Apr 30, 2020 in Informative

From Antiquity to Middle Ages: The Interior Development History

Cultural, social, and political concepts of the medieval period were formed due to long and complicated process of transformation of ancient ideas. As a result, the worldview and the mode of life of the citizens in a Middle Age city strongly differ from ancient ones. Comparison of an ancient Athenian living house with an entire monastery complex of medieval Europe demonstrates how ideas of comfort and usage of space have changed with time, as well as how structure and planning of a house were adjusted to the needs and defined by worldviews and lifestyles of its residents.

One of central and vital elements of Greek social life was war. No household escaped the brutal culture of conflict and killing. All male citizens between the ages of eighteen and sixty were eligible to fight either foreigners or other Greeks, since, by nature, an undeclared war always existed between all Greek city-states. The sacred space was tightly connected to military victories, and sanctuaries were used to demonstrate people’s commitment to winning by dedicating victory monuments to those who fought for it.

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Since state money was directed to warfare and erection of temples and monuments to gods, as well as to prominent warriors and city protectors, residential districts in Athens usually were full of poorly built homes, located very close to one another. Before the 4th century BC many living buildings looked unpleasant; only later the Athenians began to build more luxurious homes. Common building materials and techniques did not demonstrate any innovations in construction technology. Builders usually used crude, irregularly shaped stones, which were simply piled one on top of another, whereas for exterior walls they used baked mud bricks. Usually constructions’ walls were so thin and badly built that thieves did not break the front door, but entered houses through walls. For interior walls décor, white-washed coat of plaster or frescoes were used. Floor, which contained clay or beaten earth, was covered with reed matting or animals’ skins, or decorated with mosaics. Windows were small and located very close to the ceiling; they were covered with wooden shutters to protect the house from bad weather.

A standard planning of Athenian house was developed to meet all common daily needs. The poor part of the population lived in houses, which consisted of one room only. Married men usually provided their wives with a separate living space, since it was a matter of honor not to subject  wives to the public gaze. These women’s quarters were commonly located at the back of a house, or, if the house consisted of two floors, in the upper one. The men’s quarters were commonly located on the north side of the building, and it was a place of drinking parties. Symposiums (the term literally means “drinking together”) grew in popularity starting from the 4th century. The door to this room was located off the center to make possible placing couches (usually four of them) alongside one another against the walls.

Common furniture of an Athenian house consisted of chairs with curved back and legs, three-legged tables, small stools, and wooden chests to keep clothing in. The main interior object was a kline, which served as a couch during the day and as a bed at night. Small terra-cotta lamps were very popular sources of artificial lighting starting from the 6th century. In addition, many house owners possessed a well, located in the courtyard. However, in Greece water was rather scarce; therefore, although small terra-cotta bathtubs became common, only the rich could afford a full bath. Only several houses were equipped with drains to dispose of waste water, and there were almost no facilities to dispose of waste materials. As a result, garbage was gathered in streets in great quantities, which threatened the health of citizens, especially during summer heat.

The culture and worldview of medieval Western Europe were a result of transformation of ancient beliefs, which was strongly affected by Christian tradition, brought from the Near East by Romans. Christianity’s trend towards the other world and rejection of real physical world resulted in retreating from society to solitary life in a desert. This way of life of hermits attracted many followers, thus, later such communities adopted a more official structure. The Greeks called the community of hermits monachos, from which the term monks originated.

The first official standards of monastic life required to lead ascetic life with minimal possessions and in austere accommodations. This included a combination of physical labor and a daily cycle of communal worship. Reading and writing were very significant elements of a monk’s ethos. The main goal of monks was to reach spiritual purity. This strict mode of life defined construction and planning of all monasteries, which represented a space, enclosed from the outside world, that includes the minimum of buildings, necessary for living, and excludes the riches of secular life. Compared to Athenian houses, which could be comfortable, luxurious, and highly decorated, monastery buildings were designed to make its residents forget about the pleasure of material life and to concentrate on spiritual development.

Monasteries varied in size, which depended on income of the institution. Monks held a monastery’s property as manor feudal lords and received income in the same way that landed aristocracy did. Nearby lands were used to produce agricultural supply for a monastery’s inhabitants. Physical layout of monastic building demonstrates that it was adjusted to the standards of monastic life. The distinctive feature of a ground plan of every monastery was location of a cloister in the center of the territory, which demonstrates the influence of Roman villa with its typical square courtyard. Buildings around the cloister were the center and the heart of monastery’s life.

The arcade served as a working space for monks. The cellar on the west side of the cloister was used to store supplies and as accommodation of the cellarer and the wine keeper. The kitchen and the bake house were located on the southwest side. The lay kitchen faced the outer courtyard to provide lay brothers and guests of the monastery with food. The dining room for monks, decorated with paintings from the Old and New Testaments, was located on the southern side. The workshop and the parlor, a place where monks could hold daily meetings and discuss important issues, were located in the east. The dormitory for sleeping was located above these rooms. The latrine was built next to the dormitory over the drainage system of running water. Southern part of the cloister was used as the scriptorium, since it was the brightest one. The monastery church was joined with the cloister arcade.

The number of additional buildings around the cloister was determined by wealth of a monastery. Usually the structure of surrounding buildings included the infirmary with the cemetery and the chapel, the lesser cloister for meditation and quiet work, the dormitory for novices, the washing room, the bathhouse with barrels, and buildings for craftsmen. Moreover, almost every monastery had its garden for growing plants and vegetables. The stables and the hostel for visitors were usually located near the gatehouse. Privileged guests lived in guest houses. The entire monastery was enclosed by the wall, which symbolically protected it from the sinful outside world.

Compared to poorly built Athenian houses, building materials and techniques used for medieval monasteries were more progressive. For building purposes, at first, wooden constructions were erected, and then finished edifices were made of solid stone blocks. Exterior walls were covered with plaster. Decorations included marble columns, wall paintings, and stone carvings. As opposed to Greek unhygienic conditions, monasteries had a highly developed sanitation system. This was their distinctive feature, since it was unusual even for aristocratic houses to have such facility. Monastery’s advanced infrastructure caused growing of suburbs and towns around it.

The comparison of an ancient living house and a medieval monastery demonstrates that although the purpose of both constructions was to provide living facilities, monastic buildings have undergone significant improvement. The reasons for poor construction of a Greek house lied within the possibility to die any moment at war. At the same time, peaceful and modest lifestyle and belief in strength of faith and power of the spirit over the body of medieval monks, who isolated themselves from the outer world, is represented by well-planned and thought-out design of monasteries. Very strong and clear distinction of the worldviews, separated by centuries, makes it impossible to find any common features of these two constructions. However, both buildings are characteristic representatives of their periods, which vividly show development of human intellectual and technical capabilities.


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