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The Middle Ages.

Period of 1000 years from Fall of Rome, A.D. 476, to Capture of Constantinople, 1453—the Crusades—Influence of Christianity—Chairs of St. Peter and Maximian at Rome, Ravenna and Venice—Edict of Leo III. prohibiting Image worship—the Rise of Venice—Charlemagne and his successors—the Chair of Dagobert—Byzantine character of Furniture—Norwegian carving—Russian and Scandinavian—the Anglo-Saxons—Sir Walter Scott quoted—Descriptions of Anglo-Saxon Houses and Customs—Art in Flemish Cities—Gothic Architecture—the Coronation Chair at Westminster Abbey—Penshurst—French Furniture in the 14th Century—Description of rooms—the South Kensington Museum—Transition from Gothic to Renaissance—German carved work: the Credence, the Buffet, and Dressoir.

Bush Furniturehe history of furniture is so thoroughly a part of the history of the manners and customs of different peoples, that one can only understand and appreciate the several changes in style, sometimes gradual and sometimes rapid, by reference to certain historical events and influences by which such changes were effected.

Thus, we have during the space of time known as the Middle Ages, a stretch of some 1,000 years, dating from the fall of Rome itself, in A.D. 476, to the capture of Constantinople by the Turks under Mahomet II. in 1453, an historical panorama of striking incidents and great social changes bearing upon our subject. It was a turbulent and violent period, which saw the completion of Rome's downfall, the rise of the Carlovingian family, the subjection of Britain by the Saxons, the Danes, and the Normans; the extraordinary career and fortunes of Mahomet; the conquest of Spain and a great part of Africa by the Moors; and the Crusades, which, for a common cause, united the swords and spears of friend and foe.

It was the age of monasteries and convents, of religious persecutions and of heroic struggles of the Christian Church. It was the age of feudalism, chivalry, and war; but, towards the close, a time of comparative civilisation and progress, of darkness giving way to the light which followed; the night of the Middle Ages preceding the dawn of the Renaissance.

With the growing importance of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Empire, families of well-to-do citizens flocked thither from other parts, bringing with them all their most valuable possessions; and the houses of the great became rich in ornamental furniture, the style of which was a mixture of Eastern and Roman: that is, a corruption of the Early Classic Greek developing into the style known as Byzantine. The influence of Christianity upon the position of women materially affected the customs and habits of the people. Ladies were allowed to be seen in chariots and open carriages, the designs of which, therefore, improved and became more varied; the old custom of reclining at meals ceased, and guests sat on benches; and though we have, with certain exceptions, such as the chair of St. Peter at Rome, and that of Maximian in the Cathedral at Ravenna, no specimens of furniture of this time, we have in the old Byzantine ivory bas-reliefs such representations of circular throne chairs and of ecclesiastical furniture as suffice to show the class of woodwork then in vogue.

The chair of St. Peter is one of the most interesting relics of the Middle Ages. The woodcut will shew the design, which is, like other work of the period, Byzantine, and the following description is taken from Mr. Hungerford Pollen's introduction to the South Kensington catalogue:—"The chair is constructed of wood, overlaid with carved ivory work and gold. The back is bound together with iron. It is a square with solid front and arms. The width in front is 39 inches; the height in front 30 inches, shewing that a scabellum or footstool must have belonged to it.... In the front are 18 groups or compositions from the Gospels, carved in ivory with exquisite fineness, and worked with inlay of the purest gold. On the outer sides are several little figures carved in ivory. It formed, according to tradition, part of the furniture of the house of the Senator Pudens, an early convert to the Christian faith. It is he who gave to the Church his house in Rome, of which much that remains is covered by the Church of St. Pudenziana. Pudens gave this chair to St. Peter, and it became the throne of the See. It was kept in the old Basilica of St. Peter's." Since then it has been transferred from place to place, until now it remains in the present Church of St. Peter's, but is completely hidden from view by the seat or covering made in 1667, by Bernini, out of bronze taken from the Pantheon.

Much has been written about this famous chair. Cardinal Wiseman and the Cavaliere de Rossi have defended its reputation and its history, and Mr. Nesbitt, some years ago, read a paper on the subject before the Society of Antiquaries.

