The Late Medieval Open Hall

The physical structure


In England, by the end of the fourteenth century, it is thought that the fully developed medieval hall arrangement had been attained. That is to say, the addition of two compartments either side of the hall to accommodate the service rooms and living quarters, forming a tripartite design, had become common place (Quiney & Vyner 1994, 231; Smith 1955, 77). This type of plan form was the dominant feature of houses, of all social levels, in the south-east of England, during the later medieval period (Sheppard 1966, 29). The medieval hall is thought to be an evolution of the Roman and Anglo-Saxon aisled hall longhouses and lasted until the end of the medieval period (Quiney 1999, 27-8; Smith 1955, 76). Gardiner disagrees with this saying, instead, that “the plan did not emerge from the longhouse, as has been suggested. Instead, the longhouse is identified as a regional variant of the later medieval domestic plan” (Gardiner 2000, 159). He also proposes that the plan pre-dates the introduction of the timber-framing method, at the start of the 13th century. The medieval domestic plan can be identified in vernacular buildings of the 12th century, though these are not of a timber-framed construction (Gardiner 2000, 159).

Figure 3 illustrates a typical box-framed hall house of the 15th century (Harris 1978, 15). It consists of four bays, providing three ground floor ‘sections’; the so-called ‘standard tripartite plan’ of service rooms on the left, an open hall in the centre and parlour/solar on the right (Fairclough 1992, 362; Quiney 1984, 461). At this point it should be noted that although a great deal of houses were orientated this way, the plan can often be reversed with the service wing on the right. Even with the plan reversed the cross-passage is always at the lower/service end of the building. The bays are delineated by the tie-beams atop the main posts, as in Figure 3. There are five such posts making four bays. The service and parlour occupy one bay each with the hall monopolising almost two bays because of the cross-passage (Johnson 1993, 44-5). This four bay, three room plan is a generalisation as some have been recorded with the number of bays ranging, from anywhere, between one and seven. However, the four bays option is the most likely for the new middle class of the 15th century (ibid 44-5).

The floor, of the open hall, was generally formed by beaten earth and always featured an open hearth, towards the centre, to provide both heating and an area for cooking (Lewis et al. 1988, 11). As will be attested in chapter 6 (Analysing the data), during the course of the Hampshire survey, the author  observed some evidence of crystalline ‘fatty’ deposits in the roof and central tie-beam, a result of cooking meat on the open fire (pers com. Dr J Crook 2006). Finding soot, in the roof of a suspected hall house, is always a sure sign that the house originally had an open hall that was ceiled over, around the beginning of the 16th century.

The open hall was a hugely important aspect of late medieval society, forming the central space within a house, where social interactions took place around an open fire (Johnson 1993, 55-8; Quiney 1999, 28). The open hall transcended the class divide, being the focus of the majority of houses, from the landed gentry to the landless peasant, and dominated plan forms, from the Saxon period through to the early 16th century (Roberts 2003, 126). The hall was also present in all forms of construction, be it box-frame, base-cruck or cruck and, although plan forms varied regionally, the hall was always a constant (Harris 1978, 31; Lewis et al. 1988, 17). Although early origins, for the development of the open hall, are based on both historical and literary documental evidence, such as Bede (672-735), Beowulf (c. 8thC) and Chaucer (1343-1400), Quiney shows that, archaeologically, the higher levels of society were using open halls from the early Saxon period (6thC) and, at lower levels of society, just before the Norman conquest (11thC) (Quiney 1999, 29). This indicates the hall’s importance, in serving as a social space for people to interact and identify themselves, within their ‘sociosphere’ (Lawn 2004, 4; Leech 2000, 1).
Why was the open hall always open to the roof? Johnson suggests, this fact is more than just a practicality to accommodate the central hearth and provide a means for the smoke to rise up and dissipate through the thatch. He proposes that this is an inadequate postulation and it related more to the social structure of the time, as shall be seen later in this chapter. He puts forward a clear and convincing argument regarding the absence of fireplaces, within the late medieval middling classes, by informing the reader that both knowledge and technology were available to the carpenter, yet they did not employ fireplaces, en masse, till the early 16th century (Johnson 1993, 53). For now, the principle of smoke control, with the use of gablets (small triangular openings above the hipped end of the roof, Figure 3) or louvers, will be explored.

