Monday 12 December 2011

Medieval folding chairs

Folding chairs have a long history of existence. The oldest examples date from around 1500-800 BC, for instance the turned ash chair found in a wooden gravetomb in Denmark. Similar examples existed in Egypt and Greece. In Roman times the folding chair, also known as 'faldistorium' or 'sella curulis' was usually made of metal with a leather seating. As a consequence many of these metal chairs have survived (and even can be bought nowadays at auctions).

Folding chair from a tree-tomb grave in Guldhog, Denmark dating from 1500-800 BC. 
The chair is made of turned ash. Length of the x-leg 34 cm, length of the seating wood 36 cm. 

 Egyptian folding chair from the Tomb of Kha, Deir el-Medina, Egypt. Now in the collection of the Museo Egysio, Turin, Italy. The stool is made of sycamore with ebony and ivory decoration. It has a leather seating.
Sizes are 54 x 87 x 37 cm.

Two Roman iron folding seats from online auction catalogues of Hermann Historica, Munchen Germany. (left) Late Roman/early Byzantine, dating from 3rd - 4th century AD. Iron with fine bronze and silver inlay. Folding frame of square bars, with the supporting sides and the upper edges becoming rectangular in section. On each side of the top there are five ring fittings to accept the passage of iron bars to attach the (replacement leather) seat. There are remnants of the bronze decorative inlay on the sides, with meanders, angles, and wave ornamentation. Fine openwork geometric silver ornamentation and remnants of animal figures on the crossbars. Height 50 cm. Element dimensions 63 x 39 cm. This iron field chair, the so-called "sella castrensis" (another type of sella curulis) was particularly common for military authority and essentially reserved for commanders in the field. (right) Sella curulis spätrömisch/Völkerwanderungszeit, 4./5. Jhdt. n. Chr. Klappbarer Rahmen aus runden und quadratischen Eisenstreben, an der Unterseite kurze Standfüße. Eine Seite mittig geteilt mit S-förmigen Verstrebungen. Seitlich angebrachte Endknäufe aus Bronze. Gereinigter Bodenfund, Maße des Rahmens 50 x 59 cm.

The sella curulis was a seat of authority, for army commanders and state rulers. This remained so throughout the Middle Ages: miniatures in medieval manuscripts show kings and abbots seated on a folding chair. Often these are adorned with draperies and cushions, and equipped with a foot stool. Even Lucifer (the 'authority' of Hell) had its own 'living' folding chair. However, in the Middle Ages the construction of the sella curiculis chair changed. The medieval sella curiculis is usually made of wood and highly decorated. The four upper ends of the chair are carved animal heads, such as dogs, lions or dragons. The feet of the folding chair are carved as animal feet or animal heads, and can be made of bronze. All surviving medieval sella curuli are painted in bright colours - red and green or appear gilded.

(Left) Abbot Hugh of Cluny seated on a sella curulis, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, and Matilda of Tuscany. Miniature in Cod. Vat. lat. 4922 (around 1115 AD). (Right) A writer sitting on a turned folding chair in a miniature from the Evangeliar de Charlemagne (Vienna, around 800 AD) .

John II  the Good, king of France found the Order of the Star. He is seated on a golden (gilded?) serra curulis, with a baldachin. 14th century miniature from Grandes Chroniques de France, Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris, France. France (Paris), Mn 2813, fol. 394

(left) Satan's  sella curulis in hell. "Damnation of the Jews", miniature from the Hortus deliciarium of  Herrad von Landsberg. Second half 12th century. (right) Emperor Otto III seated on a sella curulis. The seat is made more authorative by the addition of a footstool, draperies, cushion and the tapestry behind. miniature from a bible around 1000 AD.

Faldistorium from the Nonnberger Benediktinerinnenstift, Salzburg, Austria dating from around 1242. Height 56 cm, width 63 cm and depth 46 cm. The legs are square and of wood painted with red tempera, the feet are made of gilded bronze. The heads are made of carved walrus teeth. Seat of pressed leather likely dates from the 15th century. Note that the leather seating is fixed between a lower and a decorated upper rails at each side.

Details from the Nonnberger faldistorium. (Left) Carved walrus inlays from the upper rail with a scene from the Eustachius legend - the hunting of the hind. (Right) The  carved lions head - the lions muzzle has a small human figure in it, the scene likely symbolises hell. 
As mentioned above, most folding chairs were made of wood. There are however some remaining metal folding chairs, for instance the folding chair of the Bayeux Cathedral, dating from 1400. Also medieval documents mention metal folding chairs. From an inventory of Chateau de Vincennes in 1420: "Item deux autres chaezes ployans, l'une de fer bien ouvree, et l'autre de boys." [Item, two other folding chairs, one of iron finely worked and the other of wood].  The best known metal sella curulis is the so-called 'Throne of Dagobert'. It is made of bronze and originated from the 8th century. Due to the additions in the 12th century (the armrests) by Abbot Suger folding is not  possible any-more.

The iron faldistorium from the Bayeux Cathedral, France dating from 1400.

The bronze throne of Dagobert and a detail from the leg.  The folding chair dates from the 8th century AD and is likely made in Aachen, Germany. the armrests were added in the 12th century. When folded, the x falls inside the opening in the leopard legs. Dagobert's  throne is now in the Cabinet des Medailles de la Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France.
Height 102 cm, width 70 cm.