Formerly there was in Venice another chair of St. Peter, of which there is a sketch from a photograph in Mrs. Oliphant's "Makers of Venice." It is said to have been a present from the Emperor Michel, son of Theophilus (824-864), to the Venetian Republic in recognition of services rendered, by either the Doge Gradonico, who died in 1864, or his predecessor, against the Mahommedan incursions. Fragments only now remain, and these are preserved in the Church of St. Pietro, at Castello.

There is also a chair of historic fame preserved in Venice, and now kept in the treasury of St. Mark's. Originally in Alexandria, it was sent to Constantinople and formed part of the spoils taken by the Venetians in 1204. Like both the other chairs, this was also ornamented with ivory plaques, but these have been replaced by ornamental marble.

The earliest of the before-mentioned chairs, namely, the one at Ravenna, was made for the Archbishop about 546 to 556, and is thus described in Mr. Maskell's "Handbook on Ivories," in the Science and Art series:—"The chair has a high back, round in shape, and is entirely covered with plaques of ivory arranged in panels carved in high relief with scenes from the Gospels and with figures of saints. The plaques have borders with foliated ornaments, birds and animals; flowers and fruits filling the intermediate spaces. Du Sommerard names amongst the most remarkable subjects, the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Wise Men, the Flight into Egypt, and the Baptism of Our Lord." The chair has also been described by Passeri, the famous Italian antiquary, and a paper was read upon it, by Sir Digby Wyatt, before the Arundel Society, in which he remarked that as it had been fortunately preserved as a holy relic, it wore almost the same appearance as when used by the prelate for whom it was made, save for the beautiful tint with which time had invested it.

Long before the general break up of the vast Roman Empire, influences had been at work to decentralise Art, and cause the migration of trained and skilful artisans to countries where their work would build up fresh industries, and give an impetus to progress, where hitherto there had been stagnation. One of these influences was the decree issued in A.D. 726 by Leo III., Emperor of the Eastern Empire, prohibiting all image worship. The consequences to Art of such a decree were doubtless similar to the fanatical proceedings of the English Puritans of the seventeenth century, and artists, driven from their homes, were scattered to the different European capitals, where they were gladly received and found employment and patronage.

It should be borne in mind that at this time Venice was gradually rising to that marvellous position of wealth and power which she afterwards held.

"A ruler of the waters and their powers:
And such she was;—her daughters had their dowers
From spoils of nations, and the exhaustless East
Pour'd in her lap all gems in sparkling showers;
In purple was she robed and of her feasts
Monarchs partook, and deemed their dignity increased."

Her wealthy merchants were well acquainted with the arts and manufactures of other countries, and Venice would be just one of those cities to attract the artist refugee. It is indeed here that wood carving as an Art may be said to have specially developed itself, and though, from its destructible nature, there are very few specimens extant dating from this early time, yet we shall see that two or three hundred years later ornamental woodwork flourished in a state of perfection which must have required a long probationary period.

Turning from Venice. During the latter end of the eighth century the star of Charlemagne was in the ascendant, and though we have no authentic specimen, and scarcely a picture of any wooden furniture of this reign, we know that, in appropriating the property of the Gallo-Romans, the Frank Emperor King and his chiefs were in some degree educating themselves to higher notions of luxury and civilisation. Paul Lacroix, in "Manners, Customs, and Dress of the Middle Ages," tells us that the trichorium or dining room was generally the largest hall in the palace: two rows of columns divided it into three parts: one for the royal family, one for the officers of the household, and the third for the guests, who were always very numerous. No person of rank who visited the King could leave without sitting at his table or at least draining a cup to his health. The King's hospitality was magnificent, especially on great religious festivals, such as Christmas and Easter.

In other portions of this work of reference we read of "boxes" to hold articles of value, and of rich hangings, but beyond such allusions little can be gleaned of any furniture besides. The celebrated chair of Dagobert (illustrated on p. 21), now in the Louvre, and of which there is a cast in the South Kensington Museum, dates from some 150 years before Charlemagne, and is probably the only specimen of furniture belonging to this period which has been handed down to us. It is made of gilt bronze, and is said to be the work of a monk.

