Sunday 10 November 2019

A late 14th century brace from the Netherlands

The St. Elisabethsflood by the Master of the Saint Elisabeth-panels, ca. 1490-1495. Oil on oak panels, each panel 127.3 × 109.5 cm. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

In the night of November 19, 1421 - Saint Elisabeth's name day - large parts of the Netherlands flooded. The area of Dordrecht in particular was hit hard by this disaster: 23 villages were destroyed and 2,000 people died. Later, their relatives had an altarpiece made by the Master of the Saint Elisabeth panels (in other words, an unknown master) showing this unfortunate event. However, remarkably, the disastrous flood of that day did have a fortunate side-effect for us, the Saint Thomas Guild.

For us, it started a few years ago when Bram saw an announcement for a presentation on the 'Dordtse recorder', a complete recorder dating from the late 14th century. As Bram plays the recorder himself, he thought it was worth a visit. It indeed proved to be interesting: the old recorder had been put though a CT scan - and the inside thus was carefully mapped. Then, a reconstruction of a 15th century recorder ensemble (3 recorder sizes) had been made and was played before the audience (as it happens there is no 14th century recorder music, while on the other hand there is music but no recorder from the 15th century). During the presentation an article from an old newspaper from 1943 was shown, describing the find of the recorder from an archaeological excavation at the castle 'Huis te Merwede'. With it was a photo of some finds, including the recorder and .... a wooden brace!

The photo with the recorder and the brace that appeared in the newspapers 'Dordtse Courant' and 'De Telegraaf' in August 1943. Dutch National Newspaper archive."A part of the rich treasure of archaeological finds that came to light during the excavations on the site of the former Huis te Merwede near Dordrecht. (Photo Stuvel)."

Carrying out an excavation during the second world war is surprising. Also the fact that the excavation was described in, among others, the Dordrechtsche Courant and DeTelegraaf indicates that at the time great importance was attached to the find (see the translations of these newspaper articles below). The fact that both wooden objects have been preserved is due to the favourable circumstances of the site, a well-filled water well. The location also made an exact dating possible. The Huis te Merwede had been inhabited for only a century; from 1307 to 1418. In 1418 it was taken and destroyed by the inhabitants of Dordrecht during the Hoekse and Kabeljauwse disputes, after which the St. Elizabeth flood made the house permanently uninhabitable in 1421. Until the start of the 20th century, the ruin had been standing in the water: day in, day out (Weijs, 2011). The well dates from the second construction period (± 1350), therefore the objects must have entered the well between 1350 and 1418/1421. While the recorder is included in the permanent exhibition of the Dordrecht Museum (inventory number 4001,000.008), the brace remained anonymous in the City depot (inventory number 8371).

The flooded castle 'Merwen' on the painting of the St. Elizabeths flood.

Bram contacted the curator of the Dordrechts Museum, who pointed him to the archaeology collection manager of the City depot Dordrecht. In autumn 2017 we had an appointment made to view and measure the brace - the second earliest example of a brace in the world, as well as a complete one (the earliest dated brace is the one from Greifswald, around 1370). In our opinion, this find is as unique as that of the recorder and deserves display in the museum.

The 14th century brace from castle Merwede, Dordrecht, the Netherlands. Inv. nr. 8371, In the Archeological Depot Dordrecht, Dordrecht, the Netherlands.  

The brace was freeze-dried in order to conserve it. This has some consequences on the current condition of the brace: it weighs almost nothing, it has many cracks due to the evaporation/extraction of water, and it is fragile. Nevertheless we were allowed to handle and measure the drill, and could take detailed photos of it. The type of wood used for the brace has not been recorded, and now is no longer recognisable due to the freeze-drying.

An unique feature of this brace is that the knob is still attached to the brace, and that the method of fixation while allowing the rotation of the handle - a pin sliding across a groove - is clearly visible through the cracks.

Top view of the brace handle.

Side view of the brace, showing a large crack from the freeze-drying process.

The bottom of the brace, with the hole for the spoon bit. There is no reduced part of wood near the hole for the bit, indicating that no claming ring was present.

Making a replica brace

Having photos and measurements made it possible to create a replica of this brace. Actually, we made three replica's; one of them now resides in Italy, where so far no traces of medieval braces have been found (of course, there was much contact between the Netherlands and the Italian states, so in principle a brace could have travelled south).

The first of 3 replicas, and the measurement plan of the original brace below.


