Sunday, October 18, 2015

The (Long and complex) Medieval History of the Chair - part IV, Stools or Forms

This discussion in the ongoing series of medieval seating objects could potentially get very complicated if I were to attempt to address all the variations in form, material, and construction of the types of stools found depicted in the artwork, and the few actual surviving examples. I am therefore going to go over the topic with a rather broad brush of generalisations, and leave the minutia for potential future posts.

Stools are often referred to in old English as both "stoole" and "form". I am curious to know if it was called a 'form' because sitting in one would doubtless help one maintain a good 'form' of seating posture, as it would be hard to slouch whilst sitting on one, but I have not found any definitive information to support that notion. The doctor has further confused the meaning of "stool", because when he asks me for a sample, he does not expect me to bring him back a piece of furniture; though again, that must originate from the fact that there was once a "close stool", which was a chair with a pot in the seat...

A stool and other furniture depicted in the late 7th century Codex Amiatinus

In a previous post, we already discussed plinth chairs; these are not stools, even though modern readers might think of them as such. In defining a stool, we are using, here, the definition of a form of seating with a seat and an open base, as in, not a box or other solid, enclosed structure underneath. Generally, if it is not at least partially open beneath the seating surface, we will not be classifying it as a stool.

As with other types of furniture, I like to give a bit of pre-medieval history on the topic so one can see where the medieval pieces fit into the long evolution, and also to show how styles may have, (or not) changed. With that in mind, below are three examples from some of the ancient civilizations that influenced and affected the Roman and subsequent medieval European furniture.

13th century BC Stool from the Cairo Museum
(picture found on a Google image search)

9th century Hittite sculpture depicting a king seated on a stool
(picture found on a Google image search)

Portion of the Acropolis freeze from Athens; 4th century BC showing
four figures seated on stools
(From Wikipedia)

The Illustration at the beginning of this post featured a stool from almost the very onset of the Middle Ages, and in construction details, is not unlike the Hittite example which was already 2,000 years old at the time that the manuscript from which it comes from was made.

All of these stools fall into the category of four legged stools, but there was also another type, which was a folding "X" type. This design too, has a very ancient pedigree, and examples are found in Egyptian, Minoan, and Greek art. In addition, we have many examples of bronze Roman era stools of this type. 

These folding stools could be constructed of wood or metal, and were found throughout Northern Africa, the Middle East, and all parts of Europe. There have even been several BC era wooden examples recovered from graves and peat-bogs of northern Europe. I will not get into more details on this topic because the St Thomas Guild blog has already covered this form in great detail. You can read more about the medieval varieties on their blog. I will add this one example, however, from a 9th century manuscript, because they did not discuss metal varieties of this chair, several examples of which also exist.

BNF Lat. 17968 fol 125v; depiction of a folding iron stool from the
9th century

Having gotten that bit out of the way, there is still a huge variety in the style, methods of construction, and level of ornamentation of the fixed leg stools. It would be impossible to give an exhaustive synopsis of even all the known examples of depictions covering an entire continent and a thousand years of history, but even if we did, that would only be a fraction of what was actually produced, as so much has been lost to the ravages of time.

When one considers history which is hundreds or thousands of years old, he must first accept that whatever he gleans in information is a pale reflection, at best, of the vivacity and variety of actual life in those times. A word, a phrase, an illustration, all give us tantalising hints, but hints are all they are, and must be regarded in that light.

Those hints tell us that there were three four and even five legged stools. There were stools with carved and sculpted ornamentation as well as others which were of the turned variety. Still others were constructed of flat timbers which could be left plain in form, or decorated by shaping and or carving. As in all other types of furniture, peasants and poor people would have simpler versions than their financially more fortunate compatriots. Since medieval artwork is almost always primarily concerned with the general shape of an object, not its exact appearance, this is not always readily discernible to the modern viewer of such artworks.

