Was all medieval furniture made of oak?


Perhaps one of the most persistent myths about medieval furniture is that everything was made of oak. I believe this view comes from several causes, chief among them being that oak is a durable, resilient wood, and thus constitutes a large percentage of surviving woodwork. While it is certainly true that oak was a common material for all sorts of woodwork, particularly in England, there is ample documentary evidence that other types of wood, both hardwoods and softwoods, were also used to a significant extent throughout Europe.

An important source for understanding period attitudes toward wood can be found in Leon Battista Alberti's 15th century treatise entitled De Re Aedificatoria (On the Art of Building). While primarily focused on architecture, this book includes a rare discussion on various types of wood and their uses. Alberti notes that "For interior furnishings...the fir is excellent." Also, "The beech...may be put to good use in chests and beds...." He also recommends "nut trees" and larch for interior paneling. Ash, elm, boxwood, and poplar also get mentions for various purposes.1

As one would expect, the use of softwoods such as fir and pine, tended to predominate in areas with large softwood forests, such as Scandinavia, Germany, and Italy. Yet even in oak-rich Britain, fir and deal show up for building and furniture. A 1320 inventory records huge tables "well boarded...of fur," Other documents record the use of beech, elm, ash, and poplar for various purposes at this time in England.2


1. Alberti, Leon Battista. On the Art of Building in Ten Books. (Rykwert, Joseph; Leach, Neil; and Tavernor, Robert translators) The MIT Press, Cambridge, 1996. p. 44.

2. Salzman, L.F. Building in England Down to 1540. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1952 (Special edition for Sandpiper Books Ltd., 1997). p. 250.