Reinventing the Medieval Home for the Post-Carbon Era

Lucy Worsley has a Guardian piece about the merits of medieval architecture as a model for a lower-resource use future:

Domestic life in the past was smelly, cold, dirty and uncomfortable, but we have much to learn from it. I spend much of my time working as a curator in Britain's historic royal palaces. But recently, for a television series, I've visited a lot of normal homes dating from the Norman period to the present day, and I've concluded that the houses of the past have a huge amount to teach us about the future. When the oil runs out, I think our houses will become much more like those of our low-tech, pre-industrial ancestors.

The first point is that the age of specialised rooms is over. Now, legislation governing the design of new houses contains echoes of the past: it insists that once again rooms should multi-task. The living room, for instance, must have space for a bed in case the occupant becomes incapacitated; medieval people, for instance, lived, ate and slept in one room - as I do, in my open-plan flat.

Next, architectural features from the past will start to reappear. The chimney disappeared in the 20th century, but it's coming back, as solid fuel-burning stoves make a return. In terms of fuel conservation the sun is becoming important again too: once upon a time people selected sites with good "air"; now well thought-out houses are situated to minimise solar gain in summer and maximise it in winter. Most future houses will need to face south, a challenge to conventional street layout.

Speaking as someone who saves a lot of her energy by living sort of like a medieval person (or like a Colonial American), it isn't that uncomfortable. The house is a lot cooler than a conventional home - but then again, we wear warm wooly clothes and hang out together by the stove in the winter. The composting toilet doesn't smell. The very non-medieval closed stove is a big old improvement on the open fireplace, and we manage to keep a large, rambling farmhouse, some portions of it distinctly under insulated (we're working on it, it is an expensive process) warm on less than 3 cords of wood per year. We don't have shutters, we have window pop-ins and insulated curtains - although shutters would be cool. Frankly, I'm grateful for some post-medieval appropriate technology inventions, but the larger point stands.

Old houses have a lot to teach us. Think about the merits of small spaces when the big ones are cold. We've seen a drastic rise in per-person space over the last 70 years - in 1950 the average person had 250 square feet per person in their home (and that was a lot compared to much of the past), now we have more than 850. Or consider the culture of a house where everyone centers around the fire and the active kitchen, where domestic work is done.

My 125 year old American house isn't in a British medieval village - it is out in the countryside - but we know from American history that given the necessity of the limits of feet, horses and bicycles, our tiny area would develop the small shop, the pub, the other community necessities, as villages somehow always do. After all, everything old is new again!


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"Domestic life in the past was smelly, cold, dirty and uncomfortable"

Poppycock! Worse, it's slander, and I can tell you that forcefully from personal experience.

And I don't mean my own life; I mean the remote villages and villagers I've visited in China.

"They live in mud huts!" one professor I sent to the same places later muttered- but boy, did we ever see things differently. He saw dirt and poverty; I saw ancient villages, living on the same land since these people were Homo erectus probably, and the land was not ruined, nor were the people miserable.

Yes, their houses were built of unfired sundried clay block (which we call adobe if we're not feeling like insulting the system). And yes, there were chickens walking under the table as they fed us the noon meal, picking up scraps.

But, the food was excellent, with the full force of that word. I had the joyful experience of telling the woman of the house who'd done the cooking that her food was easily the equal of the food in the fancy hotels in the city- and seeing her blush profoundly in pleasure.

And nobody was smelly, nor dirty; in fact the young women, in particular, were always "immaculate"; again, with the full force of the word. Both in their person and their clothes; and I still do not comprehend how they did it, considering the work they were also constantly involved in. And they were giggling in their work, like young girls can; and singing, from time to time.

The technological level of these villages was pre-industrial; no running water, indoor plumbing, or electricity. But I would have to rate their level of "civilization" as quite high.

Not smelly, dirty, cold, nor uncomfortable. I find those pejorative words and attitudes are an automatic and unexamined attitude of human discussing what they consider to be their own "primitive" antecedents; but I have yet to see any reality associated with the disdain for the past. It seems to me to more often be based just on a wish to feel superior; the product of "progress".

