Furniture and Interiors

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Furniture and Interiors



Floors, Ceilings, Doors, Windows. The ground floor of the typical late medieval peasant's home might be no more than beaten earth, though by the early-modern era most peasants used lesser quality oakwood as floorboards or inlaid ceramic tiles, which were common in urban dwellings. Wealthier Europeans enjoyed the use of “leaded tiles,” which were regular tiles covered with a graphite-based enamel. Ground floors, in peasant homes as well as in the palaces of the rich, were covered with straw in the winter and with herbs and flowers in the summer. Though this covering was theoretically to be changed, it often was not, and new straw or herbs were merely thrown on top of the old, creating, ultimately, a compressed mat of dirt and garbage. Rugs were rare, even in the homes of the wealthy, and certainly few peasants possessed them. Sir Thomas More affirmed his high social and political status by having Hans Holbein paint a portrait of his family with its members assembled on a large living-room carpet. By the seventeenth century, however, Europe's wealthy were covering their tables, chests, and cupboards with carpets. Walls in the homes of the rich were adorned with elaborate tapestries, while wealthier peasants and the urban poor relied upon wallpaper because it was inexpensive. As the aesthetic quality of wallpaper dramatically improved, it was no longer regarded as the poor man's decoration and, by the late seventeenth century, became prevalent even in Western Europe's finer homes. Sometimes, in lieu of wallpaper or tapestries, interior walls were covered with oak paneling for added insulation. Depending on the resources of the house, such paneling could be ornately carved, painted, or gilded.

Ground-floor ceilings, in those homes higher than one story, were merely the boarding of the second floor; second-floor ceilings were the boarding of the attic. These were simple and crude, though wealthier urban families, particularly in Italy, and after 1600, began to gild or paint their ceilings. In Russia the ceilings, even in the wealthiest nobles’ homes, were extremely low in order to preserve heat. The outside doors of most homes were fairly narrow,

and not simply because the houses themselves were narrow. Preserving heat in winter was a paramount concern, and so the doors of homes were designed to be as small as possible. Windows, when present, might even lack glass; in many homes, especially those of the peasants, windows were simply wooden shutters, which could open and close to let air in during the warmer months. The wealthier homes could afford glass windows, but the glass used throughout most of Europe until the seventeenth century was leaded, making it too heavy to move, not to mention exorbitantly expensive. It was not until the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries that transparent, movable glass windows were developed. These were introduced throughout Europe at widely different times. Thus, transparent windows were common even in peasant homes by the 1560s, but were still absent in southern France, Spain, and French-speaking Switzerland in the 1630s. In Russia, where glass was introduced in the seventeenth century, and in Scandinavia, many rooms in nobles’ palaces remained windowless in order to conserve heat during the cold and prolonged winters, and the few windows present were extremely small. Ventilating and lighting one's home were, in general, problems shared by all Europeans.

Peasant Furnishings. The average peasant home did not possess nearly as much furniture as homes today do. Because wood was becoming an increasingly valuable commodity during this age and was the sole source for building, for heat, and for fuel with which to cook, peasants did not make furniture from newly cut timber, but from scrap wood. A great deal of the peasants’ furniture was constructed from pieces of dismantled or collapsed wooden buildings, and rare was the household with many pieces. Specialized furniture makers and joiners did not even emerge from the generalized “carpenter” rank until the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and so what furniture there was before that time tended to be very heavy, solid, and unsophisticated. Given that the Domostroi, a sixteenth-century guidebook for “better living,” repeatedly mentions the need of Muscovite aristocrats to acquire pads, so as to make the hardwood furniture tolerable, one can only wonder at how the average peasant home was furnished.

Beds. In peasant Europe, beds were really nothing more than some sewn material filled with straw. The wealthier peasants had goose-feather or woolen mattresses. Generally, the beds were put along the walls of the one-room house in the dark corners to maximize what little privacy could be achieved. It seems to have been customary in rural Saxony for parents to let the children sleep on stuffed floor mattresses, while they themselves slept on spanbetten, which were wooden frames that lifted the mattress a bit off the floor, like a contemporary futon. Many peasants simply slept on straw laid out on the floor, and not too far, in winter, from their livestock. In winter, peasants who owned beds would place them in the kitchen if their home lacked a stove and was heated only by the kitchen hearth. Parents and younger children often slept together, as a means of keeping the family warm enough to survive frigid winter nights. Unfortunately, this practice resulted in a substantially high number of infant deaths, as babies and younger children were frequently crushed to death during the night.


