|Round Table from the 9th century Utrecht Psalter|
I have counted 22 individual round tables in this Psalter, and they can be subdivided into three subcategories. The first are three tables which have been depicted with no visible legs of any sort. When this practice first began is not known to me, but there is a 3rd century BC painted Greek vase in the MET which has a scene with a table completely covered in a white cloth, leaving no visible legs to support it. This became an exasperating (for someone interested in furniture design history) trend in the 11th and 12th centuries, to the point that it is hard to find any depictions of tables from that era actually illustrating the legs. They are almost always shown as a top with an elaborately draped covering cloth, seemingly floating in space, as if by magic. (This is simply another example of trends in illustrated fashion, much like the overly elongated legs of female models in fashion illustrations of the mid 20th century, meant to exemplify an illusionary ideal.)
|This represents a round table, but there are no details, to indicate anything|
about construction details or ornamental decoration.
|A round top table, again with no support depicted, but showing the fashion|
for covering the table with an elaborate drapery.
This illustration comes from a 9th century book cover in the BNF.
Coming back to our 9th century Psalter, it is interesting to note that none of these tables are shown with a cloth covering. This should not be interpreted to mean that people did not cover their tables with cloths at this time, several 9th century ivory carvings show tables draped with cloth, completely obscuring the details of construction, just as with the 11th and 12th century trend that I mentioned. (see above) There was a lot of regional and artistic variation, and anything one sees in medieval illustrations should not necessarily be applied to the whole of Europe. In fact there is so little left to study, from the first two thirds of the Middle Ages, that any glimpses we see are like trying to watch a football match standing 2 metres behind a picket fence. Those glimpses, however, are enough to wet the apatite, and give people such as myself, reason to try to keep watching in hopes of seeing something fascinating.
There still exists one other very well illustrated 9th century Psalter, known as the Stuttgart Psalter, which could not be more different from the Utrecht Psalter. None of its illustration bear any resemblance to either the images used, or the driving concepts behind their inclusion in the manuscript. This shows us the wide range of style, and the variation which existed throughout Europe during the 9th century. (and nothing changed, on that note, for the rest of the medieval period) Of interest, insofar as this discussion is concerned, on that point, is the fact that whilst the Utrecht Psalter has no fewer than 29 tables depicted, (among more than 200 illustrations) the Stuttgart Psalter only has one, from more than 300 illustrations.
From our manuscript we find that the second sub-type of round table depicted is one with straight legs; there is only one such example of this type however. Since these illustrations are merely sketches, with almost no details, it is impossible to say whether the artist was intending square or turned legs, but they do seem to have a bit of taper to them. The truly unusual detail, however, is that unlike all of the other round tables depicted with legs, this one has four legs, whereas the others all have three. Given the level of detail in this manuscript, this table is no different from a dining table that might have been made in the 17th 18th or 19th century. There are a scattering of other medieval illustrations of round, four legged tables from the various centuries, and we can probably safely conclude that such tables existed, in the guise of the ever changing period decorations, right through the medieval period.
|A four legged round top table. Would these legs be turned? It is hard to say.|
This illustration does seem to suggest that the legs are applied to the outside
perimeter of the top (as apposed to being mounted underneath)
The third, and by far most common form of round table depicted in this Psalter, is a type carried over from Greco-roman times; this is a tripod table with lion mask and paw feet. There are 18 such tables in this manuscript, which probably doubles the number of extant illustrated examples from the whole of the 9th century. One example was given at the top of this article and another is pictured below. Both are of the same type, but this second illustration suggests that such tables could be made quite large to allow many guests to be seated, calling to mind the Arthurian legend of the "Knights of the Round Table".
|A round tripod table large enough to seat many people, yet still made in|
the same style as the smaller ones.
Anyone paying attention will note that all three legs seem to be on the same side, but this is a stylistic representation, and has a tradition probably as old as the actual design of this type of table, a point illustrated by the following 5th century BC Etruscan representation of one of these tables.
|When I was in MET I spent time searching for origins of medieval furniture|
design, this 5th century BC Etruscan table tells us that when the 9th century
Utrecht Psalter was illustrated, this table design had already been around for
more than 1300 years.
When one speaks of "the Middle Ages" most people will conjure up some mental image of what that means to them; inevitably, this image will have much more of a resemblance to life in the 13th, 14th or 15th centuries, than to earlier periods. The fact is, that styles and tastes evolved over the course of history, and by the time the 13th century came around, there was very little which resembled life of the 8th or 9th centuries, much as 1970 had very little to do with 1920. In a broader sense, the "medieval" world of the 9th century bore much more of a resemblance to the Roman period (at least in regions once included in the Roman Empire) than it did to the "Middle Ages" of the 14th century. The following six illustrations will quickly point this out.
|Roman town, from a Pompeian Mural in the MET|
|9th century depiction of a town, from an ivory panel in the V&A|
|Roman Soldiers from Trajan's Column|
|9th Century mounted soldiers from a mid 9th century Psalter,|
St Gall, Switzerland
The helmets are still very much the same, as is the length and form of
the clothing, one change which has occurred is the more prevalent use of
chain mail armour.
|Another of the 18 round tables from the Utrecht Psalter. This one is of a|
smaller personal size, such as the following charred remnant found in
Herculaneum, buried in the 79 AD eruption of Mt Vesuvius
|A very rare survivor (almost a survivor) this is the charred remains of a|
Roman era table, very much like those illustrated in the
I have read so many references to medieval tables being "planks set on top" of "crude" trestles, or "tree trunks" that it makes me want to scream. The medieval artwork tells a very different tale to that notion. It is also interesting to note that the earliest example I have found to date, of a "trestle table" is from the 13th century. This is not to say that they did not exist before that time, but most pre 13th century depictions of tables are round, demilune, or rectangular on turned or square legs, with an occasional 'X' frame or pedestal base to round out the selection. Most early illustrations of tables clearly indicate some form of decoration to the supporting members, wherever any support is actually indicated.
In centres of commerce and industry and places of education, where society continued to thrive, the Roman style of art melted away much more slowly. In Aachen, the capitol of the Carolingian realm, we find a pair of lion masks on the cathedral doors (I believe these are actually cast copies made from the originals) which were made in the 9th century, Here we still see a lot of classical influence on the design, including the panel construction of the doors, the egg and dart moulding, the acanthus leaf wreaths, and the lion faces, (they originally held rings, used to pull the doors closed), but we can also see that the changes of artistic trends have left their own period stamp on them.
|One could easily imagine these lion's faces carved on the terminals of|
lion-paw legs and then we would have a 9th century version of
this sort of table
To sum things up, there is so little of anything left from the early medieval period that it is impossible to recreate that world, but little hints and fragments, and a bit of logical deductive reasoning can fill in a bit more of the void left by the destruction of so much of what once was. This Utrecht Psalter gives us some tantalising glimpses, and informs us that certain stylistic trends, such as lion shaped tripod tables were very slow in dying out and continued into the 9th century