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    The Medieval Chest

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    Join date : 2011-05-30

    The Medieval Chest

    Post  Admin on Wed Jun 01, 2011 11:24 pm

    The chest is
    the most common and fundamental item of medieval furniture. Wealthy nobles
    would own hundreds upon hundreds of chests, as shown by wills and
    death-rolls. Chests in the Middle Ages served simultaneously as both
    furniture and luggage. Chests were the most important furniture item of the
    medieval noble household.



    Chests are
    also the most useful items of medieval furniture we can make for use in the
    SCA. As the great nobles in the Middle Ages traveled from manor to manor, we
    travel from event to event and must store our SCA goods in the meantime. This
    article is a survey of chest construction and decoration techniques in the hope
    of inspiring woodworkers to build more medieval chests.



    Types of Medieval Chest


    This article
    examines the six general styles or classes of medieval chest: box, standard,
    Viking chest, six-board chest, hutch, and panel chest. The first two classes
    (box and standard) are legless designs; the other four (Viking, six-board,
    hutch, and panel chest) are designs with legs.



    The designs
    of chests were heavily influenced by their intended use. Designs without feet
    or legs were easier for traveling, especially by cart or wagon. Designs with
    legs kept their contents much cleaner and were less subject to the filth and
    vermin of medieval floors. Extensive decoration is rare on chests designed for
    traveling, as it would easily become damaged and marred. Traveling chests often
    had hipped or curved lids to shed water. Chests intended for static storage
    purposes usually had flat lids, which would make them more useful as furniture
    for seating or other purposes. Traveling chests were often covered in waxed
    leather to improve their weather resistance.



    As with many
    medieval artifacts, chests were often extensively decorated. The decoration of
    a chest might be a simple and standardized design, mass produced by a single
    workshop. A chest dated to c. 1300 in the Victoria and Albert Museum is one of
    a closely related family of chests found largely in Sussex and Surrey, probably
    all created by the same guild or workshop, all decorated nearly identically.



    On the other
    hand, decoration unique to a particular chest also appears in surviving examples.
    The `Fares' chest (in the Victoria and Albert Museum) shows a number of unique
    features. The back of the chest (where the hinges attach) is much more heavily
    decorated than the front (where the lock-plate was). One end of the chest is
    heavily carved, the other end is left rough. This chest was clearly designed
    for use in a specific place, probably a workshop or guildhall where it would be
    facing the customers, one end flush against a wall.



    Oak was the
    favorite material for medieval chests, as for most other medieval furniture.
    Walnut was another common wood for chests in France, but not in England. Chests
    were sometimes made of poplar or pine, and several softwood chests survive from
    what is now Germany.



    The changes
    in the types of chests used seems to have been driven by two major forces:
    improvements in joinery, and changes in society. Improvements in joinery led
    the simple six-board and Viking chest to be replaced by the hutch, and the
    hutch to be replaced by the panel chest. Changes in society led to a change in
    focus from the mobile, furniture-poor society of the early Middle Ages, to the
    more settled society of the Renaissance. This changed the focus of the chest
    from primarily a traveling container to primarily a storage container with a
    secondary display function. In keeping with this new role chests became heavily
    decorated with intricate carving, and most lids became flat instead of curved.



    Box


    Boxes are
    simple flat-lidded traveling chests. The construction is very simple, with a
    single board for each side, bottom, and the lid (six boards total). The boards
    are simply butted against each other and nailed together. Since this is a very
    weak joint boxes often used simple iron straps as reinforcements. Because they
    are intended as traveling chests, boxes have no legs and are usually
    undecorated.



    Standard


    This is
    perhaps the most common, and universal, design of chest, and the best overall
    traveling chest. Like the box, the bottom of a standard is simple and legless.
    The top is smoothly curved, often overlapping the sides, front, and back. This
    curved overlapping top allows the standard to shed rain during travel. Like the
    box, the standard just has butted and nailed boards, and therefore it, too,
    almost always shows heavy use of metal strapping and reinforcements. As a
    traveling chest, it is usually undecorated. Standards were sometimes covered in
    leather for weatherproofing.



