Chaptek I


S a record of manners and customs the illuminated missal is to the Middle

Ages what the sculptured frieze is to ancient Greece and Rome. It repre sents the earliest history of domestic life of mediaeval times. The Egyptians constructed their household furniture in stone, the Greeks and Romans in marble and bronze, and the people of the Middle Ages in wood. Setting aside coronation chairs and choir stalls few pieces of mediaeval handicraft are in existence. Without the aid of old manuscripts all domestic furniture made prior to the thirteenth century would be a matter of conjecture. Thanks to these human documents a faithful, if crude, picture is obtained of the life of the times. Furniture is merely a detail in the old drawings; simply an accessory used by the scribe to illustrate a situation. If a royal banquet be the theme, a long, narrow table is suggested; if a coronation ceremony form the subject of the story, a chair of state is rudely indicated ; if an interview between a knight and a lady be the main point in the tale, a bench or settle fills the background. Picturesque sidelights on customs and costumes, as well as furniture, are revealed in the old illuminations.

Broadly speaking the period termed the Middle Ages began with the fall of Rome and ended with the capture of Constantinople, but it was the great intermediate stage, roughly spanned by the sixth and tenth centuries, which constituted the dark age of history and art.

The British Museum contains illuminated manuscripts dating back to the ninth century. From these priceless records and from wills of the period the home of the Anglo-Saxon thane has been deciphered. Fragments from many sources have been fitted together and a fairly clear picture has resulted.

The ham, or home, contained one large apartment called the heal which served as a dining, living, and sleeping room. Adjoining it was the bower, or chamberĀ» reserved for the ladies of the household. The hall was sparsely furnished. A board laid upon a trestle formed the dining-table. Benches and stools were the common seats and were used by all members of the family, except the lord and his lady who occupied two rudely constructed chairs. The walls were hung with walh-rifts, or wall cloths, which served as a protection from wind and rain. The rafters were covered with a ceil cloth, from which our word "ceiling" is derived. In the center of the floor was the hearth, the smoke of the fire escaping through a louvre, or opening in the roof. Illumination was provided by torches and by a primitive lamp of horn, termed a cresset. The cresset lamp was a feature in English houses for many centuries and may still be found in rural districts.

The bower contained a straw bed and a cyst, or chest. A curtain protected the bed and served to conceal the chest which was the most important article in the house. The chest, or coffer, was a characteristic piece of mediaeval handicraft, and the first piece of furniture to express the skill of the wood-carver and the metalworker. The development of the chest, in its various guises of coffer, hutch, and bahut, forms an interesting phase of furniture-making. The cupboard, the dresser, the credence, the cabinet, and the bureau were all evolved from this primitive article. In early Anglo-Saxon times it was a strong box placed near the bed and large enough to hold the family valuables. In an age when one baron waged warfare upon another it was important to have a receptacle always at hand where valuables could be stored, and, if necessary, easily transported.

The homes of the common people of this period lacked the barest comforts. A bench and a chest and a few skins of wild beasts were the household effects of the masses. The bench was crudely constructed and without a back. The chest was of more careful workmanship and served many purposes. It was sometimes used as a seat, sometimes as a table, sometimes as a bed. It was the poor man's chief article of furniture and as such it remained until after the Norman Conquest.

The conditions of Europe were not such as to foster the gentle side of living. Two figures were pre-eminent: the monk and the soldier. One kept art alive; the other nearly exterminated it. Italy, France, and Germany were torn with wars, civil and ecclesiastical, and England, while more remote from the cause of conflict, was also more remote from the centers of civilization. Southern countries still preserved a few classic traditions. In the north they were long since extinct. As England was last to respond to the Renaissance so she was last to develop a mediaeval art. At best it was a rude age even in the countries that came in touch with Greek and oriental influences.

With the Norman Conquest came England's awakening to continental methods. With the invasion came French ideas in dress and manners. A more refined mode of living followed. Houses were fitted with the rude comforts which had been known on the continent for nearly a century. Walls received their first decorations. The skins of wild beasts, hung against the rafters to keep out the cold, gave place to pieces of rude tapestry. Fireplaces were fitted with Norman fire-dogs, and the blazing torches were superseded by branches of iron holding tallow candles. In the homes of the feudal lords dishes of metal increased the limited table service of wood and horn.

