiatives involved elements of beautification or modernisation (allowing for some difference between the mmedieval and our own concepts of what constitutes 'modern'). We must assume that community leaders also aimed at planning and designing an environment that was beneficial to the health – spiritual, physical and financial – of the citizens; that is, suitable for the conduct of daily life and of business, a good home for a community. They were at the same time concerned about the dignity of the town, in terms of its reputation as a good and safe place to live, to do business, and to bring business. Maintaining a frontage line along the public streets and keeping public spaces (especially marketplaces) open, by prosecuting encroachments; formulating and upholding a building code that would reduce disputes between neighbours and threats to the neighbourhood; placing restrictions on pigs, dogs, or other animals running loose in the streets; protecting residents or visitors from noisome stenches and filthy rivers, by regulations on the dumping of refuse and offal; maintaining and improving civic and communal facilities – streets, bridges, quays, chapels, halls and indoor marketplaces, market crosses, hospitals, aqueducts, defences. All these things were a matter not just of legislated responsibility, but of civic pride and a desire on the part of leading citizens to improve and even beautify the place in which they spent most of their lives, and the effort in achieving them was the result both of public and private enterprise.

Low Petergate, York, from cathedral tower Mill Street, Warwick, from castle tower
Occasionally a stretch of streetscape hints at what our medieval forebears may have seen, or the course or name of some street lets us glimpse – as in a ghostly reflection – some fragment of the physical fabric of the medieval town. Today, in the absence of prolific secular artwork from medieval England, we must rely more on the reconstructive abilities of modern artists working with historians or archaeologists to give us an idea of what such places may have looked like (e.g. Worcester, Canterbury).

(click on the images for enlarged versions and more information)

fire-fighting thatched roof
One reason why little has survived is that the physical fabric of the town was fragile, in its vulnerability to fire. Those buildings with wooden frames and/or thatched roofs were particularly susceptible.


 Common amenities and public services 

One of the principal areas of concern and focus for management was the water supply. Water was of course one of the most important resources for a community. The siting of settlements was influenced strongly by proximity to water. Whether coastal or inland, the commercial activities of most towns relied heavily on water transportation, and so the navigability of rivers or harbours had to be assured. Water contributed to the protection of the community, whether it was through the natural barrier of a river itself, or in ditches or castle moats, or to help with fire-fighting. Water was needed for the irrigation of the townspeople's fields, orchards, and gardens, and for watering their livestock. Water was a source of sustenance, both in terms of food (fish and shellfish) and drink. It supplied both domestic and industrial brewing, and was important – either as ingredient or power-source – to other key industrial activities, such as grain-milling, cloth-finishing, and tanning. Other domestic needs were for cooking, cleaning clothes, and washing/bathing.

Water supply was initially a private matter. It was not a sphere perceived at first as requiring government intervention, if we may judge from the early town charters and custumals. But as urban populations grew, placing heavier demands on water resources and posing a greater threat to those resources with increased pollution, we find borough authorities increasingly protectionist, in terms of trying to prevent pollution, and activist in improving facilities for bringing clean water and removing dirty water. However, although the problems were evidently universal and the effect on public health must have been evident, the extent of corporate activism varied considerably from town to town. In most places in Europe the lead in organizing a water supply was taken by religious houses, where there was more emphasis on cleanliness and sanitation than among the lay population. Towns sometimes followed the example or, more often, capitalized on the work already done by monasteries and friaries.

Local streams or rivers were of course a major source of water for domestic and industrial uses. Those whose property was adjacent might dig a private channel from the watercourse. Other households whose owners could afford it might have a private well dug. Some, perhaps many, towns had public wells (e.g. Yarmouth), although it is difficult to know at what period these were introduced. Other towns built conduit systems, but these were by no means ubiquitous; Leicester for example relied on private and public wells, in addition to the River Soar, for the greater part of the Late Middle Ages, and no conduit is heard of before the sixteenth century.

In 1235 the authorities of London, always at the forefront of development, began an initiative to construct what would eventually become a complex of conduits serving several parts of the city. Such systems, of varying extent, are found in a number of towns by the fifteenth century. The line-ups at the designated places for tapping water from the conduits included private citizens or their servants seeking domestic supplies, craftsmen requiring supplies for their industries – this demand on the water supply being one that town authorities became concerned to divert to other sources – and sometimes water bearers. These porters of water, whether from conduits or a local river, offered a fetching service for a fee or on a contractual basis.

