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Why Did Homes Have Small Windows in the Middle Ages?

By Edited Aug 14, 2016 0 0
Svenska: "Klostret" (Absalon 1) i Linköping
Credit: Jssfrk/This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license (found on Wikimedia Commons)

Homes constructed during the Middle Ages were not built in a fashion that you would expect to see in modern times. Both the inner and outer construction were very different, and even details, such as windows, were not what you'd find in the 21st, or even the 18th, century.

Annenberg Learner, a resource for teachers website, notes the homes the average family lived in during the Middle Ages were cold, damp and dark. 1 Windows were very small, and their diminutive size was intentional for a few reasons.   

Security and Defense

The Middle Ages lasted approximately 1,000 years and this was a time in society that was primarily rife with upheaval and uncertainty. Homes were not built for comfort, but for many centuries, designs tended to be aligned with safety in mind.  People living in this time frame had to be on-guard and protect their families or others they were responsible for keeping safe. Many designs were created with a need to defend in the event of an attack or other type of intrusion.

Small windows were a part of a strategy to keep families safe. Having a smaller window structure allowed families to be able to see who was outside, or what was going on outdoors. These undersized windows also kept nosy outsiders and/or intruders from looking inside the home to see who and what was inside (after all, if you lived during this era, would you want people peeping in while you were eating your Medieval-style dinner?) 

Another concern people had during this era was preventing wild animals from coming into the home to pay its occupants a visit. Large windows would be more inviting to various critters, but creating smaller openings meant this would keep most, if not all of them, out.

While some people installed openings in their houses to serve as windows, many chose not to use windows at all, but those that did install windows ensured the openings were not very prominent. Even many castles had small slits for windows for a good part of the Middle Ages.

Weather

Early homes during the Medieval times did not have windows and people lived in dark conditions filled with smoke. English-Online notes, sometimes it was "brighter outside the house than in it." 5 Creating small windows allowed some light and air to flow in, but homes were still generally damp and dark. In cooler weather, the lack of windows eliminated drafts and in warmer weather, the small window gave the home a bit of breathing space.

Doune Castle Scotland
Credit: Wikifan75/This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license (found on Wikimedia Commons)

Doune Castle, located in Scotland. It is believed the oldest sections of this castle date back to the 1260s.

Over the centuries, many of the average homes that were constructed during the Middle Ages have since been long destroyed or deteriorated as those belonging to the peasants were made of sticks, straw and mud, and later wattle and daub. 3 The only medieval homes that survive in the modern day are usually those that belonged to the wealthy since these were made of stone.

Techniques Were Simple, Glass Was Expensive

While castles look beautiful and "fancy" (and many of them are!) their building construction is more basic. 6 Using stone not only kept the structure's design simple and, as was often the case, windows were minimized. It was not until the 1200s that windows increased in size and became a more prominent presence in wealthy homes.

Whether or not peasant homes had windows would depend upon its structure. In homes that had windows, glass was not the norm, although some of the wealthier homeowners might have installed glass in their small windows (and if they moved, the glass came with them). In addition to security factors, it would have been expensive to fit larger openings with glass. As an alternative to the costly glass, many households often used wooden shutters, boards or cloth to cover the window at night or during inclement weather.

In the latter part of the Medieval era, glass was used more frequently.

Times Change

As for the windows, as the centuries passed and the Renaissance bloomed, much of disorder and turmoil present during most of the Middle Ages was put behind society, leading to the dismantling of feudal structures.

As art, music and architecture continued to blossom, windows became a prominent fixture in homes for the wealthy, and the more spacious openings often contained glass, curtains or other decorative features. Even the peasant homes had openings that may not have had glass, were opened to allow light and air into the home.

However, during feudal times large windows were considered a threat for a variety of reasons and were not typically included when building homes. Designs in the latter part of the era began to include windows where were a little more representative of what you'd expect in the modern day.

 [Related reading: The Bubonic Plague: Origins and Impacts ]

Penarth Fawr Medieval House (CADW)
Credit: © Copyright Colin Park and licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0

As the centuries went by, more houses began to incorporate larger windows.

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Bibliography

  1. "Homes: What was it really like to live in the Middle Ages?." Annenberg Learner. 8/02/2015 <Web >
  2. "Life in a Middle Ages Castle." LordsandLadies.org. 8/02/2015 <Web >
  3. "Medieval Life - Housing." History on the Net. 14/08/2014. 8/02/2015 <Web >
  4. Simon Newman "Houses in the Middle Ages." The Finer Times. 8/02/2015 <Web >
  5. "Life in the Middle Ages." English Online. 8/02/2015 <Web >
  6. "Life in a Medieval Castle: The Smells, Sounds and Structure of Medieval Castle Life." Exploring Castles. 9/02/2015 <Web >

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