Wednesday 25 January 2012

Wood use in medieval Novgorod

Yesterday I received a new book on medieval woodworking by post: Wood use in medieval Novgorod. This very interesting 470 pages book is edited by Mark Brisbane and  John Hather and was published by Oxbow Books, Oxford, UK in 2007 (ISBN 978-1-84217-276-6). With the book also comes a cd containing around 500 images of archeological objects. For those interested, it is still available for only 19.9 UK pounds. 

Novgorod was the captital of a medieval Russian republic, with a govenor chosen among the aristocracy. The city served as a major trading post with Scandinavia and the Hanseatic League. The city is situated somewhat halfway between Saint Petersburg and Moscow, next to immense forests and Lake Ilmen. The availablility of vast amounts of wood made it the prime source of material for this town, from housing, roads, furniture, tools, daily utensils, etc. Combined with the watery surrounding this created an ideal anaerobic condition for preserving wooden artefacts, ranging from the 10th century till the 16th when water drainage became common. Excavations have taking place at various sites in Novgorod since 1933 onwards, and an unprecedented amount of medieval objects and structures have been found and preserved. Due to the fact that large wooden structures are found, precise dendrochronological dating of the objects can take place. Unfortunately the research results were published in Russian journals, books, unreadable and unobtainable for many of us. This book solves that problem. It provides a good summary of what has been found and describes the current state of research, including many line drawings and photos (highlights) of the actual wooden finds. As an extra, a cd is added with colour images of some finds.


Clawhammers and nailpullers from Novgorod. (a-c) 14th century, (d) 13th-14th century, (e) 13th-15th century, (f) 15th century (g) 13th century, (h) 11th century nailpuller, (i) undated nailpuller. Note that the clawhammer handles sometimes ends in a twisted bit.

 Two turned mallets from Novgorod from pine and ash.

Chapter 3 of the book is dedicated to medieval woodworking tools. This chapter gives a short description of the tools, along with line drawings. There are however some peculiarities among the finds. The axes discussed show only felling type axes. The typical broad axe or side axe, common for the western medieval woodworking trade is not mentioned.  The boring tools mentioned in the book are spoon bits that were fitted in wooden handles like augers and gimlets. No mention is made of wooden braces, which became common in Europe in the 15th century. If you take a careful look at the spoon bits, 'e' and 'f' could easily have fitted into a brace, though the former is dated too early. Another missing tool is the plane. There is no mention of plane blades or wooden plane bodies found. The tools shown which crudely can perform the same function as planes are adzes, inshaves and scorps. Most interesting in this chapter, however, is the find of a spokeshave dating from the 11th century. So far, the earliest mention of a spokeshave is from 1510 (W.L. Goodman, The history of woodworking tools).

Novgorod boring tools/ spoon bits. (a) 13th-14th century, (b-d and i) 12th century, (e and h) 13th century, 
(f) 14th century, (g) 12th-13th century.

The chapter on household objects includes a picture of the furniture used in medieval Novgorod. So far excavated furniture fragments show that it was only very basic. I will dedicate a future post to discuss the Russian medieval furniture. Other chapters deal with housing, agricultural and fishing tools, games (including the over 200 chess pieces found and several Nine Men's Morris or Merrill's game board), combs, tally sticks, musical instruments, turning and turned objects, lasts for shoe production, spinning and weaving, tribute collecting seals, barrels, transport devices, combs, toys, wax tablets, etc. All in all, the book gives a fine overview of what is found in medieval Novgorod. I wished I was able to read Russian and had access to the other works on wood use in this intriguing place.

 Nine Man's Morriss board, late 13th-14th century, made of spruce.
The back of the board, showing another game board.

Monday 16 January 2012

Koln for medieval furniture

Is there more medieval furniture in Cologne? Yes, there is! So the pictorial story of the medieval furniture continues from the previous two posts  ... and ends here with two early renaissance pieces of furniture from Italy.

This payment/administrative work table originates from the lower Rhine area and dates around 1500. The table is supposed to come from the Cloister Kamp near Moers, Germany. This type of medieval furniture evolved in the late middle ages as a combination of a chest and a table, and was used for money storage and payment counter. The table-top is made of two layers which are movable. When opened, they reveal a small removable chest with eight drawers. The front of the table has a  panel-door with an iron lock. The table is made of oak and measures 86 x 118 x 64.5 cm.

 The front of the table shows two locks. The upper large one is for the sliding table top, and the lower small one for the carved panel-door.

 The top of the table is reinforced by iron bands.

