Monday, December 7, 2009
Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire
Today many people would say that the most important room in their house was the kitchen – the place where food is cooked and, often, eaten; where the family gathers; where it is always warm. For many, the kitchen is the social centre and heart of the house. In some houses it’s an economic centre, too – I’ve known business people who hold meetings in their kitchens, and a farmhouse kitchen can be the chosen meeting place for the farmer’s family, the farm workers – and often anyone who happens to be passing.
It comes as something of a shock, therefore, to discover that many medieval houses didn’t have a kitchen as such. Outside the grandest of houses (and specialized buildings such as monasteries and colleges), most people lived in one, all-purpose room. This open space, known as the hall, was kitchen, dining room, office, workroom, and bedroom rolled into one. There was a central hearth for heating and cooking, and trestle tables at which to eat. Come night-time, the tables were taken down or pushed aside, and people lay down to sleep on mattresses on the floor. More prosperous households managed a private room (the solar) for the head of the household and his wife, but much of the life of the household still revolved around the communal hall.
With its central hearth, the medieval hall was the archetypal smoke-filled room – there was no chimney so the smoke from the fire had to find its way through a hole in the roof high above everyone’s heads. People seem to have got used to the smoke, no doubt learning to control it by opening and closing the room’s doors to create the right kind of draught.
In a few houses, where food was produced on a large scale, there was another smoke-filled room, a separate kitchen reserved just for cooking. These dedicated kitchens were not very common, and few survive today. This is the one at the manor house at Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire, and it probably survives because the family decamped for another village in the 18th century, demolishing much of their old house but leaving some of it in place but unmodernized.
The kitchen was probably first built in the 14th century, and reroofed and given new windows in the 15th. Inside, fires were made against one wall, where spits turned to roast meat; there are also three ovens. As with the more common medieval halls, there was no chimney – the smoke rose to the ceiling where it exited through holes beneath the roof. Above all this is a cat’s cradle of timbers supporting the octagonal pointed roof, the whole thing topped off with a griffin made of lead.
The servants at Stanton Harcourt no doubt got used to the smoke, but it surprised one famous guest, the poet Alexander Pope, who stayed at Stanton Harcourt in 1717–18 while translating the Iliad. With Classical mythology very much on his mind, Pope compared the kitchen to Vulcan’s forge or the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus. A dark cave of creation, then, closer to Homer’s world than Pope’s, and miraculously preserved into our own.