Saturday, April 16, 2005

Why Chairs Virtually Disappeared During the Dark Ages


From a webpage that uses stools to talk about religion:

Through much of the Middle Ages, chairs were symbols of authority and prestige, appropriate for kings, scholars, and saints; those of lower stations made do with stools and benches. A common form of domestic stool was the three-legged turned stool. This type appears in numerous illustrations and was appropriate for both modest homes and the well-to-do. For example, "under the heading '...Tryangle stolys for my Lord...' an early sixteenth century inventory of the Earl of Northumberland included '...It'm, xij thre fottyde stooles, torned, the scetts of them of blake lether...'"1

Triangle stools are members of a larger family of turned tripod furniture, which also includes backstools and chairs. Though it's not entirely clear why the triangular design was so popular, one practical reason might be that it requires less labor and materials than making a four-legged stool (though four-legged varieties were also popular, often with seats of woven rush or bark). It might also have to do with three legs being more stable on an uneven surface (such as a dirt floor).

I lived in a tent for ten years. The tent had uneven ground in places, but over time, I pretty much flattened it. When I was growing up, my parents traveled all over the world, we stayed in many types of homes, yurts and adobe huts, reed huts, various hovels and without exception, the floors were pretty much flat and dry. Whereever chairs could be had, they were used.

The Romans had chairs. They even had camp chairs that folded up, were very steady on uneven ground and which were still in use throughout the Dark Ages as well as the Middle Ages.

So why did chairs, an easily made object, utterly dissappear from all homes except for the most powerful people? The answer to this question tells us a great deal about human nature and the desire to control comfort levels.

In parts of Africa, up to the 20th century, many tribal groups in the Nile watershed region made and used arm rests which allowed a man to recline on the ground but to rest his torso and head off the ground instead of squatting. The manufacture of this arm rest was very simple, in many migratory groups, it was a simple wooden object. But the use of this object was strictly controlled. If, say, a mere woman tried to use it, she would have been beaten or even killed. So no women ever used it. If a boy touched it, he was chastised and forced to do penance. This same arm rest device evolved in Asia, too. In Japan, the quality and height and design of these arm rests were strictly controlled by the military and religious orders. It usually was allowed to be used by only one person in a room. Obviously, only the top person was allowed.

In Japan, a society in the Middle Ages that was very stratified place, there were no chairs at all even though China, the culture that inspired many Japanese innovations, had plenty of chairs. In Japan, everyone sat on the floor. The way the rulers dignified themselves was to sit on a low platform. Further dignity was achieved by hanging bamboo curtains in front of the dignitary.

In ancient Egypt, we know from Tut's tomb and paintings on walls that chairs existed alrealy 5,000 years ago. One suspects these chairs were reserved for only the Pharoh and perhaps his immediate consorts and family and the top temple leaders.

In the ruins of the palace of Knossos in Crete, there is a room for royal appearances. It is lined with stone benches and in the middle sits the only chair, a throne. Obviously, the chair carried greater status than mere benches four thousand years ago.

The Greeks created a democracy 2, 500 years ago. One of the signs of democracy was, everyone sat on benches or everyone could have a chair. But even here, there were levels of status. Women ate sitting on stools while men ate reclining on couches, for example. In the stadiums, all sat on benches but as the democracy collapsed into tyranny, the upper classes began to sit in chairs with stone backs in the stadiums. Sort of like today in America. During much of our history, everyone went to the stadiums and sat in group seating that was pretty much all the same. Then the private boxes were created to seperate the rulers from the plebians and now these "sky seats" dominate stadiums and are entirely closed off from the masses below.

Rome was a democracy, too. And this was reflected by the furniture. The common soldier couldn't carry a chair around but they did make campaign chairs for the generals and their staff. Despite this one exception, all Romans could and did use chairs. The republic was a slave state so slaves, naturally, were not allowed chairs except when they rose in status, too. A useful slave from Greece, for example, who did the book keeping or other upper supervisory matters, always recieved a chair of authority too. The quality of chairs and the quantity grew under the Roman aegis. These chairs spread deep into European culture. Even simple farm households in Britain used chairs freely.

Then the Dark Ages descended. Everyone's living standards collapsed. Indoor plumbing, even for the richest and most powerful, nearly dissappeared. Only the simplest domestic tools survived the collapse. Privacy in housing dissappeared. Instead of seperate bedchambers for even the slaves, everyone slept in great halls of small hovels, all in one room. The room size is the only thing that varied. The concept of a bedroom nearly totally disappeared. In the palaces and castles, there was one room of privacy: the solar. It was where the master retired to sleep. Everyone else slept on the floor or on benches. This beastly living arrangement extended to chairs. They disappeared nearly totally. Except for the "throne". This was usually the only chair in an entire kingdom. The kings traveled about, not daring to live in any one place too long for political and economical reasons, and they would haul this chair which was usually fairly large, around in wagons. The church officials did the same. The Pope and the Bishops all had one chair and one chair only. They would insert lifts on the chair so underlings could carry the chair and the potentate around. This way, he could always be sitting in THE chair while everyone else must sit on a bench or stand or kneel.

Chairs are ridiculously easy to make and simple to design and are obviously much more comfortable than stools. Yet they disappear repeatedly in history. My take is, rulers have to make themselves different from the ruled and when the level of general misery is high, they have to raise it further to maintain power and status. When things get really bad, they resort to torturing the human body by making others as uncomfortable as possible. This way, they magnify their own happiness as well as the natural joy in watching others suffer.

Even when democratic ideas spread, within families, the chair status is important. Everyone knows about "dad's chair" and how you may not use it if he wants it. For several centuries, the only diningroom chairs with arms were reserved for the owner of the house and maybe his wife. Even in my grandmother's day, a child was never allowed to sit on any chair, only stools, until the age of about 11 or 12. Even then, it was greatly restricted.

Will chairs disappear from America? This, we have to wait to see.