So, anyway, Sharon. :-) Yeah, absolutely, the architecture and technologies of past have a huge amount to teach us; particularly if we can lose the "primitive!" snif so automatic among the educated.

Of course, using wood as fuel is completely unsustainable, even with the most efficient stoves. Your three cords of wood require cutting down three two-foot diameter trees a year, which will not be replaced in your lifetime, or 150 five-inch trees.

Chelydra - Ummm...actually, you can take about a cord of wood off of an acre of land in the northeast US without doing any harm at all to the forest. We have quite a lot more than that in windfall wood from previous years as well. Can everyone burn firewood? No, probably not, but in a rural area with a tight stove, being able to remove wood lightly from an extant forest makes it much more likely that that forest will exist - people keep their woodlots here precisely because they enable them to keep their homes warm. Otherwise, the land might be more profitably used for development or farming. In our case, it wouldn't make a difference, but most people don't have the economic luxury.


It should say "a cord of wood per year" above.

And yes, Greenpa, I agree with you, except that all the historical evidence suggests that Medieval Europeans, particularly the medieval British were dirty, smelly and cold ;-). I remember a survey of historians who asked whether people would prefer to have lived in 1490 in Europe or the Americas, and virtually none chose Europe. I guess I wasn't bothered by it because I took her to be speaking specifically of medieval britain (my historic period was Early Modern Britain, and those dirty smelly people produced a lot of awesome stuff, but they weren't that concerned about personal hygeine from the historical evidence ; fact there was an unfortunate tendency to be hostile to people who took too many baths)).


And, of course, the lessons change when you're in a different climate. Those old Spanish Colonial haciendas with enclosed courtyards do a nice job of providing air flow for summer cooling, the thick walls have good thermal mass, and the tile floors are cool. Open the windows at night to cool off, close up during the day, and spend your water on a poplar in the courtyard for evaporation.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 17 Apr 2011 #permalink

Your three cords of wood require cutting down three two-foot diameter trees a year, which will not be replaced in your lifetime, or 150 five-inch trees.

On my own measly half-acre in central Arizona, far from covered by trees, I have nine mesquites. They require no water other than what they pull from the ground on their own, and the neighbors don't seem to be doing all that much for them either if I compare to the open desert around here.

They do, however, require pruning. And the wood I prune from them in the course of a year is about a half-cord all together, of wood that's so hard it sinks in water when cured -- burns quite a bit hotter than oak, actually.

Up in the mountain country where there's more need for firewood, five-inch trees are a pest. I mean, literally: they have to be cleared out for the health of the forest. Either a fire every few years or harvest the "dog hair" that makes for ladder fuel before you end up with a fire like Rodeo-Chedeski. Besides, there isn't water enough for all of them.

So, as it happens, five-inch trees are glut on the market. You can get paid fairly well to clear them.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 17 Apr 2011 #permalink

you can take about a cord of wood off of an acre of land in the northeast US without doing any harm at all to the forest

Cite your source.

The population of the U.S. is about 307 million, and the average household size in 2000 was 2.59 people, so there are about 118.5 million households. There are about 750 million acres of forest in the U.S., and you say you can take a cord of wood per acre and need three cords. For everyone in the U.S. to live like you, we would need to use almost exactly half of our forests just to provide firewood, visiting each individual acre to distribute the take evenly. This doesn't even take into account that the boreal forest isn't nearly as productive.

Ecologically, removing deadfall destroys critical habitat for forest floor species, and the energy stored within is removed from the system instead of recycled. Not to mention the climate change implications of burning a carbon sink.

Not to mention the climate change implications of burning a carbon sink.

Deadwood isn't a carbon sink; it's at most a transitory form in recycling atmospheric carbon through a rather short path to atmospheric carbon. In relatively wet areas like the northeastern USA, a good bit of deadwood becomes atmospheric methane -- not a good trade for carbon dioxide.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 17 Apr 2011 #permalink

Chelydra, wow, do you think you could ask more rudely if you really tried?

Cites - Cornell Agricultural Extension "Managing Small Woodlands For Firewood" pub 2008. This is specific for NY, and suggests that the numbers are actually a little higher, but we'll call it a cord for the purpose of discussion. 1 cord per acre is a general rule of thumb for wet climate woodlands.