In Ivanhoe a vivid picture is given of Cedric's castle, where French innovations found little favor:

"In a hall, the height of which was greatly disproportioned to its extreme length and width, stood a long oaken table, formed of planks rough hewn from the forest, and which had scarcely received any polish. On the sides of the apartment hung implements of war and of the chase, and there were at each corner doors which gave access to other parts of the extensive building. The other appointments of the mansion partook of the rude simplicity of the Saxon period, which Cedric piqued himself upon maintaining. The floor was composed of earth mixed with lime and trodden into a hard substance. For about one quarter of the length of the apartment the floor was raised by a step, and this space, which was called the dais, was occupied only by the principal members of the family and visitors of distinction.

" For this purpose a table, richly covered with a scarlet cloth, was placed transversely across the platform, from the middle of which ran the longer and lower board where the domestics and inferior persons sat. Massive chairs were placed upon the da'is, and over these seats and the elevated table was fastened a canopy of cloth which served in some degree to protect the dignitaries who occupied that distinguished station, from the weather, and especially from the rain, which in some places found its way through the ill-constructed roof. The walls of this upper end of the hall, as far as the dais extended, were covered with hangings or curtains with some attempts at tapestry or embroidery. In the center of the dais were placed two chairs more elevated than the rest, for the master and mistress of the family. To each of these was added a footstool, curiously carved and inlaid with ivory, which mark of distinction was peculiar to them."

The construction of houses changed little in the century following the Conquest. Norman names were given to various portions of the dwelling, but the general char-

acter remained the same. The heal became the salla and the ham the manoir. The greatest innovation was the substitution of a built-in fireplace for the center hearth. In many homes the fire continued to be built in the old way, but where the thickness of the wall permitted the newer method was preferred. The bower, which was formerly built on the ground floor, was elevated to the second story and termed a soler, sl term supposed to have been derived from the word sol. A new room called a parloir, or talking-room, was the most important addition to the house.

The arrangement of the bedroom changed little, except that a wooden bed with curtains replaced the bed of straw. Hungerford Pollen in the hand-book of the furniture of South Kensington refers to the bedchambers of this period: "Bedrooms were furnished with ornamental bed-testers and benches at the bed foot. Beds were made with quilts and pillows, and with spotted or striped linen sheets; over all was laid a covering of green sag, badgers' furs, the skins of beavers, or martens. A perch for tame falcons was fixed to the wall. A chair and a projecting pole, on which clothes could be hung, completed the Anglo-Norman bedroom."

The bench was a convenience in receiving visitors. The soler was used by the lady of the manor as a sitting-room until the parloir became a common feature of house-building. Furniture was more varied after the Conquest and included settles, arm-chairs, and folding seats. Thomas Wright, in treating of this period, states that our word "chair" is Anglo-Norman, and that the Anglo-Saxon term was setl or stol, the latter being retained in our modern word "stool." Fadestol was one name for a chair of state, a word which has been translated in modern French to fauteuil, and in English to arm-chair. The Norman table, as depicted in the Bayeux tapestry, is similar to the Saxon trestle design. It was placed in the hall and taken apart after the meal was finished. "Laying the board" was a matter of ceremony. Lines were sharply drawn in regard to the seating of the household. The lord and his lady occupied chairs, the retainers sat upon benches, and those lower in rank remained standing. The placing of the salt was a matter of consideration. "Above salt" or "below salt" indicated the social status of the guests.

Furniture of this age, with the exception of the table, was slightly carved. Chests were the first pieces to receive decorative treatment and chairs came second. In the oldest manuscripts there is a suggestion of ornament in most of the furniture. Much of the decoration is impossible to classify, for it is too archaic to be defined, but a small portion may be assigned to one of the three great styles of the Middle Ages.

Applied ornament during this period may be divided into three classes, Byzantine, Saracenic, and Gothic. The first two had little bearing on furniture-making of the north; the third had a close connection with all handicraft of the times.

