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Medieval Merchant’s House and Building

by William beel

The Medieval Merchant’s House is a late-thirteenth-century building in Southampton, Hampshire, England, that has been restored. The House and Building, which was built around 1290 by a wealthy merchant named John Fortin, has survived several centuries of domestic and commercial use largely intact. The mediaeval interior of the house was uncovered by German bomb damage in 1940, and in the 1980s, it was restored to its original appearance and put in the care of English Heritage to be run as a tourist attraction.

The house is built in the style of a mediaeval right-angle, narrow plan, with an undercroft for storing wine at a constant temperature and a first-floor bedchamber that extends out into the street to provide additional space. The structure is architecturally significant because it is “the only building of its kind to survive substantially as first designed,” according to historian Glyn Coppack; it is also a Grade I listed structure and a scheduled monument.

The Medieval Merchant’s House was founded around 1290 on French Street in Southampton, which was then a major port and a large provincial town with a population of around 5,000 people. Southampton had grown wealthy through trade with England’s continental possessions in Europe. Earlier in the century, the area around French Street in Southampton had been re-planned, reducing the number of farm animals kept in and around the buildings, moving poorer merchants and craftsmen to the less desirable northern half of the city, and creating a quarter of huge, impressive houses, mostly constructed in stone with tiled roofs.

The original house was built for John Fortin, a wealthy wine merchant, and included a vaulted cellar for storing stock, a store at the front of the property, and living quarters for the family; most of it was built in stone, but it featured a timber front, which was a trendy design at the time. Around the same time as the Medieval Merchant’s House, at least 60 other houses similar to it were constructed in Southampton.

Wet-laid, or damp, walls are constructed by using a mud or clay mixture without first forming and drying blocks. Different types of buildings result from the volume and form of each material in the mixture used. The consistency of the soil being used is often the determining factor. Larger quantities of clay are used in cob construction, while low-clay soil is more often associated with sod house or sod roof construction. Sand/gravel, straw/grasses, and more or less sand/gravel are the other primary ingredients. Rammed earth is an old and modern method of building walls. It was once done by hand compacting clay soils between planks, but nowadays it is done with forms and mechanical pneumatic compressors.

Soil, especially clay, has a high thermal mass and is excellent at maintaining consistent temperatures. Buildings made of earth are naturally cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Clay, like stone, retains heat or cold for a long time before releasing it. Since earthen walls change temperature slowly, artificially increasing or lowering the temperature requires more energy than, say, a wood-framed home, but the heat/cooling remains for longer.

Homes made of mostly dirt and clay, such as cob, sod, and adobe, have been built for centuries in western and northern Europe, Asia, and the rest of the world, building merchants Kent and are still being built, though on a smaller scale. For hundreds of years, some of these structures have been habitable.Southampton’s wealth was on the decline by the 1330s. A successful French assault on the town occurred in 1338, during which many buildings were burned and the castle was destroyed. The house may have been destroyed in the raid, as the building’s south-western corner collapsed at that time and had to be rapidly rebuilt; other modifications, such as the addition of a fireplace, may have taken place around the same time. Following the bombings, Southampton’s economy crashed, and it never completely recovered. When several houses were subdivided or redeveloped to accommodate more buildings, the character of French Street started to shift. The Medieval Merchant’s House was no longer used by large merchants by 1392, and it appears that Thomas Fryke and John Barflet, the latter a descendant of John Fortin, for whom the house was originally built, rented it out to tenants.

Because of the Italian wool trade and the arrival of many foreign traders, Southampton’s economy improved during the 15th century. The Medieval Merchant’s House was purchased by a succession of well-established Southampton merchants, but it remained intact as a separate residence, unlike many other properties in the area, which were merged to form the larger homes that became fashionable in the late 15th century. However, as trade with Italy deteriorated in the middle of the 16th century, Southampton’s economy collapsed once more, taking with it the wealth of French Street. The house received a new parlour, and a floor was added halfway down the open hall to provide additional sleeping space.

From the sixteenth to the twenty-first centuries

During the 17th century, the house was converted into three cottages, which included the addition of a new door and additional fireplaces. Southampton’s economy and prestige did not begin to change until the 18th century, when it became a well-known cultural centre. In 1780, the three cottages were reassembled as a single structure, which was owned by Mrs Collins and used as a lodging house for actors. Southampton saw a massive expansion of its maritime ports and the building of a new railway line during the Victorian period. By 1883, the Medieval Merchant’s House had been converted once more, and it had become a beer shop and a common public house known as the Bull’s Head.

End of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries

The bedchamber in the east

The house was being used as a brothel when the Second World War broke out in 1939. During the Blitz in 1940, Southampton was heavily bombed. The house was severely damaged by German bombs, exposing its mediaeval interior, prompting Southampton City Council to purchase the building. It was handed over to the Secretary of State for the Environment in 1972 before being handed over to English Heritage in 1984.

The decision was taken to restore the Medieval Merchant’s House as a tourist attraction, and the necessary work was carried out between 1983 and 1985.

[No. 11] The restoration was strongly influenced by the late-twentieth-century living history tradition, in which “reinterpretation” gives way to “retrofitting,” according to academic Raphael Samuel. Damage to the post-medieval sections of the building during the late 19th and early 20th centuries have hampered the restoration process. The house was restored as nearly as possible to its mediaeval state following archaeological investigations, with later content removed. The analysis was focused on archaeological reinterpretation in areas where the original mediaeval parts of the house had been lost. The finished house was furnished with late-13th- and 14th-century replica furniture, and the English Heritage staff’s uniform was designed to look like it came from the Middle Ages.

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