Thursday 31 May 2012

Unconventional photography of medieval furniture

Sometimes you want to know exactly how a piece of furniture is constructed. Not only the front or the (in)sides of a chest, but the back and the bottom as well. The fun of having a digital camera is that it allows you to see these otherwise unrevealed pieces of information. You just point your camera to the spot you want to see and click. It automatically adjusts the lighting, diaphragm and shoots a perfect photo for you, although it might take a few tries to get a nice shot. Then you only have to look at the display to have the side of the furniture piece revealed to you that was once hidden from sight. Using this “shoot first, have a look later” approach sometimes gave surprising results, as will be shown by the following examples.

 A 14th century chest from Kloster Isenhagen 

Chest TR-NR-409 / ISN Ba 83 from Kloster Isenhagen

This relatively small hutch type chest made of oak stands in a corner of the Chapter house in Kloster Isenhagen. It is dated dendrochronologically around 1375. On the left of the lockplate the initials L E H are burned, which were the initials of the nun who once owned the chest. Directly beneath the lock the initials K I are found, which stand for Kloster Isenhagen. The hutch is made in oak in the Braunschweiger construction style (see K.H. von Stulpnagel –Die gotischen Truhen der Lunenburger Heidekloster for more details on this construction type). Inside the chest is a small drawer. The lid is fastened with iron hinges and decorative iron nails are found on the front of the chest. The lock with lock-hinge is still complete. Height of the chest is 69 cm, width 85 cm and depth 53.7 cm. (TR-NR-409 / ISN Ba 83). 

 The arrows show the small marks LEH on the left and the large marks K I below the lock plate.

The side of the chest showing part of the iron thorn hinge. 
The thickness of the planks used for construction varies between 3.5 and 4.5 cm.

 The top of the chest showing the iron strips.

Aside from the ubiquitous spider webs, our camera spotted at the underside of the bottom an extra wooden rail which supported the bottom planks. 

The underside of the chest with spiderwebs. The thickness of the bottom planks is 2 cm.

A medieval chest from the open air museum in Hosseringen 

Chest UeL 78:284 from the open air museum Hosseringen.

This is a hutch type chest made of oak of around 1495 (dendrochronologically) comes originally from Bohlsen, but is now standing in the open air museum in Hosseringen in a large farm from Lower Saxony. It was found in 1978 in a shed, and has the marks and repairs of an extended use. At the backside, one of the legs is replaced by a forked stem, which is nailed to the chest. The front of the chest shows a large hole, and one of the sides has a wooden rail hanging on one nail. The lock, however, looks remarkably good. The lid of the chest has two “four-pass” carvings, which found on other medieval chests as well, e.g. the 'travelling chest' of the abbess of Isenhagen. Height of the chest is 86.05 cm, width 175.05 cm and depth 76 cm.
The two sides of the chest, showing that quite some parts are in disrepair.

The replaced leg of the chest. 
Taking an photo from the underside was a surprise. The chest did not have a bottom at all! The photo directly shows the underside of the lid and the inside of the chest. The lid is reinforced by two added rails that are nailed to it. You can also see the grooves where the side drawer was located.

The inside of the chest shown from beneath: a reinforcement of the lid by two added rails.
The grooves show the place where the side drawer used to be.

A medieval chest from the church in Süderburg 

 The almonry chest from the St. Remigius church in Siuderburg

The church of St. Remigius in Süderburg houses a heavy iron-bound medieval chest dating from 1303. It is now used as an almonry. Such chests were often used as archive-chests, and could with use of the rings and rope easily be transported to safety in case of calamity. There was only one way to have the camera have a look at the underside of the chest, and that was to turn it over (no-one else was in the church, thus no-one objected…).
The chest from above showing the hole for the coins as well as a large ring on the middle iron band.

 Two rings for carrying the chest are on the side of the chest.

 The front lock is open, but one side has an additional modern padlock.

Now there happened to be a large hole in the bottom of the chest! Once crudely hacked to steal the coin, or provide an anchor for the chain that held the chest to a pillar of the church? Who knows … The church records mention that the chest has been forcibly opened in 1557, 1562 and 1588. However, what you can notice from the hole is the immense thickness of the oak planks used to build the chest. 

