The novel Thorstein of the Mere contains a fairly complete description of a Norse settler’s farmhouse:
Most folk were out of doors that time of year; only the mother was at home, minding the baby after her morning’s turn round the farm; and to keep her company, an old nurse who, being a brisk body, was putting in a spell of work at a standing loom of the ancient make. She threw, the shuttle slowly, and combed up the web but slackly, for the afternoon was warm, and the sun outside beat upon the roof of the house and made it hot. For the house was like one of our barns with its rafters and beams unceiled: and though it was heiiy thatched, the air was hot within. It was somewhat gloomy too, in spite of the bright sheen that lay on field and fell. Though door and porch-door stood open, the rest of the place was lit only by windows that stood high up near the roof, in a row on either side of the long hail: and they were filled with bladder, which kept out the sun. One spot there was which had been burst by the stone-throwing of the boys, and not mended yet for want of hands in this busy summer-time. Through the hole a ray of sunlight shot across the hail, and caught on the chain of the hanging lamp, and lit up the thin smoke that rose in the midst. For the hearth fire was never let out if they could help. Even in summer it was needed morning and evening for their cooking and bad to kindle from fire-stones and rotten sticks. So as wood and peat were plentiful, it was smothered between whiles just to keep it alight, and thus went on from year’s end to year’s end.
The hearth was in the middle of the floor, then-a-days, raised a little and paved with cobbles set in clay. One could sit round it, as you can still at a fire-spot in a farm-house of the right old sort. And grand times they had of winter’s evenings with their great chat fires, or else logs of which one end was out at the door while the other was blazing under the black spot. There folk would sit working and tale-telling and watching acorns and crab apples roast, and the boiling of their porridge in that same great pot that hung by an iron crook and a chain from the house beam over-head, the “rannal balk” as our folks, the Northmen’s children, call it still.
Up through the gloom and the little space of sun went the thin blue smoke, like a stripe of rain out of April clouds. Half way to the roof it was met by the chimney flue, that hung down likest of ought to a great bell hanging from the roof tree, narrow at the top and covered like a belfry wih a flagstone laid flat upon pillars, but opening out beneath and crossed by the house-beam. And in this luffer or chimney hung the last hams and smoked meat of the year before. For at the back end of the year they always hung the; r flesh meat against the winter, and Unna was too wise a housewife to let them eat all up before ithe next store was laid in, however plentiful the season might be.
You must know this “firehouse” as we still say) was the main hail and living room of 1the homestead. Bedchambers there were alongside of it, behind the wall, and out-buildings; not to say lofts among the beams, and an earth-house or cellar dug out under the floor at one end of the hall. But the fire-house was the House as one may say; and in a homely spot like this backwood bigging at Greenodd a thousand years since, everything went forward in the firehouse; cooking and eating, work and play, business and pleasure. This was their hearth and home.
At one corner were its door and porch opening upon the garth, and at the opposite corner there was another door: and at the back past were out-6uildings rising sharply up the hill behind. At the ends of the hall under the gables were great arks and kists against the wall, and at one end the aforesaid loom : but along the side were hung the men’s weapons, spears and shields and coats of mail, and their hunting and fishing tackle, well out of the way in a row beneath the row of windows, and over long benches that lined the hall on either hand.
In the middle of the benches were two high seats, one on this side and one on that over against it. They were like the great elbow-chairs or settles you see in old farm-houses; roomy enough for three, carved on their high-backs, and with carved heads to their posts in front. The children had a tale that one head was father and one was mother: older folk would say the figures stood for Odin and Freya. Anyway they were something more than just ornaments; they gave a holiness to the place arid made the high seat of the master as it were a kind of temple-stall.
Before the benches on one side of the hall stood a long table, all of oak, like the seats and the wainscotting and the rest, brown already with age and bright with rubbing: but on the other side the tables had been taken off their trestles and laid up to make more room, and because half their men were abroad with Swein at sea. On this side sat Unna in her own high seat with the cradle at her feet, and before her the hearth with its thin smoke going up, and the sun-ray striking through it, and blazing in the fern that was strewed on the floor.
The following extract from Rogue Herries contains a description of an 18th century statesman’s home. It is interesting to compare it with the previous extract:
There is no house like Peel’s house anywhere in England any more, but, as it stood then, in its life and strength and happiness, it was thus. It was a strong place, secured with strong doors and gates, its small windows crossed with bars of iron. It held three rooms on the ground floor and two on the second story.
The front door was covered with a low porch, the entrance from which was called the ‘thresh-wood’ or threshold, and on this thresh-wood crossed straws, horse-shoes and so on, were laid to hinder the entrance of witches. From this there was a broad passage through the house called the ‘hallan’; sacks of corn were deposited here before market-day, pigs were hung after killing, and there was a shelf over the door where sickles hung and carpentry tools were laid.
In Peel’s house the hallan opened straight into the ‘downhouse’. This was in his case the great common room of the family, the place of to-night’s Christmas Feast. Here, in the course of the year, everything occurred, baking, brewing, washing, meals, quarrelling, courting, tale-telling. This downhouse had no second story but was open to the rafters. In later days a second story was often built over the downhouse. The sides of this room were smeared with clay and cow-dung. Joints of meat hung dry for winter use. From the smoky dome of the huge fireplace dropped a black sooty lee called the ‘hallan drop’. Under this the women knitted or spun wool or flax, the men sometimes carding the wool, the children learning their lessons, the old men telling their tales. At the opposite end of the passage was the mill-door and beyond this another passage known as the ‘heck’, and this heck was terminated by a huge octagonal post. Into this post sometimes a hole was bored and in it a piece of cow-hair secured by a wooden peg for the purpose of cleaning combs, and behind the heck was a bench.
The windows were separated by stone munnions, and here were the Bible and Prayer Book, “Tom Hickathrift” and Sir William Stanley’s “Garland:’
The chimney wing was spacious. Indeed, this was a really vast chamber, for it was the ‘house’ or dwelling-room and ‘downhouse’ or kitchen thrown into one. Part of it therefore stood for kitchen with the great chimney and hearth; here, on the heap of wood ashes, was the ‘handreth’, an iron tripod on which was placed the ‘girdle’ for baking oat-bread. Before the fire stood a spit. The two standards, which were three feet high with seven hooks, were hinged, so that they could be folded and put away when not in use. The spit, a slender rod, was six feet in length, and on the rod were two pairs of prongs to hold the meat, and beneath it a dripping-pan. There was a handmill or ‘quern’, a malt mill, a spindle and a ‘whorl’, a spinning wheel. In the chimney wing were hung hams and sides of bacon and beef, and near the fire-window was an ingle-seat, comfortable most of the year save when the rain or snow poured down on to the hearth, as the chimney was quite up-protected and you could look up it and see the sky above you. Such was the kitchen end of the room. The floor to-night was cleared for the dancing, but at the opposite end trestle-tables were ranged for the feasting. Here was also a large oak cupboard with handsomely carved doors. This held the bread, bread made of oatmeal and water. On the mantel and cupboard there were rush-light holders and brass candlesticks. In other parts of the room were big standard holders for rushlights.