A History of Woodworking ~ Raymond McInnis

Chapter 3: Britain's Medieval Furniture Forms -- 1000 - 1500
Medieval Woodcraft of Northern Europe

great hall malvern 14th century

Historically Britain is a meeting-place of men and ideas. Yes, Europe's south -- Classical Greece and Rome -- are influences on British ways of building and of decorating, but stronger influences come from the European north -- from the Scandinavian nations, Norway and Sweden, Denmark, from the German principalities. More culturally influential on British furniture design are the Low Countries -- the Flemish, the Dutch -- around the Rhine River's delta, who during the Renaissance, are their principal trading partners.

And historically, too, it is the dark and cold of the northern winter that brings the famous British "hall" into being, the large room built around a central hearth which gives of both heat and light to all, from free-born masters or serfs, where all can meet and work, can feast or take counsel, can sleep or play.

(Above, the exterior of a traditional "Great Hall" at Malvern, as sketched in John Henry Parker, Some Account of Domestic Architecture in England, From From Edward I to Richard Oxford and London: James Parker, 1882.)

Always saved for the "lord" is a "high seat" from which he can see all that takes place. For seating for the more common folk, benches run around the walls. Forms and stools, with trestle tables, are the furniture.

The Evolution of British Furniture Forms: The Three Main Furniture Subdivisions

(1) Movable Furniture: Chests, Seating, Tables, Sideboards, Beds

medieval tudor-style chest c 1500
medieval box chair
medieval tester bed

From an evolutionary standpoint, the chest comes first, because the chest is the first piece of funiture fashioned by the British. (See an artist's depiction of the evolution of the British chest below.) Following the claim of Donald Smith -- Old Furniture and Woodwork: In Introductory Historical Survey -- almost every furniture form that follows is said to be an example of "the children of the chest". Notice, for example, that the medieval box chair has a "chest" in its parts from the seat down to the base.

(2) Storage, in the Form of Boards -- "Shelves" in Today's Vocabulary -- Cupboards and Armoires

medieval court cupboard
medieval ambry cupboard

It is the 15th-century, evidently, when the so-called CUPBOARD is introduced. Moreover, the cupboard’s history is associated with some unusual customs. To begin, distinctions between the cupboard, the dressoir, and the ambry, are difficult.

Historically, cupboards are said to be in use among the Saxons, who occupy Britain between the 5th to the 11th century. Family treasures are kept in such cupboards. Ex: in a 1300 assessment from the Rolls of Parliament volume 1, page 243 – all of the valuables of Roger the Dyer and William the Miller are kept in their "cupboards".

In the 15th century the term cupboard applies to what we now call a sideboard or buffet, and stands in a conspicuous place, with arrangements of the owners' insruments for eating: that is, the “flagons, cups, and spice plates”. Poetically, it is characterized this way:

“The cupboarde wt coppys of golds & siluer",


"The cupborde with plate shynynge fayre & clere"

In a household, the cupboard is the most important furniture in the great hall and great chamber (images of these rooms above and below), where, to serve at the cupboard, for a servant is a “post of honor”. Certainly, it is the focal point upon which the wealth of the household adorns its shelves, a place where the owner can show off his wealth. (For example, it is in connection with the "court cupboard" that we

And its peculiar make and adornment denotes to those initiated in the etiquette of the court the rank and privileges of its owner. On the Continent, the number of shelves in a buffet is a mark of distinction: two are allowed to the wife of a baronet, but, in right of her superior rank, a countess claims three, a princess' buffet has four shelves, while the queen has five shelves. How, such numbers did not necessarily apply in Britain: the royal cupboards are generally described and represented as having but three shelves. According to the Lady Alienor, the canopy which adorns the buffet follows in accordance with certain rules of the court. For example, in an illuminated manuscript contemporary to the period, the cupboards are similar to a modern “whatnot”, entirely open, with shelves covered with white cloths.

