I read If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home by Lucy Worsley, which provided me with much food for thought, and is inspiring multiple blog posts. Such as this one.
In the beginning of the book, it explains how, in medieval England (and medieval Europe in general?) most rooms were used for all purposes, and even the few rooms with specialized purposes were used more broadly than they are today. Few medieval people had their own dedicated bedroom; most of them slept in the same room where they did things while awake. People who worked in a kitchen would probably pull out straw mattresses and sleep there at night too. Practically nobody slept in a private bedroom; even the nobility, who had partial privacy within their four-poster bed (if they could afford one) would have some of their servants sleeping in the same room as themselves. And even the ‘bedrooms’ of the nobility were used for many purposes in the daytime, and were not treated as strictly places to sleep.
Building and maintaining buildings are expensive. Keeping buildings warm when it is cold outside is challenging. And in societies which are prone to frequent outbreaks of violence, defending buildings is also a challenge. In medieval Europe, which lacked many of the resources we take for granted now in first world countries today, it made sense to get the most use out of those buildings which were built, maintained, kept warm, and defended. To let a room be left idle in daytime or night-time was wasteful.
People in medieval Europe had much less privacy in where they slept that most affluent people in the first world today, but more people = more warmth, and keeping warm is a higher priority than privacy (not to mention more protection from potential enemies).
Before chimneys started to appear in the 13th century, the only way to heat a room – besides body heat – was an open fire. Since each fire could only heat one room, and each fire required maintenance, that was a reason to minimize the number of rooms (and maximize the use of those rooms). Chimneys made it possible to heat multiple rooms with a single fire, yet were still inefficient. As heating technology improved over the centuries, it became more feasible to heat more rooms with a given amount of fuel.
(Worsley focuses on British history, but in warmer climates, such as southern China, heating is much less important. There tulou homes in Fujian province that were built in the 14th century and have over 200 rooms.)
Gradually, there was more separation of functions of rooms, though the change was gradual. The idea of a bedroom being an exclusive place only became widespread in the 18th century, though ‘bedrooms’ were still used frequently for social gatherings. Heck, according to Worsley, corridors only started to appear in British homes towards the end of the 17th century – before corridors, people had to move through
bedrooms rooms which happened to have beds to get from one place in a house to another. And it was only in Victorian times that bedrooms became firmly established as private places. To quote Lucy Worsley “The activities of the bedroom were now [in the Victorian Era] limited to sex and sleeping alone, and the other social purposes of the room fell away.” Continue reading →