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Medieval Home Furnishings

In the White Tower (which, much to my disappointment, is not white; they stopped whitewashing it a couple of centuries ago), we found a lovely bedroom, outfitted as it would have been during the middle ages for the king. I have to confess, I can’t remember the exact century of this room, but I believe it to be the 1200’s; it’s definitely after Richard the Lionheart, as the arms of England there on the fireplace feature the third lion that he added.

The overall room. Isn’t it fun? Since Stuart and I are planning on building ourselves a medieval manor house, we will have a room similarly outfitted. One of the most noticeable features of this room is how very light it is for a castle. There was one window open to the right, and I believe another one open behind Stuart. But the two windows along the wall with the fireplace were closed. So, a lot of light for only a couple of windows. Not at all what you would expect in a stone castle.

The reason for the lightness lays in the fact that the walls are whitewashed. Obviously people in the middle ages figured out that white reflects light and that a white wall makes a room brighter than a dark gray stone wall. I have no idea why they painted the walls to look like blocks, however; I assume they just liked the pattern. The “blocks” on the walls feature a stylized flower and vine, while there is a frieze of running vines along the top. The chimney hood also has a block pattern, but with just the flower. Around the fireplace hood are painted costs of arms, including the arms of England, but I do not know who the other arms belong to.

One thing interesting about the room is the fireplace. We are most accustomed to seeing a fireplace set back into the wall, but this fireplace juts out into the room. The signs posted said that medieval people, with their primitive chimneys, found that this was the best way to get more heat into the room and lose less of it up the chimney.

Something that’s unfortunately not readily visible in this picture are the window shutters. Long before the invention of curtains, medieval people had interior shutters on their windows. Before glass came into use in windows, these shutters kept out the cold and the damp. Even after the invention of glass windows, though, these were still used to help stop drafts and to close up the window, just as we use blinds and shades on our windows today. These shutters were painted with the arms of England on the inside (I don’t know if they are painted on the other side). As I have read about painted shutters before, this style of decoration was not limited just to the king’s bedchamber.

The trunk. Trunks were very important in medieval households, as they were our equivalent of the clothes closet and linen closet, combined with a safe. People would not only store their clothing and bed linens and furs in the chest, but they would also lock up their money, their expensive dishes (although dishes might have had a separate trunk) and even their teas and spices; saffron could cost as much as gold ounce for ounce. This trunk, of course, is a beautiful specimen of blacksmithing.

A close-up of the wrought andirons in the fireplace. You can also catch a glimpse of some pillows in the windowsill; they obviously liked their window seats in the middle ages as much as we do. Of course, before the advent of gas lamps and then, later, electricity, sitting as near to a window as possible was a requirement when reading or doing any sort of embroidery work.

Unfortunately this picture blurred because of the light from the candelabra. But you can get a general sense of the shape of it, as well as see the style of stool.

The private chapel just off the bedroom. I can’t recall if all the tiles are original, but they are, at the very least, copies of the originals.

A picture of the walls and ceiling in the chapel at Sterling Castle. I believe that it was Mary, Queen of Scots, who commissioned the decoration in the chapel as part of the festivities for her son, James’s, christening. She spared no expense on the event, even setting off fireworks, which were the first ever seen in Scotland.

Sterling is a late medieval/Renaissance period castle. While it was certainly in use well before that time, Robert the Bruce had it torn down when he retook the region. The one earlier medieval section that survived, the King’s and Queen’s apartments, burned and were completely destroyed (during the 1800’s, I believe). Robert had the castle destroyed, not because he didn’t need a castle in Sterling, but because it was a huge liability. A few dozen men could hold the castle against hundreds of attackers; should even a small band of English slip around him and get back in control of the castle, it would cost Robert dearly to retake it. Therefore, most of the buildings left are from the 1400’s or later.

A picture of one of the unicorn tapestries they are remaking at Sterling.

They are currently in the process of restoring the 15th century King’s and Queen’s apartments at Sterling (slated to be completed in 2011). They know from records that the apartments were lavishly hung with tapestries, so, in an effort to set the mood of the place, they are hand-weaving tapestries to hang in the remodeled apartments. At the moment, the three they have completed are hanging in the chapel (above). They are copying the famous unicorn tapestry, which is now housed in the Met in New York, and which is comprised of (I believe it was) 8 panels. They have one facility off-site weaving one panel, but they also have one facility there in a modern building in the castle weaving a panel as well. When I visited, they were nearly done with their panel, which will have taken them nearly 4 years to complete. They are on schedule to have all of the panels completed by the time the restoration of the Royal Apartments is completed, and they will have their permanent home in there.

I had a chance to talk with one of the weavers for a short time and learned some interesting tidbits. They are weaving the tapestry from (chemically-dyed) wool and mercerized cotton threads. When I asked why cotton instead of silk, the weaver told me that the silk didn’t last but about 50 years before it began to disintegrate. I found this odd since silk is one of the few fibers to survive well in burial. The weaver said, “Oh, no, medieval silk was quite long-lasting; it’s the modern stuff that doesn’t hold up.” This led me to thinking about cabbages. I read a story in one of the “Foxfire” books about a man who grew up before and during the Depression, and his family raised cabbages as a cash crop. He said that they had one harvest of cabbages a year back then, but today they have fast-growing hybrid cabbages, and you can get two harvests a year from them. “But,” he sniffed, “they rot in a couple of weeks. Our cabbages lasted for a couple of months.” This makes me wonder if modern silk worms have been hybridized like the cabbages; have they been bred for speedy silk production which, in turn, lessens the durability of their silk?

The other possibility is processing. While talking to someone on the 18th Century Women’s Yahoo Group, this came up and she mentioned modern linen. It seems that linen, prior to wholesale factory production, was spun from very long flax fibers. However, as machine production increased, it was found that existing machines didn’t spin such long fibers very well. Rather than invent machines just for spinning linen, the fibers were cut up shorter and spun on the same machines as are used for cotton. That is why modern linen has those little slubs in it; medieval, and indeed 18th century linen, would have never been slubby. And because it was originally made from long, continuous fibers, it would have lasted much longer with wear. It may be that silk is being processed in an equally fast, but slap-dash manufacturing process which weakens the fibers so that thread and fabric deteriorate more quickly.

Due to the years of labor and, undoubtedly, millions and millions of dollars (pounds) spent on the Sterling tapestries, they decided to use the mercerized cotton in place of silk because it had similar sheen properties, but lasted longer. If you had spent all of that money and time, you wouldn’t want your tapestries falling apart any time soon, would you? That was also their reasoning behind using chemical dyes: they retain their color longer through both sunlight and age. You’ll note that the tapestry above is very vibrant; very much unlike the reproduction tapestries made for the average home today--which go so far as to reproduce the aging. These tapestries are made to look new, as they would have looked when originally installed in the Royal Apartments. It should be noted that the unicorn tapestry panels that they are replicating were never in Sterling Castle originally, but they were chosen for reproduction because they are the best surviving example of tapestry from the same time period. Also, the unicorn—which is symbolic of Christ—was a very popular theme in tapestries, and they do know that there were tapestries featuring unicorns in the Apartments, even though they don’t know exactly what sort of scenes were depicted.

Go to another section:

Medieval and Roman Jewelry
Medieval Fabric Pieces (including knit)
Medieval Shoes, Pattens and Misc. Wearables
14th and 15th Century Clothing (representations only)
Late Medieval Armor (as it relates to fabric only)
Medieval Home Furnishings
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