Below are some examples of various stools taken from different periods of medieval history, but are in no way intended to suggest that any particular design was circumscribed to that time period. I have one illustration for each of the centuries comprising the millennium, known to us as the Middle Ages. I have shown a variety of styles of construction as well as a wide range in ornament, detail and material. (the 7th century is represented by the first illustration in this blog-post)

I have to cheat a bit for the 6th century,
This is a reproductionof a stool found in one of the many
 Alamani Graves in the Oberflacht region. I recently did
 a post on other furniture found in this region,
also from the 6th century.

St Mathew from the 9th century Lindisfarne Gospel;
Mathew is seated on a wooden stool decorated with carved
ivory panels. (at least that is how I interpret this)

From an astronomy manuscript in the Bavarian State Library
(BSB clm 210 fol 118r) produced in the year 818
This shows a turned stool with legs which extend above the seat and have
knob type finials.

BNF Lat 6, fol 5r 10th century

From the Bibliotheque National de France, comes this small illustration from a 10th century Bible. This is a scene from the story of the life of Samuel; in this scene, the Prophet Eli has just been informed of the wicked acts committed by his two sons, Hophni and Phineus. In shock, the prophet falls backwards off of his chair, here depicted as a seat with legs fit from the underside, perhaps in a through tenon joint, like those found in many 16th and 17th century English stools, but also depicted in 14th, 15th, and 16th century artwork.

Nativity scene
Detail of one of the Salerno Ivories from ca 1080

Here is another turned four legged stool, but notice the degree of ornament suggested in this example. It seems to have a square terminal above the turning where it joins with the seat. Something I would like to point out in this illustration is the way the bed was depicted. The artist wished to show the turned posts for the bed corners, but had he put them where they belonged, from a realistic point of view, they would have been obscured by the bed itself and the figures, thus he chose to depict them seemingly propping it up from underneath, stool fashion. This is a classic example of why we cannot take medieval illustrations at face value; they are simply conveying some information, but are not "photographic depictions". Notice also the little tripod table.

12th century relief with Madonna and Child

I could be wrong, but I believe this is in the Louvre, there is a similar one in the V&A, but the stool in that panel has round legs whilst the panel itself is rectangular. In both cases, the seat seems to be constructed of very massive timbers with a lot of carving. I would expect these to be made in a way much like the still existing 12th and 13th century choir stalls; very thick, solid timber.

Another Madonna and Child, this one from the
13th century

Remember the 9th century stool with knob finials? This is a 13th century version of the same basic idea. I think this is from the Met in New York, but again, I am not 100% certain.

Late 14th century Stool "from a Museum in Paris"
Part of the stretcher and its carving is missing.
(picture found on a Google image search)

St Luke. BL Yates Thompson MS 4 fol 14r ca 1460

Notice the similarity of this drawing and the actual example from about 100 years earlier pictured above.

Furniture obviously evolved and changed over time, but some of the basic fundamental forms persisted for centuries, even millennia, as with the 'x' stool and the three corner stool. Often these forms are obscured by the various decorations that did change with fashion and taste over the centuries, if you examine them from a construction standpoint, though, they remain much the same. It is too bad there are not more pattern books preserved from the Middle Ages, as they would help us a lot in knowing how artists and craftsmen went about ornamenting their wares. Without such knowledge all we can do is study other decorative objects and guess.

Hopefully this post gives some idea of the vast possibilities that exist for this type of furniture and shows that it was something much more than just a simple plank or turned object usually depicted as "medieval" stools. (Just try doing a google image search for "medieval stool" and see how many of the examples I have given here are represented.)

Videre Scire

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Thoughts on "Traditional" woodworking

This blog was supposed to feature a story and pictures of my Show in Waterford Virginia, but there was a threat of a hurricane and thus a "state of emergency" was declared; therefor the show was cancelled. Very disappointing, but what can you do?

Right; moving on...

Yesterday I read Peter Follansbee's blog, in which he began a discussion of the current state of "traditional" woodworking as it is in the world today. You can read all about it here. The main point (as I understand it) is the lack of a traditional foundation for most modern woodworkers, and the attempts to revive old skills without it.

