Furniture in France
An idea of the furniture of an apartment in France during the fourteenth century is conveyed by the illustration on this page, and it is very useful, because, although we have on record many descriptions of the appearance of the furniture of state apartments, we have very few authenticated accounts of the way in which such domestic chambers as the one occupied by "a knight and his lady" were arranged. The prie-dieu chair was generally at the bedside, and had a seat which lifted up, the lower part forming a boxlike receptacle for devotional books, then so regularly used by a lady of the time.
Towards the end of the fourteenth century there was in high quarters a taste for bright and rich coloring; we have the testimony of an old writer who describes the interior of the Hotel de Boheme, which, after having been the residence of several great personages, was given by Charles VI. of France in 1388 to his brother the Duke of Orleans. " In this palace was a room used by the duke, hung with cloth of gold, bordered with vermilion velvet embroidered with roses; the duchess had a room hung with vermilion satin embroidered with crossbows, which were on her coat of arms; that of the Duke of Burgundy was hung with cloth of gold embroidered with windmills. There were besides eight carpets of glossy texture with gold flowers, one representing ' the seven virtues and seven vices,' another the history of Charlemagne, another that of Saint Louis. There were also cushions of cloth of gold, twenty-four pieces of vermilion leather of Aragon, and four carpets of Aragon leather, 'to be placed on the floor of rooms in summer.' The favourite arm-chair of the Princess is thus described in an inventory - ' a chamber chair with four supports, painted in fine vermilion, the seat and arms of which are covered in vermilion morocco, or cordovan, worked and stamped with designs representing the sun, birds, and other devices bordered with fringes of silk and studded with nails.'"
The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had been remarkable for a general development of commerce; merchants of Venice, Genoa, Florence, Milan, Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp, and many other famous cities had traded extensively with the East and had grown opulent, and their homes naturally shewed signs of wealth and comfort that in former times had been impossible to any but princes and rich nobles. Laws had been made in compliance with the complaints of the aristocracy, to place some curb on the growing ambition of the " bourgeoisie "; thus we find an old edict in the reign of Philippe the Fair (1285-1314) - "No bourgeois shall have a chariot, nor wear gold, precious stones, nor crowns of gold and silver. Bourgeois not being prelates or dignitaries of state shall not have tapers of wax. A bourgeois possessing 2,000 pounds (tournois) or more, may order for himself a dress of 12 sous (The sous, which was but nominal money, may be reckoned as representing 20 francs, the denier 1 franc, but allowance must be made for the enormous difference in the value of silver, which would make 20 francs in the thirteenth century represent upwards of 200 francs in the present century.) 6 deniers, and for his wife one worth 16 sous at the most," etc., etc., etc.
This and many other similar regulations were made in vain: the trading classes became more and more powerful, and we quote the description of a furnished apartment from P. Lacroix's "Manners and Customs of the Middle Ages."
"The walls were hung with precious tapestry of Cyprus, on which the initials and motto of the lady were embroidered, the sheets were of fine linen of Rheims, and had cost more than 300 pounds, the quilt was a new invention of silk and silver tissue, the carpet was like gold. The lady wore an elegant dress of crimson silk, and rested her head and arms on pillows ornamented with buttons of oriental pearls. It should be remarked that this lady was not the wife of a great merchant, such as those of Venice and Genoa, but of a simple retail dealer who was not above selling articles for 4 sous; such being the case, we cannot wonder that Christine de Pisan should have considered the anecdote 'worthy of being immortalized in a book.'"
As we approach the end of the fourteenth century, we find canopies added to the "chaires" or "chayers a dorseret," which were carved in oak or chestnut, and sometimes elaborately gilded and picked out in color. The canopied seats were very bulky and throne-like constructions, and were abandoned towards the end of the fifteenth century; and it is worthy of notice that though we have retained our word "chair," adopted from the Norman French, the French people discarded their synonym in favour of its diminutive "chaise" to describe the somewhat smaller and less massive seat which came into use in the sixteenth century.
The skilled artisans of Paris had arrived at a very high degree of excellence in the fourteenth century, and in old documents describing valuable articles of furniture, care is taken to note that they are of Parisian workmanship. According to Lacroix, there is an account of the court silversmith, Etienne La Fontaine, which gives us an idea of the amount of extravagance sometimes committed in the manufacture and decorations of a chair, into which it was then the fashion to introduce the incrustations of precious stones; thus for making a silver arm chair and ornamenting it with pearls, crystals, and other stones, he charged the King of France, in 1352, no less a sum than 774 louis.
The use of rich embroideries at state banquets and on grand occasions appears to have commenced during the reign of Louis IX. - Saint Louis, as he is called - and these were richly emblazoned with arms and devices. Indeed, it was probably due to the fashion for rich stuffs and coverings of tables, and of velvet embroidered cushions for the chairs, that the practice of making furniture of the precious metals died out, and carved wood came into favour.
Chairs of this period appear only to have been used on very special occasions; indeed, they were too cumbersome to be easily moved from place to place, and in a miniature from some MSS. of the early part of the fifteenth century, which represents a state banquet, the guests are seated on a long bench with the back carved in the Gothic ornament of the time. In Skeat's Dictionary, our modern word "banquet" is said to be derived from the "banes" or benches used on these occasions.
The great hall of the King's Palace, where such an entertainment as that given by Charles V. to the Emperor Charles of Luxemburg would have taken place, was also furnished with three "dressoirs" for the display of the gold and silver drinking cups, and vases of the time; the repast itself was served upon a marble table, and above the seat of each of the Princes present was a separate canopy of gold cloth embroidered with fleur de lis.