Little English furniture survives from medieval times, and, as on the Continent, information must be sought in contemporary references and from the picture of domestic interiors in illustrated manuscripts. Most of these manuscripts are of French or Flemish origin, but they furnish reliable evidence on English interiors because the governing classes, who were practically the sole possessors of proper furniture, copied the domestic habits of the Continent. English oak was the chief material, but softer woods also were used. A certain amount of furniture was imported from abroad, providing new ideas for the English carpenter and joiner. The furniture usually found in important houses consisted of beds, chests, cupboards, tables, benches, and stools.
Cupboards, dressoirs, and credence (sideboard or buffet) tables were used for the storing of plate and for serving at banquets, the plate being displayed on the top and on shelves above and below the main serving surface. Top shelves were sometimes cantilevered or projected on brackets to free the front corners of this surface for use. Other cupboards were made to hold food and day-to-day provisions; in the case of food, or dole cupboards as they were called, the front and sides were pierced for ventilation. Medieval beds are known from documents and a few late examples. Recalling Egyptian beds, throughout most of this period a diagonal surface, lifting the head high, was common. Some beds had daringly cantilevered ceilings supported from the headboards.
Early in the 16th century a new style of bed design appeared; the greater part of the frame was left exposed and was enriched with carving and other decoration, making the frame itself an important part of the design. Favourite carvers' motifs for beds and other types of furniture included strapwork, grotesque masks, and caryatids (draped female figures), bulbous turned pillars and supports, arcading (decorating consisting of arches or arcades), and patterns of scrolled foliage. The heavily turned “cup and cover” motif is frequently found on bedposts in the later 16th century. The cumbersome Gothic trestle tables were replaced by “joyned tables,” with tops fixed to the frames. Draw tables, which could be conveniently lengthened by pulling out the two leaves concealed under the top, were also introduced. Table legs and sides were decorated with carving and inlay, and the cup and cover motif is often found on the legs. Various types of cupboards were made, usually in two stages, or levels. In court cupboards both stages were left open. A simple form of chest of drawers was introduced about 1620.
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