Street cleaning, paving, and garbage disposal were likewise matters primarily for individual householders, though many must have been reluctant to fulfill their communal obligations, to judge from the frequency of prohibitions of indiscriminate dumping or ordinances requiring pavements be repaired. Borough authorities increasingly felt the need to compel residents to take responsibility for paving, some towns even going so far as to obtain parliamentary acts to that effect (in the late fifteenth century), and to engage skilled pavers to do a job that householders were likely to perform unsatisfactorily. Borough employees or private contractors engaging in street cleaning or garbage removal also begin to be seen. Apart from kitchen waste and the contents of chamber-pots, there were various others sources of rubbish in medieval towns such as London:

The rushes strewn on the floors of London houses had from time to time to be renewed; new buildings had to be erected and old ones repaired or torn down; and earth from excavations, and building refuse had to be carried off. Cesspools, especially of latrines or privies, had to be cleaned; and refuse of butchers and other tradesmen had to be properly disposed of. Dung accumulating in the street from passing horses, and other rubbish, such as sawdust, chips, and straw littered about in the lanes, had to be raked up and taken to appointed dumping grounds. Even the untidiness caused by leaving tubs, barrels, casks, pieces of timber, carts, and other obstructions in front of houses (often impeding traffic) called forth at least censure, and at times even imposition of fines, on the part of those responsible for keeping the city clean.
[E. Sabine, "City Cleaning in Mediaeval London," 21]

We should beware of assuming, from the widespread and frequent promulgation of orders for cleaning-up streets, marketplaces, ditches or rivers, that unsanitary practices were necessarily widespread and that medieval towns were dirty and smelly places, with vile matter or obstacles strewn throughout. Local by-laws are often prompted by a few notorious cases rather than general behaviour, although it might also be argued that official efforts focused on the thoroughfares and market areas on which local commerce depended, and that minor streets only attracted attention when public complaints pointed to particularly problematic cases of obstruction or stench. There was clearly an awareness of the desirability to improve sanitation, but a lack of good solutions without more pro-active and forceful intervention from local government, combined with a careless or indifferent attitude on the part of a number of town-dwellers.

Though in some large cities there is archaeological evidence that certain key streets, and even some minor lanes, may have been layered with cobblestones, flint, chalk, gravel, or a mix of such materials in the High Middle Ages or even earlier, the source of such initiatives is uncertain. In most towns local governments are not known to have been directly active in financing road works until the close of the fourteenth century, although some required householders to see to it. Paved streets tended to be easier to keep clean than those muddy or rutted. The pigs that roamed the streets probably contributed to getting rid of some of the litter, but they presented a growing problem in their own right. The appearance of local government taking only an ad hoc approach to street cleaning may be partly a facet of survival and the amount of detail in borough records; but at Leicester, where there is quite good coverage for both centuries, it is in the fifteenth that we find most expressions of concern over sanitary conditions. But we should also keep in mind that borough budgets gave little room for manoeuvre or for new initiatives, without the levying of local taxes. When they did involve themselves, it was largely to assert and enforce private responsibilities, ordering a clean-up when complaints became loud enough. Both street cleaning and the paving of the major urban streets or marketplaces became more of a priority towards the close of the Middle Ages – perhaps partly an issue of consciousness of the problems, but more likely a reflection of the burgeoning scope of local government. In some towns we find the pavers as a distinct artisan group, although not numerous. Similarly, in that later period we find more provision for organized refuse collection, in terms of specific workers providing such services; but the examples from towns are relatively few.

Street lighting, another amenity taken for granted in Western Europe today, was almost unknown in medieval English towns. A curfew was in place to discourage people moving about the streets at night, which was when thieves, cutpurses, and other ne'er-do-wells were out and about. As the windows of shops and homes were shuttered, little light escaped through them to illuminate the streets at all. Any honest citizen who had to be abroad after darkness fell was expected to carry a light, both to find his way about and to identify to the night-watch that it was someone out on legitimate business; anyone out without a light would be considered highly suspect. At the very beginning of the fifteenth century in London an order was issued for each citizen to hang a lantern outside his house over the Christmas season, and shortly after this innovation was extended to the duration of a parliament at Westminster. At Norwich too we find orders, in 1437 and reiterated in 1453, for each householder to have a candle light outside the front door, gate or window between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. during the twelve days of Christmas. Christmas lighting continued to be an almost annual proclamation at London over the next few decades (e.g. see Undesirable Christmas customs), and for a few years in the second decade of the century was extended certain other festivals and midsummer, when revellers were likely to be out late. After about 1437 it looks as though Christmas lighting was taken for granted.