First, we created a faithful shape on paper and transferred it to a piece of wood. We chose to make our replica from ash, since the wood is tough and sturdy. Also, braces from later periods are known that were made from ash (e.g. from the Mary Rose; McKewan, 2013). The wood was brought to the correct thickness using a thicknesser machine. After that, the pattern was sawn out with a jigsaw, after which the brace was given the correct shape with the help of a drawknife, spokeshave and gouges. The knob of the brace was turned from the same wood, and the hole in the handle drilled out with a Forstner drill on a drill press. The pin for the brace handle was rounded using a chisel and file. Then a groove was filed for the pin that secured the handle, but still allowed it to rotate. The brace parts were sanded and beeswax applied, after which the different parts were added.

Left: the attachment of the spoon bit. Right: the handle of the brace, the pin visible.

The alignment of the spoon bit. a straight line between the spoon bit and the handle (left), but a crooked line for the bottom part of the brace (right).

The Dordrecht drill does not have a clamping ring, which sometimes can be found in medieval and later period braces. The hole for the spoon bit was drilled and made to measure with a narrow (3 mm) chisel. To secure the spoon bit, it was first fixed in a vice, onto which the brace was hammered with careful taps with a wooden hammer. The brace from Dordrecht does not have a straight axis (see photos). This made it difficult to position and align the spoon bit. Therefore, we used a virtual axis to position the bit. As a result, the spoon drill appears to be crooked in the brace, but forms a straight line with the handle, making the drilling process trouble-free.

(Left) The spoon bit is set in a vice and the brace is gently tapped onto it with a wooden hammer. 
(Right) Test drilling with our replica brace.

The replica brace and spoon bit are working well !


  • C. Weijs, 2011. Bouwhistorisch onderzoek naar het Huis te Merwede, Gemeente
    Dordrecht, the Netherlands, pages 16-18.
  • C. McKewan, 2013. Chapter 8. Routine maintenance and ‘housework’. In: J.
    Gardiner. Before the mast: life and death aboard the Mary Rose. Oxbow
    books, Oxford, UK. ISBN 978-1842175040
  • J. Ansorge, K. Igel, H. Schäfer en J. Wiethold, 2002. Ein Holzschacht aus der Baderstrasse 1a in Greifswald. Aus der materiellen Alltagskultur einer Hansestadt in der Zweiten Hälfte des 14. Jahrhunderts. Bodendenkmalpflege in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Jahrbuch 2002, Band 50, pages 119-157.

The translation of the article of 5 August 1943 in the Dordtse Courant:

The result of three years of excavation work: The 'Huis [castle] te Merwede'

For more than three years now, a few men in steady labor have exposed the foundations of the Huis te Merwede.
The Dordtse Courant of  5 August 1943
What this means, one only realizes when one sees the thick sand and clay layers that the Merwede has brought over these centuries over this historic spot, about half an hour east of Dordrecht. How did we come to dig there? A question that watersports enthusiasts, seekers and wanderers will not ask. For they undoubtedly know the impressive ruins of the great heavy tower, which has been dreaming on the banks of the Merwede for centuries. And so they understand how, in many generations, this mysterious colossus already raised questions that provoked research. Many therefore looked at the yellowed parchments to find out more about the castle and its inhabitants. They often achieved results that we can now pass with a smile. Because, although the language of the stones is not always clear and certainly not understood by everyone, after three years of research I can say that the Huis te Merwede has given up almost all its secrets. For us it is now certain that the Romans are innocent of the construction of the castle. Nor did, a few hundred years later, a certain king Meroveus, stand on the circle of the mighty tower, looked out across the river for the state-boat that the queen of his heart would bring to him. It has even become clear that the first Lord of the Merwede, who emerges so suddenly in history from a document of 1243, has not lived in this house.
By the way, diligent searchers could already have known that, because they must have found that remarkable document of 1307 on their quest through the archive documents. (To be honest, a few have taken the parchment into consideration). That important piece, in which it is written that Lord Daniel sells part of his estate and the associated rights to the city of Dordrecht and promises to erect a home outside the city area as soon as possible. Now there were no vacant castles for rent in those days, so there was not much else left than having a new castle built. And that happened at the place where the investigations took place. In which year exactly we do not know. We have searched in vain for a stone with a name and a year. It is also not very likely that Lord Daniel or his ancestor would have laid the first stone with an inscription. It must be assumed that the castle was built before 1335, because in this year Lord Daniel lent his house to the Lord of Voorne - one of the powerful men in the then County of Holland - to ensure his protection. It has now become fairly clear what arose during the first major construction period. The castle, first mentioned in 1335, was already a large rectangular building with round towers on two of the corners: a residential wing lay in the third corner. The old situation on the fourth corner can no longer be found. The entrance was next to the so-called residential wing; the bridge over the canal was found there. One of the posts on which the bridge was resting was found. One gets the impression that the construction was carried out with the greatest possible saving of materials. Everywhere, use was made of the system of saving arches: even in the outer walls, saving arches lying just below the tread have been laid between deeply supported supports. The largest of the two round corner towers appears to have contained the chapel. The place of the altar is thought to be recognized by an otherwise inexplicable mash from the inside alongside the niche for the mass items. According to the wall columns, this space was arched. The second major building period created a completely new building. Almost everywhere, one can clearly see that the wall of the first building has been completely demolished, after which a new building was partially erected using the old foundations. As a result, the bridge also had to come forward and the old interior completely fell away. 
The remaining tower of Huis te Merwede with its diamond brickstone pattern.