Food cupboards are variations on the basic cupboard-style of “chest”, distinguished most purposely by ventilation in various ways for food preservation. In archives of medieval manuscripts, we can see images that show scenes of halls and other types of chambers, show cupboards enclosed by doors pierced with tracery,

the tops being draped with 'cupboard clothes' on which silver vessels are set out.

According to Ralph Edwards – in The Shorter Dictionary of English Furniture London: Country Life, 1964, pages 277-298 – some inventories, diaries, chronicles, and the like contemporary to the medieval era describe such happenings as being fitted with “presses”' or “ambries”. That is, until the 1500s the term “cupboard” retains its traditional meaning: a board upon which to set cups.

The earliest surviving food cupboards date from the late 1400s. The practice of piercing of the panels is both decorative and functional, the latter for ventilation to extend the freshness of perishable food.

(3) Wall Paneling as Furniture

medieval linenfold wall panel
medieval carved oak paneling

Paneling: The first example of interior walls of houses paneled in wood is a 15th-century Flemish room. From this Flemish example, the practice of paneling walls with wood spreads throughout northern Europe, including across the Channel to Britain. (According the furniture historian Herbert Cescinsky -- Herbert Cescinsky, The Old-World House, Its Furniture and Decoration London, A. & C. Black, 1924, I, -- the “linenfold” paneling -- a device for adding strength -- of medieval period is so named because it represents or resembles "linen" -- on say, a cleric's robe -- arranged in vertical folds.) Paneling is also used in the construction of such furniture as the box chair, beds, chests, and cupboards. At the beginning of the 15th-century, a Flemish practice of "joined-paneling" creates lighter furniture than possible with "plank" construction. And as the 16th-century ends, the practice of the "mitered-diagonal joint" -- commonly known as "stile and rail" -- enables each panel to be individually framed, but because of wood's tendency to absorb moisture, with the wooden panel able to move rather than cracking.

Source: Gordon Campbell, Renaissance Art and Architecture New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, page 197.

Note: Each of these divisions of furniture evolution are given greater treatment at the bottom of this webpage.

The Function of the Great Hall in British Medieval Life

Below, on the left, The Great Hall, Penshurst Place, Kent -- Below, on the right, Great Hall, mid-15th century, from and illuminated manuscript of the period.

In the houses of this period -- the 14th-century -- even of the wealthy, the standard of comfort is spartan in the extreme. And in these times none of the privacy we know of today exists. Apart from these few tables and a small number of stools and other simple furniture forms -- maybe one chair for the lord -- no other furniture is present. As shown on the left, the whole household -- from the owner of the mansion to the lowest worker -- eat together in the great hall. Two of the great tables and benches in use are as shown. Among the wealthy, even, the fashion of carpeting floors originates in the 16th-century. [Discussion continues directly below]

Earlier, and for anything beyond bare flags or boards -- and again, these practices are for the wealthy -- is a covering of strewn rushes, rarely changed or cleaned. The practice of rush-strewn floors lasts until the reign (1660-1685) of Charles II.

Even with the rich nobility, in this period, the walls of houses are covered with tapestries or fabrics, only later with wood panelings.

The trading classes have to be content with rough plaster or timbering. In their single-room hovels, the poor have little or no furniture, and certainly nothing covering the walls. For the poor, their social life takes place either in the church or in the tavern.

This is a task not to be undertaken lightly, and in the generality of houses, prior to the accession of the Tudors — where considerations of defence were of primary importance, those of comfort only in secondary degree and in peaceful times or localities — it is not remarkable that such an expenditure of time and labour was rarely considered worth the while.

Clerical houses and establishments, which aggrandised much of the skill and practically all of the culture of this time, preferred hangings of arras tapestry, for the covering of bare walls, to panellings of wood, and in churches and cathedrals — where tapestry was interdicted, for many reasons — the walls were broken up too much by windows, columns, and irregularities of surface to permit of panellings.

Source: Herbert Cescinsky, The Old-World House, Its Furniture and Decoration London, A. & C. Black, 1924, I, pages 116.