Byzantine ornament was based upon geometrical patterns combined with animal and floral forms. Animals were used in a conventionalized manner and were of religious significance. The fish, the serpent, the bird, occur frequently, combined with the circle, the trefoil, and the quatrefoil. The circle was emblematic of Omnipotence, the trefoil of the Trinity, and the quatrefoil of the four evangelists. Byzantine art originated in the fourth century when the Emperor Constantino removed the seat of government from Rome to Byzantium. "The traditional Greek and Roman arts," says Richard Glazier, "were now assimilated with the arts of Persia and Syria, but molded and influenced by the new religion, giving the strong personal vitality, deep symbolism, which was so remarkable throughout the Byzantine period." Byzantium was changed to Constantinople, but the ancient name was perpetuated in the art of the period. Saracenic ornament was of oriental origin, and its influence was largely confined to countries that came in touch with eastern influence. Unlike Byzantine ornament, animal forms were excluded. Intricate interlaced lines and conventionalized leaves formed the basis of Saracenic decoration. Contemporary with the Saracenic movement were two schemes of ornament, having much in common with the oriental style. These were the Celtic and Scandi-

navian. The beautiful patterns of the Celts, based on circles, triangles, and endless chains, and the bolder interlaced work of the Scandinavians, form two unique phases of mediaeval designing. The Celts used the serpent as a dominant motif while the Scandinavians gave special prominence to the dragon.

These early schools of ornament had little bearing on the furniture-making of the period, but their influence on future wood-carving was so important that later results cannot be understood without a brief reference to them. Byzantine decoration was little fitted for domestic furniture and its use was largely confined to religious pieces. The famous chair of St. Peter at Rome, said to be the oldest piece of wooden furniture in existence, is an example of Byzantine work. It is inlaid in gold and ivory, in an intricate and beautiful manner, the details of which are lost in the illustration. The importance of Byzantine ornament from the viewpoint of furniture-making lies in the fact that the trefoil and the quatrefoil were continued in Gothic ornament, and in the newer guise became a part of furniture decoration for three centuries.

In order to understand the significance of Gothic art and its bearing upon all handicraft of the period it will be necessary to consider the conditions that gave birth to this last and greatest of mediaeval styles.

"In the latter part of the twelfth century church architecture was revolutionized by the Gothic school which originated in the north of France. The Romanesque type of building had long been the accepted form; the time was at hand for a change. As in all great innovations the new movement swung far from the old. The pointed, or Gothic, arch solved a problem of construction which the round or Romanesque arch failed to do, and finally, the enthusiasm of the people, inspired by the crusades, and the attempt to win the Holy Sepulchre, sought to express itself-in new forms."

It is not possible to affix a date to the first Gothic dwelling. Although to France belongs the honor of originating the school, Germany and Spain followed closely in her lead. In Germany, Romanesque architecture had reached a greater degree of excellence than, in any other country of the north, save France, and it was more than a century before the Germans equaled the French in the purity of their Gothic buildings. But the Germans held to the type longer and the exaggerated or "flamboyant Gothic" of the fifteenth century, which marked the decline of the art in France, was little known in the provinces beyond the Rhine. In Spain the pointed arch was combined with Moorish cupolas and Spanish minarets. It was not until the reign of Ferdinand III, the contemporary of Louis IX of France and Henry III of England, that Spain produced buildings that compared favorably with those of Burgundy and Normandy. Ferdinand defeated the Moors at Cordova and Seville, united the kingdoms of Leon and Castile, and restored the church

to Christianity. Under his patronage the fine arts flourished. The magnificent cathedral at Toledo, modeled on Notre Dame, and the smaller one at Burgos were erected during his reign.

Italy, the stronghold of Romanesque and Byzantine traditions, was little influenced by the Gothic wave during this century. England, now closely in touch with France, early felt the impulse and having few classic prejudices to overcome, was ripe for a rapid architectural development. The cathedrals of Durham, Peterborough, Norwich, and Canterbury show the beauty of the early northern school. Although Gothic construction was confined for nearly fifty years to church edifices it was not destined to remain simply religious in character. Gradually royal dwellings were altered to admit of traceried windows, arched doors, and foliated carvings, and by the latter part of the thirteenth century the homes of the common people were built on similar principles. Furniture of all historic epochs is more or less a reflection of the prevailing architecture, and this was never more clearly demonstrated than during the Gothic period. Chairs and tables, benches and chests, all followed in design or decoration the lines of the pointed arch.

