On The Move: A Brief Overview of the Mobile Homes of the Middle Ages
By Karen Adams
Published Online (2012)
Introduction: There has always been a need for portable shelters. Tents, pavilions, geteldts, gers ….whatever they were called throughout the world, every culture has had a form of mobile living and meeting space. We know them best from the pictures of nomads who still follow their herds from place to place; but they served then, as now, as shelter for everything from armies to parties. Plain or pretty, they advertised everything from social status to commercial endeavor.
Tents have not always been “tents.” The oldest references to non-permanent structures in the English language can be found in the pages of Beowulf : “ Gæst yrre cwom, eatol æfengrom user neosan, ðær we gesunde sæl weardodon.” (at 2075 , emphasis mine). Here, the reference is to a royal “sæl,” which could possibly be construed as a pavilion. The more definite reference to a sael as a type of tent comes from the Wars of Alexander written sometime between 1450 and 1500, wherein the author states that “Þan sett he sales vp of silke & sacrifece makis.” This would imply the silken “sales” were tents or pavilions, as this particular passage refers to a religious activity undertaken during a journey. Note the later development in French; it became, over time, the word “salle,” meaning “room.”
The next oldest reference is from the Venerable Bede in 900 C.E. By this time, perhaps in an effort to distinguish a different shape of portable shelter than the one described in Beowulf, the word had become “teld,” which has references both in Old English and Old Low German. In his Ecclesiastical History, he writes: “ Mon teld þærofer abrædde.” (at iii. ix. [xi.] §2, emphasis mine) This can be roughly translated as “my tent was spread thereover.” “Teld” itself is referenced by the Oxford English Dictionary as not only a noun, but also in a verb form, “get eld ” or “getelde.”