Friday 1 March 2019

A medieval drawer

We are planning to make a new piece of medieval furniture for a Dutch castle that will also contain a drawer. While there are plenty of examples on how modern drawers are constructed, there is virtually nothing on medieval drawers. We asked the caretakers of Castle Muiderslot if they would be willing to let us examine a few pieces of their medieval furniture to solve some constructional questions that we had, and we were very happy that we could. One of the furniture items we examined was a medieval drawer from an armoire.

Medieval drawers

Medieval drawers start to appear in the 15th century and can be found in several types of furniture. In its most simple form, it can be found in archive cupboards. These drawers are boxes consisting of nailed pieces of wood with no decoration except some  paint designating their content. Most of them have some sort of metal ring or finger tab to pull the box out of their shelves. The archive drawers were used to safely store scrolls and other documents. In a similar vain, but a bit more sophisticatedly made are the drawers that can be found on inside of chests. These more or less function as some sort of 'secret' drawer.

A multidrawer archive cupboard in the muniment room, Vicars Choral, Wells, UK. Dated 1458-1470. The drawers have finger tabs to pull them out of the armoire. The purpose of the nails on the front of the drawer is unclear; perhaps they held the description of the contents of the boxes. Image scanned from P. Eames - Furniture History Volume XIII.

A multidrawer archive cupboard in the Aerary, St. George's Chapel, Windsor, UK. Dated 1500-1530. The drawers consist of nailed pieces of wood, without any refinement and have different types of iron pulling rings. On the front a description of the contents is crudely written. Image scanned from P. Eames - Furniture History XIII.

Archive chest with doors and drawers of the Spanish merchants of Bruges. The chest originally contained four simple drawers of which two remain. Gruuthuuse museum, Bruges, Belgium. Dated 1441. Image scanned from P. Eames - Furniture History XIII.

Chest originating from Lombardy, 15th-16th century, made from walnut and decorated with geometric intasia inlays. The inside of the chest contains several small drawers. Height 67 cm, width 139 cm and depth 61.5 cm. Castello Sforzesco, Milan, Italy. Image scanned from F. Windisch-Graetz - Mobel Europas - Romanik - Gotik.

There were also drawers that were visually integrated into the actual furniture piece. The larger drawers had iron grips to pull them out, but smaller ones, such as those on a dressoir did not. They were pulled open by hand from the underside of the drawer.

A chest for transport of tapestries containing a large drawer with two handles. The drawer did have its own lock and rested directly on the bottom of the chest. Made from walnut, second half of the 15th century. Length 175 cm, height 75 cm, depth 63 cm.Image scanned from J. Boccador - Le mobilier Francais du moyen age a la renaissance. 

A chest with drawers decorated with carved Gothic texts and a bottom with hunting scenes. Each drawer contains one handle. The bottom drawer rests on the bottom of the chest, but the upper two have a sliding rail that rests in a groove in the side of the chest. Austria, second half of the 15th century. Image scanned from S. Muller-Christensen - Oude Meubels.

An oak dressoir with two drawers dating from around 1480-1490. The two drawers do not have handles and are pulled open by hand. This is the normal situation for this type of furniture. Height 145.5 cm, width 99 cm, depth 48.5 cm. Image scanned from J. Boccador - Le mobilier Francais du moyen age a la renaissance.

A highly decorated sacristy armoire, originating from Tirol, Austria, and dating from the end of the 15th century. The armoire consists of 5 pieces that can easily be taken apart (for transport; hence the handles at the sides). The middle ring of the armoire is large enough to contain three drawers. München, Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Germany. Image scanned from S. Muller-Christensen - Oude Meubels.

A drawer from an early 16th century armoire (1510) showing some construction details. The front of the drawer is slightly wedge-shaped and has a groove at the bottom to contain the bottom plank(s). The bottom is wider than the actual drawer, thus creating a sliding rail for a groove. Image scanned from J. Boccador - Le mobilier Francais du moyen age a la renaissance. 

The drawer of the armoire at Castle Muiderslot 

Oak armoire C1922-211, dated 1500-1600 at the Muiderslot, Muiden, the Netherlands . Height 178 cm, width 125 cm, depth 60 cm. Image left copyright Muiderslot.

Although images of medieval drawers can be found, actual information on the construction is scarce and incomplete. I did find some answers with the dressoir of Chateau Langeais (see that post), where one lost panel provided a different view to the drawer, but no information was visible on the back of a drawer or the inside of the armoire. All our questions on the drawer construction were solved at the Muiderslot. From the late 15th century oak armoire (object nr. C1922-211) one drawer was removed and could be inspected by us from all sides. Interestingly, dovetails were used in the construction, both for the front end as a half-dovetail, as for the back  end with one very large dovetail. The bottom plank was just nailed with square wooden pins to all four sides. The bottom  plank extended at the sides, so that it could fit into a sliding groove in the armoire. To easy the sliding, the end were slightly chamfered.

Left: The backside of the drawer is fitted with one large dovetail. Right: The inside of the drawer. There is no lock, and the iron nails of the pulling ring are well hidden. The front panel extends on both sides.

Left: The underside of the drawer consists of one thin oaken plank (but now split into two pieces)  that is nailed to the 4 sides with wooden nails. The underside is as wide as the front panel; the protruding sides are a bit chamfered. Right: A detail of some of the square wooden nails. 

A detail of the square nails fixing the bottom plank to the front panel.

Left: The side of the drawer. The bottom plank extends a bit into the front panel (making nailing possible). 
Right: The sides are fixed in the front panel by a half-dovetail.

Left: The side view of the large dovetail at the back of the drawer. It is further fixed by two pins. Right: The back view of the large dovetail. The dovetail extends from the actual drawer. Perhaps this was used as a stopper, preventing the drawer to go too deep into the armoire.

Here both sides of the dovetail at the back can be seen. It also clearly shows the chamfered end of the bottom plank.

It was a bit darker inside the armoire, but with help of some light from our mobile phones, it became much clearer.  In the armoire two rails with a groove were made. They are either fitted with a tenon and mortise to the frame of the armoire or by extra long pins of the frame construction. Two more modern wooden rails (the wood has a different colour) were later added to the side of the groove in order to stabilise the drawer movement.

Left: The pins that fix the mortise and tenon of the frame can also be large enough to fix the sliding rail of the drawer behind it. A different piece of wood has been added later to the sliding rail. Right: The sliding rail of the other side.

A view of the back of the armoire from the inside. A separate frame and panel is constructed at the back 
for the two drawers. Also the drawer compartment has floor boards, which are not strictly necessary.


  • Eames, P.  1977. Furniture in England, France and the Netherlands from the twelfth to the fifteenth century.  Furniture history, Volume XII.
  • Dubbe, B. 2012. Huusraet. Het stedelijk woonhuis in de Bourgondische tijd. Uitgeverij PolderVonsten, Hoorn, the Netherlands. ISBN 341-5688-943-1. 
  • Windisch-Graetz, F. 1982. Mobel Europas I – von Romanik bis zum Spatgotik. Klinkhardt & Biermann, Munchen, Germany. ISBN 3-7814-0212-6
  • Boccador, J. 1988. Le mobilier francais du moyen age a la renaissance. Edition dÁrt Monelle Hayot, St-Just-en-Chaussee, France. ISBN 2-903824-13-4.
  • Blanc, M. 1999. Le mobilier francais – moyen age renaissance. Editeur massin, Paris, France. ISBN 2-7072-0346-7.
  • Müller-Christensen, S. 1974. Oude Meubels - van de middeleeuwen tot de jugenstil. Schuyt & co., Haarlem, the Netherlands. ISBN 90-6097-048-9.