Medieval woodworking part 1

Some requests are hard to say no to. Especially those that come from your mother.

Fen Ditton, a village my parents don’t quite live in (village life being far too metropolitan), is celebrating its 800th anniversary this year. There is some debate as to whether this is justified but let’s not get bogged down in historiographical details. Mum says the village is 800 years old this year and it would take a much braver man than I to argue with her.

I’ve been asked (is ‘asked’ the right word?) to give a demonstration of woodworking as it might have been at the time of the village’s founding. This post is going to concentrate on my research and use of sources so if you want to jump straight to the woodwork go to part 2.

Most academic writing seems to start with an apology and confession of limitations. I wouldn’t for one moment suggest that this is academic but here’s my mea culpa:

I’m using three types of source: the archaeological record, documents, including illustrations from before, during and after the period in question and surviving furniture. There are problems with each.

The archaeological record is very patchy. I’m discussing a geographical area which has little archaeological research from the period and so am using sources from the same time but further afield. The most extensive comparable archaeological find I’m aware of is from York. The finds are detailed in Wood and Woodworking in Anglo-Scandinavian YorkIt’s an impressive piece of work and very readable.

However the archaeological record is a minute snapshot of artefacts from various time periods. The skeptics have an argument that goes something like this:

Archaeologist: “Here is an unusual lock found in a midden. It shows us what kind of locks people put on their chests.

Skeptic: “No. It doesn’t. It shows us what kind of locks they threw away.”

But when several digs find the same things we can call it a pattern and be happier making extrapolations.

In my demonstration I will be discussing the lives and works of ordinary people, not the ruling classes. This presents a problem. History may well have been written by the victors but it was also written by the rich. And it rarely records the lives of the poor. Most documentary sources are accounts of the ruling classes and the illustrations rarely show the peasantry.


The Bedford Book of Hours is one of the most lavishly illustrated documents that survives from any time close to the period. It was written at least a century after the first villagers settled in what is now Fen Ditton but as progress in design, architecture and engineering was fairly slow in the medieval period I feel comfortable that the illustrations are as useful as they would have been had they been made a hundred years earlier. Which isn’t very. The Book of Hours was a prayer book and was made for the most privileged people of the day to celebrate them. One image, of a building under construction, might look extremely valuable to our cause:

It shows the tools we believe were used at the time: T handled augers with a spoon tip for drilling holes, a bow saw for smaller work, axes aplenty, a couple of chisels and planes. Mostly these tie in with the artefacts found at Coppergate in York from a similar period.

bedford_book_of_hours_long_planeThere are some interesting anomalies as well. That’s a very orderly stack of very wide boards behind this carpenter. MDF? Plywood? Insulation board? Of course not. But if we were to accept this at face value we might also assume that these chaps had access to some impossibly wide wood. The plane he’s using begs a lot  of questions too. Given the two handles is he using it correctly? bedford_book_of_hours_plane_mallet_auger_axeWould it be used by more than one person? Does it cut both ways? That little plane next to him and the one on the other side of the drawing, sent me scampering back to the finds at York. Were plane irons held in with morticed dowels? My assumption was that they would have been like C18th planes – the throat carved out leaving cheeks with an abutment that holds the iron. Many modern woodworkers would see that dowel as a recent development from James Krenov.

bedford_book_of_hours_nailsWhen you go looking for evidence of what you want to believe you find it very quickly. Christopher Schwarz tells us that “Nails have been at the core of fine woodwork since Roman times.” One of the pieces I’m building for the demonstration will be a nailed chest and here those nails are. bedford_book_of_hours_pegsHowever I’m also led to believe that mortice and tenon joints, introduced by the Romans, disappeared in the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Scandinavian period and came back in the middle ages. The Bedford Book of Hours is certainly from the middle ages and shows the construction of a grand building that isn’t representative of structures our Ditton peasants would have lived in. Here is a carpenter banging pegs into what can only be a mortice and tenon – the foundation of timber framed buildings.
There’s a danger that I use this source to support what I want to say rather than what it shows. But hold on. How accurate are these drawings? If we look outside the carpentry for a moment what else does it show:


An angel flying across the sky.


Ships on the same stretch of water but with the wind coming from different directions.

And a shepherd leading a mixed flock of lambs, bears, lions and wolves.


If I were considering this source as a document for researching marine history or animal husbandry  a quick glance would lead me to throw it in the nearest ditch (or Ditton).

Finally, and perhaps most problematically, we can use surviving furniture to tell us how things were made. Fortunately there are several very well documented pieces from the period or a little after. Antique dealers hold and sell them. But they have a vested interested in overstating their age (sorry antique dealers – no offence intended).The V&A holds a number and they have been documented in English Medieval Furniture and Woodwork. Many of the pieces that survive are large, highly carved or bound with iron straps. They were not peasants’ chests. They belonged to the church or nobility. Some people point to these pieces as records of contemporaneous construction techniques. All they really do is tell us how things were not made.

For me this is the most important lesson from the three sources. We can identify what hasn’t been recorded or preserved. No dovetailed chests. No mortice and tenoned panels. We can be fairly sure of how not to build 13th century furniture. That’s not a bad start.