Rosser Writes

WWB #8: Medieval Houses

On day 8 of my 30 days of world-building, I look at two medieval houses and use them as models for my fantasy setting.

While scribbling away at my map of Hafran, I didn't pay much attention to the shape of my map's houses. This wasn't an oversight, I think. I was treating my map as an artistic impression of the town, rather than an accurate representation. In this regard, the buildings were acting as visual filler, something to give the eye the illusion of a well fleshed-out town. The shapes I used — rectangles, squares and L-shaped polygons (or whatever they are called) — are pretty common on fantasy maps. You also find them on many of the historical maps authors and Dungeon Masters use as inspiration.

The exercise got me thinking what historical houses were really like, particularly under the roof. Houses reflect cultural preferences and economic realities. The modern house is the product of centuries of evolution — both in building materials and in our changing relationship with domestic space, and family composition. In the developed Anglo countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK, and the USA) families have shrunk, but our houses have enlarged. Note too there's been a corresponding decline in public life. We are far more insular as families and individuals, and less community-minded than our ancestors were, even as recently as 50 years ago.

I should preface this impending journey down the rabbit hole. If one is writing fantasy, then houses can function and look, however you like. I happen to love social history, and the historian in me needs a certain level of internal consistency. Even as a fantasy writer, I try to sail close to historical models, and my setting is an analogue of Medieval Europe, before the 13th century. So here are two extant models from the period and place of which I'm most interested.

The Roundhouse

The roundhouse is typically associated with the Iron Age, in particular, the Brythonic-Celtic cultures before the arrival of the Romans. The design is older, however, and it persisted throughout the Roman and early medieval period, particularly in the Celtic fringe (Wales, Cornwall, Scotland, Brittany).

These circular constructions were made from local materials — timber posts, stone, straw, wattle-and-daub — and thatched with a characteristic 45-degree angle roof. The roundhouse was typically 5m (16ft) in diameter but could be as much as 15m (50ft).

The living space was communal — no internal partitions, at least none made from materials requiring solid foundations. People ate, slept, and lived around a central, open fire. There was no chimney, though some may have had a central opening through the thatch. The reconstructed model I visited in St Fagan's Museum of Welsh Life had no ventilation and was incredibly smoky inside.

Celtic roundhouse from St Fagans - note the fire extinguisher!
Celtic roundhouse from St Fagans - note the fire extinguisher!
Roundhouse exterior
Roundhouse exterior

Roundhouses also had several variations, for example, where two were joined together with something resembling an internal hallway.

Variation on the roundhouse, source
Variation on the roundhouse, source

Another variation was the crannog, unique to Britain, these were roundhouses built on water, no doubt as a means of protection and to access to water resources.

Reconstructed crannog in Scotland. Photo courtesy Wikimedia and Christine Westerback
Reconstructed crannog in Scotland. Photo courtesy Wikimedia and Christine Westerback

Incidentally, Crannogs were my inspiration for Langorn, an important setting in my novels. I based the settlement on the crannog excavated in Llangorse Lake a few miles from Brecon in Wales - televised in one of the earliest episodes of Time Team.

At, the roundhouse appears to be quintessentially rural, and impractical for cities with well laid out streets. Yet, roundhouse foundations are present in Hill Fort excavation, which were the closest thing the Iron Age Britons got to creating a densely populated urban settlement.

The Hall House

The hall house dominated English architecture for centuries. Wikipedia has a great write up. In summary, they were introduced by the Saxons (though their origins are ancient), rapidly replacing the Roman and Celtic designs of the proceeding periods, particularly in the English Home Counties. The basic layout was simple and persisted in a recognisable form beyond the Norman invasion and into the early modern period.

In contrast to the Brythonic roundhouse, the Hall House was rectangular and had internal divisions. Like a Roman villa, space was divided into public and private areas, and this concept persisted throughout the centuries.

Reconstruction of a typical hall house
Reconstruction of a typical hall house

On the small end, the hall house was roughly 16x32 feet. Sixteen feet was the length of the medieval rod. Blocks of land were typically partitioned into 16-foot frontages to assess land tax in towns. This is one reason why medieval houses tended to be narrow but long — it was a tax avoidance strategy.

For you tactical D&D combat types, 16 feet is conveniently close to 3, 5-foot squares on your typical combat grid — something to keep in mind when scaling your encounter maps.

Construction was from whatever was available — timber frames, wattle-and-daub walls, thatched roofing. As time and prosperity allowed, stone, brick or slate tiles were used. Windows were few at first, then we get shuttered holes in the walls, and eventually glass in the wealthier houses from the 13th century onwards.

Privacy was limited, and sleep was a communal experience, even for the aristocracy whose most intimate servants and grooms often slept in the same room as their masters. Hallways as we know them - dead space separating rooms - didn't exist until much later. A visit to a real castle or a palace like Versailles in France will attest to this oddity.

Here's my take on a simple Medieval Hall House, based on one of the illustrations I found in the wiki article I linked to above.

Simple Medieval Hall House
Simple Medieval Hall House

The central space was the hall and location of the hearth. The hall was open to the rafters of the roofs, to facilitate ventilation before chimneys became common (much later than you think, from the 15th century). The hall was central to public, and communal family life, serving as a kitchen, dining and living area and a place for guest. Food and drink were stored in the partitioned pantry and buttery respectively, while the residents slept in a private parlour.

Over time, the hall house evolved from its basic layout. In a rural context, the halls of the wealthy could afford to sprawl out, adding wings and outbuildings, like kitchens and servant quarters. The Wikipedia I linked to shows several of these variations.

In towns, space is a premium, forcing people to build upwards instead of outwards. Add a second storey, and you get a solar. The rooms downstairs can be repurposed at kitchens, servants quarters, workshops and so on. Kitchens could also be detached from the house in separate outbuildings, as I noted above.

Compared to the roundhouse, the rectangular shape of the hall provides a lot more flexibility, for adding on wings, storeys, and they work better in an urban context behind city walls.

Rethinking my building shapes

In the setting of my current stories, two cultures predominate. I like the idea of representing them in different architectural styles, even as they coexist on the same island. The urban elite live in blocky halls, with those in the country follow older traditions.

I think I'll start trying to represent my buildings a little more accurately, or at least consistent with the cultures that inhabit my cities, towns and villages. I should probably remove those chimneys too while I'm at it, or at least feature them only in a wealthier urban context.

Or, maybe, as a fantasy writer, I shouldn't be too pedantic — at least when fleshing out the detail of a settlement. After all, I draw every house by hand, and I don't think they look too bad.

Hafran building sketch
Hafran building sketch

That said, I think I'll try to be more aware of what I create next time and pay a bit more attention to the shape of my world's houses.

Concluding thoughts

While I picked just two historical models pertinent to my setting, there's a many more that research will surface. Romans, Greeks, Persians, Ethiopians, South-West Native Americans, Xia dynasty China and more. There is a wealth of historical models out there by people who built houses of different cultural, environmental and economic needs.

The way people construct their house also tells us much about their culture's relationship with space, privacy, hierarchies, gender roles, public and private life. What materials did they use? How was space divided? Where men, women and children separated? Was part of the house considered public space? How was waste and refuse managed? How was water fetched and used? How and where did people cook? Look at the way you live, and try to draw analogies with how your characters lived their daily lives. Thinking about these questions is an excellent exercise for creating convincing cultures from the ground up.

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