Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Before the Dutch: The Medieval Home

The urban medieval home, a busy thoroughfare of business and family, from the Da Costa Book of Hours, The Netherlands, 1535.

To find out about the Dutch culture that produced paintings of housecleaning, I consulted a wonderful book I had read before, Home: A Short History of an Idea, by Witold Rybczynski. The title is itself a challenge: we never think of home as an idea or as having a history; we just think of it as home.

To get an idea of the Dutch achievement in domesticity, I cite Rybczynski on the urban medieval home: "The typical bourgeois townhouse of the 14th century combined living and work." The building was usually narrow and of two stories. The main floor of the house was the shop or work area, which opened out into the street. "The living quarters were not, as we would expect, a series of rooms; instead they consisted of a large chamber--the hall--which was open up to the rafters. People cooked, ate, entertained, and slept in this space.... What is unexpected about medieval houses, however, is not the lack of furniture...but the crush and hubbub of life within them.... This was partly because, in the absence of restaurants, bars, and hotels, they served as public meeting places for entertaining and transacting business, but also because the household itself was large. In addition to the immediate family, it included employees, servants, apprentices, friends, and proteges--households of up to 25 person were not uncommon. Since all these people lived in one or at most two rooms, privacy was unknown.... Not only were there usually many beds in a room,... there were usually many people in one bed."

Along with the non-private house came the non-private garden, which was usually part of the gardens of landowners and lords.

The non-private garden worked by servants or serfs, the Golf Book of Hours, Flemish, 1535.

However, despite the traffic through the home of townspeople, cleanliness was paid attention to. Rybczynski cites a 14th-century manual, Menagere de Paris, which told the housewife: "The entrance to your home, that is the parlor and the entrances whereby people come in to speak within the house, must be swept early in the morning and kept clean, and the stools, benches and cushions dusted and shaken."

Saint Barbara in her pristine quarters, in a painting by Robert Campin, 1438.

Two changes within the house led to the kind of domesticity and idea of the private home that we see in Dutch genre painting of the 17th century. First, the place of work and the house in which people lived became two separate places and the house was left for family life. Second, children, who were sent out of the medieval family at the age of seven--either to apprenticeship, the monastery, or to court as pages, etc.--began to stay home as they increasingly went to school rather than to a different place for training or work. The medieval customary separation of children from their parents at a young age is shown, for example, in the children's book, The Door in the Wall, by Marguerite di Angeli, about a boy in medieval England who was sent to live in the household of another knight to learn the ways of knighthood.

However, all that said, there is quite a sense of intimacy in this charming portrait of the Holy Family in the Catherine of Cleves Book of Hours from the Dutch town of Cleves. Note that both the Virgin and Joseph are likely both producing for the market in the home setting. (Walkers haven't changed much, have they?)

Catherine of Cleves, Book of Hours, 1440


muratiskender said...

Thanks, very enlightening

Anonymous said...

I just discovered your blog. Is it all right if I write a post with a link to you site? I've been learning so much and what you write about sure does hold my interest. elizabeth

Linda said...

Dear Elizabeth,
Sure you can post a link. That would be great. I am glad you like the blog and its topics. I wish I had more time for it. All the best, Linda

Anonymous said...

I highly recommend the book, "Dutch and Flemish Furniture" by Esther Singleton, published around 1903. It's available online for free, and old copies can still be found. The author describes furniture and interiors from the Middle Ages through the 18th century in great detail.

- Hans

Linda said...

Thank you very much for this suggestion. Sounds fascinating. I will look for it.

Tiecelin said...

If this is typical of the book Home: A Short History of an Idea, by Witold Rybczynski it is wrong. It's based on obsolete knowledge.