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Comfort Zone

Barbara Bensoussan

Ads for new houses tend to sound very much the same, give or take a bedroom or two: living room, dining room, kitchen, bedrooms, and full- and half-baths. Yet the layout of the modern home evolved over hundreds of years. Not so long ago, our homes would have looked very different.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

“We are so used to having a lot of comfort in our lives — to being clean, warm, and well fed,” writes author Bill Bryson in At Home: A Short History of Private Life, “that we forget how recent most of that is. In fact, achieving these things took forever, and then they mostly came in a rush.”

To avoid taking our modern homes and comforts for granted, let’s take a trip back in time to see how people lived in other eras.


Ancient Houses

One of the earliest domestic structures, according to the Biblical Archaeology Review, is the four-room “Israelite house.”

“Chazal tell us about these houses,” says Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch, founder and curator of Boro Park’s Living Torah Museum. “On the ground floor was an area for the animals and a room that served as a kitchen area. The upstairs, reached by ladder, had a room that served as a bedroom, and a room used for eating; sometimes there was a porch-like structure serving as additional sleeping space. The roof was typically a work area — for example, fruits would be dried there. All those Gemara discussions about the obligation to put a fence around the roof came from the fact that roofs were used this way.”

Roman houses, perhaps the original “center hall” homes, consisted of rooms built around an open-air atrium. In the back was a courtyard and garden for socializing. These houses were stone or brick, often with red-tile roofs. Upper-class Roman houses even had “central heating” via hot air driven through pipes under the floors, and running water. While Roman furniture was limited to stools, couches, and beds, in nicer homes the walls were decorated with elaborate mosaics or paintings.

When the Roman Empire collapsed across Europe, the native peoples reverted to their own considerably more primitive modes of living. For example, when the Romans left Britain in 410 CE, the local Celts soon mixed with an influx of the Germanic Saxons, Angles, and others. These newcomers had lived in longhouses on the Continent, long barnlike structures that housed people on one end and livestock on the other.

In England, they constructed similar large, barnlike spaces called a “hall,” one of the earliest English words. Until the fifteenth century, a hall meant a house or large space, a usage that still obtains in names like Carnegie Hall. Ironically, these structures were often erected right next to abandoned, vastly superior Roman villas!

“Practically all living, awake or asleep, was done in this single large, mostly bare, always smoky chamber,” Bryson writes. “Servants and family ate, dressed and slept there ... Even the grandest homes had only three or four interior spaces — the hall itself, a kitchen, and perhaps one or two side chambers.” A central hearth provided heat, and the earthen floors were covered with rushes often infested with rodents, insects, and garbage.

According to Joan DeJean, professor of French at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Age of Comfort, the idea of specific rooms for specific activities came relatively late. People might eat, bathe, and entertain in the same room, she writes, and in the winter, everyone slept in the room where the fire was.

The lack of privacy in these intensely communal homes seems deeply at odds with Jewish values, and Rabbi Deutsch points out that the Jewish world was always different. “There still exist houses from the Middle Ages, in France, where Rashi lived,” he says. “Those houses always had several rooms.” And I’m sure Jews changed those moldering rushes, at least once a year for Pesach!


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