The process of ceiling over the open hall and inserting chimneys, during the early 16th century, brought about alterations that often make it extremely difficult to locate evidence for any venting system in the roof (Lewis et al. 1988, 11). It is hard to see how the gablet would have functioned, in removing smoke from the main hall, because the walls, at either end of the hall, appear to have always been sealed up to the rafters by a wattle and daub panel, thus making a barrier between the hall and the open gablets (Adams 2005, 61). As the open hearth is always accompanied by a cross-passage, Adams goes on to posit that if the house were to fill with smoke, while the wood tried to kindle, the opening of the cross-passage doors would cause a through draft, to encourage the smoke to dissipate, thus forcing the wood to catch fire more quickly and produce less smoke (ibid, 63). This aside,  the cross-passage shall be revisited later in this chapter to try and understand its importance in the ‘tripartite’ plan (Roberts 2003, 126-7).

Although the open hall has, it seems, very early Saxon origins, the tripartite plan has yet to be found in Hampshire any earlier than the beginning of the 12th century (Roberts 2003, 126-7). A humble dwelling was excavated at Bishop’s Waltham, between 1967 and 1978, in Hampshire, and published by Lewis, in 1985, a plan of which is shown in Figure 4 (Gardiner 2000, 170-2; Lewis 1985, 86; Roberts 2003, 126-7). Although the plan seems to indicate four rooms it is the fact that these rooms are joined together, in a linear form, which is the main feature. The rooms have been identified, by the excavator, as a service room, hall and chamber with cross-passage. The use of the fourth room is not understood but, Gardiner suggests, it is part of the chamber division (Gardiner 2000, 171-2). Before the tripartite plan appears the three buildings can be seen but they are not joined. What is interesting here is that the tripartite plan seems to coincide with the introduction of carpentry around 1180, in England; is this mere coincidence or is there more to this? Clearly, the organisation of space, in an elongated linear fashion, that is both functional and stable, requires advanced carpentry skills which, can be argued, simply did not exist until the beginning of the 12th century (see section 2.2.2 on p39). Orientation of the buildings seems random or, rather, dictated by their immediate environ, instead of a general north-south alignment or, of course, by a street plan (Adams 2005, 61-3).

In the late medieval domestic plan the social structure was articulated by employment of the main structural posts, of the timber frame, in order to provide clear divisions of space (Gardiner 2000,159). Although the term ‘feudal’ is often used to describe the social structure, of the late medieval period, Johnson suggests that patriarchal is better suited to describe a system of “good governance and public rule” which he takes from Mertes’ book, The English Noble Household 1250-1600: Good Governance and Politic Rule (Mertes 1988). So, if the house is then subdivided into a patriarchal structure, spaces of restriction and openness can be created. Traditionally, the house is divided into two social spaces, the ‘upper end’ to the right of the hearth, in Figure 5 , and the ‘lower end’ to the left of the hearth. Often this division is delineated by the open truss that runs through the centre of the property (see Figure 3 ). This central truss forms a fundamental element of the English open hall and is a topic that will be revisited many times during this thesis (Harris 1978, 13; Johnson 1993, 59).



How it looked

open hall















Continuing Research

Dr Richard Haddlesey is presently actively involved in surveying timber-framed properties in Southern England, but is willing to travel further afield.

He has found many interesting joints, and as a result, this website will constantly evolve and be updated regularly. The thesis has been passed and parts of the thesis will appear on this site in due time. Please feel free to email Richard with questions and suggestions.


The role of the house in society is a theme which transcends the period boundaries.

Approximately 108 timber-framed medieval buildings have been dendrochronologically dated to between AD1244 and 1530 in Hampshire alone. As part of Richards doctoral research, an extensive survey has been carried out on these buildings to record the different types of carpentry joints used in their construction; these joints have then been grouped, by type, to provide a typo-chronology used by medieval carpenters. The survey currently stands at 97% due to a lack of response by some property owners. Although his project is heavily informed by scientific dating methods (dendrochronology) theory is also an important component. Once the chrono-typologies have been produced and cross- referenced with regard to Cecil Hewett's Essex data (English Historic Carpentry Hewett 1980), the effects, if any, of the Black Death (1348-50) on medieval carpentry techniques and technologies, used in central southern England, can be analysed.

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