Living Conditions in the 1500s: Housing

The past is often romanticized and glorified through the fairy tales, legends and stories that have become part of the popular culture. More often than not, these stories focus on the lives of kings, queens and princesses, and rarely on the living conditions which prevailed for the vast majority of people living at the time. As a result of this, many people in modern times look wistfully back at the past, wishing for those simpler times in the midst of the difficulties of modern life.

It may help one to appreciate modern times by spending some time studying the way things really were in the past. Toward that approach, the Historical Perspective section of the Positive Press will occasionally analyze the real, as opposed to romanticized, living conditions of the past.

The source material for this Historical Perspective is William Manchester’s best-selling book, “A World Lit Only By Fire.” This week we focus on housing.

In the 1500s, between 80 and 90 percent of the population of Europe lived in scattered villages of fewer than 100 people, surrounded by seemingly endless woodlands. The villagers lived in small, cramped houses, but spent most of their time engaged in back-breaking labor in the fields. Small children and expectant women were not exempted from this labor as they are today.

The peasant’s hut was probably situated on a narrow, muddy lane. The hut itself was made of thatch, mud and dirty brown wood. There was a towering heap of manure in the front yard. The family and its livestock lived in the same dwelling, thus integrating into the family home a pigpen, henhouse and cattle sheds. The portion of the house devoted to the family itself would only be one room.

The floors of the house were covered with the dried and ancient refuse and excretions of both the human and animal inhabitants. The center of the family’s room was a single bed where everyone — male and female, young and old, and occasionally livestock — slept. And these were the living conditions of the prosperous peasants!

The less fortunate peasants lived in tiny cabins, often not substantial enough to shield the occupants from rain or snow. Openings in the wall were stuffed with rags or straw. There was no chimney, so fires inside the hut to provide warmth often resulted in the cabin catching on fire. The residents of these dwellings must have envied their more prosperous neighbors who had beds, for the poor slept on mere pallets of straw and, if they were lucky, covered themselves with a ragged blanket.

Now your complaint about not having a walk-in closet seems a little silly, doesn’t it?