Medieval Furniture & Home Decor
Medieval Times Life
The medieval time period (from the fall of the last Roman Emperor, in 476 AD, to the fall of Constantinople, in 1453) was the era in which furniture began to develop its modern characteristics. Early medieval Europe was a place of unrest; the medieval era was a time when not only nations but also lords of the manor fought for supremacy and battled to establish boundaries and kingdoms. Medieval history abounds with struggles between countries, between rival barons, and between neighbors. Large aspects of the medieval age are still in darkness to us today - confusion even reigns as to spelling with many variations of the term in use, such as midieval, medevil, midevil, mideval, medival, mediaeval, and midievil!
Medieval life was uncertain, and families were often on the move: fleeing from conflict, or traveling to lend support to the warlord of their choice. Journeying from one dark, draughty castle or medieval manor to another, their possessions needed to be portable, and needed to provide maximum protection from the bleak northern European winters.
Textiles were the central focus of medieval decor. Light, portable, and multifunctional, textiles could be used as room dividers, wall hangings, floor or bed coverings, or protection from the cold. Colorful fabrics added brightness and life to dark rooms where glassless windows were of necessity small and shuttered against the weather.
Medieval Period Furniture
Medieval furniture was primarily made of oak, since it was easy to obtain, strong and durable. Perhaps the most important piece of medieval furniture was the chest or coffer. Chests were originally made from hollow tree trunks banded with iron, hence the origin of the modern word 'trunk'. A type of chest known as the hutch could be used for packing household possessions when traveling, but it was also used as a seat, a desk, a table, and a couch for sleeping purposes. When not traveling, the hutch was used for storage.
13th Century Hutch Chest
For the very early years of the medieval age, when Europe was in great disarray, little can be said until we meet the rise of the Carolingian dynasty in Germany in the mid 8th century. Following the Carolingian reordering of European society we encounter the great, settled traditions of medieval art, the Romanesque, and Gothic. Also discussed in this section is the Eastern contribution to furniture design in the Byzantine world.
Medieval homes were the origin of the expression 'bed and board', since these were the items of furniture necessary to life in the medieval age. Medieval peasant furniture probably consisted of the 'bed and board' only, with perhaps a few cushions, mats and hangings to provide warmth. The 'board' referred to the chief furnishing of the great dining hall where both the owners and the dependents of medieval manor homes gathered together at meal times. Originally, the 'board' was just that - a board, probably supported on tree trunks. This evolved into the portable trestle table that could be easily transported, or packed away when not in use.
In the medieval period, the 'cup borde' was a board used to store cups. The cup borde gradually acquired the characteristics of the modern cupboard, with shelves and doors. Later in the medieval age the buffet was used for storage in the dining hall.
Benches, Stools, & Chairs
Benches and stools were commonly used for sitting in medieval times - only the rich and important, or perhaps occasionally the privileged head of the house, ever used an actual chair. Folding chairs were popular amongst the medieval aristocracy, since they could easily be transported when on the move.
Beds in Saxon times consisted of a board often placed in a recess, hung about with curtains for warmth and privacy. A rough mattress made of straw was covered with decorative fabric. The Normans brought with them from medieval France a more elaborate bed style, where iron railings were used to hang the curtains, and both coverings and curtains were rich, elaborate and highly prized. These gradually developed into the huge fourposter beds, heavily carved and richly hung. The Great Bed of Ware, now in a museum, was eleven feet square. However, despite the expensive and decorative hangings and covers, early beds were still based on a mattress of straw. It was only in the 14th century that feather beds began to be used. A feather mattress was a prized family possession in the later medieval era.
Medieval Art & Design
The best examples of medieval design, not only in furniture but also in medieval art and architecture, are found in churches and cathedrals. The church alone was neutral in times of conflict, and was more or less exempt from the nomadic lifestyle that so influenced medieval furniture characteristics. Such medieval antiques as are still in existence are mostly examples of the more solid, permanent style of furniture only possible in churches.
Medieval Revival Furniture & Decor
Medieval home decor is again becoming popular, and medieval furniture replicas are 'in'. Medieval home designs can be fun, with lots of scope for using bright fabrics and interesting lighting effects.
Use tapestries and hangings to cover the walls, rush matting for the floors, carvings or stencils in ancient heraldic designs, simple but sturdy medieval furniture, "Lord of the Rings" style weapons, armor or shields as decoration, and plenty of small candle-type light fixtures. Medieval interior decor is all about color and warmth, use of textures and textiles, and simply made, practical furniture. Life in the middle ages was harsh, but also full of excitement, fun and romance.