Chests and caskets

So far, I’ve been talking about containers for food. But we do need containers for some other things, things that aren’t wet, things we won’t eat or cook. What did they use in medieval Europe to store “stuff” in general?

Let’s look first at what they typically stored. Most homes did not have books, musical instruments, or anything that we’d consider for hobby use. Some middle-class children had a few toys, and adults owned tools for spinning, sewing, gardening, and basic repairs. Some people owned board games or dice. Most people owned no more than two sets of clothing, but some owned more. Most people owned some blankets or winter coats, whether they were thick and adequate or not so much. Shoes were worn until they could not be repaired and then replaced, so shoes were not stored. Candles made of wax or tallow needed to be stored, being made or purchased in bulk.

So the typical medieval home needed to put away some winter gear during the summer, and keep a best coat or dress clean and safe. They needed some places to keep things like candles, things that did not perish but would be used within a few months. Some homes had pillows and extra blankets to store. Wealthy places, such as castles, manors and abbeys, always kept extra bedding for guests, as well as a much greater supply of things like candles. Grand houses that put on feasts needed to keep extra table linen for those occasions. (Middle-class families that might only put on a single wedding feast in their lifetime could rent such things.)

Medieval houses never had built-in storage the way modern homes do. Instead, large chests lined the walls of their chief (or only) rooms. We sometimes use chests like this, often called Hope Chests, but we depend on cardboard boxes and closets much more. In a medieval house, pretty much everything was stored in a chest. In Beowulf, servants take extra pillows and blankets out of chests, turning benches into beds.

Some herbs were known to discourage moths, but the first defense against losing all of your stored wool (or furs, if you were that posh) to worms was weekly cleaning. It was a routine chore to take out wool blankets and clothes and brush them thoroughly. This physically dislodged worms.

Chests must have ranged from very primitive ones made of rough boards to the painted, perhaps gilded, storage boxes of the rich. Not many medieval storage chests have survived, since wood could be repurposed in another generation—and never survived a house fire. Here are two storage chests; the second one is from an English church. (For more images, most of them from late or post-medieval, see this woodworker historical website.)

Most chests were locked. While one chest might hold supplies that the household would need to access frequently, most of them were for long-term holding. Everything had value, even woolen rags, so nothing could be left out to tempt visitors, poor relations or servants. It was even more important to have locks on smaller chests made for holding valuables. Caskets for valuables had to be made of very thick wood and were often reinforced with metal. They had to be too large and heavy to be hustled out under a coat, and too stoutly made to be easily split with a light ax. Getting into a casket without using the key was possible but it was not convenient; it would leave a telltale mess and make noise.

What might be stored in a locked casket? Right away, we’re not talking about working-class homes. Guild officers, merchants and aristocrats needed caskets to keep jewels, money and ceremonial items like silver cups or candlesticks. Aristocratic households whose ladies kept busy with silk embroidery probably kept their silk thread supplies in a locked casket, since it had pretty good street value to tempt thieving servants.

Caskets weren’t owned by the poor, so their construction was often ornate. The most ornate caskets were reliquaries, which I’ll consider separately. But even wooden caskets could be ornately carved. This one, pictured, may have held chess pieces, but it might have been for jewels, money, and any other valuables. Medieval decoration often depicted scenes from daily life: people playing, dancing, sewing, and working. Here is another ornately-carved casket.

next: medieval locks and keys

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