What Was Furniture Like in the Middle Ages?

I wanted to do some research into the history of furniture. It’s quite an interesting topic and as you’ll note through this series, furniture styles always reflect the dominant ideas and circumstances of the period in question.

We could go back to the ancient World, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s start at the middle ages and work our way to the Present day.

So, what was furniture like in the Middle Ages?

Until the 13th century

The collapse of the Roman Empire, with all its splendor, led Europe into a crisis where little furniture was produced - only the very essentials and in a very austere style. Few pieces survived from this period, not just because of their scarcity, but also because of the natural perishability of the wood.

14th and 15th centuries

Slowly, craftsmen started making headway in the construction of cupboards, boxes and compartments, desks, etc. The priority was to serve the noblemen and the religious houses of the time, which keep immense power in society.

Noblemen would actually transport their furniture with them, to the different dwelling places they owned, since severe scarcity was a reality at this time. For this reason, the little furniture that was produced was such that it could be easily transported (think folding chairs, trestle tables, etc.).

Not surprisingly, the religious institutions of the time enjoyed some of the best furniture produced. Churches and monasteries we’re where you could find the most sophisticated pieces. There was an advancement in the production of reading and writing furniture, designed for the Ecclesiastical class - lecterns, desks, etc. These show detail and ingenuity in construction.

By the 15th century, framed paneling is reintroduced into the scene (it existed in ancient times) and other developments such as the introduction of drawers into cupboards and more efficient joints also improve the state of the art.

Carved decorations on furniture appeared at this point and surfaces were carved with tracery and other Gothic motifs.

Chairs were scarce during the middle ages. The occupation of a chair symbolized authority as chairs were reserved for people of high status (the lord and his wife, for instance or a King in his throne). This is where the present word chairman comes from. It is an echo of the Medieval association of sitting in a chair and possessing power.

Long before mass production methods, the Middle Ages produced little furniture that would mainly be used in religious contexts and by noblemen.

A few techniques, such as turnery and frame panelling, influenced these craftsmen who slowly progressed into more ornamented styles such as that of carved furniture. This progress and move into more ornamentation will lead us into our next topic: the furniture of the Renaissance.


Source of information: Encyclopedia Britannica