Houses and Inns

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Houses and Inns



Building Materials. With the exception of southern Mediterranean Europe, where stone predominated as building material, most houses in northern Europe, either in a city or in the countryside, were made completely of wood, while central European houses generally used a combination of both materials. The forests that dominated Europe's landscape, and which encroached upon the towns and villages, provided ready resources for construction. Because of the great risk of fire, municipal governments and village communes eagerly enacted legislation or coercive policies to force the introduction of stone and tile, at least for roofs, but the great expense of these materials prevented the fulfillment of this goal in the early-modern period. Population increases in sixteenth-century Europe led to a general clearing of forest land and its conversion into arable, thereby making wood even scarcer and forcing peasants to repair homes with earth, clay, and straw. The miscellaneous availability of building materials caused various styles of architecture to predominate throughout Europe. Timber-framed houses dominated English cities. Such buildings, the originals of which can still be seen in most English towns, were made of black-framed beams in which white mortar was poured to fill all the spaces between the planking. Renaissance architects generally scorned wood as a building material, so stone and brick buildings were prevalent throughout much of Italy, both in town and country, while two-story stone farm buildings, influenced by the villas left by the ancient Romans, prevailed in southern France.


The following is an excerpt from Erasmus's dialogue Inns (1523), which was one of a series of dialogues written originally in Latin and published as Colloquia Familiara (Informal Conversations). Though Erasmus was notoriously difficult to please and was given to bouts of melodrama, the following dialogue between Bertulf and William reveals the discomfort and lack of privacy most sixteenth-century travelers would haw encountered while staying at an inn. Erasmus is usually regarded as a true cosmopolitan, as a “citizen of Europe,” but this passage reveals his relative dislike for Germans, whom he generally considered rude. Note too the savage wit for which Erasmus is rightly famous.

Bertulf: Whether the method of treatment is the same everywhere, I don't know. I'll tell you what I saw [in Germany]. No one greets the arrival, lest they seem to be looking for a guest. For that they consider base arid degrading, and unworthy of Germanic austerity. When youVe shouted a long time, someone finally sticks his head out of the little window of the stove room [i. e., the one heated room in the inn] (where they spend most of their time until mid-summer) like a turtle from his shell. You must ask him if you may put up there, If he doesn't shake his head, you know there's room for you. . . . In [city inns] they furnish hay very reluctantly and sparingly, and it costs almost as much as oats itself. When the horse is provided for, you move into the stove room, with all your impedimenta—leggings, luggage, and mud. . . . In the stove room you take off leggings, put on shoes, change underwear if you like; rain-drenched clothing you hang beside the stove, and you move there yourself in order to dry out. If you want to wash your hands, water is brought out, but usually it's so clean that afterward you have to look for other water to wash it off with!. . . If you arrive at four o'clock, still you won't dine before nine and sometimes ten. . . . There are often eighty or ninety men together in the same stove room: travelers afoot, horsemen, traders, sailors, carriers, farmers, young men, women, the sick. . . . One combs his hair, another wipes the sweat off, another cleans his rawhide boots or his leggings, another belches garlic. . . . The more [guests in the stove room that the aged servant] sees, the more energetically he fires up the stove, even though the weather is oppressively warm without it. Among these folk it's a principal part of good management to melt everybody in sweat. . . .

William: But nothing seems to me more dangerous than for so many persons to breathe the same warm air, especially when their bodies are relaxed and they've eaten together and stayed in the same place a good many hours, Not to mention the belching of garlic, the breaking of wind, the stinking breaths, many persons suffer from hidden diseases, and every disease is contagious. Undoubtedly many have [syphilis]. In my opinion, there's almost as much danger from these men as from lepers. Just imagine, now, how great the risk of plague.

Bertulf: [After the guests have dined, communally,] the uproar and tumult after they've all begun to grow heated from drink is astonishing. In short, it's completely deafening. . . . Often jesters mingle with the guests. . . . [The guests] sing, chatter, shout, dance, and stamp until the stove room seems about to collapse. You can't hear a word anybody else is saying . . . and you must sit there until midnight whether you want to or not . . . if someone tired out from travel wants to go to bed soon after dinner, he's told to wait until the others go, too. . . . Then everyone is shown his nest: actually a mere cubicle, for it contains only beds and nothing else you could use or steal.

