Today, we furnish a Medieval home, and we alter
human consciousness. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Witold Rybczynski makes a
surprising metaphor of Medieval home life. He
reminds us not to try to hammer another age into
the mold of our own lives. Rather, to see Medieval
life through Medieval eyes is to learn about
ourselves, as well.
We have plenty of records of Medieval home life. We
know the size of houses and rooms. Pictures show
how they were furnished. We know what people ate --
how they bathed, slept, and cleaned. We know about
sewage management and etiquette
Of course what we know best is life among the
moneyed upper class who left written records. That
was far enough from our own idea of home life. The
poor, of course, only survived in an existence
without the remotest amenities.
Two of our words were absent in the Medieval
vocabulary -- comfort and privacy. To comfort was
to strengthen or to console. It carried no sense of
physical comfort or coziness. The Holy Spirit was
called the comforter, not because he brought ease
into your life, but because he strengthened you
against a hard world.
The privacy we enjoy was unknown, even in the
wealthiest houses. One room held several beds. One
bed slept several people. Bathing was communal. A
chamber pot might be used in any room.
All that meant a complex, rigidly obeyed, set of
manners. All kinds of things were prescribed --
where you sat at table, the clothes you wore. It
took manners to make life tolerable at such close
quarters. It was like the crowded Japanese, who
appropriate an English word to express the alien
concept of privacy. Their word is praibashii.
Furniture was sparse in a Medieval household, and
it wasn't meant for comfort. You sat on a bench to
eat. Chairs were few and uncomfortable. They were
no more than symbols of authority. The comfortable
clutter of my study, with its books, pictures, and
personal mementos, was unknown in Medieval times.
Life lay out in the external world. And here
Rybczynski startles us.
Private furniture, he says, reflects a private
internal world. We didn't really add that to our
houses until we began refurnishing the mind with
private concepts like self-esteem, melancholy, and
sentiment. We adopted those words only after we
privatized our furniture -- and our life indoors.
And there's the oldest lesson of technology. We
shape ourselves around the things we make. We
cannot really know which came first. But, in the
Renaissance, specialized rooms for private
functions come into being. And so did a wholly new
sense of the individual -- and his interior power
to shape the world around him.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds