Continuing a series I started some time ago, here is the second instalment of ‘Wallington’s Household Hazards’. This time I consider the impact of chimneys on early modern lifestyle and beliefs…
Domestic hazard no. 2: Chimneys
Most accounts of Tudor and Stuart architecture (including my own) repeat the same quotation from William Harrison’s Description of England (1577) in which he notes some of the major changes in the manner of domestic building that had taken place within the space of a generation. He identifies “the multitude of chimneys lately erected” as one of several things “marvellously altered” according to some old men of his village, who remembered “in their young days there were not above two or three, if so many, in most uplandish towns of the realm (the religious houses and manor places of their lords always excepted, and peradventure some great personages), but each one made his fire against a reredos in the hall, where he dined and dressed his meat.”
Harrison’s account has fostered a trend within subsequent scholarship to hail the development of chimneys as a decisive progressive step towards a more modern, clean and comfortable way of life. It is generally accepted that a move away from the previously open hearth in the centre of the hall towards enclosed flues allowed the division and separation of internal space to create distinct areas with specialised functions, which in turn fostered a sense of individuality and privacy which we associate with a more advanced and sophisticated way of being.
Yet it is the case that attempts to incorporate this new innovation within existing buildings were not always immediately successful. Many early chimneys were experimental and structurally unsound, constructed from highly inappropriate materials such as timber and wattle and daub. The inevitable chimney fires resulting from this period of experimentation and makeshift building represented one of the main household hazards of early modern England.
The experience of living with these first-generation chimneys may well have been less satisfying than is often assumed. Here again, Nehemiah Wallington provides a glimpse into the realities of everyday life in the early modern household in documenting an incident involving an unruly domestic hearth. After the birth of his daughter, Sarah, in December 1627, Wallington described in his notebook:
“and three weekes after this: the weather being very coulde wee keepte a fire continually in the chamber but the fire burnt downe under the harth and burnt the beame whereone the chemnie stood: that the coles of the fire fell downe in the next nabours hows: and had they not spoken in time: and it had gone a little furder wee had not onely lost our estate but our lives also but God hath keept us / his name be praised for ever and ever.”
A very similar situation was recorded by Ralph Josselin, vicar of Earls Colne in Essex. After the birth of his son in the early hours of 30 December 1643, Josselin recorded in his diary, “wee were scared with our Chamber chimney Hearth firing but espying it in time it was prevented from any great hurt. This was a great mercy”.
The profound sense of relief and reprieve expressed in these accounts by Wallington and Josselin perhaps reflects the heightened anxieties of new fathers trying to nurture their new-born infants through the harsh midwinter cold [and lack of insulation was another early modern household hazard]. But Wallington’s account especially is inflected by the providential language of the reports in ballads and pamphlets of the calamitous fires that destroyed large parts of towns and cities. This literature lamented the destruction caused by town conflagrations while accepting that they were a necessary instrument of God’s will. No doubt religious faith offered some comfort to individuals like Wallington and Josselin who could reassure themselves that whatever occurred, good or bad, was part of the divine plan.
But what about those individuals without a strong belief in predestination, or for that matter without sufficient trust in the orthodox practices of the Christian faith? There is evidence that some individuals tried to take matters into their own hands to protect themselves from the dangers of household hearths using supernatural means. Recent research on vernacular buildings has called attention to the practice in the early modern period of marking buildings with apparently ‘ritual’ symbols. These markings are generally interpreted in relation to belief in witchcraft, but as they often cluster on and around fireplaces (especially chimney lintels) it is possible that they were intended to offer physical as well as spiritual protection. Various examples documented by Timothy Easton include common groups of religious symbols on lintels representing Christ and the Virgin Mary; it is thought that these markings may have been an attempt to invoke their divine protection or, after the Reformation, a residual element of traditional superstition to avert bad luck.
The widespread fashion during this period for decorating interiors and especially chimney overmantels with biblical scenes, as described in my book and elsewhere on this blog, may also represent an attempt to mitigate fears and associations surrounding the risks posed by the domestic hearth. As a reminder of scripture and key doctrinal messages these scenes placed above the fireplace served to edify and offered comfort to occupants of the room, diverting their attention from the untrustworthy presence of the chimneybreast and the threat posed by the capricious cinders that smouldered inside…This post summarises part of a paper I delivered at the ‘Sin and Salvation’ conference in June 2013. The paper has since been revised as a chapter and is published in Johnathan Willis (ed) Sin and Salvation in Reformation England (Routledge, 2015).
 David Booy (ed.), The Notebooks of Nehemiah Wallington, 1618-1654: A Selection (Ashgate, 2007), p. 63.