Town life

Romanesque stone houses

The building art in the Anglo-Norman realm is best known through its masterpieces of military and religious architecture, and lifestyles for the 11th and 12th c. periods through excavations of knightly settlements, mostly in a rural setting.

Town housing is harder to grasp after so many destructions and reconstructions down the centuries on the same spot, but also owing to preconceptions about the urban landscape in the late Middle Ages as it has come down to us, often partly reconstituted, with its predominantly half-timbered architecture. Archaeological research, and confirmation in written sources of the fires that frequently ravaged sections of towns or even whole towns, show that this is not a false impression. Whilst timber construction was doubtless the norm, it does not rule out the presence of civilian housing in stone, at least from the 12th c. in the large towns of the duchy.

This research has been carried out most thoroughly at Rouen where interest in the subject was rekindled by the discovery of some wealthy dwellings and other buildings in the "Clos des Juifs" (Jewish quarter). The techniques and decorations used for these constructions bore all the hallmarks of Norman Romanesque architecture.

Systematic studies, using either archives or archaeological exploration, have brought to light in the capital of Normandy more stone houses with comparable layouts. The plan is quadrangular, with very thick walls bonded with fine freestone. The first level is partly underground and vaulted, with a cellar, but might also give onto the street to serve as a store or shop. The upper level would be a single room on a floor, comprising the reception hall, with a second storey, not always shown, for the bedrooms. Lastly, the house might have an attic in the roof space.

This arrangement on two or three floors obviously brings to mind the aristocratic home with out-houses in the basement, aula (reception hall) and camerae (private apartments) on the upper floors. The presence of conveniences like wall fireplaces and occasionally latrines accessible from the main building are further evidence that such houses were owned by wealthy merchants, or clerics and lay people responsible for conducting the business of the duke or the archbishop, and capable of raising their lifestyle on a par with the aristocracy. In view of the richly carved décor that has been uncovered – capitals bearing low room vaults, columned and voussoired openings, walls decorated with blind arcades and herringbone arches, we need to some extent to reappraise our view of the 12th c. urban landscape.


Bibliography :
- Dominique Pitte, avec la collab. d'Eric Follain. - La maison rouennaise en pierre au XIIe et XIIIe s. - Patrimoine normand, 40, nov.-dec. 2001-janvier 2002, p. 44-51.
- Dominique Pitte. - Rouen (Seine-Maritime), XIIe s., grande maison en pierre à deux étages sur cellier semi-enterré. In : Cent maisons médiévales en France, Paris, CNRS, 1998, p. 207-209.  

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