Saturday, February 9, 2008

Style Guide: Medieval

Mobility and warmth defined decorating choices in various cold, dark, communal strongholds where large households moved in and out often to avert danger of warfare. Most things had to be transportable, from furniture to service ware to adornments. Rich, deep, vivid colors on walls, in paintings and in textiles gave life and comfort. In particular, tapestries, cushions and carpets provided warmth as well as visual excitement.


Sign of Wealth
Modern Variations

  • Display on cupboards and side tables colorfully exotic dishes and vases resembling those from Moorish Spain and the standard medieval tableware of metal plates, cups, goblets and dishes. Often of gold or silver centuries ago, the plated variety suffices today.
  • Dress up walls with flat-sided metal bowls, small convex mirrors and medallions with Gothic or heraldic motifs of lions, crowns, shields and gargoyles of wood, stone or bronze. Consider religious items, such as ornamented crosses.
  • Frame and display illuminated manuscripts or prints of pages from these books found at museums and art stores. Find and frame classic medieval prints of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus.
  • Seek statuettes reminiscent of those in the period's churches and chapels, such as long, elegant ivory figurines of the Virgin Mary and Child from the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. Use in a corner or as a space divider, a large wooden screen, painted and carved with Gothic motifs. (Such screens in front of doors blocked winds during medieval times.)


With constant medieval warfare, households, including European courts, moved frequently to avoid danger. Only easily packed and transported belongings were kept. Thus, textiles were the heart and soul of medieval-style interiors.

Textiles could be taken down and hung anywhere: on walls as decoration; over beds and windows for warmth and comfort in drafty structures; as room or space dividers in communal living arrangements; as large embroidered or woven floor cushions for additional seating and lounging; as canopies over the chairs of important people; as a ceiling by suspension under a high roof; and as drapery over chairs, divans and tables.

Fabrics included canvas, wool, silk and velvet in luxurious hues of russet red, deep green, royal blue and chocolate offset by stone and accented with black and gold.

In the early medieval period, rugs and tapestries were imported from the Orient. In the 9th century, a sea route between the Persian Gulf and China allowed textiles from those regions to make their way to Europe via Venice and Genoa. By the Norman times of 1066-1189, textiles were a staple in most medieval households.

Tapestry manufacturing centers sprang up in Paris and Arras in northern France, and Crusaders brought back wares from the Middle East.

Modern Variations

  • Ready-made tapestries – search for floral patterns or scenes of courtly love, battle, Bible stories and history.
  • Stitch your own – use tapestry-prints and kits.
  • Stained cloth – paint a fabric with scenes or patterns of flowers, Latin text or heraldic motifs.
  • Walls – use metal rings or wooden or metal polls to hang textiles.
  • Beds – use textiles as bed covers or hang from wooden rails and gather into bags at corners.
  • Curtains – construct from large pieces of luxurious velvet, brocade or silk damask and gather a single panel to one side – attached to the wall with a large tassel. Hang from rings on a wooden or metal pole with fleur de lys or spearhead finials.
  • Over furniture – drape fabrics over chests and backs of chairs. Linen tablecloths, originally introduced in the 15th century, are fine for tables.
  • Cushions – use damask or velvet with medieval patterns for chair or large floor cushions. These can be embroidered with metallic thread or adorned with gold braiding.


In the early Middle Ages, floors were beaten earth covered with sawdust, rushes or aromatic wild plants, frequently watered to control dust. Flooring became more sophisticated in homes as the centuries passed and class status elevated. Hard plaster floors to stone slabs progressed to oak boards to Islamic tiles.

In the 14th century, the use of red tiles inlaid with white in various patterns became widespread.

Modern Variations

  • To capture the look today, use wall-to-wall modern matting of rush, sisal, coir or jute. Broad reclaimed boards that show age can simulate the period's wood flooring. Flagstones recreate the slab effect.
  • Lay down exotic Middle Eastern tiles or plain square, modern unglazed tiles colored in the period's popular hues: black, red, white, yellow or blue. Forget rugs. Carpets imported from Persia and Turkey by the Crusaders, considered too valuable for treading on, became wall and furniture decorations.


