Sunday, May 26, 2013

Building a House (Part II)

Last week's post dealt with the things a writer has to know to design a (fictional) house in Florence, mid-13th century.  It asked questions such as these:  What were houses made of?  How big were they?  How many floors?  How were they heated?  What different types of rooms were there?  Where did people sleep?  Where were things stored?  What were the windows like?

The answers to these questions are sometimes surprising, sometimes very difficult to find, and almost always vary tremendously depending on whether we're looking at the home of a wealthy noble, a comfortably-well-off artisan or businessman, or a poor person.  To see what conclusions we came to, look here.

This week I want to take a look at how homes in the city affected other people - neighbors, passersby, people conducting business.  Thus, we'll be looking at such things as the use of space, the availability of water, waste disposal, keeping animals, and the ever-present danger of fire.  

Last time, we took a look at the way homeowners expanded their limited living space by building sporti - little added rooms, or balconies, that jutted out from the house well above street level.  Because these robbed the streets of light and created a hazard (see the painting above, where part of a balcony has crumbled onto the street below), they were heavily taxed and eventually outlawed altogether, though some examples survive even today.  Even while building such structures was permitted, laws usually existed to prevent them from starting low enough on the building that a man on horseback could not pass beneath, for example.  Streets were very narrow, with the two sides quite close together, so one can imagine religious processions or ceremonial occasions, with standard-bearers having to dodge overhanging balconies so they wouldn't snag their banners on the supports. 

If goods were delivered to the house via the street door, this activity clogged the street and got in the way of passersby.  Some houses would have had access via a back door, or through an alley, but any congestion in the street could make it at least temporarily impassable.

And of course it was not only private homes accepting deliveries that clogged the street.  Many of the larger houses rented out their ground floor space to shops and businesses, like this one (shown here with a roof as if it were a single-story building, but in fact more likely to be the ground floor of a house):

Shops, too, had to receive deliveries, and they also tended to draw customers who would transact their business while standing in the street.

Houses were dark, many of them cramped for space, and much of life was lived outdoors when the weather permitted.  Generous homeowners placed benches in front of their houses so that  people could sit and rest.  Customers took up the space in front of shops, children played in the streets, goods were conveyed, people walked and rode through on their way to other destinations.  City laws made an attempt to control congestion in the streets, limiting, for example, what furnishings shop owners could place in the street and how far away from their shopfronts, but one senses that it was a losing battle.

Another form of encroachment on the streets occurred when houses were built with outside staircases.  This example, from Rome, does not take up a great deal of extra space, but such stairways could block an alley between two buildings or jut out into the street.

One of the questions that crops up, to which I find few answers, is where did people park their horses?  Certainly we know that stables existed in the cities; private palaces might well have their own, and animals and stall space could be rented from the public stables.  If someone rode to a shop or to someone's home, the horses would have to be left in the street while they conducted their business; palaces had iron rings built into their walls for tying horses.

City laws attempted to control the problems of crowding and animal waste by requiring citydwellers to contain their animals in some way rather than letting them run loose, or by limiting the hours during which merchants working the market could keep draft animals within the city's walls, or by requiring the responsible party to clean up animal waste within a certain period of time.  In practice, of course, animals were ubiquitous.  Pigs, in particular, star in many humorous stories about 13th century city life.  One famous example is the tale of the famous (and famously good-natured) painter Giotto di Bondone, who, when tripped up by a pig in the street, just grinned and picked himself up, commenting that he probably owed the pig one, having used so many pig bristles in his paintbrushes.

Another legal restriction that tended to limit the number of animals in the city was a limit on how long hay, straw, and other fodder could be kept within the city (allowing, typically, a supply adequate for one day and one night), but this was primarily because the dust and chaff from such fodder was a fire hazard.

More about fire later, but the thought of it reminds us of the citydwellers' need for water.  Locating cities on rivers facilitated laundry, milling, and many other needs of the citydwellers, but in Florence, even situated as it is on the Arno, much of the water to private homes came from wells.  The crowded space made this a danger, as it meant that waste-disposal pits were often located dangerously close to wells, and contamination frequently occurred (not that the river was exactly pristine either, what with the discarded waste materials from butchers, tanners, dyers, and other industries).