Great changes had taken place in the furnishings of houses. The crusades had opened an intercourse with the orient, and the seaports of France, Italy, and Spain were engaged in active commerce with the east. Sovereigns of this century, with a few exceptions, married foreign queens, and thus the manners of one country were introduced into another. In England three of the Plantagenet kings had wedded French princesses and as each in turn inaugurated French customs there was little of Saxon simplicity at the English court. The barons and retainers, eager for royal approval, patterned their homes as closely as possible on Norman standards.

It remained for Eleanor, of Provence, queen of Henry III, whose wardrobe and furniture filled three ships, to exert an influence which was felt in the homes of the people. During her reign the use of tapestries, hitherto confined to the palace and to the halls of the barons, became general, and added greatly to the comfort and beauty of interiors. Tapestries, or dorsels, as they were sometimes called from their

st. peter's chair

ecclesiastical origin, were both woven and embroidered. The former were usually of small and intricate patterns, Byzantine and Gothic in character, and were imported from the tapestry-weaving districts of the Loire. The latter, while crude in workmanship, were more original in treatment. Thirteenth-century ladies in England and France spent many hours over the tambour frame depicting hunting and battle scenes, "jousts," and tournaments. These unique specimens of handiwork were modeled on the famous Bayeux tapestry, woven by Queen Matilda and her ladies in waiting.

During Eleanor's reign wood paneling was introduced into Windsor Castle, and the halls of the manor houses were further enriched with Gothic carvings and mural decorations. Furniture in England had already responded to Gothic tendencies, and the massive chairs reserved for state occasions, and the simpler settles for daily use, were ornamented in the style that had found favor on the continent. No furniture of Henry's time has been preserved, but a celebrated piece of Gothic carving of the following reign is now in existence. The coronation chair in Westminster, made famous by a long line of monarchs, was first used when Edward Plantagenet ascended the throne.

Prince Edward was on the continent fighting the French when he received the tidings of his father's death. He remained to vanquish his foes, returning the following year, in the summer of 1274, to take possession of the English throne.

With the exception of Mary Tudor and William III, every English sovereign from Edward I to Edward VII has been crowned in this historic relic. William III and his queen were crowned together in a chair made expressly for them, and Queen Mary received a chair from the pope especially blessed for her accession.

Made of oak and covered with heavy gilding "Edward's chair" was the work of a Florentine artist, employed at Guildford Castle, who builded better than he knew. Beneath the seat and supported by lions is a rough-hewn stone which has the tradition of being the identical one which Jacob used as a pillow at Bethel. The lions are modern and are inferior to the rest of the workmanship. Aside from this venerated piece of furniture, so associated with English history, little remains of early Gothic handicraft in England, except that which is ecclesiastical in character.

A few of the royal chests and coffers of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries are in existence, and are interesting specimens of wood-carving and metal work. Hinges and locks are intricately chased with trefoils and quatrefoils, and sometimes ornamented with heraldic devices. A chest executed during the reign of King John is described as being "of oak, richly decorated with iron plates and hinges"; another of similar date, "of oak, decorated with wrought-iron locks and clamps and with basses of metal, on which are enameled escutcheons"; another "of carved cypress, inlaid with ivory and mosaics, and having clasps of wrought silver."

The dower chests of Eleanor, of Provence, although recorded as being of unusual beauty, have not survived. A coffer belonging to the queen of Edward I, who was of Spanish birth, is now in the British Museum. It is of dark wood, painted in Moorish style, and the colors still retain something of their early brilliancy. fThe hinges are of iron, heavily ornamented, and the locks display the arms of Castile.

With her chests the Spanish princess brought Spanish ideas, and thus a third element was added to the Norman-Saxon court. Moorish carpets, decorated leather from Aragon, brass hanging-lamps and Sevillian pottery were among her possessions. An inventory of the royal household of this period contains "pitchers of gold, plates and dishes of silver, gold salts, alms bowls, silver hanapers or baskets, a pair of knives with enameled silver sheaths, a fork of crystal and a silver fork with handle of ebony, and a looking-glass of silver." "Oizer mats"

are mentioned, and were used by King English coronation chair, showing Edward and his queen as cushions when ARCH and the quatrefoil they sat at table. Furniture was more varied during this reign and included linen-presses, armoires, and dressoirs.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment