Corridors of Power: A Case Study in Access Analysis from Medieval England. (Method)

Article excerpt


In 1928, the author of The Growth of the English House, J.A. Gotch, gave us his view of the architectural liberation brought about by the end of the Middle Ages: 'The whole country blossomed out into buildings that vied with each other in the cheerfulness of their aspect' he enthused. By contrast, before this abrupt (and largely unexplained) burst of architectural merriment, life 'must have been dull'. The lords, ladies and their minstrels who apparently comprised most of the population had halls which remained 'somewhat dismal', their living space cramped and inadequate, until the progress of ideas prompted a growing desire for privacy manifested in the subdivision of domestic space (Gotch 1928: 52-68). Gotch was a product of his time and culture, seeing standing remains, chiefly castles, as the evidence for his dank medieval world, and architectural change as due to enlightened architects acting in a context provided by history. But there is another agenda which seeks to discover, free from our own value judgements, the meaning that medieval buildings had for those who used them. Among the scholars who have attempted to explain architectural change in terms of more than the 'progress of ideas' include Patrick Faulkener (1958), pioneer of spatial analysis, Margaret Wood (1965), Graham Fairclough (1992), Matthew Johnson (1993, 1996), Roberta Gilchrist (1994) and Jane Grenville (1997). Many of their more challenging and influential studies have made use of the spatial analysis of interiors in order to configure medieval society and chart changes within it (e.g. Gilchrist 1990, 1994; Johnson 1993, 1996). Such methods can reveal much about the configuration of space in the social formation of power relationships, as Grenville has suggested, and it is proposed here that its more reasoned and systematic use might answer her call for ways to 'decode' the signals given out by medieval architecture as understood by contemporaries (Grenville 1997:106, 164-5). Among these spatial approaches, one of the most informative is access analysis.

What is access analysis?

Access analysis concerns the way that contemporary people moved about a building, which in turn reveals where they invested their social and ideological values. The relevant principles and procedures are treated in a number of general works (for example Johnson 1993; Gilchrist 1994; Grenville 1997). In brief the analysis begins with a plan of the interior of the building to be studied, and the rooms and their access are then coded according to a scheme of symbols such as that shown in Figure 2. These symbols are then composed in a diagram which summarises the associations between rooms and the routes which are possible, between them. The pattern which is created is interpreted in terms of its characteristics of relative control or freedom. The diagrams model the flow of people through the building and by implication, the social relationships that control access. Examples of the patterns produced will be seen in the case study that follows. Two forms are particularly diagnostic: the dendritic or 'tree-like' form implies that traffic is formally constructed; while the annular or 'ringy' form suggest more freedom of movement. 'Depth' is measured by the number of steps required from the outside (the 'carrier') to the innermost room, and a 'deep' room may often be equated with something of high value or status.


Previous studies in the spatial analysis of interiors are not numerous and many are found within unpublished dissertations (e.g. Gilchrist 1990; Kitson 1997; Richardson 1998), papers in far-flung journals, or buried within wider discussions, such as Fairclough's diachronic study of Edlingham Castle, Northumberland (see Fairclough 1992). A recent example is provided by Nicola Aravecchia (2001: 31-2) who has traced the trend for a less strong demand for privacy over time in fourth-ninth century AD hermitages in Lower Egypt consistent with documentary evidence for a move toward semi-eremitism. …