The chest was the basic type of medieval furniture, serving as cupboard, trunk, seat, and, if necessary, as a simple form of table and desk. It was from this versatile piece of furniture that several other types, such as the cupboard and the box chair, were evolved. Chests were made of six planks, crudely pegged or nailed together and frequently strengthened with iron banding. Examples of this sort, dating from the 13th century and in many instances found in churches, are among the earliest pieces of extant European furniture. The chest remained one of the most important pieces of furniture until the end of the 15th century, when on the Continent the cupboard began to compete with it in usefulness.
First was the decoration of furniture legs with sharply profiled metal rings, one above another, like many bracelets on an arm; this was the origin of the turned wooden legs so frequent in later styles. Second was the use of heavy fringes on furniture covers, blending the design of frame and cushion into one effect; this was much lightened by Classical taste but was revived in Neoclassicism. Third was the typical furniture grouping that survived intact into the Dark Ages of Europe: the couch on which the main personage or personages reclined for eating or conversation; the small table to hold refreshments, which could be moved up to the couch; and the chair, on which sat an entertainer—wife, hetaira (courtesan), musician, or the like—who looked after the desires of the reclining superior personages. From this old hierarchy of furniture derived the cumbersome court regulations concerning who may sit and on what, that persisted for centuries in the palaces and ceremonies of monarchs.
Framed panelling had been used in ancient times, as examples found at Herculaneum testify; its reintroduction in the Burgundian Netherlands at the beginning of the 15th century was an improvement that soon spread throughout western Europe. Panelled construction solved the problem of building large surface areas, as on the front of a chest or cupboard, which before this time had been limited by the size of individual planks. These planks, usually hewn with an adz, were heavy and liable to warp and split. Panels could be cut thinner, the main strain being taken by the framework, and the furniture was therefore lighter; moreover, if the panels were not fitted too tightly in their stiles, the wood was less likely to split if it did warp. Now that it was possible to construct larger surface areas, a new range of storage furniture, cupboards and chests in particular, was developed.
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