Feudal Concepts of Interpersonal Conduct Prevail

Penelope Eames -- a furniture history scholar who has conducted the most comprehensive investigation on the medieval period, the 12th- to the 15th-centuries -- says that throughout the medieval period feudal concepts are ingrained in social behavior, where a chain of power and commitment links each individual with a master. And however, today, we find such truths strange, this same understanding prevails whether the person is a peasant, a skilled artisan, a servant of a great household trained at grammar school and university and representing what today we recognize as a part of the professional classes, a seigneurial lord -- who holds land of owned by another lord, but of greater power -- or, even, a king.

In reality, what this social hierarchy means is that all men must acknowledge the power vested in a person or persons who, in some sense, provides their livelihood, controls their destiny, or establishes them in their position, a power which finds its ultimate expression in the head of state. (The king himself, after all, acknowledges "God as his lord".)

And while this simplified outline of the social order gives no hint of the increasingly complex patterns of social and political relations which emerge later, in Britain, in the Netherlands, and perhaps even France. Why? Because, while historically it is still the medieval era, the hierarchical structures of social and political control possessed by feudal organizations are eroding and democratic institutions begin to emerge. Regardless, certain feudal concepts -- as the accepted rules of etiquette -- for appropriate behavior persist longer.

Indeed, after an examination of the surviving evidence, historians argue persuasively that -- even as seigniorial power itself erodes -- feudal social patterns still control ceremonial behavior, which fiercely emphasizes precedence.

At first sight, such matters may appear to be of a purely arcane nature, related only peripherally to a study of medieval era furniture.

Be assured, nonetheless, expressions of attitudes of mind -- today, in the English street vocabulary, it is "mindset", while the French would call it mentalité -- are fundamental to any analysis or any appreciation of medieval furniture.

In a more modern setting, think of the starkness of furniture of the American Shakers -- and how these plain but beautiful designs exhibit attitudes of mind of a religious sect. Society's social framework, where position, or estate, as they called it, is sustained and strengthened by visual props -- just as today, where the use of the correct "gear" in any situation remains important -- means then that certain kinds of household objects, especially "chairs" -- and are adjuncts of ceremony, follow the rules of precedence, and express in their character and form the degree of a particular individual's "estate".

In medieval times, rules that govern the use of objects of estate are subtle, because the primary issue is "precedence" (i.e., "rigid" customary "rules of behavior") rather than rank. Why? Our answer pivots of the concept "precedence" On the one hand, to contextualize the matter, "precedence" can be variable, that is, open to changes or shifts. On the other hand, social rank is a constant. Take social status as an example: -- while he is forever a "peasant", in the hovel where he lives, as both a husband and a father, he is "lord and master". In an entirely different setting -- say a festive gathering conducted by his "seigniorial lord" -- this same peasant, sitting in the hall of his socially superior lord, will occupy a seat (that is, a "stool"), some distance from those of higher rank at the head table.

The Medieval Period Is An Age of Stone and Wood

stone sideboard, lincoln, 1320

As we see in Chapter one, the British timber roof, from the 13th- to the 16th-centuries, is such a triumph of the carpenter and/or joiner, demonstrating equally his skill and inventive ability.


According to such historians of medieval woodworking as Cecil A. Hewett, it is not correct to assume that woodworking follows in the footsteps of stomemasonry. Instead, let us acknowledge the truth that

the composition of stone and timber is entirely different, stone being granular and timber fibrous, and this could have led to distinctly different series of mouldings; but in fact it produced subtly varied versions of the same series.

To this end, Hewett argues that, for one,

Mouldings, therefore, owe their origins to the prevailing styles of English architecture, and their dating by means of cross references between masonry and carpentry is valid, since both expounded the same single history of national decorative style.

Thus it is groundless to claim

that masons came first and received information before carpenters, who have generally been held as belated emulators of their fellow tradesmen (a myth relating to the traditional view that man must have built in stone before timber).

Consider what are perhaps two of the greatest of works by medieval carpenters —the Ely Lantern and the roof of Westminster Hall. Neither of these works rely on designs from stonemasons, but instead show innovations sparked by the carpenters themselves.