Wealthier households had private wells, perhaps located in the space behind the house, a sort of outdoor courtyard which might also house the kitchen (see last week's post) and a garden and possibly chicken coops or pigpens.  Citydwellers lacking private wells had to use the public fountains and wells, some of the former still supplied by surviving remnants of Roman technology.    Naturally, laws evolved to regulate such usage.

I don't have a Florentine example, but perhaps if I did, it would be similar to the laws drawn up to protect Perugia's magnificent Fontana Maggiore:

In Perugia, the city provided "five or seven stone basins," filled with water so that people taking water from the fountain might first wash their vessels.  Violators risked a fine of 5 soldi.  Thirteen copper vases were provided for filling vessels, or for drinking.  It was stipulated that no man could harass any woman going to collect water, either while she was on her way, while drawing water, or while returning home with it.  Taking barrels to the fountain to fill directly was strictly forbidden; not only barrels but any other "oiled, musty or dirty vessel" was prohibited.  People could not bathe or wash clothes in the fountain, and workmen were not permitted to use fountain water to mix mortar or for any other such purpose.  The city also mandated the placement of two cisterns, one inside the wall and one outside, at each of the city's gates.  Water was too vital for its availability to be left to chance, and every effort was made - at least in the statutes - to keep the water supply clean and wholesome.

Thinking about water in the medieval city naturally suggests questions about what happened to waste water, and to solid waste material, both from humans and from animals.  Cities had various types of drainage systems in place, sometimes involving underground channels, sometimes ditches running alongside streets, but there was no ideal way of disposing of such waste material, and everything depended on the compliance of the city's residents, who, after all, had limited options.  Laws prohibited dumping such materials in the streets or in the rivers, but these laws were reiterated so often that it is apparent that the problem continued.

Some homes had latrines.  These might drain directly into a cesspit behind the house, or in between two houses.  Records exist of neighboring households sharing the use of a latrine situated between the two houses, and also sharing the costs of having the cesspit cleaned when necessary.  The illustration below, from Boccaccio's Decameron, shows the unfortunate Andreuccio, who has fallen through a flimsy floorboard in such a makeshift latrine and wound up in the waste collection area down below.

(Presumably the brick wall shielding the waste area from the street has only been stripped away, dollhouse-style, for purposes of the illustration, and would actually have been a complete wall, to contain odors and unpleasant sights.)

Houses without latrines would be equipped with chamberpots, or possibly closestools, which might be situated in a curtained-off area for privacy.  The closestool below is 17th century, but the earlier versions can't have been very much different.

And finally, citydwellers had to remember constantly the danger of fire.  Houses were packed closely together, and many were of wood.  Even houses of brick and stone had a lot of wood involved in their construction - walls, floors, beams, stairs, furnishings.  And open fires were the only source of heat and method of cooking.  You will recall from the previous post that kitchens at this time tended to be located outside of the home, in the back, or else at the very top of the house, to try to minimize this danger.

The shops on the ground floors of many homes, however, might require a source of fire for their business (chandlers, cookshops, bakeries), or they might require the presence of flammable materials (chandlers again, apothecaries).  Stables had flammable feed on the premises; warehouses were packed with materials that would burn.  The medieval city was vulnerable.  Fire was also used as a weapon, when families or factions declared war on one another and took their battles to the streets of the city.  Arson, involving Greek fire, was the cause of a swath of destruction in 1304 that destroyed many homes and churches; the many wax votive images offered in thanks and kept in Orsanmichele helped fuel that fire.

The Great Fire of London was, of course, much later than the time period we're talking about, yet it was an example of a fire raging out of control in a pre-industrial city.  This is what citydwellers feared:

And from time to time their fears were realized.  

So many things to think about, as we try to understand the way people lived in a different time and place.  Yet the study is fascinating, and we learn unexpected things by making the effort to understand what - exactly - it would be like to have lived there, and then. 

Images in this post are either in the public domain or are our own photos, with the exception of the house in Rome with the outside staircase, which is licensed to Lalupa via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license (Wikimedia Commons).

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