As old men do, they sat on the village green, trading memories. The time was the 1570s and the village was Radwinter, in Essex, England. We know this, because the village rector, William Harrison, listened in, and recorded what he heard:
“There are old men yet dwelling in the village where I remaine, which have noted three things to be marvellouslie altred in England within their found remembrance; (& other three things too much increased.) One is, the multitude of chimneys lately erected, whereas in their young dayes there were not above two or three, if so many, in most uplandish townes of the realme (the religious houses, & manour places of the lords always excepted, and peradventure some great personages) but ech one made his fire against a reredosse in the hall, where he dined and dressed his meat.”
Houses with chimneys were, obviously, an advance on those without. The typical late medieval house in England had a large, two-storied hall, open to the rafters. In this hall most of the daily and nightly life of the household took place. There people cooked, ate, slept, did business, entertained travelers, sang, played games, drank beer and kicked the dogs when they got underfoot.
The hall had to be two stories high and open to the roof because it was heated by a fire in the center of the room: the smoke had to go somewhere, and high in the rafters was a good place for it. There were small louvred turrets or openings in the roof, through which, eventually, some of the smoke escaped.
This smoky hall had a long and uncomfortable history. In Piers Plowman (1362), William Langland told of three reasons why a man might go outside for some fresh air – a wife with a wicked tongue, a leaky roof, and “whan smoke and smolder smyt in his eyen Til he be blere-eyed or blinde and hors in the throte, Cougheth and curseth…” A century later, Chaucer described the nun’s priest’s house, “Ful sooty was her bour, and eek her halle.” (1478.)
Given the smoky discomfort of the traditional hall, it is not surprising that building a chimney should be high on the list of home improvements. But chimneys did more than improve comfort, they increased privacy and signaled high social status.
When the fire in the center of the hall was moved to a side wall, and the smoke sent up a new-fangled chimney, there was no longer any need for the hall to be two stories high. So a new floor was often inserted half way up, and was divided into smaller, upstairs rooms usually called “chambers.” The large hall, now a single story room, remained on the ground floor where it was still used for communal, public life, but the new chambers above it, known as the “hall chambers,” served the growing desire for private life.
“The multitude of chimneys lately erected” was a clear sign of the medieval changing into the modern.
Edited extract from John Fiske, When Oak was New, English Furniture and Daily Life, 1530-1700, available from http://www.fiskeandfreeman.com