Sample of a Corral (16th Century Apartment House in Seville, Spain)

By Robert Munson October 2017

The following describes a facet of the environment that created the marineros who made the Spanish exploration of “The New World” possible. I personally have lived in a corral of this type in Sale’, Morocco, a city founded in the early 16th century by Muslim refugees from Spain. My 21st century corral, when I lived in it, had not changed in any respect from its Andalusian ancestor of nearly five centuries ago.

The floor plan shows a lower-middle-class city block with a two-story corral occupying one end of the block (approximately one third of the block). The rest of the block contains 13 modest middle-class two-story homes as well as a number of shops facing the street with the one- or two-room apartment of the shopkeeper above it. In Sale’ these shops average about 17 feet deep, and 12 to 15 feet wide, the apartments above matching the footprint of the shop below.

In Triana, across the river from Seville, these corrals served predominantly as the homes of marineros (men of the sea). Like modern apartment buildings, the corrals were all named. The most famous one, in Triana, was named Casa del Sol, identified by a sign with a symbol rather than the name because most of the people who lived here could not read.

The building is brick (probably on both floors). Wood may have been used on the top floor, as in Roman times, but the Spanish were not big on wood as it was too flammable. The roof would be clay tile, sloping into the courtyard to catch rainwater in cisterns. The corral might have a well, but these could be unreliable. Remember, although Seville is on the Guadalquivir River, water could be scarce. The Roman aqueducts were designed for a much smaller city, and in 1542 Seville was the biggest city in Spain (bigger than the next six largest cities in Spain combined).  Seville was in effect New York City, Chicago, the District of Columbia, the Pentagon, and San Francisco all rolled into one city of 40,000 people.

This particular corral has 81one-room apartments. The eight rooms with doors opening onto the street and the three with a second door into the corral courtyard are shops on the ground floor, and apartments on the second floor. The dotted lines show the edge of the covered wood porch on both floors. The block in the middle has seven apartments on each floor and only one stairway. Each apartment consists of one room with a door and usually one window opening onto the porch for light and ventilation. The windows had no glass, and would be closed by wood shutters. A one-room apartment in a corral appears to have rented from 1,900 to 2,200 Maravedis per year (a little over one quarter of a sailor’s annual income; roughly 150 to 180 Maravedis per month.). Pajes and Grumetes, being younger unmarried males, probably lived with their parents, or grouped together to rent one apartment if they could find one. Housing in Seville was constantly in short supply.

Water was obtained from the circular fountain in the courtyard, which also served as a place where the women could do their laundry if they didn’t want to do it in the river. The river really wasn’t a good place to do laundry as, on the Seville side, it was the port of Seville where all commerce was conducted. On the Triana side the river edge was the shipyard. With some 80 wives, plus children and the occasional grandparent, living in this corral, the laundry facility was probably in use every day except Sunday, instead of just the traditional Monday wash day.

Chamber pots were used in each apartment. In some instances urine was collected for sale to fullers for bleaching cloth. Feces were generally thrown into the street or in the river if it was close enough. There are no hornos (ovens) as bread was mass produced at full-time bakeries. Some cooking was communal under ramadas in the courtyard. Individual cooking could be done on portable braziers which could also be used for heating in the winter, although the resultant smoke could be suffocating. It is possible there were smoke holes in the walls under the eaves, but this is unknown.

There would be virtually no furniture as wood furniture was very expensive. The ground floor apartments might have an adobe/brick banquette built along one wall which could be used for seating and sleeping. The banquette was a custom inherited from the Moors. Following another Moorish custom, people sat on the floor (hopefully with a carpet) or on cushions, especially on the top floor which had wood planks. Ground floors generally were made of heavy clay tile. The courtyard was paved with brick or flat stones. Game boards were often incised in the larger stones for games such as mancala, backgammon, chess, or assaulto. Generally the ground floor apartments were more comfortable, with decent floors (not wood) and banquettes, and they were warmer in winter and cooler in summer. A wood second floor was colder in winter, hotter in summer and did not have a banquette, but was probably cheaper. The rooms were largely for sleeping and changing clothes. Life was generally lived on the covered porches and the courtyard. Sundays after Mass, corral dwellers might spend the afternoon visiting in the plaza in front of the churches. With sailors usually at sea for about 10 months each year, the corral population was almost entirely women and children.

Your corral, your church, and your plaza was your neighborhood and you rarely left it. The streets around it were unbelievably dark, in shadow even in the moonlight, and travel required one or more torches or lanterns. The streets were also unsafe after dark, being populated by the desperate unemployed and/or homeless, as well as professional muggers. Every man, and most women, carried a knife (it was a common tool and eating utensil). However, Sevillans were known and respected throughout Europe as the best knife fighters in the world. If a man had to be on the streets after dark he would travel in groups and/or accompanied by one or more bodyguards. All would be armed. Most men couldn’t afford a real weapon and relied on a stout club. The weapon that most often showed up in these situations was the Italian Cinqueda short sword, specifically designed for fighting in narrow streets or passages. By Spanish law (derived from the laws of the Italian city states) no one could carry a sword in a Spanish city. This was to cut down on Romeo and Juliet type street brawls. However, no Spaniard worth his salt was going to be denied an edged weapon. So, short swords with a blade length of one Coda (22 inches, again derived from the Italians) were legal. The Cinqueda fit this bill magnificently; 18 to 22 inch blade length, it was a both a club and a short sword edged on both sides with a thrusting point. In close quarters it was murderous, which is why most of the muggers roaming the street were armed with them.

Cinquedea – named for its “five finger blade” width, the Cinquedea was one of the most radical designs to emerge out of the Italian Renaissance. It was the contemporary of the Anelace or “ox tongue” dagger and was most likely developed first, both being preceded by the Coustille. The Cinquedea blade varied greatly in length anywhere from 10” to 28” long.

The owner of the corral invariably would not live in or near it. His agent, the Mayordomo, probably occupied one of the more modest of the 13 courtyard houses in the block. The courtyard houses on this block might be the homes of professional ship officers such as the Sailing Master or Despensero.

On the plan, the areas with a hatched pattern show the courtyards of private residences, the black line showing the edge of the covered porch. Many houses  have shops opening to the street and are entered from the courtyard of the house. Again the roofs sloped towards the courtyard so rainfall could be guttered into stone rain barrels. Some shops also served as the home of the proprietor and his family. In Sale’ I observed the shop of a professional letter writer. It measured six by eight feet, the writer’s desk was also his bed at night. In Seville today there are shops only five by nine feet, although they are not habitaciones.


B. Munson

Last revised 13-Jan-18