Then also the main features appeared with its beautiful brick mosaic that still awakens admiration on the Doric side. The master builder was able to introduce this pattern of diamonds by making clever use of the stones, which had been slightly too hot due to their place in the furnace and thereby melted on the surface. Once, the bricklayer was mistaken and he then knew nothing better to do than to lay a layer of only red unglazed heads and comforted to start processing the glazed heads again. There must have been a few things on that accident day, and no doubt the poor fellow has kept an unpleasant memory of the keep of the Huis te Merwede all his life! Usually the keep protects the entrance; however, here the bridge is on the opposite side, the east side. This must have had its advantages: the road probably ran in such a way that one had to go past the keep along the south and east side, before finally finding the bridge close to the north-east corner. The new, forward-laid bridge was protected by a powerful tower. Nevertheless, the people of Dordrecht in 1418 successfully concentrated their attack on this side. In the canal next to the gate we found the heavy arrows that had been shot at the windows of the castle with the guns. It looks a lot like the kitchen of the castle next to the gate. The well is located in this large room and the fireplace saved in one of the walls has been found. And what actually says more: in the canal along this wing we found a lot of earthenware, that the kitchen princess will secretly have dumped to clad her clumsiness forever. After so many centuries, the researcher observes how she has ejected an ear here, a leg there, and another piece from the edge with another object. We are grateful to the young lady! Is it perhaps a coincidence that a very special find was made in the slurry of convenience in the outside wall of the kitchen? I found the shards of a very rare glass cup. Once I had found the bottom of this glass, the entire contents of the waste hole went through my hands in small amounts. Thus an archaeologist became the supreme pit cleaner of Lord Daniël the so many. The result of  exercising this not very noble profession - how often have you blamed your ancestor for growing up as a pit cleaner? - finally did not disappoint me. The well also turned out to be a treasure trove. When the occupants could no longer keep the house in 1418, they threw part of the inventory into the well. We were able to dig them up again: a recorder, a tin can, a brewing kettle and a lot of pottery. Various finds that may be called unique. When the second castle was built, a square tower was built against the round tower with the chapel. At least, the building must have looked like a tower on the outside, but you should not look for a nice seat for enjoying the afternoon tea here. The tower as a whole has served as a waste disposal pit. Two openings under the water surface made the drain possible. There we found the shards of a beautiful plate, decorated with blue and gold lustre, imported from Spain. Then we found a "mussel set" in this well. That is, a fairly flat pan with mussel shells and small containers for the sour sauce. It was particularly interesting that different models of wooden plates and drinking utensils appeared during the investigation of the waste pits. From old accounts it was known that in the Middle Ages large numbers of these small wooden utensils were used in the household, but only this research gave us some insight into the forms. Since the St. Elisabeth flood of 1421 made the occupation of Merwede completely impossible, the dating of the finds is certain. The research is therefore very important in various respects. At least one cannot be grateful enough to the Dordrecht municipal administration that it has succumbed to pressure from various sides and ir. Van Buuren, director of the Building and Housing Inspectorate, has ordered the plans to be implemented and the to take charge of the technical part. Which always took place in pleasant cooperation with the National Office for the Protection of Monuments. Even now, a lot of work is still ahead. But all involved can already look back with great satisfaction on the results achieved so far.