For the designs of furniture of the tenth to the fourteenth centuries we are in a great measure dependent upon old illuminations and missals of these remote times. They represent chiefly the seats of state used by sovereigns on the occasions of grand banquets, or of some ecclesiastical function, and from the valuable collections of these documents in the National Libraries of Paris and Brussels, some illustrations are reproduced, and it is evident from such authorities that the designs of State furniture in France and other countries dominated by the Carlovingian monarchs were of Byzantine character, that pseudo-classic style which was the prototype of furniture of about a thousand years later, when the Cæsarism of Napoleon I., during the early years of the nineteenth century, produced so many designs which we now recognise as "Empire."

No history of mediaeval woodwork would be complete without noticing the Scandinavian furniture and ornamental wood carving of the tenth to the fifteenth centuries. There are in the South Kensington Museum, plaster casts of some three or four carved doorways of Norwegian workmanship, of the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, in which scrolls are entwined with contorted monsters, or, to quote Mr. Lovett's description, "dragons of hideous aspect and serpents of more than usually tortuous proclivities." The woodcut of a carved lintel conveys a fair idea of this work, and also of the old Juniper wood tankards of a much later time.

There are also at Kensington other casts of curious Scandinavian woodwork of more Byzantine treatment, the originals of which are in the Museums of Stockholm and Copenhagen, where the collection of antique woodwork of native production is very large and interesting, and proves how wood carving, as an industrial art, has flourished in Scandinavia from the early Viking times. One can still see in the old churches of Borgund and Hitterdal much of the carved woodwork of the seventh and eighth centuries; and lintels and porches full of national character are to be found in Thelemarken.

Under this heading of Scandinavian may be included the very early Russian school of ornamental woodwork. Before the accession of the Romanoff dynasty in the sixteenth century, the Ruric race of kings came originally from Finland, then a province of Sweden; and, so far as one can see from old illuminated manuscripts, there was a similarity of design to those of the early Norwegian and Swedish carved lintels which have been noticed above.

The covers and caskets of early mediaeval times were no inconsiderable items in the valuable furniture of a period when the list of articles coming under that definition was so limited. These were made in oak for general use, and some were of good workmanship; but of the very earliest none remain. There were, however, others, smaller and of a special character, made in ivory of the walrus and elephant, of horn and whalebone, besides those of metal. In the British Museum is one of these, of which the cover is illustrated on the following page, representing a man defending his house against an attack by enemies armed with spears and shields. Other parts of the casket are carved with subjects and runic inscriptions which have enabled Mr. Stephens, an authority on this period of archæology, to assign its date to the eighth century, and its manufacture to that of Northumbria. It most probably represents a local incident, and part of the inscription refers to a word signifying treachery. It was purchased by Mr. A.W. Franks, F.S.A., and is one of the many valuable specimens given to the British Museum by its generous curator.

Of the furniture of our own country previous to the eleventh or twelfth centuries we know but little. The habits of the Anglo-Saxons were rude and simple, and they advanced but slowly in civilisation until after the Norman invasion. To convey, however, to our minds some idea of the interior of a Saxon thane's castle, we may avail ourselves of Sir Walter Scott's antiquarian research, and borrow his description of the chief apartment in Rotherwood, the hospitable hall of Cedric the Saxon. Though the time treated of in "Ivanhoe" is quite at the end of the twelfth century, yet we have in Cedric a type of man who would have gloried in retaining the customs of his ancestors, who detested and despised the new-fashioned manners of his conquerors, and who came of a race that had probably done very little in the way of "refurnishing" for some generations. If, therefore, we have the reader's pardon for relying upon the mise en scéne of a novel for an authority, we shall imagine the more easily what kind of furniture our Anglo-Saxon forefathers indulged in.

"In a hall, the height of which was greatly disproportioned to its extreme length and width, a long oaken table—formed of planks rough hewn from the forest, and which had scarcely received any polish—stood ready prepared for the evening meal.... On the sides of the apartment hung implements of war and of the chase, and there were at each corner folding doors which gave access to the 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, trodden into a hard substance, such as is often employed in flooring our modern barns. For about one quarter of the length of the apartment, the floor was raised by a step, and this space, which was called the daïs, was occupied only by the principal members of the family and visitors of distinction. For this purpose a table richly covered with scarlet cloth was placed transversely across the platform, from the middle of which ran the longer and lower board, at which the domestics and inferior persons fed, down towards the bottom of the hall. The whole resembled the form of the letter T, or some of those ancient dinner tables which, arranged on the same principles, may still be seen in the ancient colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. Massive chairs and settles of carved oak were placed upon the daïs, 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 daïs extended, were covered with hangings or curtains, and upon the floor there was a carpet, both of which were adorned with some attempts at tapestry or embroidery, executed with brilliant or rather gaudy colouring. Over the lower range of table the roof had no covering, the rough plastered walls were left bare, the rude earthen floor was uncarpeted, the board was uncovered by a cloth, and rude massive benches supplied the place of chairs. In the centre of the upper table 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."

