When Is A Chair Not A Chair?

One of the frustrations I have experienced in many years of trying to research medieval furniture is the contrasting convictions of those who are supposed to be experts. For some things I wish the whole lot of them would come together at a convention, examine each other's evidence, and converge on a resolution of accepted truth.

There is no more controversial furniture item than the simple chair and the question of what it was; not to mention who had one and who did not.

A Peter Galbert Windsor Chair. A form I long to figure out for myself. 

On one hand you have an accepted expert in furniture history and styles, John Gloag who writes in his book "A Social History of Furniture Design from BC 1300 to AD 1960" writes the following.

"Early inventories and wills, of which many survive, disclose how scantily homes were furnished; even wealthy citizens owned little besides a trestle table, with boards that could stand in a corner or against a wall except at meal times, a few benches and three legged stools, for chairs were a rarity, and in the richest houses there was seldom more than one, which was used exclusively by the master of the household, not an easy chair, but something massive and stately, too heavy to be moved about and usually kept in place. As mentioned in chapter one, basketwork chairs were almost certainly in common use; but they had no more social prestige than a three legged stool." 

I won't go into the contradictions included even in these couple sentences. Instead I will just point out the difficulty involved in even defining what a chair is and isn't and the apophasis of talking about a piece of furniture that seemed to hardly exist.

A chair shown in the left background of Vittore Carpaccio's painting St. Augustine In His Study. (C. 1502) Pretty far out and space age for being a relatively new form of furniture. 

Taken in contrast are the words of Frances and Joseph Giles in their book, "Life In A Medieval Castle"

"A peasant's possessions consisted of three or four benches and stools, a trestle table, a chest,one or two iron or brass pots, a little pottery ware, wooden bowls, cups, and spoons, linen towels, wool blankets, iron tools, and most important, his livestock."

I will admit, no explicit mention of chairs, but the peasant's worldly goods appear to sound pretty similar to Gloag's description of the wealthy. It's not the standard Monty Python view of medieval peasants digging around in the mud and filth.

Boarded Chair shown in the Morgan Bible

The plot thickens as Penelope Eames writes in the best and most completely researched book on medieval furniture I've found  "Medieval Furniture."

"The use of important seats was not the sole prerogative of rank but was conditioned by social makeup at a particular occasion and individuals, including peasants, in their own homes might occupy a distinctive seat which they would not aspire to in a feudal lord's hall."

Here we have a connection to a "distinctive seat" in most homes. An echo of Gloag's find of a Master's Chair.

Faldstuhl or Sella Curulis shown in the Morgan Bible

I feel strongly that the jury is still out on the existence of a medieval chair and the true issue is the considerations in defining the object itself. If a chair is only four legs and a back, then it is fairly simple to make. (Though I know enough to understand simple things can be difficult to perfect.) When I think about it my mind wanders to Jennie Alexander and her book "Make A Chair From A Tree." where she writes:

"You need very few tools to go into the woods and bust a chair out of a tree. You could get by with an ax, a saw, a drawknife, a whittling knife, and a brace and bit."

One of Jennie Alexander's chairs. 

Chairs are the most important piece of furniture connected to the human experience. There is deep reverence and symbolism piled on their form, from a gilded throne of kings to the threadbare upholstery and memories covering "dad's favorite chair." They hold the origins to the phrases "Chairman of the Board," and "Seat of Authority," that convey their relevance to social norms. They are the first thing we look for after a long day of work and need a few minutes off our feet and they allow us to easily gather in groups to join in a meal, or a prayer.

Chairs are important.

Chairs have always been important . . .

. . . .to everyone.

Turned Chair shown in the Morgan Bible

One of the best things about limiting my furniture to the pieces shown in the Morgan Bible is I don't have to wade into a debate over whether or not Jim The Theoretical Medieval Peasant had something in his house he called his chair. The artisan's of the bible have gifted me with chairs to build. In fact three different types to decipher and build.

Once they're done I won't have to debase myself by sitting upon a lowly bench, basketwork chair, or three legged stool.

Three legged staked backstool built by Chris Schwarz. Definitely, probably not a chair. 

Ratione et Passionis


  1. It's not a chair when someone is trying to make an argument against it being one. :)

    Chairs go back to ancient Egypt 3000+ B.C. and probably long before. It goes part and parcel with the human form. Now, I have no idea what one would look like if our knees bent the other way though.


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