There are as many different sorts of peasant houses as there are peasant families, and there are huge variations across the regions. But perhaps you are wondering about staying in the house of a moderately prosperous Midlands yeoman, with thirty acres to his name. His house likely to be a wooden structure of three bays (about forty-five feet by fifteen or so) built on a stone foundation plinth.
The hail extends to two bays; the third bay at one end is a storeroom at ground-floor level and the family bedchamber above, reached by a ladder. Normally the frame of the house is made up of two pairs of curved oak timbers (crucks), joined by a heavy ridge pole across the top of the house, with oak or elm purlins forming the frame of the walls. The whole structure has a slightly warped look since it is built with unseasoned timbers which twist into their own shape as they harden over the first few years. The walls themselves are made of ash struts encased in cob. The roof is framed with ash struts across oak beams and thatched with osiers, or rye or wheat straw. A few slates or tiles cover the parts likely to be affected by sparks from the fire. One problem with this organic design is that, while it holds heat well, it attracts vermin which burrow into the walls and roof of the house.
You enter by way of an oak door set on iron hinges. This fits into a frame which is strong enough to warrant the door having a lock immediately inside is the hall, which is quite dark, being lit only by a central fire and shuttered unglazed windows which are small enough to keep the heat in and the winter weather out. The furniture includes a chair, a pair of benches, several chests and little else. The walls are not painted but might be plastered. Looking up, you will see that beams and upper parts of the room are blackened with smoke. Some of the householder’s possessions are hung on the walls or suspended from the beams: some tools, joints of salted meat kept over the winter, tubs, tripods, hoops and buckets. The floor is strewn with rushes and herbs. Beneath the rushes is bare earth which is swept with a broom of clustered twigs when the rushes are replaced.
The fire rests in a clay-lined pit in the centre of the hall and is kept alight day and night from late autumn through to spring. If it is used for cooking it may be kept alight all year round — although cooking tends to be done outside in summer. Utensils, such as a spit or gridirons, are stored here beside the hearth. Here too is a brass cauldron in which much of the food is boiled. Pans of riveted copper plates, a mortar and pestle and bakestones (for oatcakes) are hung on the wall or kept in a chest. Some peasants even keep their grain and vegetables in wooden chests in the hall. Once your host has made you welcome he will offer you a bench beside the fire so you may warm yourself as the family bustles about, preparing for the meal. You will not be expected to assist in any way — you are an honoured guest. The householder or his servant (most yeomen have a servant or two) will set up the table board on a couple of trestles and arrange its furnishings of wooden bowls, ceramic jugs and drinking vessels. If he thinks highly of his social position, then he will have invested in a couple of silver spoons. The tablecloth is linen or canvas and hangs down to the floor.
The householder sits at the head of the table. He takes charge of cutting the bread and meat — there is any — and distributing it. The rest of the family sits at the table beside you, on the benches. A boy, carrying a ewer, ensures that everyone has the opportunity to wash their hands thoroughly before the meal. After supper the householder will have his children sent to bed in the family bedchamber and spend the evening talking with you beside the fire. You see his face in the small golden glow of a tallow candle. Even in this poor light you may find his wife darning or stitching clothes for the family, squinting at her needlework. When the time comes to go to bed, you and your servant will be offered a made-up bed in the bedchamber upstairs. This is a mattress, stuffed with straw or oats, placed on wooden planks and covered with linen sheets, woollen blankets and a pillow, together with a bedspread. In Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale, the two students staying overnight are given a made-up bed to share in the bedchamber; there too sleep the miller and his wife (who share a bed), their daughter (who has her own bed) and their baby (in a cot). At night the room is totally dark — no candle is left burning through the night in a peasant’s house. If you should need to answer a call of nature, you will have to get up, feel your way to the door, descent the ladder and go outside: you will not find a chamber pot.
Most peasant houses are sparsely furnished, like those of their social superiors. In Robert Oldham’s house the only items of furniture mentioned are a chest, two stools and a bench. The appraiser has apparently regarded the value of his bed and table as nil. But Robert’s clothes are valued at 34s, setting him far above most peasants. The poorest villains live in cottages which are little more than hovels. They consist of a single room of one bay only, perhaps just thirteen feet square. The roof is of thatch or turf, which leaks after a few years if not repaired. In winter it is quite likely that you will have to step over a puddle of water which has collected in the rut worn in the doorway. The door itself swivels on a stone at its base and is tied to the frame of the house at the top; therefore it does not swing easily. There is no lock, only a latch. The shutters are hinged with pieces of hide on their upper edge and propped open at the bottom with a stick. The floor is bare earth, covered with straw. The whole house is damp. It is smoky: ‘full sooty was her bower’, as Chaucer would say. The arrangement of the shutters means that the house is often dark, even in the daytime. Eating facilities might include a trestle table, an earthenware jug, wooden bowls, a bench and a stool. The sleeping area is tucked behind a wattle screen along one side of the room: a bed made of three planks, a mattress or dried heather or fern, a single sheet and an old blanket on the top. Other possessions might include a brass cooking pot, an old cauldron, a basket, and a tub outside for storing water brought back from the well. It might be someone’s home but ‘homely’ is not a word you would use to describe it.
From Ian Mortimer’s ‘The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England’