J.C.G. Renaud

Translation of the article in DeTelegraaf of 14 August 1943 :

De Telegraaf, page 2, 14 August 1943


In the company of ir. Van Buuren, who had told us beforehand about the excavations of the Huis te Merwede. we visited the site, where we met Mr. Renaud, studying a small animal skeleton. Although the researcher was visibly interested and treated the find with loving care, as only a mother who knows for her child, it remained a question without answer for us, the uninitiated, that afternoon. It is not easy to get something from Mr. Renaud, until he is almost certain that something can be like that and nothing else. When we inquired about the finds, he said that hardly a week goes by with nice discoveries that are made, large and small. There is always something that attracts the attention; all the finds together form already a collection of more than a hundred pieces, enough to fill two museum rooms. And there will certainly be many more. Aside from the Jacoba jugs, which appear in almost every excavation, Spanish majolica, French glass, Flemish pottery and of course all kinds of native pottery have emerged here. It is even more remarkable that so much has already been found , since the moat is generally the richest site - in this, especially in the vicinity of the chalices, the discarded and broken crockery was thrown - while it has barely had a turn, apart from a narrow slot.

Dordrecht's wide-ranging trade.
According to Mr. Renaud, important conclusions can already be drawn from the findings. It shows, among other things, how widespread the trade in Dordrecht was in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Secondly, the finds are very important because they date in a relatively short period of time. This is not the case with a castle that has been in use for longer. An unique example is a tin jug, the only object of profane tin that we know from the fifteenth century. Then there is a pretty plate of Spanish majolica, blue and white, which clearly reads Ava Maria Gratia Plena. Does this indicate a direct contact with Spain? The beautiful, unfortunately broken green-blue glass is a silent witness to the relations that Dordrecht maintained with France; there are pieces of German "Steinzeug", a very hard earthenware baking from the Rhineland (a good Dutch term to refer to this type of earthenware, unfortunately, does not exist) that speak of trade with Cologne. There would be a lot to tell about these finds, all the more as they are sometimes the only ones of their kind. However, this would take us too far here. However, we would like to make an exception for two, namely for a very well preserved recorder (shown on the bottom right) and a wooden brace, which teaches us that this drilling tool was already known in the Middle Ages and until now has hardly undergone any form change. It is certain that the "Huis te Merwede", the foundations of which, thanks to tough excavation work, have slowly but surely come to light, have not yet given up all their treasures. However, the researchers are taking the earth away, kick after kick, and time will tell, how much secrets still lie in the lap of this place ground.

Wednesday 6 November 2019

Our new metal replica plane

Our new replica of the 16th century plane at the MAK museum in Vienna (Inv. nr. MAK F.1316).

Some years ago I discussed the medieval metal planes in a blogpost, which also featured this plane. At that time I had visited the depot of the Museum für angewandte Kunst in Vienna, Austria and had the opportunity to measure the plane and take photos of it (sorry, I had to sign only for personal use). The plane felt then very comfortable in my hands and I liked the design. Reason to try to find a blacksmith who was able to make a replica. This year, I contacted Klaas Kloosterhuis, a smith well-known for his historic reproductions of armour, but also for more mundane items, such as hinges and locks (e.g. for my toolchest and the scapradekijn) and carpenter tools. Remarkably fast the replica plane was made and delivered.

 My drawing of the plane and the black and white photo of the MAK F.1316 plane scanned for Die Geschichte des Hobels by Joseph Greber.

The plane is now visible as well in the online collection of the MAK. Interestingly, the plane comes from the collection of Dr. Albert Figdor, a famous Austrian medieval art collector of which many items of his collection nowadays reside in museums worldwide, including much medieval furniture.

Yes, the plane is identical in size, and the thickness of the steel the same. However in my thoughts the original was lighter in weight, but my memory can be mistaken after all those years. Anyway, the sole and the blade of the new plane needed some extra flattening and sharpening. Also, I made a wooden inlay frog of  hornbeam for a better support of the plane blade. Setting the blade appeared to be a tricky process: when I added the wedge, the blade continuously protruded to far out of the sole. To solve this I had to clamp the plane on a piece of wood (hornbeam) beneath the sole, to close the opening for the blade. Adding the wedge now provided enough resistance from the wood below to set the blade optimal for producing thin shavings. The plane works very well and I am quite happy with it.

The plane and its thin shavings.

As I am not able to show all the sides of the original plane, you will have to do with all sides of the replica. Both sides of the replica.

The back side and the sole of the plane. The plane has a large gap for the blade, which is inserted upside down, as common for low-angle planes.

The top view of the plane. You can see the hornbeam frog behind the iron. The wedge pushes the top metal strip to the pin, and in turn, the metal strip pushes against the plane blade near the opening. Perhaps this was an early start of the cap iron.