Source: Erasmus, Ten Colloguies, translated by Craig R. Thompson (New York Macmillan, 1986), pp. 14-21.

Simple Peasant Homes. Fragmentary knowledge of the northern-European peasant homestead can be derived from drawings and paintings, such as those by Breughel the Elder or by Albrecht Durer, excavations of villages, and

documentary evidence, such as regulations pertaining to where and how buildings were to be built. Because five large trees were usually required to build a peasant's house or barn, peasants would need permission either from their village commune or from the local lord to build a new house or to repair substantially an existing one. Indeed, many documents from sixteenth-century Germany reveal that teachers and ministers who settled in villages were often forced to alter their schedules and modify their pedagogical expectations to please those village communes that had initially refused to permit them to rebuild their houses or barns. From such varied sources, it appears that for most of rural Europe the peasant's home was more of a shelter than a house and was fashioned to meet only the barest requirements that sustained the life of the peasant's family and animals.

Variations. It is also important to remember that there was no “fixed” peasant home, and that the types of houses varied greatly not only because the peasantry was a socio-economic class comprised of many and quite differentiated elements, but also because regional variations, such as the production of grain, wine, or stock, influenced the design of the peasant homestead. In northern Germany, for instance, a one (and later, two) story longhouse commonly functioned as a “compact farmhouse.” In such a structure, the hearth was situated near the center, and around it the wife, and her servants or elder daughters, if she had any, worked. From this location, the wife kept an eye on the animal stalls that were located within the structure and that were built at one end, around two of the rectangular building's corners. A space existed between the two stalls called the hall or “fleet,” where the family ate, where it threshed grain, and where it worked on all sorts of chores during the winter. At the other end of the structure, bedrooms were built around the remaining two corners. A small kitchen adjoined one of the bedrooms. A parlor filled the space between the bedrooms and extended out into the center of the building so that its outer wall was adjacent to the central hearth that heated the parlor, albeit with a good deal of smoke. Those peasants prosperous enough to own a heating oven, usually made of brick, enjoyed a smokeless parlor, for the oven's design allowed it to be stoked from the back, outside the parlor, and attached to a separate hearth located in the kitchen. The heated, smokeless parlor served as the place where wintertime dances and spinning bees were held, and it provided an appropriate place to entertain the solitary evening guest for card games or song. Because it not only provided a great deal more warmth than a hearth, but also functioned as the social space of the home (and, sometimes, of the entire village), the smokeless parlor was

the most important room of the peasant house during the winter. In fact, a saying dating back to the eleventh century maintained that the three worst problems a homeowner could face were a nagging wife, a leaking roof, and a smoky house. The heating oven helped prevent fire as well, and therefore was common in areas where the winters were cold and the housing material consisted of wood. In such a home then, the peasants lived, worked, stored produce, and kept their livestock. By comparison, in southern Europe an open hearth provided heat sufficient in the milder climate, and, since the houses were usually made of stone, the advantages of the heating oven were considerably lessened. In Russia, the average peasant's house resembled somewhat an American pioneer's log cabin. Made of pine-tree trunks, the house was a simple square with split trunks fitting into each other at the corners and piled one row on top of each other. The house, which would be about six feet high and twelve feet wide, would have but two openings: a single window, fitted with glass, or, more likely, oiled paper, and a door. In one corner of the house a series of rods, interwoven with branches covered in clay, would be set up to serve as a catchment for the oven's smoke. Adam Olearius, who as ambassador to the duke of Holstein in the 1630s visited Moscow and its environs twice, described Muscovite peasant homes as “shoddy and cheap” and as containing few utensils or furnishings.

