A great hall was the main room of a royal palace, a nobleman's castle or a large manor house in the Middle Ages, and Medival Feasts in the country houses of the 16th and early 17th centuries. Medeival Feasts At that time the word great simply meant big, and had Medeval Feasts not acquired its modern connotations of excellence. In the medieval Mediveal Feasts period the room would simply have been referred to as the Medieal Feasts "hall" unless the building also had a secondary hall, but the term "great hall" has been predominant Meideval Feasts for surviving rooms of this type for several centuries to distinguish them from the different type of hall found in post-medieval houses. Great halls of the type covered in this article were found especially in England and Scotland, but similar rooms were also found in some other European countries.
A plan of a manor house called Horham Hall. All of the basic features of a great hall are present: a screens passage (above the porch in the plan); a dais; a bay window (not essential but very common). The main staircase is at the dias end and photos show that the hall was the full height of the two storey house.
A typical great hall was a rectangular room between one and a half and three times as long as it was wide, and also higher than it was wide. It was entered through a screens passage at one end, and had windows on one of the long sides, often including a large bay window. There was often a minstrel's gallery above the screens passage. At the other end of the hall was the dais where the top table was situated. The lord's family's more private rooms were beyond the dais end of the hall. Even the royal and noble residences had few living rooms in the Middle Ages, and a great hall was a multifunction room. It was used for receiving guests and it was the place where the household would dine together, including the lord of the house, his gentleman attendants and at least some of the servants. At night some members of the household might sleep on the floor of the great hall.
The great hall at Penshurst Place, Kent.
Medieval feasts, wedding celebrations, receiving visiting nobles, and holiday festivities would all be celebrated in the castle's great hall. Elaborate tapestries and silks would line the walls and while Middle Age castles could be rather dark, the largest windows would be found here. Small wooden or stone benches were placed underneath these windows so guests could enjoy the view.Great Hall furnishings could be sparse, but they were very practical. Long wooden tables and benches would be covered with white linene during feasts, but could be taken apart easily for dancing and entertainment. Castle lords and their families would be seated at a table on a raised wooden or stone dais at the far end of the hall.Stone floors in the castle's Great Hall were rarely covered with carpets, though wealthy lords might cover them with tapestries. Straw and rushes were the usual coverings, but later in the Middle Ages herbs like majoram, camomile, basil, sweet fennel, mint, germander and lavender would be added to help with the aroma. These coverings were swept regularly, but new materials would be soon added to cover up the more nasty fragments on the floor: bone fragments, spittle, animal excrement, beer and grease.Light for evening feasts and celebrations would be provided by candles and oil lamps. It was not unusual for guests to sleep in the hall after a night of merrymaking.
Many great halls survive. Two very large surviving royal halls are Westminster Hall and the Wenceslas Hall in Prague Castle. Penshurst Place in Kent, England has a little altered 14th century example. Surviving 16th century and early 17th century specimens in England, Wales and Scotland are numerous, for example those at Longleat (England), Burghley House (England), Bodysgallen Hall (Wales), Muchalls Castle (Scotland) and Crathes Castle (Scotland); however, by the late 1700s the great hall was beginning to lose its purpose. The greater centralization of power in royal hands meant that men of good social standing were less inclined to enter the service of a lord in order to obtain his protection. As the social gap between master and servant grew, there was less reason for them to dine together and servants were banished from the hall. In fact, servants were not usually allowed to use the same staircases as nobles to access the great hall of larger castles in early times; for example, the servants' staircases are still extant in places such as Muchalls Castle. The other living rooms in country houses became more numerous, specialized and important, and by the late 17th century the halls of many new houses were simply vestibules, passed through to get to somewhere else, but not lived in.
Many colleges at Oxford and Cambridge universities have halls on the great hall model which are still used as dining rooms on a daily basis. So do the Inns of Court. The "high table" (often on a small dais at the top of the hall, furthest away from the screens passage) seats dons (at the universities) and Masters of the Bench (at the Inns of Court), whilst students (at the universities) and barristers or students (at the Inns of Court) dine at tables placed at right angles to the high table and running down the body of the hall, thus reproducing the hierarchical arrangement of the medieval household.
The great hall would often have one of the larger fireplaces of the palace or castle, frequently large enough to walk and stand inside it. It was used for warmth and also for some of the cooking, although for larger structures a medieval kitchen would customarily lie on a lower level for the bulk of cooking. Commonly the fireplace would have an elaborate overmantle with stone or wood carving or even plasterwork which might contain coats of arms, heraldic mottoes (usually in Latin), caryatids or other adornment.
Occasionally the great hall would have an early listening device system allowing conversations to be heard in the lord's bedroom above. In Scotland these devices are called a lairds lug.
Categories: British architecture | Rooms