Peter Follansbee at work, doing his part to keep alive the traditional methods

As the word, tradition, denotes, this would be something that was handed down from generation to generation so that the work would grow and change, adapting with the times in a very organic way. Peter has suggested, and I concur, that for the most part, this tradition has been "broken". Now, most people who are attempting, or successfully practicing, these "traditional" skills, are coming at it without any prior knowledge or personal experience in these crafts. After reading his blog, I thought to add my comments to the matter, but then realised I had more than just a quick comment to add, and besides, I have my own blog page from which to express myself.

As I already stated, I agree with Mr Follansbee, and his view on the matter, Like him, I also am attempting to revive and keep in motion those methods, long discarded by most modern people who are hell bent on the latest everything, as outmoded, old fashioned, and too time consuming. I find it interesting that in other parts of the world, where I have traveled extensively, and have met craftsmen working in very primitive conditions with only the most rudimentary tools, that they think I must be out of my mind to want to forego the use of machines which are all around me, and revert to the mostly discarded methods of earlier generations.

For these people, and for most in Europe and America, getting the job done as quickly as possible is the primary goal. In a world where one has to earn an income to stay alive, this makes good sense, but it also causes the artist to lose out on the joy of actually doing the job. Is your goal the journey, or the destination? For most people, myself included, getting the job done brings immense satisfaction, and a sense of accomplishment, but for me, the actual act of doing the work can often be more rewarding and enjoyable than the satisfaction that comes with its completion. Once the task is done, one has to forget about it and move on to what is next. When I am doing something by hand, the process takes longer and gives me a chance to get to know the piece I am creating. It becomes an extension of myself, and I have a chance to infuse a bit of my soul into it. I cannot speak for others, but for me, I do not have this same connection with pieces I made with a machine. They were simply a product to give in exchange for some income, not much more.

Tradition is still very much alive in the Philippines and
the things they create every day with only the simplest of
tools are amazing

It does not feel like it could have already been more than 60 years ago, but back in the 1950's John Seymour, traveled about his native UK, and other places in the world, documenting the, at-that-time, nearly vanished traditional craftsmen who were still carrying on the actual tradition of their crafts. The book is a fascinating read, and though it was not an inspiration to me, because I had already embarked on my journey before I discovered the book, it was something to give me resolve to continue in the path that I was choosing to follow. I noticed that all the people featured in the book were either old, or ancient, and thus, when I read it in the 90's, were all, it is fairly safe to say, gone to wherever we go, when we go. This book helped to firm up my belief that someone must take up the tools of the forefathers and continue in their traditions, because it was worth preserving the methods which they used to create the objects of their world.

Originally published in the late 50's and still a good read,
this book covers much of what "traditional crafts"
really means.

When we live in a world where most people think that vegetables, eggs, and meat come from "the supermarket", and everything has a flaming "ap" to make it work, I feel it is important for people to see the actual skills that went into creating the things that our ancestors had all around them. It is also important to remind people that every single new-fangled gadget that they have in their possession is only there because someone long ago, first learned to use a stick and a stone to make something finer and more precise.

Near to where I currently reside, there is a canal that was built in the early 1800's. Whenever I go there for a visit, and see all the blocks of stone cut and fit so perfectly, I cannot help thinking, as they slowly erode away,  that every single one of them was cut by a man and moved into position by other men and animals. No lorries, cranes, or hydraulic lifts, just skill, muscle, and ingenuity. I wonder, as I am thinking these thoughts, if anyone else ever thinks of such a thing, and wish I had a way to make them aware of it. I think it makes us better people when we are connected to out past and aware of skill and craft that was involved in getting us to the point where we are now.

Does anyone ever consider that it was manual labour which went into cutting,
dressing, and setting these stones which have been here for nearly two centuries?