In later medieval periods (14th and 15th century) the folding chairs diversified into several new types, while the 'sella curulis' remained in use. These new types were the so-called x-chairs or pincer chairs with or without turned connections (low armrests), which had a complete folding wooden seating. Or types with a backrest and armrests, like the Savoranola chair (wooden seating) and the sedia Dantesca (cloth or leather seating). Another new type of folding chair had the x lateral, instead of at the front (the 'sedia tenaglia').

Small x-chair made from walnut in seating and folding position. The folded image clearly shows the construction of the chair with the four (iron) pins though the laths. Pins for this chair type can also be wooden dowels. Museum fur Angewandte Kunst, Vienna, Austria. height 49 cm, width 63 cm and depth 35 cm. Image from the book Mobel Europas I -Romanik - Gotik by G. Windisch-Graetz.

 Doctor examining a patient  showing a x-chair with turned low armrests. 
Miniature from Anatomia of Guy de Vigeganot from 1345.

(Left) Sedia Dantesca (16th century) from the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, France with a (velvet?) cloth seating and backrest; this chairtype has four legs. The chair is made from walnut and originates from Italy. Legs and central cap are decorated. Approximate sizes height 90 cm, width 65 cm depth, 45 cm. (Right) Sedia Savoranola (15th century) from Burg Kreuzenstern near Vienna, Austria with twelve legs; however this chair type can also be found with up to 18 legs. Beech, backrest made of pine. Height 92 cm, width 59 cm and dept 42 cm. The construction is like the x-chair, but has armrests and a backrest.  Both the sedia Dantesca and the sedia Savoranola chair types have curved legs. Note that these chair types also existed in a form without a backrest (but with armrests) . 

16th century sedia tenaglia  from Burg Kreuzenstern near Vienna, Austria in seating and folded position. The chair is likely made in Zwitserland or Tirol. Beech, 80 cm high, 45 cm wide and 43 cm deep. This type already existed in the 15th century. Image from the book Mobel Europas I -Romanik - Gotik by G. Windisch-Graetz.

I have made several medieval x-chairs and a Savoranola chair of oak, but currently I am working on the construction of a "sella curulis" made of pear. Another post will continue with the plan and construction of the chairs.


  1. I'm curious to your progress on the sella curulis Marijn. I have been thinking of aquiring such a chair myself.

  2. This is great info for me, as Im thinking of making a scale model of a middle aged folding chair. The even earlier version of them, and all the specific names are a great resource for further study. Good luck on building your own, although I suspect that won't be a problem as you've already made several before.

  3. Hello!

    The article is really great so I wanted to ask you a question. I would like to make an x chair for reenactment. It should be a 14th century chair so I wanted to ask you would it be historically accurate to have this kind of x chair (with velvet seating and with backrest) if we are reconstructing mid 14th century. Thank you very much!

    There is a chair:

    Kind regards,

    Djordje Mandrapa

    1. As there are no actual surviving x-chairs of the 14th century, the only references are images. I have not seen this chair appear until the 15th century. But of course, I could easily have missed an image.

  4. I have been to Bayeux cathedral this week, and tried to see the Bayeux iron x-chair. It is in the cathedral treasury, together with a large painted armoire. Unfortunately the treasury can only be visited during a guided tour, and the last one of that day was one hour earlier... There was a book on the treasury however and I copied some information into my notebook.
    height 65 cm, length of the legs 82 cm, width 58 cm. The top of the X are crowned with copper balls. The chair dates from the 13th century.

  5. Hello,

    excellent basic summary of folding chairs. I have a small related question - do we have any sources of the backrest for folding chairs appearing sooner than in 15th cenury? I am interested if a folding chair with the (removable) backrest is usable for ~1375.

    Many thanks in advance!

    1. This is a tricky question. Usually when you see a chair or a tool depicted in a medieval illumination it is commonly found at that time. But when it appeared for the first time before it became widespread is open for debate - and if you want to use this type of chair.for your re-enactment period, it matters if you can afford to have newly invented seating types. For me, representing a master joiner from 1375, having worked as a journeyman in Avignon and Bruges, making such a folding chair in the late 14th century is no problem. I just have to assume I invented the chair (or copied the plan from a innovative colleague).
      But to my knowledge, no extant pieces of the savoranola chair exist of the 14th century, as well no illuminations of this chair from that time. There is only one folding chair with a high backrest (though I am not sure it can be folded) commonly found in the late 14th century (say 1350-1450), usually occupied by a high ranking nobleman. See my post of 15 november 2011 and look at the siege a haut dossier almost at the end of the list.

    2. Thanks Marijn,

      my re-enactment character is a judge and the head of the land's tribunal, so from this point of view it could be acceptable for my needs. But I will note down that the backrest on the folding chairs is definitely not a common sight in the 70s/80s. This is something that we will have to reflect in our project, as this type of folding chair is too much widespread amongst us.

      This leads to a more general problem - having most of our events outside, the fold-able chairs have become extremely popular in the last few years, as they are easier to transport and are owned by quite many project members. What would be more interesting is a question whether this way of thought is correct from medieval point of view. Do we have any specific evidence on what sort of chairs was used while in the camp, far from the comfort of one's own home?

      Many thanks again and sorry for this interrogation :)

    3. You will have to check miniatures with camp scenes if there are any chairs or benches depicted. My guess is that most would sit on simple benches or simple foldable chairs (without backrest), or use whatever seating they could obtain during looting the countryside.
      Perhaps the accounts of what the swiss found in the enemy camp when they defeated charles the bold will tell something of camp furniture, although this is 15th century.

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