The meaning of domesticity in The Middle Ages took on a variety of interpretations. It typically encompasses anything from the family unit, their dwelling house and their friends and neighbors to rulers and their castles. The home, as the axis of domesticity could be viewed as a structure together with its contents and lay out. Naturally the growth and development of furniture runs parallel to the growth and development of domesticity throughout The Middle Ages. Nomadic culture was prevalent during The Middle Ages and domestic furniture was constructed to reflect the demands of transient lifestyles.
Wealthy landowners together with nobility rarely remained in one place for an extended period as they often traveled between their domains. Heavy, bulky furniture was entirely undesirable in the circumstances. Therefore the furniture was designed for mobility and easy disassembly. The chest was perhaps the most common item of household furniture and reflected the nomadic culture of The Middle Ages more effectively than any other item of furniture. The chest proved to be a diverse item of domestic furniture.
It was ideal for storing and transferring goods from one destination to another. Upon arrival at a destination the chest could be used as a table or a mantle. The Middle Ages which stretched over a period of about one thousand years commencing with the fall of Rome in 476 A. D and ending with the conquest of the Turk’s Constantinople in 1453 B. C. ‘It was the age of monasteries and convents, of religious persecutions and of heroic struggles of the Christian Church. ’ (Litchfield. 2004) The period was also marked by a progression of feudalism and war as well as chivalry.
However, ‘towards the close, a time of comparative civilization and progress, of darkness giving way to the light which followed; the night of the Middle Ages preceding the dawn of the Renaissance. ’ (Litchfield. 2004) Constantinople, the capital city of the Eastern Empire began to grow in popularity and as a result the migration to the capital city, of families of respectable means grew. When they left their homes for Constantinople they carried with them all of their valuable possessions. The wealth homeowners gravitated toward more ornamental household furnishings and fittings.
This represented a departure from the early Classic Greek to a more Byzantine style. (Rowling. 1973 p 17) The dictates of a prevalent Christianity significantly influenced the role of women in The Middle Ages. Ladies were permitted ‘to be seen in chariots and open carriages, the designs of which, therefore, improved and became more varied. ’(Litchfield. 2004) And there was a cessation of the old tradition of ‘reclining at meals’ (Litchfield 2004) was replaced by having guests occupying benches.
Until the turn of the fourteenth century the ordinary dwelling house was simplistic in its furnishing, reflecting a slow growth in domesticity with the emergence of the well off merchant mentality. In France, for instance, the main room in a given home contained a ‘bedstead and a prie dieu chair, a table with plain slab supported on shaped standards. ’(Litchfield 2004) The rest of the furniture featured in the main room would typically be comprised of the signature Middle Age’s chest which would have been carved from oak or chestnut with a series of benches or stools.
A basic table resembling a supported and elevated slab of wood also formed a typical part of the furniture arrangement in an ordinary dwelling house of The Middle Ages. It was around thirty inches in diameter permitting guests to sit on one side while the other side was reserved for the issuing of the meal. While there would be no family discussions across the table, family members and guests would be in a position to rub elbows, so to speak. This is indicative of socialization and explains the origins of the social term ‘rubbing elbows’. The period spanning the 11th -13th centuries was the hallmark of civilization in The Middle Ages.
Religious reform fortified the pope’s position in the church and Medieval society but conflict between the pope and the emperor was unavoidable. Towns and farms witnessed a population explosion with the resulting merchant or middle classes. An unmistakable growth and development in culture and economics prevailed. By the thirteenth century Gothic architecture reflecting the religious culture and a shift toward education and the university had reached its peak. The Medieval peasant however was slow in domesticity although he formed a large part of the noble lord’s domestic make-up.
The peasant population, primarily made up of farmers comprised about nine-tenths of the Medieval population and were serfs and villeins. ( Nurmiainen 1998) A typical peasant village was comprised of anywhere from ten to sixty families. (Morrison. 1970 p. 57) Their accommodations were dreary and rather dank in appearance, to say the very least. Their dwelling houses were usually consisted of a ‘dark, dank hut made of wood or wicker daubed with mud and thatched with straw or rushes. ’(Litchfield 2004) Sharing their homes with livestock such as pigs and chicken, the straw/reed layered floors were often defiled by livestock droppings.
Dried leaves and straw represented a typical bed and animal skins were utilized as blankets. The stove was merely a fire made of wood and sometimes peat which burned continuously on a dirt patch which was cleared out on the floor of a hut. The stagnant domesticity among the peasants reflected resonantly in the typical furnishing of the village huts. It was a simple ‘plank table on trestles, a few stools, perhaps a chest, and probably a loom for the women to make their own cloth. ’ (Litchfeild 2004) If peasants did anything for the growth of domesticity throughout The Middle Ages, they did it for the nobility.
They existed for the sole purpose of supporting their lord and master who in turn illustrated a steady growth toward domesticity as evidenced by the unwavering commitment of the peasant. ‘They gave about half their time to work in his fields, cut timber, haul water, spin and weave, repair his buildings, and wait upon his household. In war, the men had to fight at his side. ’ (Litchfield 2004) The idea and values of domesticity are saliently present in the development and retention of the domestic servant. In this vein, the peasantry can be viewed as a founder of the latter day domestic servant.
