In the post What’s for Dinner, Ecgfrida?, about food in the Dark Ages, I mentioned that one of the important things I needed to get right when I began to research and write my novel set in 7th century Britain was the food they ate.
However, even before I looked at what they ate, I did a lot of research on where they lived. And, like all things Dark Ages, this whole area of research is at turns fascinating and frustrating, especially to a novelist who has to write about the spaces her characters call home.
Once again, there is not a lot of existing material from that time period to give us many clues about this. Mainly because, for the most part, the houses and buildings were built out of wood. There are a few stone buildings surviving from that time period (more about them later) but your average, everyday dwelling was made from wood with either timber or wattle and daub walls. Such materials do not survive the test of time, never mind the raiding of the marauding Vikings, with their penchant for burning and looting.
This means that archeologists are left with impressions of buildings, only. In particular, they find things like the post holes (or even just the impression of post holes) from the wooden posts which made up the frame of the building, or the ashes and other indications of the hearth fire.
And a word about “villages” or “towns”… there were no such things, for the most part, although this is also a matter of some debate (remember, I’m not a historian, so feel free to quibble, but this is my understanding from the research I have done). People would naturally gather around the centres of power, such as the kings’ halls, or powerful thegns, or major ecclesiastical centres. So, for example, at Bebbanburg, where King Oswy had his hall and the influential monastery of Lindisfarne was close by, there would have been a village of sorts, a centre for trading and commerce. But out in the countryside, people would live in “holdings” – a gathering of extended family members, under the lordship of the most powerful of those, where the main source of activity was agriculture. The concept of a town where a whole lot of unrelated people lived in close proximity to one another would have been a fairly exotic one in those times.
It seems that the buildings in general were fairly small, mostly one room, and generally with no second floor (although there is speculation now that some of the buildings actually might have been two-story). The mead halls were an exception, I’ll cover those later, too. But people’s houses were quite simple, for the most part.
One thing that is quite clear from the archaeological evidence is that many of the buildings featured a sunken pit of about three feet below ground level. There is some speculation about what this looked like and the purpose of it. It seems likely that in many cases the houses had a wooden floor, and the pit area was used either for storage, or even filled with straw which would provide some heat as it rotted during the winter months, giving the inhabitants a type of central heating system.
The hearth was often raised, and found in the centre of the house, where it would provide both warmth and the place to cook food. There were also separate cook houses close by the mead halls, where the thegns and kings could cook the large amounts of food and bread needed for feasting.
Windows were not common, and when they were used, they were not glass, for the most past. Vellum would be used as a window “pane”, and shutters could also be employed to keep in the warmth during the cold winter nights.
Chimneys were not a feature of the buildings. The roofs were thatch, and the smoke would escape from a small hole in the roof, or diffused through the thatch. The hearth fire would lend some light, as would tallow (animal fat) candles, but still, the interior would be both dark and smoky. I imagine most people would have a cough, especially the women, who would spend the most time indoors preparing meals and caring for small children.
To escape the gloom and smoke, people would do as many of their chores outside as possible, whenever the weather allowed. It’s likely the houses would have had some kind of porch or area under overhanging eaves where people could sit and repair clothing or furniture, weave cloth, or make things.
The walls could be either timber or wattle and daub. Wattle and daub is thin, coppiced wood woven together with the chinks filled with a mixture of dung, clay, and straw (rotting straw, manure walls, smoke and sweat….the odours in a typical house must have been, shall we say, interesting….). The wattle and daub would have been a good insulator, at any rate. Any chinks which still allowed the wind to get through could have been covered by tapestries or other wall hangings.
It all sounds very crude to our ears, and indeed it was in many ways. But it probably wasn’t quite as crude as you might think. The Anglo-Saxons were master builders, and loved making beautiful things. To the extent that they could, their dwellings and the furning in it would have been embellished with carvings, paint, or, for the very wealthy, even adorned with gold. We know this from some of the descriptions of the mead halls found in poetry such as Beowulf.
Here’s a description of the mead hall, called Heorot, from that poem:
The men did not dally; they strode inland in a group
Until they were able to discern the timbered hall,
Splendid and ornamented with gold.
The building in which that powerful man held court
Was the foremost of halls under heaven;
Its radiance shone over many lands. (lines 306-11)
Even accounting for some literary licence, this gives you a bit of an idea that the mead hall of the Anglo-Saxons was an impressive place, built to show off the wealth and power of the king or thegn who had built it. Rich tapestries and intricate carvings would adorn the walls and wooden posts, and also along the walls the treasures taken from vanquished enemies such as mail, swords, helmets, and the like, would be displayed.
The Anglo-Saxons did build some buildings out of stone, and amazingly, there are a few of these at least partially surviving in Britain today. For the most part these structures are churches. You can see an example of one in Escomb, built somewhere between 670-675 AD.
So, to sum up, the Anglo-Saxons in the 7th century would have had small, cosy (!) houses, along with a central place to gather with the community in the larger centres. They would have taken pride in their dwellings, decorating them with as much largesse as their wealth allowed. In some cases that could make for a richly decorated hall, and in others, maybe one simple tapestry or tanned hide to hang over the drafty spot in the wall.
There’s a lot more to think about when we think of the dwelling of the times. What furniture would they have? How would they store things? Did they have locks on their doors? What about a latrine?
But I’ll have to leave those for another day, perhaps…
Featured image: Another one of the reconstructed houses at West Stowe Village. Image from wikicommons