I know that it is (lamentably) impossible to return to a life of earlier times, but at the same time, it would be even more lamentable to toss out all the old traditions simply because we have ways of getting more work done faster. I also think I am justified in my belief, when I consider the fact that in the days with very few machines, people produced far superior works of beauty and craftsmanship than what they do now with all the modern things which are meant to speed things up and make life "simpler". I know there are modern craftsmen who make fine things with their machines and power tools, and have no intention of disparaging anyone who works honestly to earn his bread, but I am quite certain that there is none among them, who can produce anything close to the level of refinement that went into some of the finest objects made for the crowns and courts of Europe, all with hand-tools.

I too, began my career as a furniture maker using power tools and machinery. In fact, the first time I decided to get a hand plane and use it, I worked with it until it could not cut butter because I was so afraid of trying to sharpen it. I had no one to teach me anything about how to use hand tools, so I had to learn by trial and error. It would have been wonderful if I had had a teacher, but I was determined to learn, regardless. My first reason for going in this direction was simply because I love antiques, and had a realisation that most of their beauty came from the subtle irregularities caused from working the materials by hand. I decided the best way to make something look more like and antique was to fashion it with the same methods as had been used in the original. Along the way, I came to realise there was a satisfaction from, and a connection to, my work which I had not previously felt. It was as if my soul had finally been reconnected to its tradition.

The very first thing I ever built using hand tools, back in 1997

My journey into traditional woodworking was a very long and slow one. No one in my family for as many generations as I know of, practiced any sort of craft, with the exception of a grandmother who was an amateur "Sunday painter". I did, however, frequently spend time in the workshop of Herr Pfeuffer, who was in charge of all the maintenance of my childhood home and its surrounding buildings. The one tool in the workshop which he allowed me to use was a hand-saw, and I loved to cut anything I could get my hands on with it. He never taught me the correct way to use it, but that did not stop me learning. I also (without his permission) got an axe and went around chopping small trees and trying to make them into square timbers, but I do not think my juvenile attention span ever saw a single one to completion.

A typical Schrank like those which I grew up with. This is not a picture
from my home, it came from Wikipedia, but is typical of many of the ones
found in most rooms of my childhood home.

Everything changed when I was 14 and we moved into a brand new house in a small village just outside of Schweinfurt. Up until that time, I had grown up with antiques all around me. These objects were to me "normal" and all the new things that came with the new house in the town were alien to me. I believe it was then that the seed of my career as a traditional woodworker was planted. From that time on, I spent my time reading books, drawing, and dreaming about things related to the past. It was as if my soul had a connection with all the dust of history in our centuries old home, and it had been ripped free from its roots and was seeking a way back. I think part of having a sense of tradition comes with being surrounded by things that are older than we are. It is no wonder that modern kids, living with five minute product life-spans, seldom value anything "old".

Again, this was not the exact piece in my new room, but
I found this on E Bay,and it looks almost exactly like
the new soulless furniture I had to live with once we moved

On the other hand, perhaps this is the very reason that some people are searching out those traditional methods or the products created by them. Perhaps part of the human DNA requires us to have a connection with our past, and when that is missing, we feel incomplete as a species. We also find, in our modern world, more people than ever, attempting to live in an alternate universe because they find the one they actually habit to be so sterile and unattractive; void of any true meaning. I know I do not, and I doubt that Mr Follansbee has an "online, alternate personality" either. Our connection to our crafts, friends, and supporting clients, gives us all the grounding we need.

If we consider a building constructed of stones or bricks, and think of its individual courses as years of history, then its foundation would be the beginning of that history. The building will always need that history in order to stand up and remain stable. If that history were removed, there would no longer be a building. I believe we need our tradition and history to remain grounded humans.

A building which loses its foundation of history loses itself

Not everyone can work in traditional methods, but we can all do our part to keep our traditions alive by supporting and encouraging those who do. By doing this, we will all have something meaningful and worthwhile to pass on to future generations.

Here I am in my shop, doing my bit to keep those traditions alive
(someone needs to come and take a new picture, this one is almost ten years old)