Chimneys Are a Later Arrival Than I Thought

I’ve started wondering about ancient buildings more prosaic than castles. It’s a wonder, but one wondering lead to another wondering until your wondering wanders all over. Being a very literal minded person, the kind that obsesses about whether or not castles had gutters, I started wondering about exactly how a medieval “machine à habiter”, to steal an expression from an entirely different era, functioned.

In any case, it took me by surprise to learn that chimneys didn’t come common in England until the Tudor period. They apparently existed in castles starting in the twelfth century. Before that, the smoke from fires was, at best, vented through a hole in the roof.

As I had with the looking up information about castles, I’m having a little problem with searching for information about the history of chimneys and instead getting results for the history of chimneys in England. One site noted, “The earthquake of 1347 destroyed several chimneys in Venice and they appear to have been well established in Padua by 1368.” Another site says, “With the Norman Invasion (in 1066) came a new concept: two-story houses. An upstairs meant that you couldn’t have a fire in the middle of the floor anymore, and you needed to draw the smoke outside instead of straight up, so the fire was moved to a niche in the wall.” So, what were they doing in France and when did they start doing it?

The medieval period spanned so many centuries, I don’t personally find it a very useful concept. Furthermore, much of what is written seems to concentrate on the High or Late Middle Ages. I suspect that’s because so little of what was built in the Early Middle Ages actually survives, though it has the strange effect of making about seven centuries of history disappear without noticing it.

Another little detail was how dangerous early chimneys were. Apparently, many were built of wood and covered with clay or wattle and daub. An imperfectly made one could catch fire.

By 1719 all clay built chimneys in England were ordered rebuilt of brick. In America chimneys continued to be constructed of wood lined with clay. As late as 1789 President Washington considered brick chimneys worthy of note during his tour of the east coast.

Even chimneys made of brick could be dangerous since some were not made of brick capable of withstanding the heat. Furthermore, they didn’t know much about how a chimney worked, so many were more than inefficient. Combustible smoke could gather inside. Apparently, it wasn’t until coal became an important source of heat that trying to get the smoke out of the house became an urgent question.

That same site that I’ve quoted several times already says:

About the same time as Franklin invented the Pennsylvanian fireplace, French architect Francois Cuvillies constructed an enclosed stove with fire holes covered by perforated iron plates. The Castrol stove or subsequently the “stew stove”, as his invention was called, was in many respects similar to the masonry stoves Chinese societies had used for centuries. The stew stove had its roots in Mediterranean cooking where food would be prepared in a vessel elevated over charcoal.

Which makes me wonder about chimneys and similar technologies in non-European cultures.


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