October 5, 2010

"There were no chimneys up until about 14th century. What you did was you had an open fire..."

"... and all the smoke just kind of leaked out a hole in the roof. A fire in the middle of the room radiates heat much better than a fireplace does, but it also meant that there was a lot of smoke and sparks and things drifting about."

Then the chimney was invented, Bill Bryson tells us, and with all that area near the roof newly cleared of smoke, it became possible to have an upstairs:
"From that point, they started to discover the whole concept of privacy and having space of your own," he adds.

It was at this point that the different rooms we take for granted — bedroom, study, closet — began to enter the common vernacular. However, Bryson notes that many of these rooms served very different functions hundreds of years ago than they do today.

Though a boudoir is now commonly connected with a sense of sexual intrigue, Bryson says that the French word actually translates into "a place to sulk."...

"Right from the very beginning," Bryson says, "[the boudoir] was a place for the mistress of the house to retreat to, and those private rooms upstairs were also where people now began to invite guests. So while we now think of a bedroom as a place that's dedicated to sleeping ... [in the Middle Ages, a boudoir] might be where you'd have a little dinner party."
Ah! A new Bill Bryson book is out today.  It's "At Home: A Short History Of Private Life." I chose the audio version, because I adore Bryson's reading voice. It's charming and humorous, but also gentle enough to listen to while falling asleep. I buy all Bryson's books in audio form, and I listen to them hundreds of times. Since I fall asleep — in my boudoir! — while listening, I never really know when I've heard everything, but it doesn't matter. I'm never done listening.

33 comments:

Skyler said...

What balder dash. They had multi story buildings in ancient days.

Ann Althouse said...

@Skyler I think the point is that there weren't chimneys. You couldn't have an upstairs in a house with a big fire in the middle until you got a chimney.

traditionalguy said...

I find that an amazing thing happens when listening to a good audiobook : The sudden awareness of meanings that were not fully understood the first 3 times I listened. If books are our friends, then hanging out with our new friends over time opens us up to a deep loving relationship.

Skyler said...

Ann, I will accept for now that the contention is true, but the idea that the chimney is the reason people had living spaces on second floors is a bit of a stretch. He's trying too hard to make the mundane poetic.

traditionalguy said...

And then along came Ben Franklin and finally solved the problem.

rhhardin said...

I fall asleep to Radio Japan English Service news broadcasts saved from the 90s.

Senior announcer Takehiko Kobayashi (I think was his name) added little extra syllables where word endings otherwise would be unusual in Japanese.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

Skyler is right.

They had multi story buildings very often in more temperate climates. Rome. Pompeii. Crete. To name just a few places. Having separate areas for dining, sleeping, enteraining, cooking is not novel and neither was having multi story residences.

The problem with the chimney only existed in cold areas and especially during the cold snaps before and after the Medieval Warming period.

rhhardin said...

Stanley Cavell puts modern privacy down to romantic rather than arranged marriage. A privacy shared, but not with the public.

jaed said...

You couldn't have an upstairs in a house with a big fire in the middle until you got a chimney.

Sure you could. I mean, not an entire enclosed second floor, but people could and did have loft rooms which were used for private purposes.

Enclosed beds also were common in such houses. Those are pretty private also, although there's not much you can do in one other than sleep and have sex.

Palladian said...

Medieval (and earlier) European castles and manor houses were usually centered around a "great hall", basically a very large room with a high ceiling with a fire in the middle. Here's a famous example of a medieval (1341) great hall at Penshurst Place in Kent. There generally weren't upper floors for exactly the reason stated in this post: smoke from the main fire rose to the ceiling and out the roof or out windows along the ceiling.

There was occasionally an upper room, commonly called a "solar", which was for ladies of status to retire for privacy (but not usually for sleeping).

Until the late middle ages, everyone associated with a castle or manor house ate, lived and slept in the great hall. The important people, such as the lord and lady and their attendants, lived at the far end of the hall, often on a dais, and the lesser residents lived toward the other end of the hall. The only privacy in a great hall was provided by curtains, which were usually reserved for the higher-status residents. And almost all furniture was transitory: most people slept on mats or even loose straw, tables were trestle tables which were erected for meals and then taken down, seating was usually benches or the floor, and perhaps chairs for the most important household members. Cooking, though, was usually done in a separate building and brought to the great hall; cooking was only done on the main fire in tiny peasant dwellings.

It really was an entirely different way of living. I do think it's something of a stretch to attribute the change in arrangements solely to the chimney, but an interesting theory nonetheless. It is easier to heat one big room than an array of smaller rooms, and thrift, efficiency and survival were the forces that guided most people's lives, not notions of privacy or comfort.

Gabriel Hanna said...

There's a set of books by some French historians called "A History of Private Life" which I really can't recommend enough.

Skyler is correct to note that the Romans had multistory dwellings, but the upper floors were unsanitary and cold, and therefore undesirable. Roman houses in Britain had central heating and didn't need chimneys, but only one or two floors could be kept warm this way.

Baths and central heating existed in Britain in the 4th century but were forgetten, as Winston Churchill points out, until the 19th.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypocaust
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insulae

El Pollo Real said...

From the wiki:

Romans used tubes inside the walls to draw smoke out of bakeries but real chimneys appeared only in northern Europe in the 12th century.

