Early Middle Ages Furniture: History & Design

Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

Life was very difficult in the Early Middle Ages, and the furniture of this time period reflected that. Furniture, which was designed as functional and portable rather than beautiful, was related mainly to the bedroom and kitchen.

Early Middle Ages Furniture: History and Design

Imagine a time long ago. Life was short and often brutal, with the average human living only into his or her thirties. The Middle Ages began in 426, when Rome fell, and lasted until 1453. Much of this time is lost in the darkness of history, as record keeping was in its infancy. The daily struggle to survive left little room for art or beauty, but people still managed. This lesson will focus on the furniture of the Early Middle Ages.

Above all, furniture in the Early Middle Ages was functional. Often, one piece would have several functions. For the vast majority of people, life was dangerous and unsettled. There was very little in the way of luxury, and most people owned nothing (including furniture) that was not directly related to their survival.

Life in the Middle Ages

Europe in the Middle Ages was primarily composed of small kingdoms and lordships, which were often at each other's throats. This caused a lot of upheaval. Everything most people owned had to be portable, as families spent lots of time on the move, fleeing from danger or starvation or disease. The other thing all of the possessions had in common was that they needed to help protect the people from the winters in Northern Europe, which were long and cold and dark.

In addition, most of the furniture in these houses had to do with eating and sleeping (or better yet, both) because that was what was necessary for life.

Types of Furniture

The single most important piece of furniture to the medieval peasant was the chest, also called a coffer or trunk. This was made from the trunk of a tree and banded in iron. This was a vital piece of furniture because it fit the requirements of furniture at that time: it was portable and it had many different functions.

The chest was used as a place to store things, obviously, but it had many other uses as well. In many households, the chest was used as a place for sitting and sleeping, as well as a table and a place to keep objects safe.

The chest had many uses.
The chest had many uses

The cupboard, or cabinet, was a place to both store and serve food. Like the modern hutch, it had cabinets and drawers. It also often had a flat surface where food could be placed.

The table was originally a board, or slab of wood, just placed on two tree stumps or other convenient surfaces. It evolved into a trestle table made of plain wood, often oak, which could be easily moved when it had to be.

Seating was a bit of a problem for the peasants. They sometimes had benches or stools, which could also be used for sleeping. In richer houses, you might find a chair or two. Around this time, chairs that could be folded were popular, as they could be moved easily from place to place.

Beds, which started out as simple boards, evolved during this period to the four-post beds we know today. Mattresses, for those fortunate enough to have them, were stuffed with straw. Blankets made of wool or sometimes fur were used to conserve warmth. Curtains, which were initially used around beds for warmth only, became elaborate affairs in the more noble households.

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