Second, this does not imply removing all deadfall - we are talking again about sustainable forest management. It doesn't even remotely take all the deadfall to get that cord - and that doesn't include the fact that we practice coppice agriculture, cutting branches off living trees that regrow and can be harvested over and over again. After 10 years here we have first coppices ready to re-harvest in some of our faster growing species.

My point, however, is even leaving plenty of wood on the ground, we manage to get quite a lot of wood off our property without cutting trees. Our 19 acres of wood are very carefully managed, and provide habitat for a lot of species - you need not begin from the assumption that we're idiots.

Third, growing trees are a carbon sink. Deadfall is not - when trees die they gradually release their carbon into the atmosphere - burning releases it more quickly, but as DC point out, some gets released as methane, so it evens out. That's why woodburning is considered carbon neutral. You can argue that releasing it faster is problematic, and it is - but all the other things that people burn to make heat also release carbon.

Fourth, 300 million people is a giant red herring - I never suggested everyone do as I do - in fact, many environmental strategies are place and situation specific.
It is absolutely true that 300 million people will not do exactly as I do - so we don't need to worry about it.

For example, it would be a really bad idea to have everyone in NYC burn wood - the pollution concentration would be appalling. About 1/3 of the US population doesn't need to burn even 1/3 of that much wood to stay warm - they don't live in upstate NY. The folks who live in Florida may not need to burn anything at all, the ones in Tucson and Birmingham not so much either. In much of the west, where forests are few and far between, burning wood would be stupid. In the midwest, where there are few trees and lots of farms, burning corn might make more sense.

However, just because it doesn't make sense in St. Petersburgh or Iowa, doesn't mean it isn't sustainable here, in a very cold (winter lows drop to -30F), wet climate where we must burn something to stay warm (believe it or not, everyone's heat comes from somewhere - what would you suggest we burn that doesn't produce atmospheric carbon?), wood in rural areas supports keeping forested private land, and can be managed without doing any harm to the forest. The Great Eastern Forest Biome has been growing, in part because we've been burning other sources of carbon, but also because rural landowners support woodlots - and sustain them.


Let me put it simple. Global warming is scam. it is a scam that all aboput wealth redistribution and world governance, not climate.

Climate changes over time. That is a fact. The amount of carbon that human produce is minute compared to what the earth naturally produces. very carbon molecule that has been produced by man since man has existed would not even be a speck in the universe when compared to natural carbon produced by ocean vents and volcanoes. Besides, the sun has more to do with climate than man anyway. Otherwise mars' polar ice caps would not be melting along with our own, unless the econazis have discovered martians driving SUVS.

Now that we have that out of the way, let's talk a little bit about freedom and how the econazis are sabotaging personal individual liberty in the name of the stupid environent in which they have no control over in the first place.

Simply put. No eco freak is going to tell me what kind of house to live in or what kind of car to drive or what kind of light bulb to use or anything else. I, like millions more, am a sovereign individual with rights and freedom gived FROM GOD, not man. Econazis do not have the authority to control my life or any one else's life. get over it.

Lemme see...

Wealth redistribution...

World governance...

Climate change in the past...


Solar effects...



Light bulbs and SUV's...


{checks, doublechecks}

DAMN IT ALL! If only the loon would have mentioned Climategate or researchers getting wealthy from grants I woulda hadda Bingo on one post.

Oh, well. Maybe they can add some more tinfoil to their hat and try again.

I (of course) had no intention to be rude, merely concise. Among biologists I know, "cite your source" is a friendly rejoinder to a statement of questionable validity. You, on the other hand, have made it quite clear you think I'm an idiot - "believe it or not, everyone's heat comes from somewhere", just for starters.

I had something positive to say about smaller, centralized homes, but I get the impression my time would be wasted here. I did want to find out more about Sessions' use of mesquite, but I guess I'll have to pass.

The folks who live in Florida may not need to burn anything at all, the ones in Tucson and Birmingham not so much either.