    Viking
    Chest



    The Viking chest is very similar
    to the six-board chest. The two end pieces are extended down to form slab legs,
    raising the chest off the floor (or ship deck). Instead of the simple overlap
    design used in the six-board chest, where the front is nailed to the end-piece,
    Viking chests have both the front and end-piece overlapping each other, so
    nails reinforced the joint in both directions. Although this
    is
    a better joint than the simple lap of the six-board chest, the resulting joint
    is still not very durable, and Viking chests often show the use of metal
    reinforcing straps. The floor of the chest is seated in a dado joint cut in the
    end boards.



    Viking chests are usually made
    to be a good height for seating, and may have been used as rowing benches in
    Viking warships.8 Many Viking chests were travelling chests, and
    usually have lids that are hollowed out of thicker planks so they are curved to
    shed rain and weather.



    The few surviving Viking chests
    I have found are undecorated, although sometimes the iron strapwork is
    decorated with tinned nails or incised designs. The Vikings carved many items
    of wood (ships, churches, sleds, beds, chairs), so it is reasonable that chests
    were also decorated with carving, but I have no evidence at this time. Without
    evidence to the contrary,
    low
    relief or incised carving seem likely to be appropriate decoration for a Viking
    chest.



    Six-board Chest


    This is perhaps the most common
    household chest design throughout the period examined. The construction is
    extremely simple: five flat boards make up the bottom, sides, and ends, and
    another flat board forms the lid. The two end boards are extended to raise the
    chest off the ground on a pair of slab legs. Six-board chests might be
    undecorated, or highly decorated with painting or
    carving.
    Some of them are extensively covered with metal strapping to reinforce their
    fairly simple and weak joinery, but others show little or no metalwork.



    Six-board
    chests involved nailing the sides to the end pieces in a simple lap joint. The
    chest floor is attached to the end pieces with a dado joint, exactly as shown
    for the Viking chest in Figure 5. As with the Viking chest (and perhaps even
    more so), the corner joints are quite weak. Because of the weakness of the
    joinery six-board chests were often braced with metal straps at the corners, as
    illustrated.







    Six-board
    chests are common from the 9th through the sixteenth centuries and later. The
    longevity of the design is probably related to its simplicity. More complex and
    durable joinery existed from the end of the Viking period, but these chests
    would have been much simpler to make, and therefore cheaper, which explains
    their survival throughout the period examined and into the seventeenth century.



    This most
    common and long-lasting chest design shows a number of decorative techniques.
    Few early chests survive, so decoration techniques before 1200 are merely
    supposition, but designs like those discussed above for Viking chests would
    probably be appropriate. For later chests, whatever decoration technique was
    most common in a given period was likely to be used upon six-board chests of
    that period. This was true even when the decoration technique was inappropriate
    for the medium; the front of one surviving six-board chest is wholly covered in
    low-relief carving typical of the fourteenth century.9 Undecorated
    six-board chests seem to be rare, and limited to early period, but this could
    be because surviving chests are much more likely to be those that were richly
    decorated and carefully treasured through the ages, rather than utilitarian
    articles that were used until broken, then discarded.



    Hutch


    The hutch was
    the first great advance of joinery from the simple nailed six-board and Viking
    chests. Instead of the slab legs of the six-board chest, made by extending the
    end pieces down to the floor, the hutch added extensions (stiles) to lengthen
    the front and back pieces, and extended the stiles down to the ground to make
    four legs. The end-pieces and front pieces are joined to the stiles with a
    pegged tongue-and-groove joint. Sometimes braces are used in the end pieces for
    additional strength. The lids are usually flat, but may be slightly angled. The
    hutch design of pegged tongue-and-groove joinery is far more durable than the
    nailed or pegged lap joints of the six-board chest. Although decorative
    strapping continues to appear on hutches, it is less prevalent and appears to
    take the form of a couple of long straps, fewer and more decorative than on
    six-board chests.



    Hutches first
    appeared in the thirteenth century. They became the dominant form (at least for
    expensive, fashionable chests) in
    the
    fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. By the sixteenth century the panel chest, a
    design that is lighter than the hutch but just as durable, took over and
    replaced the hutch, which quickly disappeared



    Because of
    the sturdiness of the hutch design little or no additional reinforcement is
    necessary, leaving the whole of the face available for decoration. Many
    surviving examples of the hutch are extensively carved. The feet of the chest
    are also common subjects for relief carving (arcading) or cutaway designs. The
    face of the hutch is commonly covered with carving appropriate to the period:
    chip-carved roundels in the thirteenth century, the relief-carved scenes of the
    fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, or the elaborate tracery of the late
    fifteenth century.



