The Furniture of the Carolingian Empire
History of the medieval Carolingian Empire's furniture, art, and architecture. The Carolingian dynasty of Charlemagne.
The Carolingian Dynasty
For much of the early Middle Ages European systems of governance and order underwent fragmentation and decay, from the break up the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD. This trend was only arrested by the rise of the Carolingian dynasty under Charlemagne. In 771 Charlemagne, otherwise called Charles the Great, assumed leadership of the Franks in central Europe, what is today Germany, more or less. In 800 AD he was crowned "Emperor of the Romans" thus symbolically, and to a certain extent practically, becoming a link between the pined-after lost glory and power of the Roman Empire and what was to take its place.
Portrait of Charlemagne by Albrecht Durer.
The Carolingian Renaissance
The reign of Charlemagne is sometimes called the Carolingian Renaissance, 800-900 AD, because of the renewed vigour of art, architecture, and literature that was to be felt in his empire. Specifically, what occurred was the re-flowering of the classical Roman tradition, a process that prepared the way for the development of the later Romananesque and Gothic forms.
While its metalwork, sculpture, mosaics and frescos are today what distinguishes Carolingian art the most, furniture, being a by-product of the other arts, mainly architecture, also underwent a revival and holds some interest.
The homes of the Carolingian period were simple and sparsely furnished. What furniture that existed, mainly benches and three legged stools, was of Roman provenance in style. Folding stools had always been symbols of power, especially in the churches and castles, and were widely used. Accessories of comfort, cushions, padding, were little employed in contrast to the Roman love of luxury. Furniture was made mainly from wood however there was some use of metal and bronze.
The Carolingians had very large dining tables of the trestle type, held up by legs elaborately carved with sculptural decoration such as animal forms, in the style of ancient Roman and Greek furniture. The tables were rectangle in shape and could be easily taken apart, with the board lifting off the x-shaped legs.
As with other medieval periods beds remained the most important piece of furniture in Carolingian houses largely because beds were frequently adorned with expensive hangings and textiles showing off the wealth of the owner. Remember too that in times such as these the bedroom was not really a private chamber, but was often used to receive guests in, etc. In more humble homes bed drapery provided some privacy and protection from draughts.
Typically beds of the Carolingian era were made with turned wooden head posts and foot posts and stood on high legs.
Studies & Libraries
A change occurred in the Carolingian period in the forms of writing furniture used in the study and library, rooms which remained popular in the homes of the wealthy. Writing instruments, and their accessories, were stored in box shaped chests with drop down, angled lids. Lecterns supported on high pedestals which rested on tripod legs were also used as writing desks.
While much of the early medieval period remains in relative darkness the Carolingian age provides some clues as to how people furnished their homes and also represents an important bridge to the time of Romanesque furniture.