While a stonemason hews out of the solid block the object that he is fashioning, the woodworker, piece by piece, constructs an object. The carpenter/joiner builds a box with framed ends, front and top, cutting his framing from planks. He makes his framing, tenoning and mortising his stiles and rails, fixing in his panels, either in grooves or rabbets.

1980 Cecil A Hewett, English Historic Carpentry  Fresno, CA: Linden Publishing, page 319.

But the stonemason has only one alternative: to make his frame and panel in one, from the solid stone. Stones, then offer greater resistance than a more easy-to-work-with wood. Yes, it can withstand crushing weights from above, but laterally it lacks the tensile strength characteristic of wood. Says, Herbert Cescinsky,

A Gothic church made from wood or a tie-beam made from stone, would both collapse, the one from the crushing weight of the superstructure, the other from the sagging strain.

It is with the timber roof, as applied to barns, halls, churches and sacred buildings, that the early joiner first emancipates himself from the stone mason's traditions. Without missing a step, the timber roof is soon incorporated into the construction of secular houses,

although such decorations as religious symbols, winged angels, and with rare exceptions, painting in colours, are absent.

At the same time, the secular timber roof — that is, one which is left unceiled, and with its timbers exposed, and, therefore, ornamented in greater or lesser degree in an entirely natural way — has a comparatively short life in Britain. Why? With the decline of the Great Hall and the advent of the Long Gallery, the custom arose of ceiling in, at comparatively moderate heights, and ornamenting the ceiling with moulded plaster.

This method had the advantage of permitting of the subdividing, under a large roof, into apartments of moderate size, the partition walls being taken up to ceiling height, whereas with the open timber roof, such subdivision is not possible, without forming a number of cubicles, the decorative effect of which in a house would be disastrous. Barn partitions offer good examples of this cubicle effect.

Adapted from Herbert Cescinsky, Early English Furniture and Woodwork London: Routledge, 1922, volume 1, page 55.

If more woodwork had survived, its domestic usage might be more prominent than pottery, in utensils, furniture, fittings and gadgets. That this could be so must have been a factor of the low cost and ready availability of the material, the ease with which it could be worked, and the lack of any possible substitute.

Source: Adapted from Julian Munby, "Wood", in John Blair And Nigel Ramsay, Eds., English Medieval Industries: Craftsmen, Techniques, Products London: Hambledon Press, 1991, page 379.

Nonetheless, we also need to understand how articles and other objects constructed out of wood are often copies of similar articles and other objects constructed out of stone.

Today, for example, it is probably difficult for anyone without some background knowledge to visualize how, step by step, our domestic furniture emerges. Perhaps, with the single exception of the stool, the chest -- or, as it is sometimes labeled, coffer -- is not only the earliest piece of furniture in Britain about which we have familiarity, but it is also the prototype of all the others which succeed it.

With primitive tools and methods of construction borrowed from the stonemason (in both furniture and woodwork of the 13th-century, or earlier, timber is handled and worked in practically the same way as stone), the first problem would be, "what to do with the tree when felled?". The idea of sawing it into planks and pieces, and constructing furniture by building up with mortise and tenon, or any other of the joints known to the carpenter, would be a later development.

The methods medieval craftsmen use to produce profiles on workpieces can, for the most part, be deduced from the nature of the marks a tool leaves. For example, 14th-century roll moldings (or cylindrical bowtells) are, for the most part, “scratch-stocked”, a rather primitive procedure which leaves evidence of “chatter”, that is, a ripple-effect of tiny "waves" of wood grain throughout a molding.

Such moldings inevitably follow the grain because the tools performing these tasks have no sole, which is why, in some early moldings that are scratch-stocked, there remains evidence of curves and turns along the workpiece's grain.

