A Shortage of Storage: Building a 15th Century Chest – Part I

Dada a extensão deste artigo, achei por bem publicar as versões inglesa e portuguesa em separado. Para a versão portuguesa, cliqueaqui.

To live is to accumulate stuff, and accumulating reenactment kit takes up its space. Clothes, accessories, weapons, things divers; everything requires a little nook of its own, and no wardrobe or storage box is infinite. So, I decided to combine business with pleasure, as it were, and engage in a medium-term project: a small chest in which to store my historical belongings.

Selecting a Model

Big domestic chest in a bedroom. Detail from the Turin-Milan Book of Hours, fol. 93v.

As I had the opportunity to explain when I recently presented a large chest from the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon (here), the chest was the workhorse of the medieval home: ‘lt was used for everything, even as a bed (…) In the chest were kept the household linen, the various items of clothing, books, dishes, and objects of adornment’ [1]. These varied uses resulted in different types and sizes of chest, as well as different construction methods. Therefore, wanting to build a storage chest first involves selecting a suitable model to follow. For someone like me, as skilled in carpentry as a fish on astrophysics , the main criteria for selecting a model would have to be these:

a) my model chest or chests would have to be 15th century pieces, solidly dated to 1450-1490. Preference given to Iberian chests or English, French, or Flemish/Burgundian models (all territories with whom the Portuguese had close cultural ties);

b) again, due to a lack of skills, the chest would have to be as plain as possible. That means no ornate surfaces, and very little ironwork. Furthermore, it would have to be a six-plank chest (two side planks, a front and a back plank, a bottom plank, and a lid), one of the most common models at the time, and probably the easiest to build;

c) The chest couldn’t be a very big one. Not only don’t I have a lot of space to work with, but more materials cost more, and are harder to work with – the bigger the boards and edges, the more difficult the work becomes (and the greater the opportunity to make a mistake).

After much searching for 15th century chests that met these conditions – a much harder task than one might think; there were very few left as it is – I eventually found the following English specimen (here) which met all my requirements:

English chest, 1450-1500. © Marhamchurch Antiques, all rights reserved to the authors.

As you can see, it’s a nice chest, “most probably used as a domestic stool and chest due to its small size” [2], made of six adized oak planks, nailed together, with hinges inside the lid and a lock.

Materials and Dimensions

Oak, the wood par excellence of medieval furniture, is an expensive and difficult wood to work with, but it is far from being the only type of wood used at the time, as I have already explained. The wood I ended up choosing, pine, serves several purposes at the same time: it is native to Portugal (no, seriously!), it is historically correct, cheap, extremely easy to source and to work with. All advantages, except for durability – for there is a reason why no medieval pine furniture exists in Portugal.

This model’s dimensions – 90.17 cm wide, 46.99 cm high and 30.48 cm deep – are based on English inches, of course (in Imperial units: 35.5″ x 18.5″ x 12″). In Portugal, medieval measurements were based on three standard measures, quite uniform throughout the country [3]: the vara, or rod (1.1 m), the côvado, or cubit (0.66 m, or 66 cm), and the palmo, or palm (0.22 m or 22 cm) [4]. Therefore, for the sake of consistency (and I would be lying if I said the Portuguese system isn’t easier to measure with), it was necessary to adjust the values of the original chest.

Thus, in the first version of this conversion, the 90.17 cm in width were increased to 88 cm, i.e. 4 palmos; the 46.99 cm in height was decreased to 44 cm, i.e. two palmos; and the depth of 30.48 cm was adjusted to 33 cm, corresponding to one and a half palmos or a meio côvado (a “half cubit”) [5]. Easy and historically correct measurements, right? Unfortunately, as Helmut Moltke almost said, No plan survives first contact with the enemy

[1] Oliveira Marques, A. (1971). Daily Life in Portugal in the Late Middle Ages. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, p. 127.

[2] Dealer’s description at http://www.marhamchurchantiques.com/antique/late-medieval-boarded-chest/ .

[3] Though they were uniform, that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a lot of fiddling about with them, and many small local variances. See Barroca, M. (1992). “Medidas-padrão medievais portuguesas”. In Revista da Faculdade de Letras, 2ª série, 9. Porto: Faculda de Letras da Universidade do Porto, pp. 56-61.

[4] These measures are the so-called craveira measurements (craveira meant divider, an instrument to measure a distance between two points, vaguely similar to a compass). There was another system of measurements, de medir pano, i.e. “to measure cloth”, also known as “commercial” measurements, whose subdivisions were named the same, but smaller in length. For a brief overview of this issue see Viana, M. (1999). “Algumas medidas lineares medievais portuguesas: o astil e as varas”. In Arquipélago. História, 2ª série, 3. Ponta Delgada: Universidade dos Açores, pp. 487-493.

[5] Barroca, M. (1992), op. cit., p. 55.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Barroca, M. (1992). “Medidas-padrão medievais portuguesas”. In Revista da Faculdade de Letras, 2ª série, 9. Porto: Faculda de Letras da Universidade do Porto, pp. 53-85

Oliveira Marques, A. (1971). Daily Life in Portugal in the Late Middle Ages. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press

Viana, M. (1999). “Algumas medidas lineares medievais portuguesas: o astil e as varas”. In Arquipélago. História, 2ª série, 3. Ponta Delgada: Universidade dos Açores, pp. 487-493

VISUAL SOURCES

Turin-Milan Book of Hours (ca. 1420?). Turin: Museo Civico dArte Antica, inv. no. 47.

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