El Pollo Real said...

I recall seeing some rudimentary form of chimneys at Mesa Verda in what was essentially a multistory appartment block.

The Crack Emcee said...

Though a boudoir is now commonly connected with a sense of sexual intrigue, Bryson says that the French word actually translates into "a place to sulk."...

Yep, that's the French. You've got to fuck 'em to make 'em stop sulking.

bagoh20 said...

I just started up my fireplace about 60 seconds before cracking open this Althouse. The first rains of winter just hit L.A. and a warm fire makes it all O.K.

According to Wikipedia: "The earliest extant example of an English chimney is at Conisborough Keep in Yorkshire, which dates from 1185 AD."

BTW, I invented the chimney... about a week after I invented fire.

Enjoy, it's my treat, so smoke em if you got em.

bagoh20 said...

Has anyone else ever burned a Christmas tree in a fireplace? It's right on the line between fire and explosion. Glorious!

deborah said...

I fall asleep to suitable Bloggingheads videos; pleasant male voices of similar pitch. I don't care to listen to books I'm reading, as I have to go back and find where I fell asleep.

Bago, many thanks for inventing the fireplace and fire...I hope you got those patented.

David said...

"all the smoke just kind of leaked out a hole in the roof . . . "

Skyler, take a trip through rural Africa. You will see exactly the same thing today.

edutcher said...

"Though a boudoir is now commonly connected with a sense of sexual intrigue, Bryson says that the French word actually translates into 'a place to sulk.'..."

You sulk?

Say it ain't so!

traditionalguy said...

Crack @ 8:15...LOL. That French tradition seems to have been learned here. I blame French Language teachers.

deborah said...

I understand that if you occasionally(?) throw some aluminum cans in your fire it helps prevent creosote formation.

JAL said...

I listen to them hundreds of times

Really?

Hundreds of times?

We really enjoy Bill Bryson reading his books.

Laughed ourselves silly over "A Walk in the Woods" which was our introduction to Bryson.

I just am trying to imagine listening to his books hundreds of times.

You know, so many books, so little time ....

Christy said...

I hear you. I must have listened to Herodotus's Persian Wars 50 times because I always fell asleep before Thermopylae. My new mp3 player has a sleep function. Yippee!

Reading Bryson is akin to spending time with a gentle, enormously curious friend. I love the surpising elements that capture his interest.

Beth said...

I haven't listened to Bryson. We're about to take a little driving trip, so maybe I'll download that tonight.

When we took a few weeks' trip to England, C. brought Bryson's Notes from a Small Island and I brought the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Together they made for some fun tour notes.

Deb said...

I laughed so hard reading Notes from a Small Island while travelling in England that my family would not allow me to read it in public. Bryson is hilarious but I do not like to listen to him read. I recently listened to Donna Tartt read True Grit. It was a big surprise - just fantastic.

AllenS said...

I live in a farm house that was built in 1908. There are no closets in the house. Two story, and when I bought the place, two chimneys.

TML said...

Bryson is an absolute delight. Mother Tongue is one of my favorite books on language. Notes from a Small Island is punishingly funny. In fact everything of his I've read is wonderful. What a way with words. Oh yeah, the Australia book (Sunburned Country?) is amazing.

Class factotum said...

take a trip through rural Africa. You will see exactly the same thing today.

And rural Chile, where the Mapuche (indigenous group) live. I would sit in meetings in the traditional dwellings and my eyes would water continuously from the smoke from the fire built on the floor. No chimney. No hole in the roof. Not even an open window.

I know I'm supposed to respect indigenous people as being all one with the earth and all, but it's hard to feel that way when a group willfully ignores the available technology.

I might say the same about the plumbing in Spanish and French hotel bathrooms: We have a way to keep the noxious gasses from coming back up the pipes and into the room. It's called an elbow joint. Yeah, it's probably American and who wants that imperialism. Better to have stinky rooms than to do as les americaines.

mariner said...

I no longer pay any attention to Bill Bryson.

I loved his book THE MOTHER TONGUE, until someone pointed me to the reviews at Amazon.com. It turns out Bryson was ridiculously wrong about several things.

I read non-fiction to learn from someone who knows more than I do about a subject. I'm not interested in spending time, effort and money learning things that just ain't so.

WV: hineepr -- those 1980s radio advertisements for a certain winery.

deborah said...

Deb:
"Bryson is hilarious but I do not like to listen to him read. I recently listened to Donna Tartt read True Grit. It was a big surprise - just fantastic."

The narrator makes all the difference.

john harvard said...

From the NPR piece, it seems that nearly all of this ground was covered 20 years ago in Witold Rybczynski's "Home."

blake said...

Bed's much more than just one thing,
It's garden, boat and boxing ring,
It's desert island, mountaintop,
It's cradle, grave and final stop.

jgm said...

AllenS:

My house was built in 1912. It's (not counting the basement, er, garden-level, which is now an apartment) about 3000 s/f. There are two (count 'em) original closets in the whole place.

Pepys in his diary many times refers to being admitted to grand persons' "closets." Still not sure what sort of room that meant, but I bet he wasn't ushered into a small space full of clothing and legos and broken food processers and old board games and mouse crap--sorry, just my own experience.