FWIW, Sharon, we got through this last winter in Phoenix with almost no heat (we did have a secondary water line burst thanks to forgetting to drain it for the winter -- first ever, as it happens.) That's with a few record-cold days. We could have had zero heat, including not lighting up the fireplace, for at most minor inconvenience.

All it takes is a slightly-better-than-average insulated house (1982), decent landscaping with regard to passive solar, and a willingness to let the indoor temp go down to ~62F at night -- which is more comfortable anyway. I sleep better.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 17 Apr 2011 #permalink

It is interesting - among all the scientists I know, work with and the one I'm married to, there is no need to be so concise that the word "please" is impossible. I accept that you did not intend to be rude, but your posts started with attacks based on erroneous assumptions, and were concise to the point of seeming insulting. I'm sorry that I responded in kind.

If you'd like to discuss it further, we could.


Sharon- ah, whatever would we do without sophomores; or insecure post docs, as the case may be. Snippy Turtle (and no, snippy, I didn't have to look it up) writes and cites exactly like the sophomore who's just finished a book on forestry- but has never worked in one, or actually managed one. Sad.

Re: the stinkiness of old Brits: yeah, I'm aware of the constant talk about how stinky they were; and I'm quite sure some of it is true. But I've also come to doubt that "unwashed" necessarily equals stinky. I first became aware of that when I turned into a Great Smoky Mountains freak. I've hiked most of the length of the park 5 times, and it struck me forcefully the first time- at the end of the 8 day hike; with quite minimal washing in freezing cold springs in April on the mountaintops- nobody in the group stank; at all. And not because our noses were anesthetized, either. That was driven home for me the week after my first hike; when I took a test in a class I was terrified of, and came out reeking; baths and deodorant notwithstanding.

So, over the years, I've watched, and have repeated the observation that it's possible for many people to go for many days, doing pretty heavy work that they like- and not wind up stinky at all.

Assuming all those ragpickers and pickpockets in the back alleys of Cheapside were happy in their work, I'm prepared to suggest they might not have been stinky.

Though I'm sure some were, too. :-)


While it surprises me that you don't know any rude scientists, you misunderstood me. I noted that "cite your source" was polite biologist banter because I thought you were criticizing my turn of phrase itself as being rude, not my etiquette, so I provided context. It was certainly not intended to denigrate scientists. In any case, I can be more mindful of the magic word.

I still think some things you stated as fact are misleading. Burning plant biomass is carbon-neutral in theory, but whether it is in practice is apparently widely contested. As for sustainability, apparently some industrial-scale power plants think they can burn wood cleanly and efficiently enough to compete with fossil fuels, but a home stove just isn't that efficient. Even if biomass turns out to be sustainable, it seems that you're trading petroleum for a less efficient, dirty-burning fuel that might be even worse for global warming.

You state that firewood "can be managed without doing any harm to the forest." The Cornell source you cite doesn't appear to be available online, but if their guidelines are anything like this KSU pamplet, I have to disagree. Kansas recommends removing most snags and all tree species that make for bad firewood, followed by the largest trees. I agree that it's better than being clear-cut or developed, but changes like that are far from harmless to the ecosystem. If nothing else, that kind of disturbance supports invasives and common, generalist species at the expense of rare, specialist ones.

I'll leave it at that as this has gone too far off the main topic, though I do appreciate your taking the time to respond in detail.


What's with the bizarre implication that I chose my internet handle to be some sort of elitist test of knowledge? Congratulations, you passed.

Better to write like a reader of books than like a playground bully.

@ Global Warming denier,

What if I started out saying that I agree with you about whether human actions and choices not being a driver for Global Warming, that Global Warming is a facet of natural climate and solar cycles?

Would you allow me to continue? That it doesn't matter, in an era of Peak Oil? 'Cause I think the solution to either/both is one and the same. We won't be burning petroleum we cannot afford or get access to (when China and India and others have priced world oil beyond what America can afford), and coal and natural gas won't be that far behind. If Orlov is correct, it won't take getting to the end of all natural resources to trigger an avalanche of hoarding - merely the chance that some oil exporting nation or other will decide to hang onto their resources - to keep their security and military intact as long as possible. *poof* - world sources of oil disappear. And don't think, in that scenario, that the US won't contemplate nationalizing all domestic wells and mines to keep the government and military in power.

