|Durham Castle from the riverside|
The typical nobleman’s house contained kitchens, communal space, withdrawing rooms and a chapel. In the early days, they may have been housed in separate buildings, but by the 12th century the separate parts began to come together in one building.
The Great Hall had services (ie kitchen, pantry, buttery) at one end and the withdrawing space (ie one withdrew from the hall into a private space) at the other. The Great Hall goes back into legend – Beowulf awaited Grendel in the Great Hall. Built of timber, with a huge open timber roof – ie no upper storey, the halls were built on the same plan for a thousand years, in differing scales and in every form of dwelling. Gradually homes expanded and life went out of great halls and into withdrawing spaces, but we still have a hall, which is the space a visitor first sees on entering our homes today.
In the middle ages, the entrance to the hall was through a porch in one of the long sides of the hall, and then visitor a “screens passage” to the hall. Timber screens or partitions on one side of the corridor closed off the view of the hall. Two doors led from the passage to the “low status” end of the hall; on the other side of the passage, there would be three doors – one to the kitchen, another to the pantry and the third into the buttery.
A step ran across the width of the hall and separated the nobility from the hoi polloi. At the end furthest from the screens passage, beyond the step, was a raised dais at the “high” end of the hall. After the fourteenth century it was often lit by a projecting bay or an oriel window. Behind the dais a door led to the withdrawing chambers beyond. The open fireplace was in the centre of the hall, and smoke escaped via an opening in the roof. Fireplaces were common in other dwellings by the fourteenth century, but halls persisted with the central hearth.
Trestle tables, set lengthwise along the walls, were set up for meals while the head of the household sat at a single high table that ran across the width of the dais. There would be several “sittings” for meals in large households, and by the fourteenth century the head of the house most likely ate in his withdrawing chamber.