Two-Story Peasant Homes. The dampness and frequent rains that characterize much of northern and central Europe could cause stored grain to rot, threatening the survival of the village. The development of frame-constructed houses represented, therefore, a significant improvement over medieval building techniques. In such buildings, the supports which bore the weight of the house were no longer simply dug into the ground, but rather were fastened to stone foundations that made them more sturdy. With such a foundation, two-story homes became possible, allowing for a more effective and comfortable apportionment of storage space within the home. The grain stored in the peasant's house could henceforth be kept either in specially constructed enlarged roofs or in the newly developed second story. Because of this situation, peasants were extremely concerned with the condition of their roofs, as the aforementioned slogan makes clear. The hearth gave off enough heat, which rose and kept the stored grain dry. To permit loading wagons to drive into the fleet, a large gate was built at the end of the house, in between the stalls. These homes, though more dependably built, required additional features such as squares, braces, and nogging pieces to stabilize them, and were therefore slightly more sophisticated in design, forcing peasants to become a little more dependent on the village carpenter than they had been in the medieval era. Only the wealthier peasants possessed these two-story homes, which not only permitted their owners to maximize storage more efficiently, but also enabled them to display their wealth and status to all in the village during this crucial era when the forces of capitalism were beginning to creep into the village economy, creating wide ranks within the peasantry as a whole.

Peasant Homestead. The population explosion of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries created the need for more grains, and, as a result, increased storage facilities. Thus, by the sixteenth century the wealthier peasants’ (excluding cottagers, who owned little more than a cottage on some land, of course) homestead was no longer a compact farmhouse, but consisted of several small and fairly adjacent buildings—the peasant's home, a stable, and a barn with a threshing floor, or perhaps just a longer farmhouse which served as both stable and barn. These structures were surrounded by fences erected to keep the peasant's animals from wandering onto others’ lands to graze, to provide protection against wild animals, and to prevent village traffic— wagons going to regional markets, shepherds leading their flocks out into the countryside—from despoiling one's yard. Documents from this period attest to the considerable importance of the fence. For example, when sixteenth-century Lutheran church officials visited Saxon villages in order to determine, in part, how well the local pastor was developing Reformation ideals, one of the first comments they recorded in their evaluations was whether or not the villagers were properly maintaining his fence for him. Within the enclosure, the peasant family's lodgings were in a small building at one end, containing perhaps two bedrooms, a small kitchen, and the heated parlor. The barn would adjoin the house, forming an “L.” Adjoining the house at its other end would be a series of stables, thus forming a U-shaped central courtyard enclosed on three sides, or even a rectangularly shaped courtyard enclosed by buildings on four sides. In the colder parts of Europe, however, such as Britain, northern France, and in the Alps and Carpathians, the family's lodgings within this homestead might be considerably expanded so as to include stables, which were used during the winter months to protect livestock, particularly cattle, against the harsh weather. The separate stable buildings housed the animals in the warmer months and during the winter provided the great amount of storage needed to keep the animals’ hay and straw dry.

Urban Homes. Cities throughout western Europe at this time were characterized by a prevalence of crowded, vertical houses, few of which looked alike. Some of these houses were pinched and narrow, and some were broad and rambling; some had bay windows, some had ornately painted façades, while some had neither windows nor decoration. Every house had a uniquely angled roof, and its own characteristic window shapes, gables, and turrets. The high cost of land within a city, exacerbated by the fact that whenever a city expanded a new series of walls had to be constructed at great cost, meant that most buildings were quite narrow, and relatively tall. When more space was needed it was cheaper to add a new story and most buildings had a depth extending away from the street three times their width. Windows were limited, and so only the barest light and air entered a home. In Renaissance Florence the wealthy addressed this disadvantage by developing covered terraces on the top floors that opened to the street, and by introducing small open courtyards on the ground floor. Both of these innovations enabled wealthy inhabitants to get some fresh air and light. Most houses did not look out from the front to the open street, but were narrow in the front and oriented toward the back alleys. The residential rooms in the homes of the wealthy did face the street, but these front rooms served as banquet halls, salons, and what we today would call the “living room.” Bedrooms were still placed toward the rear of the house. Homes of the wealthy also had a studiolo, or study. This room, usually lacking a fireplace and large windows, developed in Italy and was inspired by the medieval monk's cell. To this room the master of the house retired to read, study, or conduct the business of the family in private. Men usually put on clothes similar to clerical garb before retiring to their study, and this early-modern custom probably inspired the modern smoking jacket.

