Thursday 29 March 2018

Medieval benches

Dieric Bouts. Triptych The last supper, dated 1464-1468. Oil on oak panels. Museum M, Leuven, Belgium. Several small and large benches can be seen on this 15th century painting.

Medieval benches start to appear in the 15th century and continue to be in use for the next centuries. The benches that have survived are most often well decorated. There is one exception, the bench found in the Mary Rose shipwreck, which shows it in its most simple form, consisting of just 5 slats of wood. Among the benches there are a few variations in the constructing plan:
1- the bench consists of four interconnecting boards with a seating;
2- the four boards are nailed together with a seating;
3- as above, but with one or two extra lower beam(s);
4- no side panels, but only a broad lower beam (so actually a 3-board bench);
5- the seating is clamped between the side boards by a large beam (so a 3 board bench);
6- there is only one interconnecting board in the middle (so a 4-board bench).
7- the legs have the form of trestles.

Also variation exists in size: from one person benches, to two person benches, to multiple person benches (which are also called forms). Below some examples of the different bench types are given.

Left. Bench type 1. Fifteenth century, oak, from the Musee des Arts Decoratifs,Paris, France. The seating is connected to the legs with a (wedged) mortise and tenon joint. Right. Bench type 2. The simple elm bench from the Mary Rose, early 16th century. Image scanned from 'Chapter 9 Plain and Functional: Furniture on the Mary Rose' by V. Chinnery in 'Before the mast: life and death aboard the Mary Rose'. The bench is nailed together.

A two-person type 1 bench. 15th century French or Flemish, made from oak. length 92.7 cm, depth 31.1 cm, height 53.3 cm. Photo Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection, Accession Number 47.101.70 .

Type 1 Form. The framing below the seat is decorated with eight ogee arches, the two central arches further decorated with cusps. The solid supports at the end are buttressed and moulded and have each an ogee arch below. The back framing is missing. Oak, late 15th early or 16th century, originally from Barningham Hall, Suffolk, UK, now V&A museum. 53.4 cm height, 236 cm width, 28.0 cm depth. Photos Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK.

 There is a groove in the underside of the seating for the side rails.

Two pins secure the side board to the leg board and another the seating to the leg tenon. The extra decoration in the middle of the side rail.

The underside of the form. There is a groove in the leg board for the side rail.

Bench Type 3. One of the several 15th century oak preaching benches in the Onze Lieve Vrouwe ter Potterie museum in Bruges, Belgium. The kneeling plank can be turned inside. The seating board is fitted with dowels to the frame. The two side frames are decorated with the names 'Jhesus' and 'Maria'.Note that there is a groove in the underside of the seating for the side frame.

Type 3 bench. 15th century French or Flemish, made of oak with openwork tracery. 57.8 cm width, 55.2 height, 24.1 cm depth. A groove in the underside of seating can be seen for the leg boards. Photo Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection, Accession Number 47.101.72.

Bench type 4. A late 15th century decorated oak bench from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK. The seating is partly open, making this bench easy to carry around, it is fixed to the frame with a wedged mortise and tenon joint. Also the broad lower beam is connected with a mortise and tenon joint, but fixed with a separate wedge. Images copyright V&A museum, London, UK.

Some details of the same bench: The marks of saw and chisels are clearly visible. The top carving of the leg is hollowed on the inside. Photos Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK.

Bench type 5. A 15th century chair from Chateau Le Bois Orcan, Noyal-sur-Vileine, France. A large wedge in the lower beam secures the construction.

Bench type 6. A large oak bench or form dating from the 16th century. The construction plan of this bench is given by Charles Oakley. Image scanned from the book 'Oak furniture, the British tradition' by V. Chinnery.

Type 7 bench. The leg boards are in trestle style and connected by a lower rail with a loose wedge. The seating board is pinned to the trestles. 15th century French or Flemish, made of oak. 53.3 cm wide, height 58.4 cm and 26 cm depth.  Photo Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection, Accession Number 47.101.71.

Friday 2 March 2018

Oblong chess

Oblong chess is a chess variety that was also played during medieval times, however not in Europe, but in the Arab world. The game is known under the names Shatranj al-Mustatîla, al-Tawîla (long) or al-Mamdûda (lengthened). This chess variant is mentioned in 947 AD by the Arab historian Al-Masudi his book Muruj adh-dhahab (the meadows of gold). However, the rules therein say that they were derived from another source dating from the 9th century. 

 The most used set-up of  oblong chess: elephant - king - consellor - elephant; 2x knight; 2x rook; 4x pawn; 4x pawn.

Playing the game

Oblong chess is played on a board of 4 by 16 squares, with help of dice, making it the earliest chess game using dice (also Alphonso the Wise (1282 AD) mentions that dice can be used to play chess). Several setups of the game exist, the one shown below the one most used. Oblong chess uses the same rules as Shatranj, i.e. that of medieval chess. A win is by checkmate or by bare king. The game can also be played without dice.

Using dice with oblong chess

A player must move the chess piece that is shown by the dice roll. A roll of 6 moves the King, a 5 the Vizier (queen/counsellor), a 4 the Elephant, a 3 the Knight, a 2 the Rook (chariot) and 1 the Pawn. If the player is unable to move the designated chess piece his turn is lost. A player can also choose not to move a chess piece (after the dice roll), thereby also losing his turn. When the king is checked, the player may only move the king and no other pieces. Hence, he must roll a 6, otherwise (i.e. on a roll of 1-5) his turn is lost and he remains checked.

Six variants of the set-up. The difference between 'a' and 'd' is that in the latter the king faces the opponents counsellor instead of the king.

Making the board

The game board was made from a leftover piece of poplar (from the Daldosa game described in the previous post) in the same manner as the medieval chess board, but without accenting the lines with black. The lines of the squares were carved, the board edges made from oak, and finally the compete board finished with linseed oil.

  • H.J.R. Murray, 1913. A history of chess.  (2012 Reprint Skyhorse Publishing).
  • J.L. Cazaux and R. Knowlton, 2017. A world of chess: its development and variations through centuries and civilizations. McFarland and Company, Jefferson, NC, USA. ISBN 978-0-7864-9427-9.