For the most part, however, this form of street lighting was not provided as a convenience for the nocturnal pedestrian, but as a disincentive to those roaming with bad intentions. An order issued in 1461 specifically blamed unnamed evils and harms on the failure of Londoners to comply with the domestic lighting requirements, and reiterated the obligation to hang out a lantern from 7 p.m. on, until the candle (which was to weigh at least 12 lbs.) was consumed.

Drawing of Bristol, showing the location of the market cross Plan of Coventry, showing the location of the market cross
Although perhaps not ubiquitous, the market cross was common enough that today it is thought of as a distinguishing feature of the medieval town. Why were such crosses erected? Due to a dearth of explicit evidence, we can only infer the reasons.

(click on the images for more illustrations and information)

Leen Bridge, extract from Speed's map of Nottingham, 1611 Bridge over the Avon, extract from Gilmore's map of Bath, 1694
Bridges too were characteristic and important features of many towns. Leland quotes the following verse, said to have been composed in honour of the founder of a bridge in the vicinity of Oxford, which illustrates one of the reasons why bridge-building was seen as commendable:
Another work blessed is bridges to make,
There where folk may not pass after fall heavy showers;
'Tis sorrow to drag the remains from a lake
Of one baptized in church, and a neighbour of ours.

[The original is reproduced by R. Sharpe, Calendar of Wills Proved and Enrolled in the Court of Husting, London, part II (1890), xviii, and has been clumsily modernized by me.]



 The building trades 

Although the most conspicuous structures that remain to us from medieval times are of stone, most urban buildings were of timber, and carpenters were far more numerous in towns than masons. However, while we think of masons more in connection with the building of castles and cathedrals, and while there were few major projects that might be contracted to them by urban authorities or residents, with the consequence that they seem to have been relatively late in organizing into gilds, there was enough employment to warrant the presence of a few of them in most large towns. Town walls, bridges, and parish churches required building, repairs and sometimes rebuilding, streets needed paving, and many of the larger buildings had some stone component – what has tended to survive of townhouses to the present era is their stone undercrofts, or occasionally the solidly built roof trusses. In addition, the friaries and hospitals that could consume sizeable portions of town land used stone in many of their buildings, as well as the precinct walls. So we do run across masons in urban contexts, not so infrequently as was once thought; although they are not usually differentiated – as they often were in larger projects funded by Church or nobility – by specializations such as cutting, dressing, or laying stone.

Stone buildings start to appear in a few of the larger towns in the twelfth century, in most cases a sign of wealthy owners, in others they were used for storage (being more secure and less vulnerable to fire). Although not as rare as once thought, they were always in the minority, however, and because of their high cost became less common as the Late Middle Ages progressed, except in towns where there was a plentiful local supply of stone being quarried. Nonetheless there remained a certain cachet attached to a building material used for residences of the ruling class, and stone, or its later resubstitute, brick, continued to be used selectively in houses of some of the urban rich (such as for gatehouses). With the exception of a handful of stone houses, above-ground survivals date mostly from the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and even these were much altered in subsequent periods. Furthermore, what survives is inevitably the sturdier and larger homes of the wealthier citizens. For knowledge of earlier urban dwellings, or those of the lower strata of urban society, we rely more on archaeology. Evidence, archaeological and documentary, suggests the poor townspeople lived in rows of single-room cottages (sometimes partitioned), or rooms rented in larger houses; Our Lady's Row in York presents a rare survival of urban row housing built for the poor, encompassing ten or possibly eleven dwellings with a small living room (about 12' wide by 17' long) on the ground floor and bedroom above.

As today, persons making a living from the building trade range from the skilled craftsman to the unskilled day labourer. Even the former were often hired on a daily wage basis with the employer providing the building materials, although major work might be arranged through a contract that specified a lump sum and dealt with the issue of who would supply materials and provide assistant labourers. It is also possible that the wage negotiated may sometimes have taken into account provision of materials, equipment and even additional labour.