Myself, I figure the worry over carbon sequestering is something that others value, that won't hurt me. Because it all boils down to conserving energy, giving up unsustainable practices, and delving into that well of how to manage successfully without petroleum -- that is, history.

For instance, did you ever contemplate gardening without a plastic or rubber hose? A bucket might be quite sufficient, and provide a respite from getting bored without some of today's time-consuming recreational activities. If not a bucket, what about a tightly-woven basket, as was apparently done in the past. Of course, my bucket today is plastic, and I have been putting off learning basket weaving, for some reason or other.

I have never prepared leather, or woven cloth. But there was glue to be had, before petroleum. And leather buckets, and wooden, and wax and other sealants for various uses.

I guess what I am thinking is that denying AGW is about as pointless as it gets. Peak Oil will still mandate about the same response, just with a different rationale. For those that accept AGW, the argument gets down to belief. Arguing beliefs is almost always a waste of time, and lacks courtesy.

all the historical evidence suggests that Medieval Europeans, particularly the medieval British were dirty, smelly and cold

Yeah, but it was probably more cultural than inevitable. The lack of concern with personal hygiene and physical comfort seems to be more down to some peculiar religious beliefs than an absolute lack of capability. They managed to build some absolutely amazing cathedrals, so I'm pretty sure they could have managed bath houses had their priorities been different, and it was shipbuilding that resulted in much of the medieval deforestation here in Britain. The lack of firewood for the bulk of society was a product of a particularly toxic combination of feudalism and militarism rather than a simple shortage of trees per se.

Which brings up another interesting point: people can not only put up with, but actually not even notice living conditions which we would regard as absolutely intolerable, if that's what they're used to and their priorities demand that they concentrate on other things.

So much for the smelly, cold, dirty and uncomfortable - you are talking about a time when the US was the preserve of your indiginous population. I have just been watching a programme on BBC2 about New York in the 1800's when it was smelly, cold in winter, hot in summer, dirty, uncomfortable and pestillent. The death rate was higher than the birth rate and only immigration kept the population from falling...

By cornish_k8 (not verified) on 19 Apr 2011 #permalink

ÃrneÄin, hiç bir plastik ya da kauçuk hortum olmaksızın bahçe düÅünmek mi? Bir kova, oldukça yeterli olabilir ve bugünün zaman alan eÄlence faaliyetlerinin bazı olmadan sıkılmadan bir mühlet vermek. olarak deÄil, görünüÅte geçmiÅte yapıldı, sıkı dokunmuÅ sepeti ne bir kova, varsa. Tabii ki, benim kova bugün plastik ve ben sepet Nedense için, dokuma öÄrenme kapalı koyarak edilmiÅtir.

I know someone who lives in a 14th century tower house here in SCotland. They get by well enough by wearing wool, having a fire, and using the heat of the dogs when it gets desperate.

Other tower houses I have visited have been restored, and there are usually a few problems, apart from water ingress. For starters, heating one is very hard, so you do indeed have to keep them cooler than people normally expect. But even then it is hard work.
Probably the biggest problem housing wise here in the UK is that a disturbingly large percentage of it is over 50 and 100 years old and extremely difficult to upgrade insulation wise. In my 1970's flat I can easily add more insulation to the attic and cavity wall insulation, which altogether has cut my heating bill by at least a third if not more.

On the other hand I do think that it should be possible to design housing estates so that the sun is made most use of. Actually getting developers to do that sort of thing seems to take government action though.

And the other topic - smelling and not washing - I do medieval and Tudor re-enactment, and its amazing how little you do smell after a week spent working in June. (I was on the foundry) Wool doesn't seem to pick up bad smells as much as you would think, and during the later medieval period all but the poorest had several shirts, which would be worn turn about and washed in the meantime. Of course latrine pits would have smelt horrible, but the day to day smell of sweaty humans doesn't annoy me anywhere near as much as modern perfumes get up my nose. I don't seem to have inherited my dads suscpetibility to headaches from perfumes and flowers, but I do find that perfumes annoy me.