This small rectangular cupboard is made from oak and originates from the Rhine area around Julich and Aldenhoven. The cupboard has two doors with iron hinges and simple locking systems for a  padlock. On the top of the cupboard is a hole, now covered with an iron plate, suggesting that once a turnable lectern used to be here. The cupboard dates from around 1500 and measures 119 x 81 x 61 cm.

The panels of the top and bottom of the cupboard are differently decorated. the upper show the X-motiv, 
while the lower panels are carved  linenfold.

This large two-doored armoire dates from the first half of the 16th century and is made from oak. The panels are decorated in linenfold. The lock of the armoire is behind the doors, only a small keyhole can be seen. This type of decorated armoire was primarily made in Flanders during the 15th century, but continued to be popular in the 16th century.  Sizes of the armoire are 170 x 185 x 62 cm.

This small armoire dates from 1548 and originated from Dortmund, Germany. The construction of the armoire is old-fashioned for this date, however the 'crone' of the armoire has a more up-to-date style. All parts were made from the same oak tree, and dendrochronological testing also dates the armoire from around 1545. The armoire measures 157 x 74 x 50,5 cm.

The upper door has a carved relief of two angels wearing long dresses, in which also the date 1548 is carved.. 
Left and right of the door are two carved names of the former owners 'Beleke' and 'Berswort'. The crone is carved with a medallion of Maria and child, flanked by two medaillions with heraldic arms.

This Italian chest or cassone dates from 1495 and originates from Florence. The style of the chest is renaissance. The body of the chest is made of poplar and the carved sides are of walnut. The cassone is decorated with geometric intarsia made from maple, ebony and black-painted wood from a fruit tree. Some parts of the chest are veneered with walnut. Also the inside of the chest is decorated with intarsia. The sizes if the chest are 88.5 x 195 x 71 cm.

The side of the cassone with the walnut carving.
This chair has escaped the catalogue of the MAKK - I could not find it in the book and have only my own notes. It is an sgabello from northern Italy, dating from the first half of the 16th century. It is made from walnut. The sizes are unknown to me, but a similar sgabello, which is described in the catalogue measures 105 x 31 x 42 cm with a seating height of 56 cm.

The seat of the sgabello is eight-sided and has some small diamond intarsia. 

This photo shows the construction of the leg boards of the sgabello. Two rails at different levels support the two leg boards. 
Just beneath the seating there are small boards at the sides.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Medieval furniture from Koln

Some weeks ago, I showed the photos of the minnekastchen from the Museum fur angewandte Kunst made during our visit in Cologne, Germany. This post (and one of the next posts) I will continue with the other medieval furniture on display in this museum. Note that not all their furniture is on display, the complete collection can be found in the museum catalogue "Mobel - Gotik bis Jugendstil. Die Sammlung im Museum fur Angewandte Kunst Koln. Band XIV" by Edla Colsman. I will follow the list in the catalogue, adding additional information from it to my photos.

This is a small chest compared to the others on display and measures 41 x 94 x 53 cm. It is made from walnut, the sides are connected with beautiful small dovetails. The chest originates from Italy and dates from the early 15th century. 

The chest has no feet and stands on a small plinth. Remarkable is that the iron fittings - lock, hinges and handles are countersunk, so they are at the same level as the wooden boards of the chest. The fittings are open ironwork and red velvet can be seen behind it, providing a colourful contrast. The inside of the lid of the chest is covered with an intarsia pattern made of apple, oak and ivory dots. The outside of the chest is very rough, however it is likely that an intarsia pattern also was present here. The sides of the lid are are carved as animal heads. The chest has been used to store money and documents. 

 The intarsia pattern on the inside of the lid, and the open ironwork of the hinges showing red velvet behind.

 The top of the boards are also decorated with intarsia and reinforced at the sides with open ironwork.

 The iron fittings and the lock at the front of the chest.

The handle at the side.

This sedia Dantesca dates from the 15th century ard originates from Spain where it  is called sillon de cadera. The chair is made form walnut with intarsia from ivory, ebony, and pearl-shell.  The seating is made from leather, however not original, and nailed to the chair. The chair measures 71 x 69 x 50 cm.

 The back of the chair. Only the front and top of the chair have intarsia.

 The front of the chair showing the beautiful geometric intarsia.

 The two x-posts are connected to each other by bottom rail and armrest only.

Detail of the chair showing the armrest. A small part of the intarsia is missing, which gives us a good impression of the construction and thickness of the intasia.

This sedia Savoranola dates from the mid 15th century and originates from Switzerland. It is made of three types of wood; the posts are walnut, the feet rails are oak and the back is apple. All the parts of the seating and the x are connected with a wooden rod. The chair measures 84 x 68 52 cm, the seating height is 50 cm.

 The armrests are decorated with human heads (man and woman) and a crude pattern of punched dots.