The first item is excerpted from François Rabelais's novel Gargantua (1534), This passage describes the interior and exterior decoration of the Thélèmites’ Abbey, a palace built and furnished by the novel's hero, Gargantua. Not a religious abbey in the usual sense, its decor represents an ideal to which the wealthiest nobles of France might aspire. Although drawings circulated widely, hardly anyone in Europe had seen living African animals. Thus, Rabelais believes the hippopotamus has a horn. The final two items, reproduced exactly as they were written, are carefully detailed inventories of the Lutheran pastors who served the Saxon town of Prettin in the 1530s and 1550s, respectively. The inventories provide good examples of what relatively well-off small town homes would contain. Given the detail, note the relative lack of furniture. The appraisers did not forget these items; the furniture simply did not exist. Note the difference in luxury between the residents of Rabelais's fictitious palace and the Saxon pastors. Note too that, aside from books, wall-hangings, and mirrors, this early-sixteenth-century ideal palace is also sparsely furnished by today's standards.

The ceilings were of Flanders plaster in circular patterns. The roof was covered in fine slates with a lead coping, which bore figures of grotesques and small animals, gilded and in great variety, and with gutters projecting from the walls between the casements, painted in gold-and-blue diagonals to the ground, where they flowed into great pipes, which all led to the river below the house. The said building . . . contained 9332 apartments, each one provided with an inner chamber, a closet, wardrobe, and chapel. . . . [There was] an internal winding stair(case), the steps of which were, some of porphyry, some of Numidian marble, and some of serpentine. . . . [There were] fine great libraries of Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, Italian, and Spanish books, divided story by story according to their languages. . . . [There were] fine wide galleries, all painted with ancient feats of arms, histories, and views of the world.... [Inside the private rooms] were fine, long, spacious galleries, decorated with paintings, with horns of stags, unicorns, rhinoceroses, and hippopotami, with elephants’ tusks and with other remarkable objects. . . . Every hall, room, and closet was hung with various tapestry, according to the season of the year. All the floors were covered with green cloth. The beds were embroidered. In each retiring room was a crystal mirror, set in a fine gold frame embellished all around with pearls, and it was large enough to give a true reflection of the whole figure.

Inventory of the pastor's homestead [1534]: six horses; seven cows; two oxen; one pony; three young calves; one sow; one male pig; sixteen suckling pigs; thirty hens and two roosters; three various-sized candlesticks; a locked-table and the keys to it; two iron barrels; one tin and one lead saltshaker; two cauldrons, one large and one small; four other cauldrons of different sizes, almost too damaged to be of any use; two fish pans, one iron and one copper; one mortar; one brass sieve; one wash tub; seven kegs with which to store drink; five kegs of beer and another keg containing sediment; five bushels of rye grain; five slabs of salted pork; a stocking partially filled with butter; some hard cheese and some soft; a bushel of rape-seed; four hides of land; an old wagon with two wheels; two chains, one long and one short; one large wooden peg; two harrrows for ploughing.

Inventory of the pastor's homestead [1555]: three pigs; one sow; three kegs of beer; four cows, one of which was recently purchased; one ox; one cauldron with an iron ring and an iron hook [from which to hang it]; one copper fish pan; ten old kegs for storing beer, very poor quality; six old quarter kegs, little used; one copper blast-oven; one locked-table; three tin keys; [several] candlesticks; two saltshakers; one mortar; one copper sieve; one large copper wash basin; one copper lamp; one iron, three-legged pot; three iron barrels on legs; one iron mortar for making sausages; one wood-framed bed; one small tin measuring cup; cheese; twelve hens and a rooster; one bushel of rape-seed; six bushels of grain; seven bushels of straw; two cart-loads of hay.

Sources: Karl Pallas, ed., Die Registntturen der Kinhmvisitatim im ehemals sächsischm Kurkreise, volume 3 (Halle, Germany; Mendel, 1906-1918), p. 16.

François Rabelais, Garmntna and Pant&gruel (New York: Penguin, 1955), pp. 151-156.

Tables. For eating tables, most peasants used the end of a barrel, which simultaneously stored their home-brewed beer. Others had long, narrow tables, which were placed in front of the open hearth, enabling the diners to sit on an equally long bench with their backs to the fire. The desire for warmth, as well as the absence of individual chairs (early-modern Europeans really preferred the bench) necessitated rectangular-shaped tables, which are still common today, even though the limitations that mandated their design have been overcome. Thus, the round table of Arthurian legend was special not only because it eliminated status hierarchies among the knights; it also symbolized the luxury of Camelot, for to enjoy such a table one would have to own many individual chairs as well as be able to heat a room from all of its sides.