Prior to the thirteenth century, most houses were built almost entirely of timber: walls of planks, mud or wattle, supported by posts set into the ground. During the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries these were superseded, in part due to the growing scarcity in some areas of large timber (there being increasing reliance on imports from the Baltic countries), by houses in which a timber frame was infilled with clay. At the risk of oversimplifying, most such houses were single-storey and comprised only a single room, or two rooms – one for cooking and eating, the second for socializing and sleeping; packed earth floors were covered with straw or rushes, replaced periodically. The frames for such houses were essentially a sequence of rectangular panels. The earliest houses appear to have had cooking hearths in the yard outside the house, or may have used portable braziers inside; but during the Late Middle Ages it was more common for there to be an open hearth at the centre or side of the room, its smoke exiting through a smoke-hole in the roof or crude chimney.

The more prosperous citizens (merchants or master craftsmen) could afford larger and better-built homes that also served, in many instances, as their place of business. These were typically two-storey, timber-framed buildings of several rooms; where a hall was included, either as one or more bays within a multi-bay house, or as a separate range, it was open to the roof – a reflection of rural dwellings of manorial lords – and was the main feature of the residence. Merchants' properties might include a storehouse, particularly if the property was next to the riverside, and/or one or more shops on the street frontage, used for the merchant's business or rented out. The houses of craftsmen, on the other hand, would typically have a workshop on the lower level, with living quarters mostly on the upper floor(s).

Such houses came to characterize the key areas of a town, since merchants and master craftsmen favoured living close to a marketplace, quayside, or gildhall, which played important roles in their way of life. Some of the houses rose to three or even four storeys, as demand for space in the centre of town grew; such buildings might be subdivided into apartments. The largest halls were occasionally set on stone undercrofts, but these were usually public or gild buildings, rarely private houses. Wealth and breeding were displayed through decorated doorways, floors with tile patterns, and walls that were painted or hung with painted cloths. The frames for these larger houses required bracing timbers set diagonally between the major upright support timbers and horizontal beams; sometimes these bracing timbers were curved. In the fifteenth century some examples of houses show extra framing and bracing timbers on the front face; these were less important for support than to show off the wealth of the householder, and such features became typical of early Tudor houses.

The general stages of building such a house, each requiring different types of artisan, were:

Transportation of building materials could often be a major effort and expense, and often the preparation of materials (e.g. cutting of stone, sawing of timber) was part of the project.

The degree of differentiation between the various crafts varied from town to town. In some towns, for example, the tasks of roofing, plastering, and daubing might fall under the general umbrella of the tilers. As brick came more into use at the close of the Middle Ages, the tilers increasingly took over walling jobs from the masons, for brick was considered a kind of tile. The tilers may also have been involved in the creation of gutters, since lead was also used as a roofing material by institutions that could afford it. In the largest towns, however, plumbers existed as a specialty trade to work with lead.

Other than for the early stages of domestic building, masons were employed mostly by institutions for major projects such as ecclesiastical structures and fortifications, although many of these were found in urban settings. Particularly in the fifteenth century they also found some employment from urban authorities or gilds intent on displaying their grandeur through more impressive halls. Much of that work, along with the rebuilding of churches, was funded by donations or bequests from private citizens. The relative scarcity of such major projects, however, meant that many master masons moved from place to place, wherever the work was; consequently, we rarely find them organized in gilds.

Employment for glaziers was even more limited. Their principal employer was the Church. Such of their work that has survived to us is mostly in the form of stained-glass windows. Glass was a luxury item, little being produced in England and that not up to the quality of imported glass. Domestic architecture, even of the wealthier citizens, utilized glass for effect but cheaper materials for most windows.

Carpenters (or wrights as they were often called), on the other hand, were more in demand and greater in number. They not only worked on building construction but were also the principal craftsmen involved in making furniture, although joiners became vexing competition for them in the fifteenth century as joint-based furniture making was introduced. Oak was the most common timber used, both in house and in furniture construction.

There were several ways in which construction projects were organized, particularly those initiated by public authorities. The client might organize the project directly, purchasing the various kinds of materials and labour as required by each component of the project. Or the client might provide the materials but hire master craftsmen for the major aspects of the project and leave those craftsmen to supply additional labour. A further alternative was simply to contract for the project in its entirety, paying a lump sum to the contractor and leaving him to provide the labour and materials. Medieval records evidence all these approaches.