 The backrest is secured by a pin. To fold the chair, the backrest needs to be removed.

This is a small so-called 'Frontalstollentruhe', or hutch type chest dating from the second half of the 16th century. This type of chest can be found throughout the middle ages, but the panelled lid of this chest gives it a later date. The chest is made from pine and originates from Switzerland. Sizes are 75 x 95 x 54 cm.

Typical chip carving patterns on the front of the chest.

A hanging cupboard, which is typical for the West-Rhine area. It originates from Koln and dates from the last quarter of the 15th century.  It is made from oak and measures 73 x 54 x 16.5 cm. According to the catalogue the function of this cupboard is a bit of a mystery. Normally, openwork hanging cupboards are used for storing food products (as the aumbry), but this piece is too heavily decorated for kitchen purpose.The museum has a second hanging cupboard, of which can be found in the catalogue.

The door of the hanging cupboard is in the middle, inside the cupboard is divided by two shelves. 
The cupboard contains traces of red paint, and was likely completely painted.

This lectern with Gothic openwork decoration dates from the end of the 15th century and originated form the Rhine area. It is made of oak and its dimensions are 28 x 45 x 24 cm. The boards of the lectern are connected with wooden dowels which are clearly visible.
 A photo showing that the sides of the lectern are set deeper than the edges.

This photo nicely shows how the board holding the book is fitted between the other boards.

 This clasped front, or hutch-type chest dates from the start of the 15th century and was made around Osnabruck in Westphalen, Germany.  It is made of oak with iron lock and hinges, part of which is missing. The sizes of the chest are 66 x 149 x 55 cm. This photo shows that the sideboards are placed skewed in a groove in the legs of the chest.

 The front of the chest is decorated with Gothic windows ending in stylised leafwork. On the feet of the chest are carved people. On the left a long-bearded man with a sword and book, likely apostle Paul; on the right a praying man on his knees having a short beard.The motifs used for decoration suggest that the chest was used  for personal storage in cloister.

Inside the chest a small lidded side-chest can be found, as usual with medieval chests.

This iron-bound hutch-type chest dates from around 1500 and originates from Westphalen. It is made from oak. The chest measures 96 x 208 x 73 cm. Only the lower parts of the feet are decorated with chip-carving. A photo also showing the lid of the chest from above is found with presentation of the savoranola chair above.

The ends of the iron bands are stylised leaves. 
The bands are crosswise to the grain of the wood, also at the bottom of the chest.

Sunday 1 January 2012

Winter is coming ...

said Lord Stark of Winterfell  ...                                       (A song of ice and fire - George R.R. Martin).
Well, the Saint Thomasguild is prepared for winter with these three-fingered sheepskin mittens.

 A pair of split sheepskin mittens ready for a cold winter.

The three fingered mittens or split mittens are used in medieval times by workmen, farmers and falconers. They offer more flexibility in handling things and have better grip than normal mittens. Also, they are less expensive and easier to make than five-fingered gloves. 

We thank our mittens to the wool moths which infested our sheepskin. After we got rid of the evil insects, flocks of hair fell out of one of our skins and it became useless for display. However, it could still be used to make some mittens. We based our mittens on the pattern provided by Sarah Thursfield in her book "Medieval tailors assistant". First we tried the pattern on a piece of woollen cloth to find the exact place for the thumb, then enlarged it a little to allow for the thickness of the sheepskin. The wool of the skin was cut short, leaving 5-6 mm long hairs on the skin. Sewing the leather was done by hand using the 'oversewing' stitch and found to be very easy. One piece of advice: Don't forget to turn the pattern for the other hand, otherwise you end up with one spare mitten like us ...

Left: Shepherds from Nativity by Nikolaus Stürhofer, c. 1505-1515.
Right: Shepherds in The Nativity by Robert Campin, around 1419. Dijon, France, Musee des Beaux Arts.

Left: Farmer wearing a split mitten in the Macclesfield Psalter (Fitzwilliam 1-2005, fol. 77r), c. 1330.
Right: The falconers is wearing a split mitten on which the falcon sits. The Month of January, Grimani Breviary, 1490-1510, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice, Italy. These images were found on internet using the site of Larsdatter.

 The left image shows the thickness of the sheep leather and wool. The middle photo shows the oversewing stitch used for the mitten. The photo on the right shows one finished thumb piece and the woollen test mitten..

 The finished three-fingered mittens shown at different angles. Left photo, both mittens at the inside of the hand. Middle photo, one mitten on the outside on on top. Right photo, both mittens on top, showing how the thumbs are set in the mitten and the extra strip for the split fingers..

Cape and mittens are ready for winter.