Robbery! A hole hacked in the bottom of the chest.

The shoot first, look later approach was also used on the stone church tower. This used to be part of a medieval castle, but was reused in 1370 as a church tower. Inside the tower a free-standing wooden clock-tower stands. Of course, this could only be seen by the camera peeping through a hole.

The church tower of Suderburg and a part of the wooden clocktower built inside the stone church tower.

Tuesday 29 May 2012

Medieval mural armoires of Kloster Isenhagen

Kloster Isenhagen in Hankensbuttel, Germany does have an interesting collection of medieval furniture. During our visit in May we have examined not only the chests, but also a large amount of armoires, of which seven 14th century cabons (or fixed armoires).

A cabon is a piece of storage furniture that is set in a niche in the stone wall with a frame and door attached to it. The door-frame could be fixed to the wall with wooden dowels or with iron nails or clamps. The shelves of the cabon are either directly set into the wall, or to wooden boards. It is also possible that a complete armoire is built into the wall, sometimes secured with wooden wedges to refrain it from moving.

Cabons do not have feet or any other construction to stand on. They are often directly planned with the construction of the building. Niches had to be built specificly for this purpose. Cabons are only found in stone buildings, because the walls of timber-framed building do not offer enough space for this type of storage furniture.

The cloister with four mural armoires from the 14th century. 

In Isenhagen the cabons are found in the cloister and in the Chapter house. The medieval cabons date from around 1345-1350 AD. All cabons are still in use.

This map of Kloster Isenhagen shows where the cabons are located. The blue arrows show the seven cabons from the 17th century. The red arrows show the three medieval cabons in the Chapter house and the green arrows the four 14th century cabons in the cloister. One green arrow is marker with a question mark. I can not remember to have seen four - We also have only photo's of three - but there should be a fourth. Perhaps it is found in the small chapel, which we did not visit.

I am taking photos of two of the cabons.

All four medieval cabons in the cloister have two doors and most have one simple lock to close both at the same time. The doorframes are nailed to a wooden boards (the edges are visible on the right side of the cabon). This cabon has a height of 268.5 cm and a width of 131 cm. All wooden material is made of oak..

The lock of the first cabon is a simple sliding bar with a hinge that falls in the lock-plate. 

The second cabon has two locks and a ring on the left door to pull the door open. Sizes are similar to the first cabon. The top of the cabon is a stepped gable. The lighter wooden parts are later restorations. Curiously these square restorations are on all cabons in the cloister. Perhaps these used to be windows with latticework.

The third cabon, the bottom piece of the door-frame is missing. Also here the lighter wooden parts are replacements

The lock of the third cabon. On the left door there is a ring to pull the door open. 
The wooden restoration is clearly shown.

The three cabons in the Chapter house date from the late 14th century. They are much smaller in width and only have one door. The shelves of these cabons are directly set into the wall. Each cabon has a slightly different decorated top and bottom of the door-frame. The top and bottom of the door-frame are nailed into the wall, whereas the sides of the door-frame are nailed / dowelled into the thick shelves

The cabons on the far left side and the one on right side of the entrance door of the Chapter house.

The cabon directly on the left side of the entrance door. The lower part of the doorframe is missing here. The opened cabon clearly shows that the shelves are directly set into the walls. You can see that the nails of the sides of the doorframe are exactly at the place of the shelves. A small opening between the wall and the left doorframe also proves that these framepart can not be nailed into the stone wall. This particluar cabon is 210 cm high, 62.5 cm width and 41 cm deep. The other two have similar sizes, and all made from oak.

There are also such mural armoires in Kloster Wienhausen, but photography was not allowed there. One of the recently bought books however does give a black and white photograph of two simple cabons next to an open niche with two shelves. The book also shows a nice example of a (small) complete armoire that was inserted into the wall, as well as a complete mural armoire now standing loose from the wall from nearby Kloster Ebstorf.