Since much of the well-situated land within town walls was built on during the High Middle Ages, the written evidence of building contracts, created only during the Late Middle Ages, indicates that most work involved renovating or extending existing buildings; in the case of repairs, renovation or rebuilding, serviceable materials from the existing structure were re-used. However, it was always the wish of medieval townspeople to have bigger, more comfortable, or more modern housing, so domestic innovations and improvements in building techniques gave scope for probably constant work for those in the building trades. At the same time, the sub-division of the original burgage plots assigned urban settlers involved converting outbuildings into dwellings, or new building, so that parts of a property could be sold, leased or rented, or divided amongst heirs. The contractual documents that have survived reflect only a portion of the actual employment of builders, notably that in which the employer was an institution with an archive; for contracts in which the employer was a private individual, the historian relies more on contractual disagreements finding their way into court.

Despite continued employment for the building trades, it was not a highly profitable sector of the economy. That personnel in the building trades are not much in evidence among the upper echelons, socially or politically, of urban society reflects that there was little prospect for even the master craftsmen of becoming wealthy.

Model showing construction of Canterbury cathedral Modern depiction of sawyers by D. Gentleman, Charing Cross Underground station
The medieval construction industry required various specialized skills, both for projects working with stone and those working with wood.
Photos © S. Alsford

(click on the images for more illustrations and information)


 Houses and their features 

We have no very clear idea of what exactly medieval English urban houses looked like, because of a lack of detailed contemporary illustrations or descriptions. Much of what we know is pieced together from building contracts or briefer textual references to building features, from archaeology, and from the study of surviving buildings or post-medieval illustrations which still show medieval elements. There were various styles of building, then as now, determined in part by the amount of land available for building, the wealth and aspirations of the owner, and current fashions and building technologies. Many of the structures in which poorer townspeople lived were relatively flimsy, and rebuilding was an ongoing process; it is therefore the homes of the poor about which we know the least – the types of features most likely to be found by archaeologists being post-holes and floors of compacted earth, clay, or pebbles.

Medieval properties tended to change shape over time, although it is perhaps surprising how many burgage tenement plots can still be easily identified on maps of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Buildings might be subdivided, or an adjacent piece of land (e.g. yard or garden) sold off and built on by the new owners; alternatively, a building, or part thereof , might be annexed to a larger property, or pulled down to allow for extension of the neighbouring building. Subdivision and inbuilding on open spaces was the principal trend, more so in the larger towns attracting immigrants. The commercial centre of those towns became quite congested; street frontage was narrow, properties spread backwards off the street and upwards, the ground floor was generally dedicated to business, and private quarters were on upper floors.

Large properties might consume sufficient land that they had gates on two or more surrounding streets; these gates were not usually showy. Such properties normally incorporated a courtyard ringed on several sides by buildings. Wealthy householders would probably have had a hall as an important part of their houses, although many of these later disappeared when a ceiling was put in to enlarge the upper floor. The upper floor held the private chamber of the family, often referred to as a "solar", although the term came to be applied to any upper room and by the close of the Middle Ages had largely been superseded by "chamber". This would serve as family bedroom and living room. In the fifteenth century there was a trend towards individual bedrooms, but again this was a luxury. Large houses might include a parlour – a modest-sized room for socializing and conducting business – usually on the ground floor; if smaller houses had them, which was rare, they could be on an upper floor. These rooms were plastered and sometimes whitewashed, but we know little of whether or how they were decorated, other than by hanging painted textiles, which only the wealthy could afford. Another trend was to add a third storey to houses originally built with two; whereas stone, as a building material, offered security and a certain amount of prestige, timber-built houses were easier to expand, and this may be partly why (in addition to changing tastes) timber-framed houses became preferred even by those wealthy enough to afford stone.

Kitchens were generally a back room, or in some cases an outbuilding. Large houses had not only a kitchen but specialized rooms such as larder for storing meat and related products, a pantry where other food might be stored or prepared, and a buttery where drink was stored; pantry and buttery were also used to store utensils. In fewer cases there might be additional rooms or outbuildings associated with business activities, such as a storeroom, counting-house, or brewhouse.

Privies – known by a variety of names, some circumspect such as "necessaries" – were during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries often built as far away from the house as the property-line would allow – over a stream or river if the property happened to be adjacent to one. On the other hand, some were built onto or into a house, with the cesspit either directly underneath or nearby and reached by some kind of pipe. It depended partly on the amount of land associated with a house. However, it became a matter of lifestyle to expect to have one of more privies as part of the upper floor(s) of a house; a lined chute led from the privy seat to the exterior cesspit or, where possible, into an adjacent waterway. Cesspits were dug just a few feet deep, and lined with wood or, increasingly, stone. Workmen were hired to clean them out periodically.

