Housing in rural Cornwall in medieval times

The other day I was asked what houses would have looked like in early medieval Cornwall. At the time I couldn’t put my hands on a good source but have since rediscovered some notes on an article that appeared in Cornish Archaeology back in 1971 on the deserted village of Tresmorn at St Gennys parish in north Cornwall. This place was occupied from the tenth to the fourteenth centuries, presumably being abandoned after the Black Death.

The site of the village in 1883, reduced to two farmsteads

At first – in the 900s – the houses were turf built, each divided into a living room and a smaller byre for farm animals. By the late 1100s or early 1200s the building material was cob, with walls around three to four feet thick.

There were no stone foundations to these houses. One of them was 26 feet long by 11 and a half feet wide, still with two rooms. One room possessed a stone oven and a central hearth and was the living space, the other housed animals, with the entrance being a door in the byre. Limpet shells were strewn over the earth floor in the living room.

Although stone began to be used in the mid-1200s this simple two-room design remained the standard. A house of this later period examined by the archaeologists was 23 feet by 10 foot six inches, no bigger than its cob cousin, but with a stone partition separating the living room from the byre. Incidentally, the small size of these byres suggest they housed sheep or goats rather than cattle. Despite the proximity of slate in the district, there was no evidence of slate roofing. Rooves were presumably either thatch or turf.

The site now

One thought on “Housing in rural Cornwall in medieval times

  1. Very interesting. I am fascinated by details like these of how people actually lived. On the livestock issue, no doubt the archaeologists know better but cows were surely considerably smaller. Just this morning I was admiring some cows here in Germany (where I live part time) which have been “bred back” to a really ancient breed. Their role is “manage” a wildlife reserve, particularly for migratory birds. Some of the cattle end up on the dinner table (not mine as a vegetarian) and what is striking for me is their small neat form, fit and healthy, lovely colouring. Very unlike the monsters that count for cows today.


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