What Do Medieval Buildings Mean?

The aim of this article is to review and reconsider what scholars, including historians, archaeologists, and those in other disciplines, are trying to get at when they attempt a 'social interpretation' of English late medieval domestic buildings. I focus on the definition and interpretation of 'meaning,' and I examine critically a series of concepts routinely deployed in social interpretations in the past, including my own work, such as type, zeitgeist, and intention. I argue that some of these concepts and interpretive moves are problematic and rather than aiding in our understanding, raise further questions in their turn about how buildings were lived in and understood by their medieval inhabitants. I argue for a shift in language and jargon away from 'planning' and 'meaning' to that of 'lived experience'. I explore such a possible shift with reference to different understandings of and debates over the late medieval castle of Bodiam in southeastern England. Such a shift from meaning to lived experience raises fresh challenges for the development and empirical evaluation of interdisciplinary research on medieval buildings, but it also raises fresh possibilities and insights.