In the commercial areas of a town, at least, the front part of the ground floor of a house would in many, if not most, cases be used as shops – either by the occupant of the main property, or rented out to retailers, often along with the upper chamber, to be used as living quarters. Depending on width of the frontage, it might be subdivided into two or more shops. We find some instances of shop/residences being built in rows, often built by religious or other institutions either as almshouses or renters; one well-known example is Lady Row at York, a two-storey row with jettied first floor, incorporating simple accommodations above ground-floor shops, but with a unified architectural character. Houses in those parts of town often extended back into the property to a depth much greater than the width, in order to provide for both retailing and for workshop or warehouse facilities; merchants with large properties were more likely to have a separate warehouse, across the yard from the domestic buildings.

Alternatively, the tenant of a shallow shop might use the street out front to set up a stall during opening hours, to extend his premises. Whereas shops were part of a larger structure and stalls were removable tables set on a piece of land, at an interim level were selds: booths that were likely to have some kind of roof and enclosure, giving them more security, which meant they might be used both for retail and for storage. In a few later instances "seld" was used to refer to an enclosed area containing a number of booths, somewhat like a bazaar or souk; these selds usually specialized in a particular type of merchandize. However, the terminology distinguishing shops, selds and stalls is not used with consistency throughout the Late Middle Ages, and it is often difficult to be certain of the character of any specific instance.

Another common feature of larger urban houses was a cellar or, less commonly, its more ornate version, the undercroft. They offered another way of expanding the usable space of a house, particularly in regard to business activities. Surviving examples are of stone, although archaeology has shown that some early examples were walled and roofed in wood, and late examples in brick. FitzStephen mentions wine storerooms on the bank of the Thames which may have been cellars, perhaps retailing wine outside the storeroom; wine required cool temperatures for storage, so all vintners must have needed a cellar. Taverns and alehouses were often set up in cellars in the fourteenth century, although in the fifteenth century it seems to have been preferred to locate these on the ground and/or upper floors, and relegate cellars to storage. Undercrofts being used for commercial purposes usually had their own entrance from the street, were vaulted, and perhaps even painted inside. In a few known cases, they were used as living quarters.

Just as the English pub is today, medieval taverns were places for socializing and even for group business meetings. And the medieval tavern and its variants (alehouses and inns) were as plentiful as the modern pub. Residential houses could be converted into taverns, almshouses, or to other specialized functions; or a tavern might be turned back into a private residence. Buildings were not often constructed in specialized forms; adaptability was the keynote. Even introducing a workshop into a house demanded little by way of modifications, so small-scale was medieval industry. A few industrial activities, such as brewing and dyeing, might call for special outbuildings, while others were assigned locations away from residential areas (e.g. lime-kilns, mills).

Stairways connecting the different levels of buildings might take many forms. Simple versions were little more than ladders with wider treads. Interior staircases might be straight or divided into two flights at angles to each other; if leading to a cellar, they were likely to be of stone, but if above-ground, then more likely of wood. Some larger houses had exterior stairs, usually covered, leading from a courtyard or the street to the first floor quarters.

During the High Middle Ages, the most common roofing materials were thatch and occasionally boards (mostly for outbuildings) or shingles. Some who could afford sturdier and less flammable materials might use slate, stone, or most often tiles. Use of tile was increasingly encouraged by authorities, concerned with fire prevention; tiles were made of clay, lead being unaffordable for townspeople. As a fireproof material, broken or defective tiles were used to make bases for hearths. Roofs were at a relatively low pitch until the introduction from the continent, in mid-thirteenth century, of the crown-post, a bracing structure of which a series would serve to support timbers running the length of the roof; this design allowed for sturdier, more steeply-sloped roofs, and was employed in larger timber-framed buildings, notably to furnish dramatic high roofs for halls. In the fifteenth century alternate roof-support technologies began to supersede the crown-post.

Gutters around the roofs were needed to carry rainwater away from the house, ejecting it through spouts at roof level at one or either end of the gutter, or occasionally leading it down into a collector for domestic use. Drains carried away rainwater at ground level, as well as waste-water from domestic use, including privies. Since most houses were constructed of materials susceptible to water-damage (wood, lathe, daub), gutters and drains were important and often the subject of complaints of one neighbour against another.