Then, as molding planes begin to appear in normal workaday situations, it becomes evident that elaborate profiles can be shaped, including through a workpiece's "short grain". We know that the choir-stall canopies in Winchester Cathedral are hewn from solid timber, yet at the close of the 14th-century, in the huge roof of Westminster Hall, Hugh Herland, the King's master carpenter, employs all the constructive methods which are known to the present-day joiner, and shows a knowledge of the possibilities and limitations of wood which demonstrates, clearly, that the craft of the carpenter was already far advanced at his date.

[still working on this quote] If the construction of the ends of this chest is of a kind known as early as this, why is the knowledge not applied to the great choir stall canopies in Winchester Cathedral, where the Bishop had all the available science til the trade of his time ... .

Sources: Adapted from Herbert Cescinsky and Ernest K Gribble, Early English Furniture and Woodwork London: Routledge, 1922, volume 1, page 55, and Cescinsky, The Old-World House, Its Furniture and Decoration London, A. & C. Black, 1924, volume 1, page 195; James Thomas Baily, [article title], The Connoisseur Volume 89 1932, page 335; Cecil A.Hewett,English Historic Carpentry  London : Phillimore, 1980, page 319.

As Safety of Maintaining Long Term Residences Increases, Demand for Furniture Expands


In addition, as noted above in connection with the sparseness of furniture even among the aristocracy, initially furniture itself is “a rare commodity in those days”. Even the homes of the nobility “contain little more than a large table, a chair for the owner of the house, forms and stools for the rest of the household, a cupboard of some sort, and a chest”. In the master bedroom are, probably, basically “a bed, a chest to hold clothes, and possibly a cupboard or press”. The bedrooms of “for the less important people might contain little more than a mattress or even just a couch of rushes”. For smaller homes, furnishing is “on a correspondingly smaller scale”. With such conditions, it is not surprising that so little example of domestic furnishings survive.

These conditions begin to change during the closing years of the 15th-century. The accession of Henry VII ends the strife known as the Wars of the Roses. Feeling more secure, people turn their attention to their homes.

Tudor furniture -- in proportion, larger than furniture of later periods, with much carving and lathe-work in evidence -- sees much of the Gothic motifs still in evidence during the reign of Henry VIII no longer in fashion. Often criticized for it over-elaboration, seemingly every available space being crowded with detail, a practice said to give anyone today viewing Tudor furniture a sense that it is “coarse”. Inlays – where the wood is set into recessed areas carved out – are frequently visible, usually in either conventionalized floral or geometrical designs. Typically, decoration consists of linen-fold panels, arabesque strap work, gadroons and leaf foliage, while the turnings are of the bulbous type. (For an example of bulbous turnings, see court cupboard above.)

While many of the Elizabethan motifs are continued in the succeeding Jacobean era, modifications are noticeable, something that gives one a sense that designers practiced restraint. For example, the Tudor era’s heavy turnings are scaled down to what is called the baluster type, and carving no longer present. Applied decoration -- geometrical designs formed by applied moldings – is widely used, especially on drawer and door fronts.

In the 17th-century, or Cromwellian era, furniture – even more restrained, generally of an austere and simple character – represents the last phase of the oak period in upscale settings, but in the rural areas, much simpler oak forms continue to be popular pieces. And as seen in Chapter ?, with the influx of the emigre Huguenots during later part of the 17th-century we witness radical great changes in furniture design. Up to now in Britain, the general rule is a squareness, a treatment where heavy English oak is particularly suited. Late in the 17th-centu-ry – the periods of William and Mary and Queen Anne – we see walnut used more widely, especially for finer work, and from the Continent, the use of veneers is introduced, where carved and molded work is largely superseded by a flat, decorative treatment obtained with finely-figured woods and marquetry. At the end of Queen Anne’s reign, mahogany came into use, basically superseding walnut.

According to furniture historian, Herbert Cescinsky (1875-19??), the architect Christopher Wren (1632-1723) the designer of many of Britain’s most famous 17th-century buildings, is Britain’s first instance of an architect who included decorative interior woodwork in his designs.

Source: Herbert Cescinsky, “The Influence of the Architect on English Furniture”, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 36, No. 204 March, 1920, pages 134-135+138-140.

