The physical structure of the late-medieval open hall house

In order to understand complexities of the evolution of English carpentry, it is important to understand the social forces that dominated domestic timber-framing until the early 16th century - the open hall within the standard tripartite (three part) plan-form. This Section will introduce the open hall; firstly, as a physical structure followed by a socio-economic symbol of class (Leech 2000, 2). The importance of the open hall, within the standard tripartite plan, will also form part of the forthcoming discussion.

An historic background to the open hall

The origin of the medieval ‘open hall’ is thought to be an evolution of the Anglo-Saxon (AD 410 to 1066) aisled hall and lasted, unchanged, until the end of the medieval period (c1530) (Quiney 1999, 27-8; Rippon et al. 2006, 35; Smith 1955, 76). Evidence for this exists in Hampshire at the Saxon and Medieval Manorial complex of Faccombe Netherton (Goodall 1990b, 138). J R Fairbrother cites that his excavations have shown that the previously individual buildings, with the exception of the kitchen and backhouse, were brought together into one complete structure whose basic layout had developed from the late Saxon manor houses (Ibid.). During the late Saxon period of the complex (980-1070) the site contained several separate buildings including a kitchen to the rear of Figure 94 (a) a camera to the left (the Saxon forerunner to a solar/parlour) a service building to the right and an aisled hall placed centrally (Figure 94) (Goodall 1990b, 34).

Following the Norman Conquest (1066) the hall was rebuilt (c1070) in the ‘treewrighting’ tradition (see Figure 60 page 138) favouring two doors in the front elevation rather than a cross-passage (Ibid. 67). The camera building was rebuilt to the right of the hall in Figure 94 (b) and at right angles to it, with no evidence for a service wing (Ibid., 67). Around 1180 the hall was rebuilt again but in the new carpentry tradition, still with an aisled hall, but now with a cross-passage. The camera was also rebuilt, still separate to the hall, but now in flint rather than timber as illustrated in Figure 94 (c) (Ibid., 69-71). During the final phase (1280-1356) all the building are demolished and a new tripartite Manor house is built in flint as illustrated in Figure 94 (d) (Ibid., 73-7). The hall still seems to have been aisled with the posts set directly into the ground which as Fairbrother suggests is “unusual at this late period” (Ibid, 77) as all the buildings surveyed during this thesis have either had stylobates (pad-stones) or small flint or stone walls with a timber sill-beam during the same period.

The hall (from aula) was the communal area, within which people met, ate and socialised whilst maintaining a strong social hierarchy, and “was the original centre from which the house developed” (Thompson 1936, 3). Both Anthony Quiney and A. Hamilton Thompson suggest this assumption is largely based on historical and literary documental evidence, such as Bede (672-735) Beowulf (c. 8th century) and, later, Chaucer (1343-1400) (Quiney 1999, 27; Thompson 1936, 3-4). Quiney shows this is also evident in the archaeological record; suggesting that higher social groups were using halls from the early Saxon period onward (6th century) and lower levels, from just before the Norman conquest (11th century) (Quiney 1999, 29). This indicates the importance of the hall, in serving as a social space for people to interact and find their identity, within their ‘sociosphere’ (Lawn 2004, 4; Leech 2000, 1). However, it is not until the early 13th century that the true ‘open hall’ (Figure 96) emerges, from the aisled halls (Figure 95) of the late 12th century (Wood 1994, 49-50), and the fully timber-framed method of construction begins (Walker 1999, 21-6) (see Section 4.1).

The main physical differences between the aisled hall and the open hall are:

  • the aisled hall is aisled with posts that support the roof span and, therefore, is not fully open (see Figure 95); the plan being similar in essence to a church (Roberts 2003, 2-6).
  • the open hall has no aisles and is open from floor to ceiling and wall to wall (see Figure 96). Invariably, the hall forms the central room of the tripartite plan (Johnson 1993, 44-5).

In England, by the end of the fourteenth century, it is thought that the fully developed medieval hall arrangement had been attained. That is to say - the addition of two compartments either side of the open hall house to accommodate the service rooms and living quarters, forming a tripartite design, had become common place (Quiney & Vyner 1994, 231; Smith 1955, 77). This type of plan form was the dominant feature of the late-medieval open hall houses of all social levels in the south-east of England (Sheppard 1966, 29). The medieval open hall house is thought to be an evolution of the Roman and Anglo-Saxon aisled hall longhouses and lasted until the end of the medieval period (Quiney 1999, 27-8; Smith 1955, 76). Gardiner disagrees with this saying instead, that “the plan did not emerge from the longhouse, as has been suggested. Instead, the longhouse is identified as a regional variant of the later medieval domestic plan” (Gardiner 2000, 159). He also proposes that the plan pre-dates the introduction of the timber-framing method, at the start of the 13th century. The medieval domestic plan can be identified in vernacular buildings of the 12th century, though these are not of a timber-framed construction (Gardiner 2000, 159).

The Late-medieval Open Hall House

typical open hall house

The Figure above illustrates a typical box-framed open hall house of the 15th century (Harris 1978, 15). It consists of four bays, providing three ground floor ‘sections’; the so-called ‘standard tripartite plan’ of service rooms on the left, an open hall in the centre and parlour/solar on the right (Fairclough 1992, 362; Quiney 1984, 461). At this point it should be noted that although a great deal of houses were orientated this way, the plan can often be reversed with the service wing on the right. Even with the plan reversed the cross-passage is always at the lower/service end of the building. The bays are delineated by the tie-beams atop the main posts, as in Figure 3. There are five such posts making four bays. The service and parlour occupy one bay each with the hall monopolising almost two bays because of the cross-passage (Johnson 1993, 44-5). This four bay, three room plan is a generalisation as some have been recorded with the number of bays ranging, from anywhere, between one and seven. However, the four bays option is the most likely for the new middle class of the 15th century (ibid 44-5).