Sources of natural light were valued, for house interiors were otherwise quite dark since the tallow candles used in homes provided limited illlumination; so window openings were often planned into house-frames. In some cases, wooden window casements were removable and a householder might take them with him if he moved; the same could apply to doors, and even glazed-tile floors. The number, size and style of windows in a building was often an indicator of the wealth of the owner. However, as mentioned above, glass was expensive – much being imported – and does not appear to have been common in urban domestic buildings. Windows were often just empty gaps, with shutters that could offer protection at night or during inclement weather. Some, especially those on ground floors or opening into cellars, were fitted with iron bars or wooden lattice; this may have been not only for security but also to prevent householders throwing rubbish out through open windows. Other materials covering windows, including glass, were translucent rather than transparent; in crowded London at least there was public sentiment against openings through which a householder could overlook his neighbour's property, infringing privacy.

Doorways are less evidenced in medieval records. They were usually simple wooden structures. Townsmen wishing to show off their wealth and status might insert a stone doorway, but this was largely decorative.

Gardens, herbaria, orchards and the like were not uncommon, but probably more in evidence in the uncongested sections of town. As early as the twelfth century it is the suburban houses in London whose gardens are being praised by FitzStephen. Wealthier townspeople sometimes owned or rented gardens etc. at locations other than their residence.

Those town residents in the lower classes – who of course were in the majority – lived in much smaller accommodations, often with only one multi-purpose room, whether independent cottages (usually single-storey) or a rented room in a house. Far less evidence of these remains to us, whether documentary, archaeological or architectural, since they were less the subject of legal transactions, more likely to be pulled down, and the relatively flimsy construction materials leave less trace. Nonetheless, archaeology is gradually throwing light on the dwellings of the poorer townspeople, such as at Norwich, where a number of houses built from wooden posts or with clay walls, have been excavated, along with a few that had partially subterranean lower floors (probably for craft activities) beneath the single-room living quarters. Lady's Row (mentioned above) exemplifies a one-up, one-down rented accommodation of poorer townspeople, but such survivals are rare.

Oken's House, Warwick Barley Hall, external staircase leading to the upper chamber
A number of medieval houses, built mostly in the fifteenth century, survive in towns today. An example is Oken's House at Warwick, above left; named after owner, but not necessarily resident, Thomas Oken, a mercer and town bailiff (d.1573), it was however built in the late fifteenth century. The original appearance of most such houses been has changed by later alterations, such as better windows or addition of chimneys, and it is left to the reconstructions like Barley Hall (above right) at York to show us what the originals might have looked like.
Photos © S. Alsford

(click on the images for more illustrations and information)


 Municipal buildings 

A brief word should be said about a class of buildings which became in the early modern and modern periods more prominent in the urban landscape as the role of local government expanded and became more central to communities. Although they have been known by a plethora of names – such as guildhall, moothall, tolbooth, and market house – reflecting their various historical functions, what we are talking about is essentially the town hall. Its history during the Middle Ages has yet to be comprehensively examined, although much light has been thrown on it by Dr. Tittler's study focusing on the post-medieval period. Surviving examples of town halls originating from the Late Middle Ages, or graphic representations of some that that did not survive or have been substantially altered, tend to remind us somewhat of the houses of wealthy merchants (such as those above), comprising a spacious hall with lesser rooms adjacent, or of the great gathering halls of religious orders such as the Norwich Blackfriars, – this should hardly surprise, considering that some buildings of those types were borrowed by or converted to the needs of borough authorities – Yarmouth's tolhouse, for example, had originally been built as a merchant's house. But such comparisons beg the question.

A high degree of variation in the architectural design of such buildings has resulted from many factors, including the size of a community, the corresponding complexity of administering its affairs, the level of available resources (not least fiscal), and the degree of autonomy of the borough authority, the last sometimes having resulted in there being more than one administrative building in a single town (Lynn, for example, required operating bases for the manorial administration of the Bishop, the commercial jurisdiction of the merchant gild, and the mayoral government). Although it is emphatically dangerous to generalize about the historical development of town halls, a few tentative suggestions may be made.

It seems likely that different forms of town hall reflect stages in the development of the character of urban government. The earliest such buildings, whether built or adapted, were probably intended to house public assemblies for discussing town business and/or sessions of some court (whether of the borough itself or some other jurisdictional authority, such as manorial lord). The principal influence on form may have been the need for security, in terms of protection from the elements or external disturbance. Hence a simple, hall-based structure would have sufficed; it was sometimes possible for such a building to be shared with some other organization (perhaps the owner), such as a gild.

