Medieval Flooring & Encaustic Tile

The image above shows the tiled floor of Winchester Cathedral, which boasts the largest area of original medieval tiles in the United Kingdom!

Our thoughts are in the Medieval ages this week, with the Renaissance Festival wrapping up a few days ago and the chilly (sometimes gloomy) days that evoke a feeling of days past. Come with us back in time to learn a few quick facts about medieval flooring, from stone to encaustic!

Quick History of Tile in Medieval England

The image above shows the intricate detail that was put into floor mosaics.  This stunning example is from Byland Abbey, image courtesy of On: Magazine.

Ceramic floor tile first started to appear in medieval England in the thirteenth century. They adorned religious institutions and homes of nobility and royalty.  Patterns ranged from geometric designs, decorative mosaics, family crests, and depictions of Christian scenes and symbols. These tiles contributed to the iconography of Christian buildings, displayed one’s prestige, or indicated patronage to a local parish church or monastery.

The cost of producing and exporting was high. The time and labor to create the product and the travel expense to get it from point A to B was out of reach, except for the wealthy and the church. At this time, the kilns to bake the tile were in rural areas and owned by those who could afford them (aka – you guessed it – the wealthy and the church!).

Eventually, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, tile production became more efficient, resulting in a more affordable manufacturing process. Over time, the tile was produced closer to towns and cities, opening the possibilities to more consumers. As time progressed and the tile manufacturing became more standardized and abundant, tiles became more available to the rising merchant class.

The famous Tring Tiles, located at the British Museum.

Our knowledge of floors in medieval domestic buildings is primarily from excavated buildings or documents from the time. Rarely do homes from that period retain the original floors. They have been replaced over the centuries due to changes in taste or overall wearing down. Luckily for us, there are some exceptions, and they are a portal into a different time. 

Medieval Flooring

Let’s jump back in time to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. You are standing in a room. Look down at your feet – what do you see? Do you see large, worn pieces of stone assembled together? Small decorative mosaics or floor tile with the ever-common fleur-de-lis? Or maybe you don’t see anything at all but a beaten earth floor? In any of these instances, you would be correct. 

The image above of the floor at Stokesay Castle, courtesy of Twitter.

Not all medieval floors were created equal. In most peasant homes during this time period, you would find nothing more than earth underfoot. The floors were hardpacked thanks in part to the effort put into finishing them.  Often groups of people, in addition to the homeowner, would walk on the floor for hours on end until the floor was flat and smooth. As funny as this may sound to us now, the ones walking circles around the room made the best of the situation, singing and talking as they worked.

When the floor was complete, they laid thin layers of rushes, or woven mats, often with fragrant herbs strewn on top, releasing their fragrance when pressed between foot and mat.

Interesting side note: Did you know that “earthen floors” are still in use today?

The images above show larger stone tiles and smaller rocks – both used as flooring in the Scottish medieval castle of Dunnottar. Photo courtesy of Betty Sullivan. Read more about her trip and Scottish influence on interiors here.
Another image from Betty’s trip to Scotland last year. This image shows the aged floor of the sixteenth century Crathes Castle.

Stone has been a go-to building material since the dawn of man. It is readily available and while heavy it’s durable, with skilled labor and proper tools being utilized. A step up from bare earth, but not quite as laborious or expensive as handmade ceramic tile, stone floors were often the selected flooring material. We see them installed in small mosaics, various size geometric patterns, and pieces placed randomly together.

Above is our time-worn and inviting Fontenay Camargue Vieux Monde, a honed limestone reminiscent of medieval stone floors.

Love the look? Bring in some texture and warmth into your space by introducing a stone field tile reminiscent of the medieval stone floors found throughout Europe. We love Fontenay Camargue Vieux Monde (shown above), Belgian Bluestone, Beaumaniere limestone and Normandy Grey.

Another image from Winchester Cathedral.  With such an abundance of original tile work, we had to share more than one picture!

Floor tiles in the Middle Ages offered a wealth of different patterns and designs. Not only did they provide a decorative element to the space, but they were also durable and hygienic. The most abundant floor tiles back then were inlaid tiles, also called encaustic tile.

Encaustic Tile (aka Inlaid Tile)

Encaustic tile and Inlaid tile – what’s the difference?  Well, really nothing.  What we refer to as “encaustic” was called “inlaid tile” during the medieval period.

So, what is encaustic tile exactly?

Encaustic tiles are ceramic tiles in which the pattern or figure on the surface is not a product of  the glaze but of different colors of clay. They are usually two colors, but a tile may be composed of as many as six. The pattern appears inlaid into the body of the tile, so the design remains as the tile is worn down. Encaustic tiles may be glazed or unglazed and the inlay may be as shallow as an eighth of an inch, as is often the case with “printed” encaustic tile from the later medieval period, or as deep as a quarter inch.”

Definition from Revolvy.com
The image above of the flooring in St. Giles Cathedral, located in Edinburgh, Scotland.  Photo courtesy of Betty Sullivan.  Read more about her trip and Scottish influence on interiors here.

Interested in the manufacturing process of encaustic tile?  Check out this quick video

Encaustic tile rose to popularity in the thirteenth century and phased out about 300 years later during the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century.  It reappeared during the Gothic Revival era of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Encaustic tiles can be found on floors all over Europe and North America, being most prevalent in England, thanks in part to the largest number of encaustic tiles being produced there. Enamored by inlaid tile?  Next time you’re across the pond, take a quick stop at Jackfield Tile Museum.

Interested in seeing encaustic tile closer to home? We have a striking example of Minton encaustic tiles just a few miles away, located in the United States Capitol. Selected for its “beauty, durability and sophistication” this floor was a perfect feature for the Capitol extension, installed in 1856.

The image above of the Minton encaustic tile floor, located in the U.S. Capitol.  Read about the selection, installation, and restoration of the floor here.

From mosaics to stone field tile, medieval floors were often a work of art.  Even the earthen floors took time and thought to produce. We hope you enjoyed traveling back in time with us to discuss what was underfoot some 700 years ago, and really, it’s not too much different than what we walk on today.


Our staff is happy to help with your specific project. Visit one of our Metro DC/Baltimore/Atlanta tile showrooms for more info and tile options.

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