That is, until around the 3d quarter of the 17th-century, in both commercial and domestic architecture, the joiner designed an interior’s wall panelings -- small-panelled woodwork, generally oak enriched with cedar carvings -- is the general rule.

Until 1686, when the Wren-designed Clifford’s Inn is constructed, in upscale buildings, structure by structure, the scale of paneling is limited. With Clifford’s Inn and other important buildings, we see the use of large panels on a structure’s walls, which -like Edo Japan, is -- in significant architectural design -- walls and ceiling used as furniture.

Previously, for the Tudor and Stuart eras, limiting interior designs in residences and public buildings to small panels of is a direct outcome of the difficulties demonstrated by, to use a modern term, “the state-of-the-art” of the primitive tools available to sawyers and joiners, especially for the cutting and preparing of large surfaces. (A sidelight about the pre-1800 woodworker’s livelihood is food: His diet comprises bread, meat and beer. Green vegetables are unknown in medieval Britain. In the late 16th-century, from the Virginia plantations of the New World, as well as tobacco, Sir Walter Raleigh (1552?-1618) brings potatoes, which quickly become popular as a food. However, as an article of the British diet green vegetables -- are not introduced from Holland, until almost the early part of the 17th-century.)

In part, the difficulty in conducting research about medieval furniture comes from the truth that, over of the passage of time, little furniture has survived, certainly not enough to show any reliable evolutionary development. Isolated specimens that happen to have survived are not very useful, because, logically, you cannot generalize for a era on the basis of one example. For any history to be reliable, the account of the evolution of woodworking techniques or furniture types must be a chronicle of the fashions which prevailed at a particular time. Unless we can produce other corresponding pieces of similar date and type, which establish the facts we need to make generalizations, we cannot definitely know.

We must also be mindful of the possibility of a later copy of an earlier original. In this sense, while oak dressers are made as late as the last quarter of the 18th-century, it only makes for confusion to argue that although made at that time such pieces are as examples of late-eighteenth-century furniture. True, they are of the period, but are really not typical of the period. Today, then, any solitary piece which survives from very early times cannot be reliably indicative of either the customs or the fashions of the time.

Note: And finally, let's not forget that woodworking technology is broader than simply furniture making, where it embraces the whole range of building construction. Look for example at the timber framing in the roof of the image a the top of this page, on the left. Compared to the crude furniture contemporary to the period, the level of skills needed by British carpenters for such elaborate construction techniques looks "head and shoulders" more elaborate. But rather than give details here about this facet of woodworking , instead it is covered in the website page dedicated to Hugh Herland, master woodworker.

(1) Movable Furniture (chests, tables, sideboards)

Again, movable furniture is for sleeping, eating, storing. With perhaps the single exception of the stool, the chest is not only the earliest piece of furniture in Britain of which we have any knowledge, but it is also the prototype of all the others which succeed it.

The chest is undoubtedly one of the earliest furniture forms and, with it as an example, as our civilizations progress, a variety of additional furniture pieces evolved — the settle, buffet cabinet and chest of drawers.

Below, on the left, is an image from Donald Smith's little book, Old Furniture and Woodwork: In Introductory Historical Survey.

stages in the evolution of the chest

According to the prominent authority on American furniture, Benno M. Forman, 17th-century British domestic furniture pieces frequently do not possess any provenance, which -- when it is available -- is very useful for reconstructing the history of these pieces. Unlike porcelain or silver, furniture seldom has hallmarks to indicate either where or when it is made or who is its maker.

Unfortunately, very few furniture pieces of this era survive that possess carved or incised dates to tell when they are made. Instead, we must depend upon ideas about the origins of historic British from little more than informed speculation of such authorities as Herbert Cescinsky, Percy MacQuoid, Robert W. Symonds or Charles H Hayward.