As local politics became more complex, some authorities sought to reduce accessibility to everyday business meetings, to the 'paid-up' members of the community (i.e. enfranchised citizens) or even to small, supposedly representative town councils; there was a greater concern for privacy, even secrecy, and space within town halls had to be differentiated to ensure this, such as rooms to which the mayor and his closest advisors could withdraw to make decisions following a wider debate. On the other hand, it is conceivable the reverse happened elsewhere, with pressure for public accountability prompting a search for facilities able to hold larger crowds or bigger (theoretically more representative) town councils. With the scope of local government responsibilities expanding, and officialdom with it, as well as a growing sense of the 'dignity' of government and governors, space within a town hall would increasingly be given over to uses peripheral to the original core of official business: for instance, treasury/archives, cells for temporary or longer-term incarcerations (although authorities often used space in city wall towers for the latter), kitchens (to serve ceremonial functions, such as feasting visiting dignitaries), or office space for bureaucrats. Also to uses intended to boost the revenues of local government, such as renting spaces for shops or stalls on the lower storey of the town hall – although this may have been prompted partly by the desire to have closer supervision over local commerce.

These general and cursory observations are not intended as a theoretical framework or model for the study of town hall history. Local circumstances would need to be more closely considered for each historical instance, and there will always be exceptions to any rule that could be formulated. To host meetings of local administrators, some communities had to be content with modest structures, such as a covered market cross to which a loft was added, or facilities within a local friary or parish church. The point of the discussion above is simply to highlight the need to look at function as much as form in trying to understanding medieval town halls. It is likely that each influenced the other, but town halls were fist and foremost utilitarian structures, not aesthetic statements. Nor should we forget their importance as material symbols of civic self-government, a visible, albeit not always effective (during episodes of political conflict) reminder of the authority of town rulers.

Illustrations of a few town halls can be found in the Politics section.


 Further reading 

ATKIN, Malcom and Sue MARGESON. Life on a Medieval Street: Excavations on Alms Lane, Norwich 1976. Norwich: Norwich Survey, 1985.

COOK, Martin. Medieval Bridges, Princes Risborough: Shire Publications, 1998.

CURRIE, Christopher. "The Age of Carpentry: The New Art and Society in Plantagenet England". Paper presented to the London Society for Medieval Studies in March 1989. http://historicaltextarchive.com/currie/indexold.html

DYER, Christopher. Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages. Cambridge: University Press, 1989.

HINDLE, Paul. Medieval Town Plans. Princes Risborough: Shire Archaeology, 1990.

JORGENSEN, Dolly. "Cooperative Sanitation: Managing Streets and Gutters in Late Medieval England and Scandinavia," Technology and Culture, vol. 49 (2008), 547-67.

KNOOP, Douglas and G.P. JONES. The Mediaeval Mason, Manchester: University Press, 1933.

MAGNUSSON, Roberta. Water Technology in the Middle Ages: Cities, monasteries, and waterworks after the Roman Empire. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001.

MONIER-WILLIAM, Randall. "Street Lighting in London" in The Tallow Chandlers of London, volume 3. London: Kaye & Ward, 1973.

PARKER, Vanessa. The Making of Kings Lynn. Chichester: Phillimore, 1971

QUINEY, Anthony. Town Houses of Medieval Britain. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

SABINE, Ernest. "Latrines and Cesspools of Mediaeval London," Speculum, vol.9, no.3 (July 1934), 303-321.

SABINE, Ernest. "City Cleaning in Mediaeval London," Speculum, vol.12, no.1 (January 1937), 19-43.

SALZMAN, L.F. Building in England down to 1540. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952.

SCHOFIELD, John. Medieval London Houses. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

SCHOFIELD, John and Alan VINCE. Medieval Towns. Madison: Fairleight Dickinson University Press, 1994.

SHEERAN, George. Medieval Yorkshire Towns: Pople, Buildings and Spaces. Edinburgh: University Press, 1998.

SWANSON, Heather. Medieval Artisans: An Urban Class in Late Medieval England. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

THOMAS, Christopher. The Archaeology of Medieval London, Stroud: Sutton, 2002.

TITTLER, Robert. Architecture and Power: The Town Hall and the English Urban Community c.1500-1640, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.


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Created: August 27, 2004.
Last update: January 6, 2016
© Stephen Alsford, 2004-2016