Households. Most buildings in a city were subdivided among several tenants, and generally the higher the lodger lived in a building the poorer he or she was. However, in cities with a great deal of canals that were prone to flooding, such as Amsterdam or Bruges, the poorest lodged in low houses or even in basements of buildings. Many of these buildings were not “apartments,” in the contemporary sense, but dormitories that housed the owner's domestic servants and artisanal apprentices with their families. With the exception of dwellings in the Low Countries, the artisan's shop was generally on the ground floor, the master and his family lived on the second and perhaps the third floor, and the workers and apprentices were housed on the higher floors, or even in the building's attic, in an order commensurate with their experience. This entire group was considered a single “household.” In nonartisanal houses, urban elites used the ground floor to store produce from the family's country farms. There was little notion of intrafamily privacy in early-modern Europe. The simple internal design of most homes, the widespread employment of resident servants, and the periodic presence of extended kin, who often lived with the nuclear family while trying to establish themselves in the city, meant that little privacy could be realized in the home. A detailed study of Coventry in the 1520s reveals that the average merchant's home, small and nestled in an overcrowded street, housed about eight people. In a Russian city like Moscow, a wealthy merchant's or noble's home consisted of a series of buildings surrounded by a high fence that awarded both privacy and security. Beside the master's family residence, the homestead would include stand-alone kitchens, bakeries, breweries, smokehouses, icehouses, drying rooms, granaries, stables, and servants’ quarters. Much like an antebellum American plantation, the home would be rather self-sufficient, with servants who tended orchards and vegetable gardens, prepared the food, raised livestock, preserved food for use during the winter (remarkably, given the cold, food was never frozen), and performed artisanal tasks. It was common for such a homestead to number as many as 250 people. The main house contained ground-floor storerooms and exterior staircases, roofed to keep snow off the steps, that led to the upper floors, where the bedrooms and reception rooms were located; thus, visitors did not have to walk through the storerooms.

Inns. Like today, early-modern inns and public houses (hence the term pubs) varied in their quality. The better inns had a shingle advertising their names, but most were located by simply hanging a leafy branch or vine over the doorway. A famous inn in Bordeaux, the Red Cap, had stalls alone for two hundred horses, while other inns were little more than emptied barns with a single fireplace, where guests slept fully clothed on wooden benches or on the floor. A typical inn was two or three stories tall and had on the ground floor one large dining hall with long, communal tables, where the guests would dine (usually only on the food they had brought themselves), and later drink and converse. A guest spent the night in one of the several bedrooms that occupied the top floors. Corridors separating the rooms were absent from most inns. A picture in the French book Cent Nouvelles (circa fifteenth century) reveals the average sleeping arrangement in an inn: there are several beds per room, with several guests forced to sleep in each bed. Not surprisingly, travelers’ diaries from this time frequently mention the bugs and fleas to which one was exposed in such rooms. In lieu of toilets, guests either shared the vase or pan provided for each bed or used, as seems to have been the custom in parts of France, the fireplace. The use of chamber pots did not really advance hygiene, as their contents were simply poured out the window.


Samuel Baron, ed. and trans., The Travels of Adam Olearius in Seventeenth-Century Russia (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1967).

Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century, “The Structures of Everyday Life,” translated by Siân Reynolds, volume 1, (New York: Harper & Row, 1979).

Gene A. Brucker, Renaissance Florence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969).

Lorenzo Camusso, Travel Guide to Europe 1492. Ten Itineraries in the Old World (New York: Holt, 1992).

Michael Kunze, Highroad to the Stake, translated by William E. Yuill (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

Carolyn Johnston Pouncy, ed. and trans., The Domostroi: Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994).

C. Pythian-Adams, Desolation of a City: Coventry and the Urban Crisis of the Late Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

Orest Ranum, “The Refuges of Intimacy,” in A History of Private Life: Passions of the Renaissance, edited by Roger Chartier, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), pp. 225-230.

Werner Rösener, Peasants in the Middle Ages, translated by Alexander Stützer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992).