    Panel Chest


    The panel
    chest is a sixteenth century evolution from the hutch. Instead of the hutch
    design where the sides and ends are constructed of single boards attached to
    stiles by pegged tongue-and-groove joints, the panel chest uses pegged
    tongue-and-groove to create a hollow grooved frame that holds a thinner,
    lighter panel. The stiles often evolve to be corner posts. Panel chests have
    flat lids. The panels are usually extensively carved, often with linenfold
    carving. Panel chests quickly become the dominant form in the sixteenth century,
    although (like the hutch) they fail to eliminate the much cheaper and simpler
    six-board chests.



    Decoration of
    panel chests is usually focussed upon the panels themselves, with the frame
    undecorated or merely engraved with linear forms. The elaborate tracery of the
    later fifteenth century and the linenfold techniques of the early sixteenth
    both show up on panel chests.





    Dugout


    Dugout chests
    may be the oldest design of all. No joinery is required--you just cut a log in
    two lengthwise, then hollow out both halves to make a chest. Chests constructed
    in this way are very heavy, and take a long time to make. Even so, a few
    surviving examples show that chests were still being made this way in the early
    Middle Ages and possibly even into the seventeenth century Very few examples of
    this type of chest survive, making it hard to generalize about their decoration
    (or lack thereof). Their heavy, legless design seems unsuitable for carving or
    other decoration, but this is mere supposition. Iron straps appear in both the
    surviving examples shown in Chinnery.



    Ark


    The ark is a
    variation of the hutch style of chest. Although few surviving examples survive,
    they seem to appear fairly early (in the thirteenth century). Unlike any other
    type of chest described here, the ark was constructed with riven (split) oak,
    rather than sawn boards. The design seems to have changed very little in the
    hundreds of years it was used (up until the seventeenth century). Arks were
    constructed with pegged tenons in through-mortises. Arks always show an angled
    lid with raised flanges at the ends, and extended stile legs similar to those
    of hutches. Arks seem to have been usually undecorated. The ark design is quite
    sturdy, with its pegged tenons and riven planks. No metal strap reinforcements
    are necessary, and none of the surviving arks show any sign of metalwork.
    Figure 2. illustrates an ark style chest.



    Dovetail Chest


    Dovetail
    joinery first appears in the fifteenth century as an alternative method of
    attaching the ends of a chest to the sides. Numerous examples exist, but this
    was not as common a technique as the hutch. Dovetail chests cannot use the
    extended-stile design of the hutch, and so dovetail chests never have legs.
    Probably because of its difficulty (and therefore cost), Dovetail joinery never
    became the dominant construction technique, and when the panel chest began
    appearing in the sixteenth century dovetail-joined chests largely disappear.



    The
    dovetail-joined chests of the fifteenth century were very well suited to
    complex tracery carving over the whole face. Hutches also sometimes exhibit
    extraordinary carving, but the differing grain direction at the stiles
    complicates such carving. Many of the finest examples of fifteenth century
    carving are on dovetail-joined chests.



    Pre 1200


    The six-board
    and Viking chests dominate. Carving is probably incised low-relief with the
    addition of paint, as shown in Figure 1, and may be infrequent. Reinforcing
    ironwork is common and often decorative.



    Thirteenth Century


    Hutches
    appear and become ubiquitous. Decorative ironwork and reinforcing straps are
    relatively common, as illustrated in Figure 3. Carving techniques used are
    simple arcading and chip carving. Painting is fairly common, sometimes on
    chip-carved chests, sometimes heraldic designs and miniatures.



    Fourteenth Century


    Hutches begin
    to have complex carved scenes on them, replacing the chip-carved roundels
    common in the thirteenth century. Reinforcing straps begin to disappear on
    chests and decorative ironwork is uncommon.



    Fifteenth Century


    Hutches with
    relief-carved scenes reach their height, but they begin to see competition from
    complex ornamental tracery and dovetailed boxes. Only traveling and utility
    chests seem to be without carved ornamentation. Decorative ironwork is rare.
    This period is the height of the chest-carver's art, with fantastic decorative
    ornamentation, whether gothic tracery or relief-carved scenes from famous
    stories from literature or religion.

      Current date/time is Mon Nov 19, 2018 12:10 am