Scratching the Surface
Anthony Coneybeare's two books on boxes and coffers are hard to get in the US. When I mentioned them to a friend the other day he asked what he'd missed by not having read them. Well, quite a lot of good things, but two stood out in my mind at least. One was the amount we can learn by studying the changes in grain density in a piece of oak, and the other was the significance of scratch moldings. The first is the more complicated, so here we go with the second.
Tools for decorating wood either were manufactured (usually in Birmingham) and expensive, or were hand-made, often by the joiner himself, and cheap. Manufactured tools included U-gouges, V-tools, flat chisels and planes: hand-made tools were punches and scratch blocks. Punches appeared in virtually every workshop, scratch-blocks in many, but not all. Coneybeare pays more attention to scratch-blocks than any other writer (including John, which is why he's playing catch-up here).
Making a scratch-block is easy: take a flat piece of metal, probably iron, possibly steel, and file a pattern into one edge. Clamp it between two pieces of wood so that the filed edge protrudes to the desired depth, and, lo and behold, you have a scratch block. Draw it back and forth, along or across the grain, and the result is a simple decoration that took little time or skill. A useful tool, indeed.
Coneybeare suggests that scratch molding is generally the sign of an early date, and that it is often found on pieces with simple, relatively unsophisticated carving. This implies that shops who could employ a high-skilled carver could also afford a molding plane: they were the top shops of the day.
Coneybeare provides profiles of some typical scratch moldings. A to G are scratch moldings and are earlier than 1650. H was made by a flat chisel, and I to K are by molding planes.
Scratch blocks clearly work best when there is comparatively little wood to remove. I assume that you can get a sharper "V" with a scratch block than a molding plane, which is why D comes from a scratch block, and I from a molding plane.
When a scratch molding appears on both the lid and the case of a box or coffer, it guarantees the originality of the lid, and we suppose that the same scratch molding on different pieces would be a sign that they were produced in the same shop.
Most writers on early oak have, we think, paid less attention to scratch moldings than we should have: scratch the surface of anything, and there's always something new to learn.
A.J. Coneybeare, Trees, Chests and Boxes of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1991) The Self Publishing Association Ltd, Hanley, Worcestershire.
A.J. Coneybeare, A Discourse on Boxes of the Sixteenth, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1992) Rosca Publications, Hanley, Worcestershire.
Evidence Chest, 15th C, Merchant Adventurers' Hall, York. Outer locks added later.
It's the earliest wooden antique that we've owned -- an offertory box, late 15th to early 16th century, with a deliciously aged surface. Love it!
It has three locks, each on a different face, a clear sign that it lived in a church. Three locks, hmmm, let's speculate a little. In this period, till at least the end of the seventeenth century, anything that could store anything had a lock: boxes, drawers, coffers, cupboards -- all lockable. But with one lock only. In many cases the lock must have accounted for a good deal of the cost.
So why? Was England a land of petty thieves? Surely not -- not "this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty ... this precious stone set in the silver sea." Oh no! But thievery may have been relatively common (and profitable for there was no police force to chase down the perpetrators). Houses were crowded, not just densely inhabited, but open to a throng of people coming and going -- there were no office buildings, workshops or retail stores, no Starbucks to do business in: People did all their business from the home. Houses saw a constant to and fro of tradesmen, agents, laborers, estate workers, travelers -- it just made sense not to tempt any light fingers among them.
Then there was the issue of privacy in houses as crowded as these. A young woman, for example, must have thanked heaven for her box, carved with her initials and birthdate, where she could lock up her personal treasures away from prying eyes and gossipy tongues.
But all these domestic receptacles had one lock only: why did church boxes and coffers require three? (It is also the case that some of these three-lock coffers stored valuable documents in churches and guild halls -- the "evidence chest" shown here is a case in point.) The key to each lock was held by a different person, such as the vicar and two churchwardens, so that all three had to be present to open it: a sort of mutual self-surveillance to make sure that none of the contents went home with one of the key holders.
Hey, perhaps this heightened security implies that church officials were more light-fingered than the rest of the population? Perish the thought! But still, why three locks in churches, but not in houses?
View the Medieval Offeratory Box in our inventory.