The Great Hall


Whether on the motte, in the bailey, inside the walls of the shell keep, or as a separate building within the great curtain walls of the 13th century, the living quarters of a castle invariably had one basic element: the hall. A large one-room structure with a loft ceiling, the hall was sometimes on the ground floor, but often, as is Fitz Osbern's great tower at Chepstow, it was raised to the second story for greater security. Early halls were aisled like a church, with rows of wooden posts or stone pillars supporting the timber roof. Windows were equipped with wooden shutters secured by an iron bar, but in the 11th and 12th centuries were rarely glazed. By the 13th century a king or great baron might have "white (greenish) glass" in some of his windows, and by the 14th century glazed windows were common. In a ground-floor hall the floor was beaten earth, stone or plaster; when the hall was elevated to the upper story the floor was nearly always timber, supported either by a row of wooden pillars in the basement below, as in Chepstow's Great Hall or by stone vaulting. Carpets, although used on walls, tables, and benches, were not used as floor coverings in Britain and northwest Europe until the 14th century. Floors were strewn with rushes and in the later Middle Ages sometimes with herbs. The rushes were replaced at intervals and the floor swept, but Erasmus, noting a condition that must have been true in earlier times, observed that often under them lay "an ancient collection of beer, grease, fragments, bones, spittle, excrement of dogs and cats and everything that is nasty."
Entrance to the hall was usually in a side wall near the lower end. When the hall was on an upper story, this entrance was commonly reached by an outside staircase next to the wall of the keep. The castle family sat on a raised dais of stone or wood at the upper end of the hall, opposite to the entrance, away from drafts and intrusion. The lord (and perhaps the lady) occupied a massive chair, sometimes with a canopy by way of emphasizing status. Everyone else sat on benches. Most dining tables were set on temporary trestles that were dismantled between meals; a permanent, or "dormant," table was another sign of prestige, limited to the greatest lords. But all tables were covered with white cloths, clean and ample. Lighting was by rushlights or candles, of wax or tallow (melted animal fat), impaled on vertical spikes or an iron candlestick with a tripod base, or held in a loop, or supported on wall brackets or iron candelabra. Oil lamps in bowl form on a stand, or suspended in a ring, provided better illumination, and flares sometimes hung from iron rings in the wall.
If the later Middle Ages had made only slight improvements in lighting over earlier centuries, a major technical advance had come in heating: the fireplace, an invention of deceptive simplicity. The fireplace provided heat both directly and by radiation from the stones at the back, from the hearth, and finally, from the opposite wall, which was given extra thickness to absorb the heat and warm the room after the fire had burned low. The ancestor of the fireplace was the central open hearth, used in ground-level halls in Saxon times and often into later centuries. Such a hearth may have heated one of the two halls of Chepstow's 13th-century domestic range, where there are no traces of a fireplace. Square, circular, or octagonal, the central hearth was bordered by stone or tile and sometimes had a backing of tile, brick or stone. Smoke rose through a louver, a lantern-like structure in the roof with side openings that were covered with sloping boards to exclude rain and snow, and that could be closed by pulling strings, like venetian blinds. There were also roof ventilators. A couvre-feu (fire cover) made of tile or china was placed over the hearth at night to reduce the fire hazard.
When the hall was raised to the second story, a fireplace in one wall took the place of the central hearth, dangerous on an upper level, especially with a timber floor. The hearth was moved to a location against a wall with a funnel or hood to collect and control the smoke, and finally, funnel and all, was incorporated into the wall. This early type of fireplace was arched, and set into the wall at a point where it was thickened by an external buttress, with the smoke venting through the buttress. Toward the end of the 12th century, the fireplace began to be protected by a projecting hood of stone or plaster which controlled the smoke more effectively and allowed for a shallower recess. Flues ascended vertically through the walls to a chimney, cylindrical with an open top, or with side vents and a conical cap.

"Woe is in the hall each day in the week.
There the lord and lady like not to sit.
Now every rich man eats by himself
In a private parlor to be rid of poor men,
Or in a chamber with a chimney
And leaves the great hall."



Credit ~
Life in a Medieval Castle
Joseph and Frances Gies
Harper and Row, New York 1974