One of the most common questions about daily life in the Middle Ages is what did homes look like. Medieval manuscript illuminations can reveal much about the exteriors and interiors of a peasant’s house.
In her article, “The Peasant House: The Evidence of Manuscript Illuminations,” Sarah M. McKinnon takes a look at images created between the 11th and 16th centuries which have scenes depicting the home of a typical rural family – those belonging to peasants. McKinnon was interested in what these artistic sources revealed about the living conditions of peasants – what was the shape and layout of these houses, what items could be found inside them, and what building materials were used.
McKinnon notes that there are challenges to determining if these are accurate portrayals of a typical house. After all, they were created in manuscripts like Books of Hours that were owned by wealthy individuals – perhaps they did not want these images to be too accurate. However, McKinnon believes that the manuscript illuminators would have a good understanding of this subject matter, as they “were themselves not very far removed from the soil and were thus undoubtedly familiar with aspects of rural life.”
Houses in the Bayeux Tapestry
The earliest image that McKinnon writes does not come from a manuscript, but rather the Bayeux Tapestry. In one scene, which occurs just after the Norman fleet landed in England, three houses can be seen in the background. While they are small and not very detailed, they do offer some insights. “All three of the houses have central doorways along the side which contain no windows,” McKinnon notes. “The horizontal lines of two of the houses may be intended to suggest wood construction, with timbers pegged into vertical posts at the corners. The additional vertical lines at the third house may be meant to suggest stone work.”
A half-timber home
The next home depicted comes from a manuscript of The Book of Love, written by Duke Rene of Anjou. This illustration was done between 1465 and 1470 and shows “a sturdy, well-constructed cottage.”
The knight enters by stepping over the wooden sill and must lower his head in order to avoid the crossbeam of the ceiling. The walls are framed with square timbers and filled with plaster in which a few slight cracks are visible. There are also windows formed by the timber frame – two small and one larger. Inside a woman sits in a rectangular room in front of a fireplace built into the wall opposite the doorway. A small chimney stack is visible at the ridge of the roof which is constructed of a thick layer of thatch.
Many of the houses depicted in these manuscripts have high thatched roofs that are steeply pitched. McKinnon explains that this was a common building material as it was cheap, easy to install, and could provide good protection from the rain. The roofs would be steep to allow any rainwater to flow easily off.
Because they were so cheap, a thatched roof could easily be damaged, as is seen in an illustration from La Mortifident de Vaine Plaisance, another work written by Rene of Anjou. It shows three women standing in front of a small cottage. McKinnon describes the house:
The gable wall which is visible contains a doorway; it is half timber construction with timber posts used to frame the corners, the doorway opening, the crossbeam of the ceiling and the gable above. Some of the timbers used have been hewn; others, probably intended as replacements for damaged posts, remain in their natural state. Horizontal wooden planks are visible where the mortar infill has disappeared.
The interiors of a medieval home
Some of these medieval artists also wanted to show the interiors of these homes – to do so they simply removed one of the building’s walls. This can best be seen in the February page for Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, which was originally made between 1412 and 1416 and is often considered a masterpiece of manuscript art.
McKinnon describes what can be seen:
The three occupants are warming themselves before the fireplace; smoke emerges from a small chimney. The room is dark and fitted with few windows; nevertheless, the sturdy frame construction at ground level, the walls, and the roof trussing are visible. The hipped roof is made of thatch. Inside there are several features of domestic life; at the back of the L-shaped room is a large bed covered with blue spread; above it and also near the front of the room, are pieces of clothing hanging up to dry. A white cat also warms itself at the fire.
Another manuscript, this one made in Flanders in the early 16th century, also shows a house with a wall removed to reveal the interior. McKinnon offers this description:
On the inside, ceilings are low. The room is furnished with a table, tablecloth and dishes, and a chair. One of the windows contains a pane of leaded glass, an expensive item. Outside, in the foreground two peasants work zealously; one chopping, the other gathering firewood. This house is solid and suggests a relatively comfortable living accommodation.
Another manuscript that offers an interesting look at the interior of a peasant’s house is the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, which was made by the year 1440 by a Dutch artist. It has over 150 images in the work, two of which depict the Holy Family – Mary, Joseph and Jesus as a baby – within their home. They would have been depicted as a humble family, so it would have been appropriate that their home would emulate that of a peasant or lower-class household.
In the first image we can see the parents doing work – Mary is weaving while Joseph, a carpenter, is working on a piece of wood. Meanwhile, the baby Jesus is in a walker. One can also see more weaving and carpentry tools, as well as cooking pots and utensils.
In the second image the family is shown sitting by a fire while a cooking pot hangs above it. McKinnon details what else can be seen:
Other useful furnishings include the barrel chair, a hand grill, shears, bellows and a storage cabinet. Again the walls are stone, coated with plaster, and the ceiling, wooden planks supported by large beams. The single small window is framed in wood.
The medieval homes depicted in these manuscript illustrations offer historians a lot of interesting evidence. They are often rectangular in design, and the key feature would have been the fireplace and chimney. McKinnon also notes that most of these images also show homes that are well-constructed and have several furnishings. She adds:
This observation suggests another conclusion: that a measure of material well-being and economic prosperity had been attained by at least some members of peasant society in the fifteenth century. The architecture depicted in these illuminations indicates that they had achieved a standard of living above subsistence level.
The article, “The Peasant House: The Evidence of Manuscript Illuminations,” by Sarah M. McKinnon, appeared in Pathways to Medieval Peasants, edited by J. Ambrose Raftis, which was published by the Pontifical Insitute of Mediaeval Studies in 1981. This collection of essays also features a piece on festivals that took place in an English medieval village.
Top Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France MS NAL 3055 fol. 178v