Two cabons in the cloister of Wienhausen, dating from the 14th century. Photo from the book 'Schrank - Butze - Bett vom Mittelalter bis ins 20. Jahrhundert am beispiel der Luneburger Heide' by Thorsten Albrecht.

 A small cabon dating from 1337 in the St. Annenmuseum in Lubeck, Germany. 
Height 50/61.5 cm, width 29/39 cm and 27.5 cm deep. 
The crenels on top were complete in 1924 (i.e. in the book by Otto von Falke). 

Although this is a mid 16th century armoire from Kloster Ebstorf, Germany,, you can see clearly that it once has been a cabon by the extended edges of the door-frame. Pine wood with oak decorative rails. 164.5 cm high, 67.5 cm width and 33 cm deep.

Monday 14 May 2012

The medieval toolchest: drawknife

Several medieval woodworking trades make use of the drawknife, like the bow maker, the wheelwright, the carpenter, the clog maker, but also the turner and joiner know how to use this versatile tool. A drawknife is a sharpened blade with two handles at its ends. It is pulled towards the user over the wood, hence its name. The blade of the drawknife can be slightly curved. Specialised forms of drawknives exist that are used to hollow out forms. These types are called inshaves. An inshave with a completely rounded blade and only handle is called a scorpe.

A small Anglo-Saxon inshave from York. The two tangs were originally 124 mm long. 
The width of the blade is 30 mm, total width 103 mm, depth 71 mm, length 135 mm. 
Image from Wood and woodworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and medieval York.

The length of the blade is dependent on the use or woodworking trade and could be between 8 and 40 cm. For joiners the length is usually between 20 and 30 cm. The blade usually has an angle on one side between 25 and 30 degrees, but sometimes a small bevel (5 degrees) is found on the other side.

As a drawknife needs to be used with both hands, the piece of wood has to be fastened so something else. Usually this is a shaving horse or a workbench. We use the drawknife for cleaning and roughly rounding pieces of wood for the pole lathe, as well as for rounding edges of furniture (like the sella curulis). However the drawknife can also be used  to smoothen rough beams and planks instead of a plane. The monk Theophilus mentions the drawknife for this use in his book "On divers arts" (1122 AD), Book 1, Chapter 17 (panels for altars and doors and cheese glue):
When panels have been glued together with this [cheese] glue, they stick together so well when they are dry that they can not be separated by dampness or heat. Afterwards they should be smoothed with a planing tool [ i.e. a drawknife] which is curved and sharp on the inside and has two handles so that it can be drawn with both hands. Panels, doors and shields are shaved with this until they become completely smooth.

Drawknives, inshaves and scorps found in Novgorod. Right photo: several inshaves. Left drawing: (a) 11th century drawknfe, (b and c) 13th century drawknives, (d) inshave 14th century, (e) inshave 11th century, (f)inshave 14-15th century, (g) inshave 13th century, (h) image from a miniature in the book "Life of St. Sergius of Radonezh" from 16th century showing the use of an inshave, (j) scorpe 14th century. Images from the book "Wood use in medieval Novgorod".

The drawknife is an old tool. Some have been found in the Mastermyr chest (1000 AD). Also in Novgorod, Russia drawknives have been found from the 10th century onwards with blade lengths between 30-40 cm. Inshaves appear from the 12th century onwards, some have the wooden cylindrical handles (22-24 mm diameter) still attached. W.L. Goodman mentions in his 'History of woodworking tools' that the drawknives were called skobel in medieval Russia and used for smoothing the surface of the timber after using the adze or axe, like the description of the drawknife by Theophilus..

  Two inshaves from the Mastermyr chest, 1000 AD.

Drawknives are shown in several of the trades found in the Mendelschen and Landauer Hausbucher, as well as in many other medieval illustrations.

Left, Kuntz Franck, clogmaker  († 1489.08.23.) with four drawknives hanging at the wall.
Right, Vlrich vo(n) der Hul, wheelwright († 1451.09.22.) with one drawknife lying on the ground. 
Both images from the Mendelschen hausbuch.

