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Sitting down in early medieval England: A catalogue of Anglo-Saxon chairs

After fighting their battles, tending to their fields, playing their harps, herding their cows and singing their Psalms, many an Anglo-Saxon would feel the need to put their feet up and their bottoms down. But what exactly would they sit down on? This blog provides a (by no means exhaustive) overview of seating types used in Anglo-Saxon England.

1) fyld-stōl ‘folding stool’

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Left: Reconstruction of folding stool found in Prittlewell burial chamber (source); Right: Decorated folding stools in the Old English Hexateuch © British Library, Cotton Claudius B IV, 43v, 68v.

Simple, compact and, most importantly, portable: the folding stool has been the seating accommodation of choice for a very long time. Foldable chairs have been around since c.1500 BC and were not uncommon in early medieval England. Anglo-Saxon monasteries, for instance, certainly had folding stools. This much becomes clear from the Monasteriales Indicia (‘Monastic Signs’), an Old English text which lists 127 signs used by monks during times when the Benedictine Rule forbade them to speak. One of those signs allowed a monk to gesture for a folding stool:

Gyf þu meterædere fyldstol habban wille oþþe oþrum men, þonne clæm þu þine handa togædere and gege hi þam gemete þe þu dest þonne þu hine fyalden wylt
[If you want a folding stool for the mealtime reader or anyone else, then clasp your hands together and move them in the way that you do when you want to fold it.] (ed. and trans. Banham 1996, 30-31)
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Foldable throne of Dagobert I (source)

Today, folding stools are usually equated with cheap, plastic things we use on camping trips. By contrast, a folding chair could be a sign of high social rank among the Anglo-Saxons. The richly furnished burial chamber of the so-called Prittlewell Prince (an Anglo-Saxon nobleman who lived in the 7th century), for example, contained several high-status objects, such as luxurious metal objects, laced with gold and silver, a sword, a lyre and a hanging bowl, but also a seemingly humble folding stool.

Indeed, in the early Middle Ages, curule chairs (a deluxe type of folding stool) could bear the bums of kings: Dagobert I (circa 603–39), king of the Franks 629–34, had a foldable throne, made of bronze that was later reused by other monarchs of France (more info here). Such high-status folding stools would often be beautifully ornamented – the arms of the throne of Dagobert resemble panthers, while the legs are shaped like paws. In the Old English Hexateuch, an early eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon comic strip adaptation of the first six books of the Bible (see this blog here), several high-ranking men recline on similar curule chairs with legs terminating in zoomorphic claws.

2) luxury add-ons: fōt-setl ond set-hrægl ‘footrest and seatcover’

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Portrait of prophet Ezra in the Codex Amiatinus ©Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatinus 1, fol. 5r (source)

Another type of seat one would find in Anglo-Saxon monasteries is depicted in the portrait of Ezra in the Codex Amiatinus (an 8th-century, Northumbrian copy of the Bible, intended as a gift for the pope). Ezra is shown writing a book, sitting on a small bench. While Ezra’s seating accommodation probably wouldn’t pass a present-day occupational health and safety examination, it is worth pointing out that his seat has at least two optional add-ons. For one, his feet are resting comfortably on a fōt-setl ‘foot-rest’ (literally: foot-chair or foot-seat). In addition, his bench is furbished with a comfy blue cushion. The Monasteriales Idicia once more prove that such pillows were a common sight in an early medieval English monastery:

Ðonne þu setrægel habban wille, þonne plice þu ðine agene geweda mid twam fingrum, tospred þine twa handa and gewe hi, swylce þu setl gesydian wille.

[When you want a seat cover, then pinch your own clothes with two fingers, spread out your two hands, and move them in the way that you do when you want to fold it.] (ed. and trans. Banham 1996, 30-31)

3) friþ-stōl ‘sanctuary chair’

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Frith-stools of Beverley Minster (source) and Hexham Abbey (source)

These uncomfortable looking stone chairs are known as frith-stools (lit. peace-chairs). A frith-stool was placed near the altar of a church and criminals could claim sanctuary by sitting in them. The frith-stool appears in various Latin charters from the twelfth century but some (like the ones in Beverley and Hexham) are said to date back to the seventh and eighth centuries (see Simpson 1953-1957). The word “grythstole”, indicating a similar sanctuary chair, appears in a Middle English text that claims to be a charter by King Athelstan (d. 939) for St. Wilfrid’s church in Ripon. Intriguingly, the text is in rhyme:

*Wyttyn al that is and is gan                               testify
That ik Kyng Attelstane
Has gyven as frelich as ich may
To kyrk and chaptel of seint Wylfray
Of my free *deuocon                                             devotion
Thar *pees at Rypon                                              peace, sanctuary
On *ylke syde the kirke a myle                          every
For al ille deedes and ilke *gyle                         guile
And wythinne thay kyrk *yate                           gate
At the stane that grythstole hatte
Withinne the kyrke dore and the *quere       choir
Thay have thayre pees for less and mare.

(Simpson 1953-57; I have added Modern English glosses for the words marked with an asterisk)

4) gif-stōl ‘gift-chair, throne’

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William the Conqueror and Edward the Confessor on the Bayeux Tapestry

One of the Old English words for throne is gif-stōl: literally, the seat whence the lord would bestow gifts on his loyal followers. The thrones occupied by Edward the Confessor (d. 1066) and William the Conqueror (d. 1087) on the Bayeux Tapestry both show a zoomorphic design: fashionable animal paws and heads decorate the extremities of their seats.

5) medu-benc ‘mead-bench, drinking-bench’

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Drinking-bench © British Library, Cotton Tiberius B V, 4v

In Beowulf, we occasionally read about mead-benches and beer-seats. In this world of hardened warriors, we should probably imagine simple, wooden benches: certainly no monkish cushions! A more luxurious (and comfortable) piece of furniture is illustrated in a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon calendar page for the month of April. The illustration depicts ‘feasting’ (this is the ‘Labour of the Month’ for April!)  and shows three men enjoying a drink on an elongated seat. The seating part of this drinking-bench is covered with a sheet of some sort and on either end of the seat is the front half of a beast – a lion on the left and a boar(?) with impressive tusks on the right. When it came to fashionable furniture, it seems, animals were all the rage!

Works referred to:

  • Banham, D., ed. and trans., Monasteriales Indicia: The Anglo-Saxon Monastic Sign Language, exp. edn. Hockwold-cum-Wilton: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1996.
  • Simpson, J., ‘A Note on the Word Friðstóll‘, Saga-Book of the Viking Society 14 (1953-1957), 200-210.

 

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1 Comment

  1. Chris Monk says:

    Really interesting, Thijs. I had not twigged about those seats in the Hexateuch being folding chairs. Makes complete sense. And I love the references from the Anglo-Saxon sign language. I need to get Debbie Banham’s book. Thanks for a great, informative and fun post.

    Liked by 1 person

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