Arguably, the dictates of the master/servant mentality takes its roots back to the feudalism system that reached its peak in The Middle Ages. (Keen. 2006) Demonstrative of domesticity was the ever present table. It was a shrine to refuge and an escape from the abrasive outside world. The table represented a coming together of family and friends at the end of a day primarily dedicated to bringing meals home. The Anglo-Saxons were no exception. Often a hall which was usually dimensionally off balance because its height was disproportionate to its width and length was occupied by a long table made of oak.
The table was ‘formed of planks rough hewn from the forest, and which had scarcely received any polish—stood ready prepared for the evening meal. ’(Litchfield 2004) A typical Anglo-Saxon apartment had walls adorned with war relics, a representation of triumph and defeat as well as a desire to be reminded of those events within the snug confines of a domestic setting. The Anglo-Saxon decorum was simple with a floor made up of a earth and lime concoction not unlike today’s barn floorings. It might even be viewed by modern standards as harsh and crude.
Be that as it may, it was the Anglo-Saxon taste and they obviously saw it differently. The Anglo-Saxon dwelling house contained a floor which had a raised step about a quarter of the length of the apartment. This dais was reserved for important visitors and family members and represented the hub of domestic activity. Typical of Medieval domestic leaning, ‘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. (Litchfield 2004)
The entire setting of the Anglo-Saxon apartment was reflective of an escape from the outside world. It represented a warm and dry refuge and the T shaped table reflected domestic harmony and socialization in the home. The dais functioned to harvest a coming together, a calming of the minds and an escape from toil. Huge chairs occupied the dais and a cloth canopy hung over the collection of chairs and tables as a means of protection from leaks as rain often escaped the poorly built roof tops. (See figure 2) The dais was domesticity personified.
At the upper level of the hall, the walls were shrouded by curtains and the floor was covered by carpet of some embroidery or tapestry, although the color was rather harsh on the eyes. This color choice by no means operated to keep occupants out of the home. It was merely a matter of the fashion of the times. Its primary function was to make the home a fashionable and comfortable place as more and more time was spent at home with the emphasis on the family unit and fostering close relations with ones friends, relatives and neighbors. See figure 3) The table is deserving of further comment in that it speaks to the importance of feudalism and its infiltration of domesticity. Litchfield observed that ‘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’ (Litchfield 2004) More telling however was the two chairs that occupied the upper table’s center.
These two chairs were elevated more so than the other chairs and was reserved for the male female heads of the household. ‘To each of these was added a footstool curiously carved and inlaid with ivory, which mark of distinction was peculiar to them. ’ (Litchfield 2004) The Norman civilization began to infiltrate Medieval times and the citizens found themselves warring with neighboring communities. This, together with the move toward trade and migrant farming obviated the need to change residence from time to time.
As noted previously this nomadic lifestyle encouraged light furnishings and the ability to travel lightly if one wanted to secure valuable possessions. The Anglo-Saxons were adamant in their perception of the necessity for a bed. The bed was reserved for royalty and ladies of nobility. However, as the Medieval period settled into a more stable state the gradual growth into domesticity became more grounded. Ladies began to dress more formally, and the upper classes became more polished. New and more pronounced domestic furnishings sprung up in the Medieval home.
For instance, upper floors were added and stairs would follow this alteration. Domestic socialization reached its peak with the introduction of ‘the parloir’ or ‘talking room’. (Gella 2002 pps 5-10) Completing this domestic setting fire places made of brick or stone were inserted refining the overall decorum where previously a gaping hole was utilized for escaping smoke. Even the sleeping quarters took on a new look, one of domestic harmony and comfort. ‘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. ’(Litchfield 2004) Medieval France was no different from Anglo-Saxon decor. The domestic chamber was similar to that of the Anglo-Saxons and typical European knight and lady ‘bedroom’ settings. (Kauper 1996 p 146) ‘The prie dieu chair was generally at the bedside, and had a seat which lifted up, the lower part forming a box-like receptacle for devotional books then so regularly used by a lady of the time. (Litchfield 2004) As the fourteenth century came to a close Medieval France and much of Europe witnessed a propensity toward loud colors. A typical room in a castle or palace was adorned with ‘cloth of gold, bordered with vermilion velvet embroidered with roses. ’(Litchfield 2004) A Duke’s room would contain trimmings of gold material of embroidered windmills whereas a Duchess’s room would contain similar trimmings of an embroidered crossbow.
Carpets were generally glossy and cushions of gold or some other rich coloring were typically placed on the floor during summer months. The time spent at home was evidenced by the detail and attention given to arm chairs of the time. Litchfield describes a typical chair for a princess as . ‘a chamber chair with four supports, painted in fine vermilion, the seat and arms of which are covered in vermilion morocco, or cordovan, worked and stamped with designs representing the sun, birds, and other devices bordered with fringes of silk and studded with nails. (Litchfield 2004) As commerce developed through the Empires of The Middle Ages there was a development of the middle classes. The domestic values of the middle classes are also manifested by the furnishings and fittings of a typical home of a dealer. The retail dealer’s wife dressed in silk and was provided pillows adorned with buttons made of Oriental pearls for resting her arms and head. (Boissonnade 2002 pp 3-8)
The chair which represents comfort and stability is prominent throughout Medieval Europe also had a place in the German community. (See figure 1) Litchfield pays homage to a typical chair of German construction of the times. ‘The famous choir stalls in the Cathedral of Ulm, which are considered the finest work of the Swabian school of German wood carving. The magnificent panels of foliage on the front, the Gothic triple canopy are adorned with the busts of Isaiah, David, and Daniel. ’(Litchfield 2004)