Furnishings of medieval English peasant houses: investment, consumption and life style
By Christopher Dyer
Patterns of Consumption and Standards of Living in the Medieval Rural World September 18-20, Universitat de València (2008)
Introduction: Medieval peasant houses have been much studied in England in the last 60 years, and gradually the questions that have been asked have changed. Initially research was dominated by problems of construction – materials, joints, and methods of walling and roofing. These varied from region to region, and evolved over time, which required explanation. There was also some concern with the identification of the precise social status of the builders and inhabitants of the houses. Vernacular building was typical of a peasant society, in its use of local materials and traditional methods of construction, but for a long time there was a reluctance to identify standing buildings as peasant houses.
It was believed that because peasant houses were too insubstantial to survive, only archaeological excavation provided evidence for structures at that low level of society. The economic history of houses was concerned with the chronology of construction – the ‘great rebuilding’ it was argued resulted from the prosperity of better-off farmers in the 16th and 17th centuries, after a period of low quality buildings.
Now we know that peasant housing was not universally badly built and incapable of surviving for a long time. The earliest dated house which is still inhabited and likely to have belonged to a peasant was built of timbers felled in 1262. With the full impact of dendrochronology a wave of building in both town and country can be identified which coincided with the ‘great depression’ of the 15th century. As well as telling us about the resources that peasants could afford to devote to building, houses can be compared with other types of expenditure – peasants could give priority to investment in production, or in spending on communal projects such as the parish church, or could choose to concentrate on food, drink and clothing. For a long time it was believed that peasants had a largely self-sufficient economy and would have built their houses themselves, using materials from local woods and quarries, with earth, turf and reeds from the village commons. Since the acceptance of the ‘commercialisation’ model, it is now possible to conceive that peasants employed artisans (carpenters, masons and roofers) and labourers, and bought building materials, even from a long distance.
More recently we have become concerned with the social and cultural history of houses. How were rural houses different from those in towns? Did rural houses influence the form of urban buildings? Or did peasants emulate the new styles that they saw in towns? Were houses intended to convey messages about the wealth and status of those living in them, or did their relative uniformity express the egalitarian character of the village? What were the meanings of the public buildings of the village such as the guild hall or church house: did they make a statement about the character of the community? Were peasant houses influenced by models provided by the aristocracy, or did they plan their buildings to suit their own needs ? To what extent did the inhabitants wish to make their lives private, both in separating their houses from those of their neighbours, and in reserving domestic space for individuals within the household? Were spaces occupied by the different genders ? What can be learned about different regional economies and cultures from the design of houses and the relationship between them and the various landscapes?