Portable Furniture
Due to the mobile lifestyle of the Middle Ages, furniture was light and portable. Later on, pieces were permanent built-in fixtures of a house, hall or castle. Styles were basic, except for carved Gothic ornamental work on chair backs and buffet doors in wealthier households.

The storage chests or coffers, brightly painted and adorned with ironwork, were the chief pieces, transporting possessions in wagons and later used for storage when in a new home.

Other simple, moveable furniture included stools, benches, tables of long wooden boards placed on trestles and folding chairs, such as the Roman curule chair, usually made of local timber.

More substantial chairs with high straight backs and seats and arms, sometimes stuffed with rushes, were rare, used only by heads of households.

Cupboards of substantial size and different styles were standard household fixtures, among them the hutch, armoire and buffet.

Beds for peasants and yeomen were easily transportable, straw-filled mattress or take-apart items. The huge bedsteads of wealthier households could hold six couples and the favorite dog. These sported carved posts and canopies, which evolved into the four-poster bed.


Small windows to keep out cold and drafts and scant use of expensive glass meant little natural light during medieval times. Hence, fire from a central fireplace, candles, oil-soaked brands or tallow-covered rushes provided the main internal light.
Photo courtesy of Malmendier Art Metal Works.

The main fire burned in the center of the great hall with smoke rising through holes in the roof.

Modern Variations

  • Today, wall fireplaces can serve the same illumination purposes for a medieval style, as can candles in a variety of holders.
  • Wall lanterns can best emulate the effect of oil-soaked brands mounted in cressets (iron baskets) on walls.

Pricket candlesticks, standing wrought iron or bronze candlesticks, and candelabras with a tripod base and spikes onto which candles were forced were the norm.

Modern Variations

  • Tall wrought iron, bronze, pewter, brass or even wooden candleholders emulate the pricket today.

More Candle Holders
Torchéres, contraptions for overhead lighting and the chandelier's forerunner, held up to 20 candles in iron rings of decreasing sizes. Later, candles on iron spikes in a wooden beam were replaced by a square or circle of iron hung by chains from the ceiling.

Modern Variations

  • These styles can be found in antique shops, now wired with electricity and fit for flame-shaped bulbs. Or recreate suspended oil lamps with pendant lanterns.


Colorful wall treatments livened up cold, dark, sparsely furnished one-room halls of the early Middle Ages, living quarters for entire communities. Castles succeeded these during the later medieval period.

Tapestries, painted cloths and murals decorated timber and stone walls early in the period and covered tiles and paneling during the later Gothic phase.

Modern Variations

  • For a rough-hewn effect, plaster the wall lightly, then paint with chalky white, off-white or stone. For the appearance of stone, mark the plastered-and-painted surface with thin red lines or lay stone blocks themselves on the wall.

Another option was wood paneling, an insulation widely used throughout northern Europe.

Paneling was painted. Though little of the original paneling survived European wars, remnants in northern Europe show blood red, gold and green. These colors, plus ochre yellow or blue, brightened up both paneled and plastered walls.

Modern Variations

  • Cover a wall with exotic Middle Eastern tiles, emulating the fashion of wealthier houses, especially those in Moorish Spain, which imported Islamic tiles inlaid with different colored clays.
  • In stone or wood paneling around doorways and windows, carve repeat patterns of Gothic motifs: stylized heraldic eagles, coats of arms, rampant lions, crosses, roses, shields, quatrefoils and griffons, monsters with eagle head and wings and lion body. Or in lieu of carving, stencil the patterns.
  • Apply in gilt and black paint at wall tops, Latin words in Gothic lettering found in illuminated manuscripts. Get more artistic with a bold touch of murals illustrating Biblical, pastoral or historical themes on an entire wall.
  • Hang Oriental textiles and tapestries or painted silk or canvas cloths with European medieval floral patterns or scenes of battle, courtly love or the Bible.

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