Forman argues that few furniture pieces suffer from a lack of provenance more than the joined chest of drawers. (During the 16th- and early 17th-centuries this term -- Joyned or Joined -- is used for furniture in which the components are held together by mortise-and-tenon joints, fixed by dowels or pegs, without glue.) For him, the joined chest of drawers is a loser in two ways: either the educated guesses of these authorities on the subject are taken as definitive, in effect producing a situation that, psychologically, forestalls conducting any further research, or, even worse, these "genteel assumptions evoke an image of evolution observed", a condition which seems to give the situation an aura of "quasi-scientific legitimacy".

The ring of authority echoes through the statements of a number of authors, both British and American, who have essentially repeat, without critical examination, the idea that the chest of drawers "evolves" sometime in the 17th-century by adding to the chest form first one drawer, and then, another, and so on, and then removing the chest itself. For example:

By 1685 these traditional forms of construction had become obsolete and the the last suggestions of an evolution from the chest disappear. Source: Percy Macquoid and Ralph Edwards, The Dictionary of English Furniture London: Country Life, 1924, page 58.

For other examples, see Esther Singleton, The Furniture of Our Forefathers New York: Doubleday, 1906, pages 55-56 or Ralph Fastnedge, English Furniture Styles, 1500—1830 -- ordered may 21. 2013 -- Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1964, page 37.

Chests are frequently portrayed in Egypitian art that traces back 4000 years. Likewise the chest is mentioned in the Bible's Exodus 25:10 account of the building of the Temple. And many references to chests exist in classical literature.

In Britain, the Anglo-Saxons -- who prevail in Britain from 5th century until Norman invasion -- called it a loc assigning the control of it to the lady of the household, and the Normans -- "1066 And All That" -- carried with them examples carved chests inlaid with metal and enamel. For more, see glossary entries on Chests" and Chest-of-drawers.


Sometimes called a "coffer", the chest inspires a variety of other types of movable furniture, including the chest of drawers, the settle, the sideboard (or "buffet"), and the cabinet.

Historically rooms are furnished sparsely, especially in early times. Throughout, chests serve multiple of purposes, even at night to providing a place for sleeping. Perhaps the chest is only place to safely store family treasures, before the date of any still-existing family inventory, some records -- Papal Bulls and Episcopal Injunctions -- inform us of the purposes to which chests function in familial and religious settings. They are enumerated among things sacred by Archbishop Ælfric (ca. 955 ca. 1010) during the 11th-century; they guarded the precious relics of saints, and in them were placed the jewels, vestments and archives that had by then accumulated in churches.

A hundred years after Æthelwold's death, the Normans rebuilt his church upon a site close at hand, transferring St. Swithun's bones to the new choir. To-day as we stand in the choir of Winchester cathedral, it is not difficult to carry the thought back nine hundred years to the days when Aelfric sang there hymns to God in praise of great St. Swithun. Does it not say on the chest just before us, raised upon the choir-screen, "in this tomb rests pious King Eadred, who nobly governed this land of Briton, and died A. D. 955"? and on the next chest, "King Edmund, died A. D. 946"? Ælfric saw their tombs, then in the crypt, for Aedred was the king who sent Æthelwold to Abing.

Source: C L White, Ælfric: ... His Life and Writings, Yale, 1896, p 38.

More On the Evolution of Two Other Furniture Subdivisions: (2) Seating (stools, "box" chairs, settees and the like) & (3) Paneling (on walls)

In the header above, the reasons for the distinction between one and two is obvious. Purposefully, for such functions as dining or sleeping, walls help create separate spaces, but also walls are places for decoration, including decorative functions of wood paneling.

(2) Seating (stools, box chairs, settees and the like)

medieval stool The period's larger refectory tables are almost always flanked by benches or stools. The stool, interestingly, continues to be the usual seat for meals until almost the 1689 close of the reign of Charles II. With the accession of William and Mary in 1689, and even some years before, when the persecution of the Huguenots of France, following on the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, exiled many thousands of French weavers.

medieval stoolUpon their arrival, the results of their talents created a fashion for colorful, elaborately-woven fabrics to adorn such seating furniture as the chair, the stool and the settee, because these pieces are suited for the display of colorful silks and velvets.

from box seat to box chair And throughout most of 18th-century the chairmaker's craft is held in higher distinction from that of other specialties of the cabinetmaker class, thus a more prestigious practice.