Detail from the miniature 'Life of the anachorites' in De origine fundatoribus et regalis monachorum et monacharum, second half of the 14th century. Vienna, national Library, Cod. 341, fol. 32. The image shows a monk using a drawknive on a piece of wood.

Detail showing two drawknives from an illustration in "Van der Dyngen Erfyndung" by Polydor Vergil, 1537 (f. VCr.) 

Vom Bergkwerk of Georgius Agricola (1557) shows a combination of drawknife with shaving horse. 
A second drawknife lies on the ground.

We have several drawknives in our medieval toolchest (not all are shown). Our drawknifes are antique, dating from the start of the last century. The small drawknife also has a second, slight angle on the other side of around 5 degrees. The length of the blade varies between 20 and 40 cm.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

The chair of Duchess Agnes in Kloster Isenhagen

Kloster Isenhagen in Hankesbuttel, Germany is one of the six cloisters situated around the Luneburger moor. Kloster Isenhagen, as well as the nearby cloister of Wienhausen was founded by Agnes of Landsberg, Duchess of Saxony. While Wienhausen was a convent for nuns, Isenhagen started as a monastery in Alt-Isenhagen in 1243. However, after a fire in 1255 the monks were transferred to another monastery and it became a Cistercienser nunnery as well. This nunnery was then moved in 1327 to its current place. While Wienhausen is a very rich and colourful convent, Isenhagen is grey and sober. It could not afford at the time to pay the masons (due to the pest) to finish the vaults of the cloister, which since remained a wooden ceiling. Notwithstanding the 'poor' looks, it contained many medieval riches for us. One of them is the chair of the founder, Duchess Agnes. 

 The choir of Kloster Isenhagen, visited by the St. Thomasguild in May 2012.

(Left) The cloister with the wooden ceiling instead of a brick cross vault.The starting points for the cross vault can still be seen in the wall. Also in the wall several mural cupboards (cabon) still in use to store for instance marmalade. (Right) The dark and sober hallway of the dormitory on the first floor lined with medieval chests.

The chair of Duchess Agnes stands in the choir of the convent and is a very large turned chair made of oak and ash during the first quarter of the 13th century. In the late middle ages the chair was converted into a lectern, and around 1610 some of the missing turned grids and rungs were replaced with renaissance panels. Despite the alterations, the form of the original chair can easily be seen. Of course it helps to have a drawing of the chair displayed as well... The chair is brightly painted in brick red, dark green and greyish green. The panels have a flower pattern decoration.

 The early 13th century chair of Duchess Agnes converted into a lectern.

(Left) The side of the chair, here the turned rungs of the grid are painted in different colours. (Right) The front of the chair/lectern. A small door with a lock plate provides space for books (on the seating plank). On top of the lectern a small bar is nailed in the middle to prevent the sliding of the book.
A detail of the side with the small turned rungs in the grid.

(Left and Right) Details of the construction of the chair. The blue arrows show the pins that secure the side rails. The green arrows show that the tenons of the large rails transfix the legs completely. On the left photo you can see that the inserted tenon is secured by a wedge.

The chair is large: its height is 145 cm, it is 102 cm wide and 78 cm deep. The style is similar to the turned chairs of the same age found in northern countries (e.g. the bishops chair in Gamla Uppsala, Sweden). Also its former role is as a seat of authority for the Duchess is similar, and the size of the chair shows the importance of the person sitting on it.

Drawing of the original plan of the chair: back (left) and side (right). Note that the in this drawing the back of the chair shows two grids with rungs which have been replaced by panels. The side has one grid of rungs as well as the arches for the armrest replaced by panels.  

 Bram (with daughter) standing next to the chair showing the sheer size of it.

Another drawing of the original chair taken from the 'blue book' of Kloster Isenhagen 
(Horst Appuhn, 1989. ISBN 3784504809). Here panels are shown instead of arches under the armrests. 

Kloster Isenhagen contains much more medieval furniture, most of the 14th century which we will show in future posts. The convent welcomes visitors (see website of Kloster Isenhagen), but is still in use and houses protestant nuns or 'Konventualinnen'.