Norman Building Arts

Next in importance to the shipping come the building arts of the Normans. Many of their extraordinary castles have been already described in this work; they sprang up all over the kingdom to defend the Norman lords in their new territories. The religious edifices which they produced in unexampled profusion, taste, and splendour, lie also beyond our present purpose. But to their house and street architecture, embellishment, and decoration, we must devote a short space. The Norman style of building was a sudden expansion and gradual refinement of the Saxon, and a branch of the Romanesque. Its chief recognisable points are the round-headed arch, generally with ornaments of a plain but decided character; windows narrow and few, simple vaulting, massive arch-piers, few battlements and niches, and no pinnacles. It was, in the main, a stern and un­elaborated style, for the evident reason that it had to be adapted to a society living in a state of civil warfare. But it was admirably adapted to this end: its perfect fitness to repel every engine of war then known is evident at a glance; and their construction was so perfect and massive, that they could only be destroyed by extreme violence or many centuries of neglect. It has been observed as rather singular, that among all the imitations, often paltry enough, of modern architects, they should have so seldom attempted the Norman, which contains much that, if duly weighed by some bold inventive genius, might open new paths.

Contracted space was an unpleasant feature in Norman residences. Such were the smaller class of country-houses, those numerous dwellings, for instance, built in form of towers—Peel-houses, as they were called in the border country between England and Scotland. Sometimes several hundred persons would be kennelled, rather than lodged, in one of these dark and narrow dens. The principal room solely accommodated the lord, who, after banqueting with an uncivilized crowd of martial retainers, and spending the evening listening to the lay of the minstrel, viewing the dancers and jug­glers, and laughing at the buffooneries that were practised for his musement, repaired to his rug bed in the same place, spread on straw on the floor, or on a bench. If a lady shared the rule of the tower, she had also one apartment, for all purposes; and as for the inferior members of the family, including servants and retainers, often a very great number, they spread themselves every night over the lower rooms on a quantity of straw. Such was Anglo-Norman life, with one extensive class. As skilful architects, the Norman builders of course adapted their buildings to the positions they occupied. The peel-houses lay much exposed, hence everything was sacrificed to security, and the light of day could scarcely penetrate the thick and solid walls, through the narrow slits that served for windows. But the dwellings of the nobility and wealthy classes that were more sheltered—as for instance under the protection of some larger fortress, or congregated in a town—were rather lighter, less contracted, and more decorated. Specimens of this sort remain in good preservation at Lincoln, which might be desig­nated a Norman city, for it is full of Norman remains, and was at the Norman period a most wealthy, strong, and magnificent place. That remarkable building the Jew’s house (Fig. 812) presents a good example of enriched street-architecture of the period. The prevalent custom was to build domestic residences with timber, many remains of which, in immense beams intersecting each other, and of great durability, were within these few years visible in many places in the same ancient city. But the Jew’s house, and a few others elsewhere, are of stone. There is another Norman house in Lincoln deserving especial mention, a mansion, vulgarly desig­nated John of Gaunt’s Stables, but it should rather be called his Palace, of which there seems little doubt it formed an important feature. In our day the very numerous rooms in this valuable relic have been turned into repositories for soot, but we can trace the whole arrangement of the interior. Fronting the street we have a round archway that immediately arrests attention, a very fine one of that period. The upper story is gone, which contained the chief apartments; the lower is only lighted with loopholes, as usual. We pass under the archway, and in its sullen shade, dungeon-like portals appear on each side. But the archway admits us to a quadrangle, or square court, round the sides of which are hidden, as it were, the stables, a sort of long, low, vaulted, and pillared hall, and the various offices—all of a gloomy, confined character—that belonged to such an establishment. It has been thought that the idea embodied in such specimens of Norman do­mestic architecture might be adapted and improved in some of our palaces—that of concealing all the miscellaneous rooms around enclosed court-yards, and placing the principal apartments connec­tedly on one grand story over the ground-floor; and thus the custom originally prompted by danger, might now be modified to promote that simple dignity and harmonious splendour which are so sadly deficient in many of our public buildings. Another feature of Norman residences was the moveable staircase on the outside of the Norman house (Fig. 811), whose utility, in case of a hostile attack, is obvious. The upper apartments generally had no communication with the lower. Of the Palatial style of the period, William Rufus’s Hall at Westminster survives—a splendid monument, and will be noticed more particularly hereafter. The great halls gene­ ally were divided into three aisles of two rows of pillars. Previous to the Conquest, the Normans were distinguished by a taste for magnificent buildings, and however the necessities of defence restrained that taste, it broke forth at every possible opportunity.