Q: You suggested on the blog last month that a kitchen isn’t called a “cooking room,” along the lines of “dining room,” “bedroom,” etc., because “kitchen” is much older than the other terms. I have another theory. Could this be because early European houses were made of flammable material like moss and straw? Perhaps the danger of fire was so great that kitchens weren’t rooms but spaces away from houses.
A: This is an interesting theory, but it’s not true. Kitchens in early European homes were generally within living quarters and under the same roofs.
As far back as the year 1000, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “kitchen” meant (and I quote) “That room or part of a house in which food is cooked; [or] a place fitted with the apparatus for cooking.”
In some small homes, the kitchen was the hearth or fireplace area, and the cooking was done there. The hearth or fireplace was fitted with hooks, hobs, and spits upon which food was cooked.
In smaller peasant homes, people depended on the single hearth or fireplace not only for cooking but for warmth.
If your theory were true, people couldn’t have had fireplaces or hearths in their homes at all – whether for cooking or for warmth.
A History of Private Life: Vol. II, Revelations of the Medieval World (1988), edited by Philip Ariès and Georges Duby, notes that kitchens in houses built in outlying areas of Florence in the 1200s and 1300s often had no fireplace, but rather a poorly ventilated central hearth.
“Kitchens were located on the top floor and equipped only with a central hearth,” the book says.
Fireplaces with external chimneys gradually became more popular in Florence in the 1300s and 1400s and replaced the central hearths, according to the book.
Of eight interiors discussed, “six kitchens, six bedrooms, and two living rooms contained equipment associated with a fireplace: andirons, tongs, grates, or shovels.” Note that the book is describing “interiors” of houses, not spaces away from the houses.
Elsewhere in Renaissance Europe as well, fireplaces began replacing smoky central hearths during the Middle Ages. The book goes into some detail about medieval architecture in the French town of Montaillou, where usually the “central room of the house” was the room dedicated to cooking and eating.
Both urban and rural houses in medieval Europe were constructed of a variety of materials. Again I’ll quote the book: “Stone predominated in some, wood, dried clay, or brick in others. Some had roofs of slate or flat stone, others tile; thatch and other natural coverings were still to be found.” Entire medieval villages were made of stone if it was readily available (witness the ancient village of Aveyron).