Medieval Knick Knacks?
July 4, 2015 6:27 PM   Subscribe

Are there any surviving evidence of household decorations from medieval times in Europe?

I'm curious when people started the practice of making cute little figurines or other comfort items, flower decorations--- essentially when did granny decorations start happening? Colorful rugs, knitted sweaters, upholstered furniture.... I know wood carving decorations existed for a while, I'm curious about the history of carvings. items, that are purely ornamental, painted furniture, what they looked like when they started being more popular.

Are there any collections that chronicle the earliest historical evidence of items like this whether actual items, pictures or descriptions of them, and if so what websites are they or what search terms might help me find them?
posted by xarnop to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I would imagine one of your best resources are art museums. The Met, for example, has dozens of essays about the Middle Ages online. You'll have to separate out the religious art and the "strictly" art (e.g. portraiture) that it sounds like you're not interested in, but there's still a lot there.

If you are looking to trace the origin of various types of decorative arts, I suspect you won't end up in the Middle Ages a lot of the time, especially if you are willing to look to non-European cultures. There are decorative painted wood sculptures from 2000BCE Egypt, textiles and basketry in Native American cultures, decorative personal objects from ancient China and Japan, etc.

Your best bet may be to pick a type of decoration and research that, rather than start with a time period. For example, this book on painted wood and restoration gives some examples sprinkled throughout. (There are 4 parts to the pdf, but I think the second and third parts will be of the most interest to you.) I found it by searching for "painted tables history."
posted by alligatorpear at 7:27 PM on July 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

Oh, now that I've thought a little more, you should search through the V&A museum's website. The whole museum is dedicated to design and the decorative arts.
posted by alligatorpear at 7:33 PM on July 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There are indeed such things but finding a collection of them would present a problem. Many of them would have been inexpensive and not very durable, such as decorative baskets. Those that survived would probably have survived in isolation and not be found grouped with an array of different things like you are looking for.

A great percentage of the decorative art that women and poor people created were extremely perishable. For example pastry vents have been an art form for a great many years. They might not only be decorative, but also be a way of labeling the contents of the pie. There are some very old books that show some of the elaborate designs and patterns that were used. Now these books are post medieval, but it is likely that the custom of decorating pies by fluting the edges, cutting shapes out of the top crust and layering the crust to form patterns is both Medieval and Roman. However there are definitely no pies that survived the medieval period.

Granny decorations often started with a functional purpose, as sachet bags which helped keep the moths out of wool clothing put away during the summer, or cushions which helped prevent getting chilled, or knitted clothing, which was primarily for warmth. Medieval people were both poor and practical; they didn't own a lot of stuff and what they owned often had a purpose.

Another thing to consider is how dark homes were in the Medieval period. There was not a lot of window glass. Homes were often very smokey and the various sources of light were inadequate. Clutter seems to have become prevalent during the late Georgian/early Victorian era as the lighting improved and manufacturing made extraneous possessions affordable. Until then you did a lot of groping around in the dark. Kitchens were often not part of the main house, as were workshops, weaving galleries and cloisters, places where work could be done outside where there was sufficient light to do it. This probably discouraged them from having a whole lot of stuff on display inside.

At one point I read that there is considerable uncertainty where knitting began and how old it is because of the tendency for knitted objects to become felted over time. This combined with the fact that fabric was knitted prior to being deliberately felted means that you won't get an easy answer like, "Knitting was invented by Dame Elizabeth Boswick in 1327 when her three-year-old grandson Thomas broke the household weaving loom by swinging on it and the resourceful beldame came up with a new way to make jerkins for the family." Knitting is older than medieval but since knitted fabric is not as durable as woven fabric it was a much less frequent alternative.

You might want to try a search for "fairings" meaning the cheap junk you would pick up at a fair and bring home. Pilgrims would frequently make short local journeys to nearby cathedrals or shrines as they did in Chaucer's Canterbury Tale, and bring back souvenirs. Cockle shells were decorative souvenirs associated with pilgrims but local merchants also sold small items of decorative bric a brac to the visitors.

One example would be small fired but not glazed figurines, possibly given to children, moulded in the shape of a woman in fine clothes. These are German. They were made out of the white clay that is known as pipe clay. Many more of these items were made out of gingerbread which was not the cookie we know today but a mixture of breadcrumbs and honey and ginger which could be moulded and dried rock hard. The ginger in it may not have been so much a flavouring agent but a preservative to discourage insects from eating it. These gingerbread figures were often painted.

Tapestries were hung because they helped reduce draughts. They might be embroidered as was the Bayeux tapestry and many other famous examples, but poorer people were apt to use painted canvas if their wall hangings were embellished at all. Stitching a tapestry could take decades. Frescos were often painted right on the wet plaster, but plaster being perishable we only have some very famous examples such as those in Venice. English inns in a later period are recorded as having their frescos touched up or replaced perhaps every five years.