The floor of the late-medieval open hall house was generally formed by beaten earth and always featured an open hearth, towards the centre, to provide both heating and an area for cooking (Lewis et al. 1988, 11). Although the hearth is generally considered to be the centre of the hall, it should be noted that because the central bays also include the cross passage the hall is, therefore, not the centre of the two bays. This results in the hearth being placed nearer the high end rather than directly under the central truss (Goodall 1990b, 141). Subsequently, it is less likely to be placed directly under the central tie - as Harris infers in Figure 101 (Harris 1978, 15) – but rather the hearth was placed slightly off-centre (Goodall 1990b, 141) as Fairbrother’s excavation drawing of Faccombe Netherton, shows in Figure 100 (Ibid., 139).

tripartite hall open hall

During the course of the Hampshire survey the author observed some evidence of crystalline, ‘fatty’ deposits in the roofs and central tie-beams of many properties. John Crook suggests that these are a result of cooking meat on the open fire (Crook 2006). Some of this residue was more prevalent on the “high” facing side of the central tie, such as at: 1 Somerset’s Cottage, Bentley (1311) the Swan Inn, Kingsclere (1449) and Rye Cottage, Mapledurwell (1487) to name but a few. This suggests that the hearth was placed centrally within the hall space, forward of the central structural tie (the green lines in Figure 102) and not, centrally, under the central truss that forms the two bays framing the hall and cross passage (the red lines in Figure 102). Finding soot in the roof of a suspected hall house, is generally a sure sign that, originally, the house had an open hall; prior to the start of the 16th century. However, it is not an indicator as to the exact location of the open fire because smoke dissipates freely, whereas the heavier, fatty deposits tend to rise straight up, giving a much better estimate as to the location of the original hearth (Crook 2006).

The Late-medieval Open Hall House

open hall

The open hall was a hugely important aspect of late medieval society, forming the central space within a house, where social interactions took place around an open fire (Johnson 1993, 55-8; Quiney 1999, 28). The open hall transcended the class divide, being the focus of the majority of houses, from the landed gentry to the landless peasant, and dominated plan forms, from the Saxon period through to the early 16th century (Roberts 2003, 126). The hall was also present in all forms of construction, be it box-frame, base-cruck or cruck and, although plan forms varied regionally, the hall was always a constant (Harris 1978, 31; Lewis et al. 1988, 17). Although early origins, for the development of the open hall, are based on both historical and literary documental evidence, such as Bede (672-735), Beowulf (c. 8thC) and Chaucer (1343-1400), Quiney shows that, archaeologically, the higher levels of society were using open halls from the early Saxon period (6thC) and, at lower levels of society, just before the Norman conquest (11thC) (Quiney 1999, 29). This indicates the hall’s importance, in serving as a social space for people to interact and identify themselves, within their ‘sociosphere’ (Lawn 2004, 4; Leech 2000, 1).

Why was the open hall always open to the roof? Johnson suggests, this fact is more than just a practicality to accommodate the central hearth and provide a means for the smoke to rise up and dissipate through the thatch. He proposes that this is an inadequate postulation and it related more to the social structure of the time, as shall be seen later in this chapter. He puts forward a clear and convincing argument regarding the absence of fireplaces, within the late medieval middling classes, by informing the reader that both knowledge and technology were available to the carpenter, yet they did not employ fireplaces, en masse, till the early 16th century (Johnson 1993, 53). For now, the principle of smoke control, with the use of gablets (small triangular openings above the hipped end of the roof, Figure 3) or louvers, will be explored.

 faccombe open hall

The process of ceiling over the open hall and inserting chimneys, during the early 16th century, brought about alterations that often make it extremely difficult to locate evidence for any venting system in the roof (Lewis et al. 1988, 11). It is hard to see how the gablet would have functioned, in removing smoke from the main hall, because the walls, at either end of the hall, appear to have always been sealed up to the rafters by a wattle and daub panel, thus making a barrier between the hall and the open gablets (Adams 2005, 61). As the open hearth is always accompanied by a cross-passage, Adams goes on to posit that if the house were to fill with smoke, while the wood tried to kindle, the opening of the cross-passage doors would cause a through draft, to encourage the smoke to dissipate, thus forcing the wood to catch fire more quickly and produce less smoke (ibid, 63). This aside, the cross-passage shall be revisited later in this chapter to try and understand its importance in the ‘tripartite’ plan (Roberts 2003, 126-7).

open hall hearth

Recalibrating the literature

Prior to the creation of an English tree-ring chronology in the late 1980s, typology was the main method by which to date a timber structure. Cecil Alec Hewett (1926-1998) pioneered buildings typologies for medieval carpentry joints and timber-framed buildings in south-eastern England. In Hewett’s seminal work - English Historic Carpentry - the inner sleeve reads “he [Hewett] has shown that the methods of assembling timber buildings, particularly the joints used, follow a strict historical sequence, as datable as ceramics”. This paper recalibrates that pioneering work using Dendrochronolgy.

photographic archive

The archive stands at over 100 buildings dendro dated between AD1244 and 1574 with 4 dated by documents (denoted by*). The majority of the dates are available on the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory website and the Vernacular Architecture Group's website.

The black death

This paper aims to examine the effects of the black death upon english architecture. It is not aimed at being a definitive essay on the black death as a whole. Therefore, the text focusses on how architecture can teach us about how people built in response to the greatest natural disaster of the middle ages.