With chairs, and with their kindred pieces, settees, stools, benches, forms, etc., the separate character is not so obvious. For a number of reasons -- primarily that their construction requires special skill -- chairs occupy a place apart, not only during the early period, but practically throughout the entire history of British furniture.

Until the end of the Tudor period, for example chairs are rare. Because they present complications in their construction, there are fewer of them, and because of their rarity, the chair is reserved as a seat for recognizing the social or political personage, whether the lord and his lady, or for the honored guest.

At the time, chairs are greatly prized, but more for their associations rather than for their intrinsic worth. The great value in which the family's chairs are held is also indicated by the extent carving is lavished on them. Attaching such esteem to chairs is indicated by the wide practice of carving their date of construction, a pattern also followed by examples in category 2, the court cupboard and the chest, two pieces for holding family valuables.

And as they evolve, it is nearly always the chair which originates a fashion, and gives a setting for other furniture to follow. It is in chairs, for example, where we get Daniel Marot's cabriole leg, in its many forms, long before the cabriole form is adapted to tables, sideboards and chest of drawers.

Sources: Herbert Cescinsky and Ernest K Gribble, Early English Furniture and Woodwork London: Routledge, 1922; Herbert Cescinsky, The Old-World House, Its Furniture and Decoration London, A. & C. Black, 1924, I, pages 195; Penelope Eames, Furniture in England, France and the Netherlands from the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century London: The Furniture History Society, 1977; Charles Tracy and H Clifford Smith, English Medieval Furniture and Woodwork London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1988 .

(3) Paneling

Today we are so accustomed to wainscottings of wood, that it is difficult to imagine the long process in the medieval era -- and with the primitive woodworking methods then in vogue -- before the oak of the park or the forest can be shaped into a covering for the walls of rooms in the period's houses. Before panelling is a widespread practice, the oak tree needs to be felled, barked, sawn into planks -- with only the aid of the pit-saw -- stacked and seasoned, and then constructed, in mortised-and-tenoned framing, with panels riven from the solid timber and dubbed smooth with the adze, . This is a task not undertaken lightly. Why? Prior to the accession of the Tudors -- 1485 and 1603 -- where considerations of defending from attacks of enemy forces are of greater importance, making considerations about comfort of secondary concern.

linenfold carving

At this time in British history, religious establishments such as monasteries appropriate much of the skilled craftsmen, especially carpenters and masons and, as the primary centers of British culture -- rather than wood paneling, prefer arras tapestry hangings as a covering of bare walls. In particular, churches and cathedrals prefer tapestries, because typically walls in churches and cathedrals are broken up too much by windows, columns, and other wall surface irregularities, a condition which makes paneling impractical.

Stone, timber (generally oak), and plaster, are the English building materials of the Middle Ages; brick, known in Roman times, are the exceptional prior to the Tudors. Tudor dwellings range from the stone castle -- built to withstand attack from an armed force by an oppostion force -- to the yeoman classes residences of timber and plaster. In any more affluent counties -- such as Norfolk and Suffolk -- peasant familes are also housed in cottages of oak and plaster, sometimes even decorated with carvings or cast images in the exterior plasterwork. But In the poorer counties, the tillers of the soil are housed in crude hovels.

In the castles, the walls of the rooms inside show the rough stone of which the castle itself is built. But, in deference to the finer sensitivities of the women of the age, in the apartments where they are housed, hangings of tapestry or needlework mask the bareness of the walls, in contrast to the other residential quarters, where the castles' rough-quarried stone is left natural. In short, we must conclude that this era's times are too uncertain and troubles for any degree of what we now regard as comfort.

Source: Adapted from Herbert Cescinsky, The Old-World House, Its Furniture and Decoration London, A. & C. Black, 1924, I, pages 116ff.