A drawing in the Harleian MSS. in the British Museum is shewn on page 25, illustrating a Saxon mansion in the ninth or tenth century. There is the hall in the centre, with "chamber" and "bower" on either side; there being only a ground floor, as in the earlier Roman houses. According to Mr. Wright, F.S.A., who has written on the subject of Anglo-Saxon manners and customs, there was only one instance recorded of an upper floor at this period, and that was in an account of an accident which happened to the house in which the Witan or Council of St. Dunstan met, when, according to the ancient chronicle which he quotes, the Council fell from an upper floor, and St. Dunstan saved himself from a similar fate by supporting his weight on a beam.

The illustration here given shews the Anglo-Saxon chieftain standing at the door of his hall, with his lady, distributing food to the needy poor. Other woodcuts represent Anglo-Saxon bedsteads, which were little better than raised wooden boxes, with sacks of straw placed therein, and these were generally in recesses. There are old inventories and wills in existence which shew that some value and importance was attached to these primitive contrivances, which at this early period in our history were the luxuries of only a few persons of high rank. A certain will recites that "the bed-clothes (bed-reafes) with a curtain (hyrite) and sheet (hepp-scrytan), and all that thereto belongs," should be given to his son.

In the account of the murder of King Athelbert by the Queen of King Offa, as told by Roger of Wendover, we read of the Queen ordering a chamber to be made ready for the Royal guest, which was adorned for the occasion with what was then considered sumptuous furniture. "Near the King's bed she caused a seat to be prepared, magnificently decked and surrounded with curtains, and underneath it the wicked woman caused a deep pit to be dug." The author from whom the above translation is quoted adds with grim humour, "It is clear that this room was on the ground floor."

Anglo Saxon Furniture of About the Tenth Century.

(From old MSS. in the British Museum.)

  1. A Drinking Party.
  2. A Dinner Party, in which the attendants are serving the meal on the spits on which it has been cooked.
  3. Anglo-Saxon Beds.

There are in the British Museum other old manuscripts whose illustrations have been laid under contribution representing more innocent occupations of our Anglo-Saxon forefathers. "The seat on the däis," "an Anglo-Saxon drinking party," and other illustrations which are in existence, prove generally that, when the meal had finished, the table was removed and drinking vessels were handed round from guest to guest; the storytellers, the minstrels, and the gleemen (conjurers) or jesters, beguiling the festive hour by their different performances.

The Seat on The Daïs.
 

Some of these Anglo-Saxon houses had formerly been the villas of the Romans during their occupation, altered and modified to suit the habits and tastes of their later possessors. Lord Lytton has given us, in the first chapter of his novel "Harold," the description of one of such Saxonised Roman houses, in his reference to Hilda's abode.

The gradual influence of Norman civilisation, however, had its effect, though the unsettled state of the country prevented any rapid development of industrial arts. The feudal system by which every powerful baron became a petty sovereign, often at war with his neighbour, rendered it necessary that household treasures should be few and easily transported or hidden, and the earliest oak chests which are still preserved date from about this time. Bedsteads were not usual, except for kings, queens, and great ladies; tapestry covered the walls, and the floors were generally sanded. As the country became more calm, and security for property more assured, this comfortless state of living disappeared; the dress of ladies was richer, and the general habits of the upper classes were more refined. Stairs were introduced into houses, the "parloir" or talking room was added, and fire places were made in some of the rooms, of brick or stonework, where previously the smoke was allowed to escape through an aperture in the roof. Bedsteads were carved and draped with rich hangings. Armoires made of oak and enriched with carving, and Presses date from about the end of the eleventh century.

 

 

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