Tablecloths were absolutely essential, whether or not you dined on a table - ( people still spread a table cloth when they picnic, even if they don't use one when they have a meal on the table), but floors tended to be covered with straw or rushes, not rugs. These were not often loose, but usually woven into patterns. A floor might have several layers of straw matting. They were cheap and easy to get rid of when they got nasty as they often did, what with people coming in soaking wet, and the chickens getting into the house, and people not being entirely housebroken to modern standards. (This is not to say that medieval people were dirty - many might use a wash basin every day to clean face and hands and teeth but they had a different attitude to dirt than we did which was to try to keep it off anything that might need to be laundered. Far from wearing containing garments such as diapers or underpants, when someone was leaking they tried to keep cloth and clothing away from the source of soil. That meant that the six month old would be wearing long skirts and when he or she started to eliminate he or she would be held over the fire pit or the fireplace or just outside the front door.) Anyway, rugs would normally have been put on a bed, or a table or hung on the wall. To put them on the floor denoted an important occasion indeed and a mark of respect for the person who was permitted to walk on them.

One of the Craft guilds in London in the Medieval period was the Upholders. This is an older form of the word upholsterers, so we do know that some type of upholstery was made on a reasonably large scale. There was no toy maker's guild, nor other occupation on that list which could not be regarded as primarily utilitarian.

In poor households where there were no floors the ground was dirt, and this was commonly pounded hard to avoid producing dust and loose soil. However if desired drainage runnels and/or a pattern could be scratched into a dirt floor. This is another example of Medieval home decor that has definitely not survived to be put into a museum.

One thing to keep in mind is how few houses there were that had the kind of amenities we take for granted. Chimneys - and thus fireplaces only appeared in Europe in the 1300's. Before then all houses and even after then most houses had a fire pit in the centre of the floor and a smoke hole in the middle of the ceiling, or two vents, one at each eave. Many houses had no vents and relied on the smoke making its way through the thatch. Almost all walls were made out of wattle, which is woven branches, which was plastered; wattle walls are not strong. The material used to daub the walls tended to crumble. If the house caught on fire the inmates could burst their way through these walls and escape. People fell through them when fighting, or drunk, or sleepwalking. Sometimes the pigs burst through them to get in because they smelt something good to eat inside.

The castles you see when you tour Europe, and the two or three story timbered buildings that project over the street were by far a tiny minority of the buildings. Many of these buildings were also extended or enlarged during the Tudor or Renaissance period. If you include the 1500's in your research you get many more decent dwellings, with glass windows and chimneys and fireplaces, and your potential for the granny decorations and the surviving museum relics increase.

More importantly you'll get a lot more period art that illustrates building interiors, and I think it is here that you will most fruitfully direct your research. I can't think of any decent archive. However there are hundreds of drawings, woodcuts and paintings. There are several paintings of interiors by the Breugels but they are into the seventeenth century. You'll note that in these paintings there are not a lot of different objects. There is a basket of beer mugs in one painting, and tables and chairs and some litter on the floor and a sheaf and a cloth hanging on one wall but doesn't seem to be much of anything in sight that is not in direct use. This is definitely indicative. Of course it could simply be that the artist simplified his picture the way a good photographer will by leaving out objects that would distract the viewer from paying attention to what the artist wants, but I really think it is because Medieval people did not own very much stuff.

Another thing you might research is the inventory lists of property of women at their time of death. The problem with this is that they would likely only list items of value, not items like a wreathe of lavender which had no resale value, but only items like copper pots and candlesticks and bedsteads which did.
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:45 PM on July 4, 2015 [182 favorites]

Response by poster: Jane the Brown, that was amazing!!!! I have been just looking up the items individually like cuckoo clocks, which at least go back to the 1600's but this will give a lot of great help in my search!!! It's hard because even if you add medieval or middle ages a lot of the sites are about recreations for sale (and not even remotely about historical accuracy) so it's been kind of slow going.

I have a polish and a german grandma who I miss so part of it is that and also reading some non-grimm collections of german folk tales makes me antsy to actually know what the houses looked like inside, what the delights and comforts of my ancestors were (though I knew they were fewer and farther between I know there were some). Thank you so much, I'll start trying out some new search terms!

For those interested in answers to this question I did find this website that tells about medieval childrens toys in germany but my bad german is making it tricky to navigate lol.
posted by xarnop at 5:59 AM on July 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy perusing Karen Larsdatter's material culture link pages, which have images of a variety of medieval and early modern physical objects, sorted by topic. There's a whole page on brooms, for example, and another on Italian decorated chests.
posted by yarntheory at 7:46 AM on July 5, 2015 [10 favorites]

You can go further back than medieval times. Iirc correctly, the Neolithic dwelling of Skara Brae showed evidence of 'home making'.
posted by kariebookish at 9:32 AM on July 5, 2015

Response by poster: These pictures are fairly recent as in the past couple hundred years it looks like but they at least show more recent granny decorations!
posted by xarnop at 7:01 PM on July 7, 2015

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