British Medieval Floor Tiles

I have been looking through Hans Van Lemmen’s short illustrated book, Medieval Tiles. Not that I am thinking of making another floor, which is what most thirteenth century tiles were used for, but the holidays are almost here and we are in a frenzy of cleaning and doing postponed repairs. One of those repairs is to put new tiles on the hood over the stove to replace the ones that tragically fell off. Well, tragic is perhaps too strong a word, as no one was hurt, but the stove’s shiny black enamel was chipped and that was if not tragic, irritating. Our theory is that the wooden hood that Joe built expanded and contracted with the cooking heat, eventually weakening the bond. But I fear the truth is, I did a bad mortaring job.

Medieval tile makers produced tiles in wooden molds or cut them from sheets of clay using metal templates. Sometimes the edges were angled in, so the faces were close together when installed but underneath there was room for mortar. Tile making, like throwing during so much of history, was seasonal work, with the clay being prepared and allowed to weather during the cold winter months, and the actual tile making and firing taking place in the summer. The craftsmen were anonymous with all the prestige going to their customers who commissioned the work.

Tilers were paid per thousand tiles. I can’t imagine making thousands upon thousands of tiles, but I did make many, many hundreds for our solarium floor. Making, drying, and firing them was fun though it took a long time. Installing them was not fun at all. I suspect the same was true for those making tiles in the thirteenth century, because they favored regular shapes, often with repeat designs, which is no easier to make than varying shapes and designs, and perhaps a bit boring to do, but makes laying the tiles far easier than irregular shapes would. And, tellingly, they eschewed having to (spare us) cut fired tiles.

Tile floors were a huge improvement over dirt floors, prettier, easier to care for, and cleaner. They were affordable only for the abbeys and monasteries and large manor homes. Van Lammen describes a mosaic tile floor that is 29,000 square feet (Medieval British mosaics were made of fired clay, and purpose made, not bits of stone as in Roman times, or post-fire, broken bits as is done today).

The two primary types of decoration were recessed and raised, both made with wooden stamps. Sometimes potters covered leather hard tiles with a white slip that they then scraped off, leaving the design in the recessed areas. More rarely they used sgraffito. Whatever the decorating method, the tiles were coated with a glossy lead glaze and once fired. They came in shades of red, brown, light and dark green, yellow, cream and black.

Many of the tiles floors were replaced with new tiles as they became worn.  Amazingly, a few floors have remained intact after all these centuries. But most have been lost. Van Lemmen writes, “The two main factors that caused the demise of the medieval tile industry during the first half of the sixteenth century were the introduction of colourful maiolica tiles from Italy through Flanders, which generated a new tile fashion, and the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536. After the Dissolution many monastic buildings were sold, only to be pulled down, and their stones and sometimes their tiles were used for other buildings. Monastic houses in remote areas were not so likely to be used as stone quarries. They fell into ruin, their tiled floors becoming covered with debris to be rediscovered at a later date.”

My hood tiles are made and fired. What we have to do is affix them to the hood – lest the whole family arrive for Christmas and see that a year later, it is still not done. But I am dreaming of making tiles for behind the stove, stamped, I think in the way of the early tile makers, and maybe laid out in a green and white checker pattern. Yes, I will have that done by next Christmas …

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