Back Then, Smoke Got in Your Eyes…A Lot

At Home in the 14th Century

One thing that did not escape notice in medieval times was that nearly all the space above head height was unusable because it was so generally filled with smoke. An open hearth had certain clear advantagesā€” it radiĀ­ated heat in all directions and allowed people to sit around it on all four sidesā€” but it was also like having a permanent bonfire in the middle of oneā€™s living room. Smoke went wherever passing drafts directed itā€”and with many people coming and going, and all the windows glassless, every passing gust must have brought somebody a faceful of smokeā€”or otherĀ­wise rose up to the ceiling and hung thickly until it leaked out a hole in the roof.

What was needed was something that would seem, on the face of it, straightforward: a practical chimney. This took a long time to happen, however, not because of a lack of will, but because of the technical chalĀ­lenges. A roaring ?re in a large fireplace generates a lot of heat and needs a sound ?ue and backstop (or reredos, to use the architectural term), and no one knew how to make good ones before about 1330 (when the word chimney is first recorded in English). Fireplaces had been brought to England by the Normans, but they werenā€™t impressive. They were made simply by scooping out part of the thick walls of Norman castles and pokĀ­ing a hole through the outer wall to let smoke escape. They werenā€™t greatly used outside castles because they drew air poorly and so didnā€™t make good fires or generate much heat. Also, they couldnā€™t be safely used in timber houses, which is what most houses were.

What made the difference eventually was the development of good bricks, which can deal with heat better over the long term than almost any rock can. Chimneys also permitted a change in fuel to coalā€” which was timely because Britainā€™s wood supplies were rapidly dwindling. Because coal smoke was acrid and poisonous, it needed to be contained within a fireplaceā€” or chimneypiece, as they were first known (to distinguish them from open hearths, also known as fireplaces)ā€”where fumes and smoke could be directed up a ?ue. This made for a cleaner house but a filthier world outside, and that, as we shall see, had very signi?cant consequences for the look and design of homes.

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