Chests. Some peasants had a “locked-chest” to safeguard their money and any valuable document, such as a deed, that they might have. Surviving chests resemble large wooden lockers or wardrobes more than present-day chests of drawers. These chests were constructed from heavy, irregularly shaped planks that would be made to fit together with joints and with strips of iron nailed across them. Heavy iron locks were attached to the iron bands in the front. The chest was clearly a source of pride for the early-modern peasant home. In fact, in one famous trial from the 1550s, testimony about a family's chest served as a crucial piece of evidence. Two men had “returned” to a mountain village in southern France, both claiming to be the same individual who had left many years earlier. A dramatic part of the trial revolved around whether or not each man could identify what, exactly, his family stored in its chest. Many churches had these chests as well, and used them to secure communion wine, consecrated hosts (which were a valuable commodity on the black market, since people used them for medicine, good-luck charms, and as an ingredient in love potions), the weekly offerings, and important documents, like the baptism and wedding registers. It is thus in Europe's older churches that today's travelers have the best chance of seeing such a chest—the church of St. Sylvestri in Wernigerode, Germany, has an excellently preserved locked-chest. Those peasants who could not afford such a chest might own a “locked table,” which, like a modern office desk, contained an underneath drawer in which valuables could be safely stored.

Cupboards, Tubs, and Crates. Many peasants also had cupboards hung on the kitchen walls, where they kept their tin and wood candlesticks, wooden plates, spoons, tankards, bowls, and iron knives, pots, pans, and kettles. (No forks, since knives served a dual function.) The cupboard, as a discreet piece of furniture, was originally no more than a series of small chests attached to one another, and in many homes the cupboards probably remained as such. The kitchen also would have had several wooden tubs and crates in which cheeses, lard, and various grains could be stored.

Few Luxuries. Though the house might contain a few stools, other pieces of furniture, such as card tables, buffet tables, night tables, soft armchairs, chests of drawers, and bureaus, were completely lacking; such possessions only became common in nonnoble houses during the first half of the eighteenth century. Indeed, visitors today to Martin Luther's home in Wittenberg may be surprised to see just how spartan the decor of even a famous university professor and best-selling author could be. In the Luther family parlor, exhibited as it appeared in the mid 1530s, one sees a room with a rather low wooden ceiling, with wooden planks making up the floor. A heating stove occupies one corner, and in the adjacent corner a rather narrow wooden bench is built into a wooden portion of wall. In front of the bench is a small table. Except for the area around the bench, the walls are stone, and the room's one window is leaded and opaque. A small chest of drawers sits in front of the window. Such was the living room of a relatively highly paid scholar, who certainly enjoyed more comfort than the average peasant. But the peasant's home would be crowded enough, with all the stored grain, people, and animals under one roof.

The Wealthy. In Western Europe, beds became increasingly fancy, and, by the end of the early-modern era, included posts of elaborately carved wood, canopies, and tapestries or expensive serge curtains. Mattresses were stuffed with wool, and the pillows were down. The wealthy had more, and better quality, tables placed around their home than their peasant counterparts had. In the bedroom these tables, usually cloth-covered, kept candlesticks, books, powders and perfumes, and brushes and combs. Wealthy men might also have had a studiolo in the bedroom, a piece of furniture that resembled a modern secretary and had lockable drawers where important papers were secured. (The name also refers to a private and small study room.) Unlike peasants, Western Europe's wealthy enjoyed the use of mirrors, and their bedrooms were filled with dressers, built-in shelves, and screens for dressing. The wealthiest aristocrats had toilets in their private homes, located in antechambers adjoining the bedrooms, but these lacked running water and required periodic cleaning and disposal by socially dishonorable and little-paid cesspit-emptiers. In Russia, nobles’ furniture was noted for being quite heavy. Carpets, pillows, throw rugs, and large cloths were thrown over the bulky pieces of furniture to make them more lavish. Beds, benches, tables, and chests were the main pieces; chairs were relatively scarce in early-modern Russia, and only the wealthiest of sixteenth-century nobles would even own one.


Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century, “The Structures of Everyday Life,” translated by Siân Reynolds, volume 1 (New York: Harper & Row, 1979).

Alain Collomp, “Families: Habitations and Cohabitations,” in A History of Private Life: Passions of the Renaissance, edited by Roger Chartier, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989).

Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983).

Susan Karant-Nunn, Luther's Pastors: The Reformation in the Ernestine Countryside (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1979).

Richard Marius, Thomas More (New York: Knopf, 1984).

Carolyn Johnston Pouncy, ed. and trans., The Domostroi: Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994).