The Romanesque period is marked by the spread of Christianity as a unifying culture throughout Europe, grafting pagan art from the north onto the more classical styles of the south. During this period, the Roman Catholic Church grew in power and influence despite the relocation of the papacy to Avignon, France, during the 1300s. Much that survives today from the Romanesque period is ecclesiastical, but there were relatively few differences between ecclesiastical and secular pieces other than the level of ornamentation. Many of the furnishings from this period were designed for the ruling class and the wealthy; most people still sat on rugs, platforms, simple stools, and the ground.
During the medieval period, regions utilized available natural resources and relied less on trade. It was during the Romanesque period that walnut was harvested for furniture in
Italy, Spain, and France. Walnut is an excellent wood for carving and turning, and it is not surprising that Italy, France, and Spain produced beautifully carved walnut furniture. Oak was popular in Britain and the Netherlands. Oak is more difficult to carve than walnut, so furniture from Britain and the Netherlands was generally not as elaborately carved. Pine and fir were common in Scandinavia and were carved easily. Scandinavians have enjoyed a long and rich heritage in the crafts going back to the beautiful and elaborate Nordic/Celtic carvings on their long boats and in their architecture.
At the time of the Norman invasion of Britain (1066), castles contained tapestries for warmth and aesthetics, yet they were sparsely furnished. The transient nature of political power and economic wealth, in conjunction with the ongoing reality of war and disease, offers some explanation for the sparsely furnished interiors during this time.
Gathering at the dining table was a social activity. Social dining usually occurred in the great hall of a castle. Social status was reinforced by where people sat. Often, the king was seated under a tapestry, or his table was denoted in some manner. The spatial location of the table was also important, with the king’s table placed at one end of the room. Trestle – type tables were fabricated from oak, making it easy to add or delete extensions, depending on the number of persons attending. These tables could be taken apart and stored when not in use.
While the medieval period saw the establishment of states and regional governments throughout Europe, furnishings remained transportable, by necessity, during these uncertain times. Words describing furniture during this time reinforced the concept of mobility. The Italian word mobili, the French word meubles, the German word mobel, and the Turkish word mobilya all refer directly to furniture.
One of the large stationary pieces of furniture in medieval Europe was the armoire. The word armoire is derived from the word, armory. Armories were initially fabricated for holding armor and weapons. Over time, armories evolved into domestic furniture used for storing textiles and clothing. They were either built-in or freestanding, often painted inside and out in a provincial manner. They typically had one iron-hinged door. Due to their size and complex fabrication, several trades were employed in their fabrication. During the medieval period, armoires extended from northern Europe to the Alps. Particularly impressive Gothic armoires (kas) came from an area known today as Germany.
The stool was a standard piece of furniture during the Middle Ages. The X-shaped stool that was rooted in Greek tradition was referred to as a cathedra, implying authority for those who sat upon it. The term cathedral denoted the place where a bishop presided in church. In order to be a cathedral, a church had to contain the bishop’s chair, or cathedra. The bishop’s chair had an associated authority, and this concept has been passed down to current practice.
The chair of estate, reserved for the ruling lord, typically utilized a folding X form. The importance of the chair, with arms as a symbol of authority, is a significant iconic reference that this piece of furniture has held up to the present. Chairs indicated rank and had embellishments incorporated in their designs to denote the hierarchy of family lines. During the Middle Ages, stools and benches were common forms of seating, and chairs were reserved for those with high social status. Today, an endowed chair gives special acknowledgment in academic research and in the culture of committees; the one presiding over the group is called the chair or chairperson. These examples are cultural successors of the Middle Ages.
Hand-carved Gothic chests, known as wooden coffers, grew in popularity throughout Europe and reached the height of their popularity by 1250. Metal hardware was added to
wooden chests and securely wrapped the coffers. Their hardware, size, and decorative handwork distinguished the Gothic chests from earlier medieval chests.
Italian chests, known as cassoni, were uniquely personalized with carving, painting, or inlay work. Their form and decoration helped express personal identity, distinguishable among families.
The box-seated chair, popular in England, France, and the Netherlands, had a high back and enclosed arms. It typically incorporated a storage area under the seat. It was fabricated with panels beveled at the edges to enable a somewhat loose fit into rails and stiles of the frame. This joinery was common during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and represented a significant shift in fabrication technology, moving from dovetails and miter joinery to carpentry and building skills.
During the early Tudor period in England, a furniture type known as an aumbry was located in the bedchamber to store an overnight ration of food and refreshment. The Episcopal term aumbry describes a liturgical furnishing used for storing the wine and bread of communion. The term ambry describes the container of the holy oils used for the distribution of the sacraments in a Catholic church. All have the same etymological root and emphasize the storage of food for common or ecclesiastical activities.
A significant typological division emerged in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries involving two distinct types of buffets. One was a large buffet with stepped tiers for a grandiose display of household possessions. The other was smaller, with fewer tiers that were not stepped. Both types were used to display a growing collection of silver plates and glasses used for dining as well as formulating a visual class distinction by the display of treasures. Buffets and other household furnishings began to transform the home into something more than a place of shelter from the natural elements. As the home and social life in cities became secure, industry and population began to flourish.
The Coronatia Chair at Westminster Abbey (1420) is one of the few furniture pieces that was firmly attributed to a known master working under the order of King Edward I. Master Walter of Durham is the second individual credited with designing furniture in Western society. The recognition of design as a professional endeavor is significant and serves as a transitional link from the Middle Ages to the rebirth of fifteenth-century Europe.