In the early evolution of the fireplace mantel – from the primitive wood or peat fire lit on a slab of stone during the Saxon times through the mediaeval period when the fireplace mantel evolved into a considerably more efficient edifice – the most important room was the common hall.
The Saxon dwelling, whether it was a royal castle, a manor house, or a lowly one-room cottage, was built around the fireplace. Rooms could be added on at different stages of the life of the house, but the fireplace was the hub of early English domestic life, providing heat to cook food, boil water and warm the inhabitants. The common hall was usually on the ground floor, and was open to the roof. The fire would be placed in the center of the room and the smoke would drift out through open windows, crevices in the eaves – or sometimes through a hole in the roof created for this purpose. Coal was less objectionable than wood when burnt in close quarters like this, but the residents would have had to sleep around the fire at night to keep warm, so even when using coal life must have been very uncomfortable. Recessed fireplaces with chimneys were installed as early as the twelfth century in other rooms in the house, but even though the central fireplace was such an important part of domestic life, chimneys did not come into general use in the central hall until the early sixteenth century. Smoke turrets or louvers were introduced during the reign of Henry III according to written records, although there are no examples still in existence. Initially they were built solely for the purpose of assisting the smoke out of the building, but gradually the chimney stack evolved as a highly decorative architectural ornament. These decorative architectural ornaments were called fireplace mantels.
The modern-day fireplace mantel originates from the early Norman times. Unlike the single story Saxon dwelling, the Norman household was frequently set out over two stories and therefore could not accommodate the Saxon method of allowing the smoke to drift out through the rafters. Early fireplace mantels were large, slightly cambered hoods, supported on stone jambs or corbels. The recesses of the capacious fireplace could contain niches in the back wall, where a clay pipe or cup could be placed. There would be sufficient room to hang cuts of meat so that they could be smoke-cured.
By the start of the Tudor period, the fireplace mantels had evolved from a huge overhanging stone hood, sometimes even supported by columns, to a more discreet affair. There was sufficient area around the fire to allow a number of people to huddle close to the warmth, and occasionally a bench would be set into the fireplace for comfort. The lintel was generally a single heavy beam and the opening of the fireplace was usually wide and rectangular to permit sufficient drought to oxygenate the flames.
Sometimes the kitchen fireplace even had an ingenious system of shelving installed on each side of the hearth-the shelves were narrow and ran from back to front of the fireplace and were used for baking loaves. Special flat shovels called “peles” were needed to retrieve loaves placed at the back of the oven. A surprisingly small number of these ovens have been discovered, so it can only be assumed that bread was so cheap to buy that the time and labor cost of producing loaves at home could not be economical.
Meat provided a much large proportion of the mediaeval diet than it does in the twenty-first century. Roasting spits, a tool used for roasting large pieces of meat, were used for cooking the meat over a fireplace. The meat would be taken up to the table and served directly off the spit. New types of spit and turning mechanisms were gradually brought into play, although it was not until the second half of the sixteenth century that clockwork or draught-operated devices started to catch on, in an early attempt to cut down time-wasting chores. There was even a small breed of dog known as a “turnspit”, which had been specially trained to operate the spits by walking on a wheel or drum fixed height on the wall near the fireplace. The treadmill was attached to the spit by a spindle. It was not a happy profession for a small animal, particularly if he was turning the spit for a large joint of meat to feed a large crowd. Dogs continued to be used until the early part of the nineteenth century, when oven-cooked meat became the norm.
Early fireplace mantels were quite simple and unadorned, a practical design with no decorative appeal other than an occasional simple rope detail around the surround. Towards the middle of the 16th century, not only were the fireplace mantels becoming more ornate, but so were the surrounds and overmantels. The fireplace mantels around this time often show the disjointed nature of fireplace design as old snatches of information from Renaissance Italy were taken out of context by noblemen trying to flaunt their wealth and status. These were applied to the fireplace at will, often mixing design styles such as Classical, Heraldic and traditional in one piece. Generally there is very little consistency in the fireplace mantel design during the transitional period of the early 16th century Gothic, Classical Italian, Heraldic, and French styles were all experimented with by different architects. The design often fought with the practical aspects of the fireplace, and with the materials available in the region.