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4 The ‘Open Hall’ and the standard ‘tripartite’ plan

In order to understand societal complexities of the evolution of English carpentry, it is

important to understand the social forces that dominated domestic timber-framing,
until the early 16th century - „the open hall‟ within the standard „tripartite‟ plan
(Courtenay 1984, 301; Currie 1989, 7; Fairclough 1992, 362; Harris 1978, 31; M.
Johnson 1993, 55; Rippon et al. 2006, 35; Edward Roberts 2003, 126-7).

Social theories
In the late medieval domestic plan, the social structure was articulated by
employment of the main structural posts of the timber frame, in order to provide clear
divisions of space (Gardiner 2000,159). Although the term „feudal‟ is often used to
describe the social and military structure of the late medieval period - especially in
older textbooks - modern thinking tends to “shy away from the term „feudalism‟”
(Abels 2009, 1009-10). Matthew Johnson suggests that „patriarchal‟ is better suited
to describe a system of “good governance and public rule”, which he takes from
Mertes‟ book, The English Noble Household 1250-1600: Good Governance and
Politic Rule (Mertes 1988). So, if the house is then subdivided into a patriarchal
structure, spaces of restriction and openness can be created (Quiney 2003, 135).
Traditionally, the house is divided into two social spaces, the „upper end‟ to the right
of the hearth and the „lower end‟ to the left of the hearth, in Figure 1. Often, this
division is delineated by the open truss that runs through the centre of the property
(see Error! Reference source not found.). This central truss forms a fundamental
element of the English open hall (Harris 1978, 13; M. Johnson 1993, 59) and is a
topic that will be revisited many times during this thesis.

Figure 1 The typical medieval tripartite floor plan, the parlour, the hall and the
service end

It can be argued that the traditional two-way split of the late medieval tripartite plan
into bipartite social divisions – „low‟ and „high‟ - is far too simple and does not take
into account what the building is actually articulating. However, there is little doubt
that the service rooms are of low status and the parlour of high status; it is the cross-
passage, and the space between it and the hearth, which is open to reinterpretation
(see Figure 2 Traditional bipartite divisions of space). This area, by its very nature, is
one of openness used by all who enter, regardless of gender, status and, in some
cases, species (Martin 2003, 37). To merely call this area „the low end‟ does not
reflect its openness, communality and, ultimately, liminality. It exists „betwixt and
between‟ the social divisions inferred by the tripartite plan and acts as an area of
transition between inside and out, social hierarchy and being welcome or not (V.
Turner 1967). If, for instance, the head of the house was to receive visitors of higher
or equal social standing they would not be expected to enter a house via, what is
traditionally regarded as, the low or inferior end: Surely then, this area needs
reassessing. Johnson (1993, 59) begins the argument by suggesting that the hall
represents space in three ways:

1. at a physical level
a. by the structural elements that frame the space
b. physical demarcations of space
2. patriarchal symbology
a. the dais and the embedded code of social hierarchy
b. metaphysical demarcations of space
3. “spatial text”
a. commonality between like structures and the landscape
b. remembered demarcations of space.

His argument can now be taken forward - with the idea of Foucault‟s liminality
(Szakolczai 2000, 187-9) - and the three levels rewritten as:

1. physical liminality
a. once again articulated by the structure itself
b. physical demarcations of space
2. taught liminality
a. passed down by one‟s peers, employers and family
b. metaphysical demarcations of space
3. cognitive liminality
a. subconsciously formed by our social environment
b. remembered demarcations of space.

In doing so, the traditional bipartite social structure becomes tripartite divisions of
space - the low end, the liminal or transitional zone and the high end. In labelling the
open areas as liminal (V. Turner 1967), the need arises to define how this relates to
the building, as a whole, by using the three levels of liminality set out above.
Liminal level 1
Level 1 is fairly easy to understand as the divisions can be translated directly onto
the plan, in Figure 2 and Figure 3, by using structural elements.

High Low end


parlour hall service

Figure 2 Traditional bipartite divisions of space within a tripartite plan

High Liminal Low

end zone end

parlour hall service

Figure 3 Proposed tripartite divisions of space within a tripartite plan

The high end remains unchanged in both diagrams and translates to an area
occupied by the patriarch, his immediate family and any high or equal status guests
who may visit. Naturally, the servants would have to enter this area to clean, serve
food and wait on the family but it would remain an area solely reserved for the
interaction of the elite. The low end is now reduced in size to encompass only the
service rooms and servants quarters above. It is doubtful whether the head of the
house would ever enter this area, thus, maintaining an air of social segregation from
his servants. Access analysis can be used to shed light on the movement of people
through the building (Fairclough 1992, 348; Richardson 2003, 373). This also
suggests that, although the air of power relationships is always maintained, the
cross-passage is communal and is the main area of interaction between the social
spheres. Therefore, it can be argued that this space cannot be simply high or low. In
Figure 4, adapted from Amanda Richardson (2003, 380), it can be seen that the
screens-passage, or cross-passage, exists as an area by which all others are

Figure 4 Access analysis dendrogram of the movement through a tripartite

Adapted from (Richardson 2003, 380)

So, now there is a tripartite definition of space to fit a tripartite structural plan,
including the liminal zone - an open area that transcends the social and physical
boundaries suggested by previous scholars (Grenville 1999; M. Johnson 1993; M. E.
Wood 1964). An area that is neither truly in or out, it is, perhaps, where one is
greeted, or removes outdoor attire, as happens in the modern hall: It serves as a
point from which all of the ground floor rooms can be reached and transitioned
(Martin 2003, 39). Whatever takes place in this zone is clearly performed by all levels
of society, in order to access their socially demarcated areas Figure 5 (Ibid).
Figure 5 Access plan of movements through a typical tripartite house
(Martin 2003, 39)

Liminal level 2
Level 2 is similar, in many ways, to level 1, except that now the social and
hierarchical boundaries are metaphysical and must be taught to the individual by
their peers, parents or employers. Here, once again, the liminal zone is an area of
transition where all can mix in order to access their own social space (Martin 2003,

Liminal level 3
Level 3 occurs on a cognitive level; that is to say, the boundaries exist in the
subconscious and enter the mind as one naturally matures and engages with the
social environment around them. In moving around and interacting with their
surroundings - both physical and metaphysical - a cognitive map of one‟s environs is
created, by recording landmarks or, in this case, spatial boundaries and cognating
them, into physical boundaries within the real world (Broodbank 2002, 23). It can be
argued that this is only possible as an outcome of the previous explanations but, if
the belief is that the house reflects the greater social picture, it must be assumed that
this is already imprinted on the mind at an early age, before entering the household.
Whether or not liminality is chosen to explain the cross-passage, it can be argued
that this issue needs to be addressed, in light of this discussion. If the house is
referred to as being tripartite - consisting of three structurally defined areas: the
service, hall and chambers - then is a tripartite social definition also needed? For
example, if John the Tanner visited Harold the Smith, one could expect him to be
brought into the cross passage, while his presence was announced to the head of
the house. Whilst in the cross passage, John the Tanner would not yet be
considered a guest; he would be neither outside or in but „betwixt and between‟: A
welcome guest or a passing stranger? (V. Turner 1967). Clearly, this area does
exist, liminally, between the social extremes of medieval society and medieval house
plans: How then is it to be referred to?

This section has produced evidence for the social meanings embedded in the
tripartite plan and, also, developed a discussion on its theoretical significance,
relating to the transitional socio-economic world of the late medieval period. This
dialogue will continue in the following section.

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