A Window on Architectural Glass

Dr Daniel Jütte, New York University


I have often heard architectural historians say that they only write about buildings they have seen with their own eyes. As a cultural historian interested in urban history and the built environment, I sympathize with this approach. And I was reminded of its utility when I spent a few months in England in 2017 and had a chance to visit, for the first time, Hardwick Hall. For a long time I had been reading about this stately home in Derbyshire, perhaps the most famous of the “prodigy houses” of the Elizabethan period. I knew that the building’s extensive fenestration gave rise to the early modern jingle: “Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall.” Still, my visit to the site was a revelation. One simply has to see with one’s own eyes how the architect Robert Smythson went to the limits of structural stability to insert as much glass as possible.

Hardwick Hall (built in the 1590s), Derbyshire. Photo: Barry Skeates, Wikimedia Commons

My visit to Hardwick Hall only made me more curious to understand why excessively fenestrated “lantern houses” came into fashion in sixteenth-century England. Indeed, Hardwick Hall might be the most iconic example, but it is by no means the only such building. As historians of Elizabethan England have pointed out, ostentation was a crucial factor driving this fashion. In my recent article for Cultural & Social History I explore this connection between “glass” and “class”. At the same time, this exploration leads me to a larger phenomenon: the rise of glass in European domestic architecture. Today we consider glass windows an indispensable element of the built environment. But for centuries of European history, glass was not universally used in architecture. The Romans were the first to fit windows with glass panes, but only on a limited scale. And for much of the middle ages, the installation of large glass windows remained limited to the church, the House of God. Glass did not become the predominant window sealant in domestic architecture until the late medieval and early modern period. But why?

Peter Smith argued that the rise of glass “must be reckoned the biggest single improvement in the standard of living that has ever taken place.” Such claims—often underpinned by teleological notions—are exaggerated. In my article I argue that the rise of glass in European domestic architecture was neither an inevitable nor a linear process, but rather a response to certain social, cultural, and environmental factors that gained increasing relevance from the late middle ages onward. In other words, glass windows are a cultural convention that emerged under specific historical circumstances.

The relativity of glass becomes even clearer if we adopt, for a moment, a global perspective: after all, in some premodern societies, glass was known and used, but not for windows. In early modern Japan, glassmakers had the technological skills to produce glass windows. Still, non-vitreous sealants—such as the translucent, paper-made shoji screens—were, for centuries, the norm. As the case of Japan illustrates, both technological and environmental determinism fall short of explaining the rise of architectural glass in late medieval and early modern Europe. In the same vein, it would be difficult to link the rise of architectural glass in Europe to unique climatic factors: even if there were a uniformly “European” climate—and a uniformly Japanese climate, for that matter—it would be hard to point to any fundamental differences between the two. In fact, from a climatological perspective, Japan and Europe belong to the same climate zone (i.e., one of eight principle zones globally).

This means we need to look for specific historical constellations that gave rise to glass in European domestic architecture. In my article I pay particular attention to two particular contexts: climate change and medical concerns. As to the former, it is now widely accepted among historians that the early modern period saw a ‘Little Ice Age’. Marked by significantly cooler temperatures and severe winters, the Little Ice Age was felt strongly in northern Europe. Historians tend to date the gravest phase to the period between 1550 and 1720. It is, of course, impossible to establish with certainty the interrelation between macroclimatic events of the past and changing fashions in domestic architecture. But it is also clear that in a cooler-than-normal climate, glass windows had a strong advantage over, say, textile sealants: glass windows promised to admit solar heat while shutting out cold air. I argue that this property of glass windows gained particular (and perhaps even unprecedented) relevance during the Little Ice Age. At the same time, the increasing taste for domestic glazing also reflected health concerns about bad air—concerns that were reinforced by the recurrent plague epidemics that struck Europe from the fourteenth century onward. In the absence of modern bacteriological knowledge, doctors assumed that epidemics such as the plague spread through so-called miasmata (foul odors). Plague treatises from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries discussed in great detail how to protect oneself from miasmatic air. In my article I show how windows played a particularly important role in this context.

The picture that emerges is that thermal comfort and medical precaution formed two sides of the same coin—indeed, I argue that the alignment of these historical factors constituted the driving force behind the rise of glass in European domestic architecture. It was this larger development that also helped to endow glass with the material prestige that is still so vividly on display in early “prodigy houses” such as Hardwick Hall.


Read more in the Cultural & Social History article

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About the Author: Dr Daniel Jütte is Associate Professor at New York University and the author of The Age of Secrecy: Jews, Christians, and the Economy of Secrets, 1400-1800 (Yale University Press, 2015) and The Strait Gate: Thresholds and Power in Western History (Yale University Press, 2015). He is currently working on a history of transparency from antiquity to modern times. His most recent article is ‘Comfort, Class and Climate Change: The Rise of Glass in Late Medieval and Early Modern Domestic Architecture’, Cultural and Social History, vol. 15, no. 5 (2018), pp. 621-641.

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