A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture


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Spit Dogs -- On our website

A Grisset

A Clockwork Spitjack

A Coppice

Fired Up

I was grilling a thick steak on the grill when it struck me how very "English" I was -- I was producing roast beef. The "roast beef of England" is more than a cliche, it's iconic to English identity: the French have long referred to the English as "les rostbifs," and the Tower of London to this day is guarded by Beefeaters, incorruptibly patriotic.

OK, I was actually grilling (a more American activity) but roasting and grilling are much the same, they rely on the same three elements: fire, air and beef.

My forebears were so much more sophisticated than I am. I grill with lump charcoal rather than briquettes, but they understood wood in a way that I will never be able to. For roasting they used ash or beech for the main heat; oak to provide a lasting, hot heart to the fire; and hazel or birch to give the heat a quick burst when needed. They often burned apple or fruit wood to add to the flavor, and avoided willow at all costs because its acrid smoke tainted the meat.

For roasting, spit dogs were a necessity. Spit dogs were andirons that supported the firewood at the back and had hooks on the fronts to hold a spit. To my ignorant eyes, the hooks look far too low, but my forebears understood well that the heat needed to flow gently past the meat -- if the meat was too high, worst of all if it were over the heat, the result would be a charred outside and raw inside.

To ensure nicely even cooking, the spit had to be turned -- either by hand, or by a clockwork spitjack, or sometimes by setting a fan above the fire and using a system of rods and gears to transfer its rotary motion to the spit. It turned slowly, one complete rotation every 20 minutes.

Underneath the spit, they set a "grisset" to catch the melted fat, which was then used to baste the meat as it turned, flavored on the spot with honey, wine, herbs or spices. Yum! Basting was alternated with dredging -- dry dusting with flour, oatmeal or breadcrumbs. "Les rostbifs" sure knew how to roast beef.

The firewood came from the backyard, where most English country houses had a "coppice." A coppice was a quarter to half an acre of woodland which, carefully managed, would keep the house in firewood for ever. Coppicing involved felling a mature tree and then allowing a crown of branches to grow up around the stump, perhaps ten or a dozen of them. These branches were comparatively straight and knot-free and grew to about 15 feet in ten or twelve years. Far faster than growing trees. For firewood, a coppice branch was cut into three-foot lengths. The lowest, thickest lengths were split into quarters, the next into halves, and the top lengths were just the perfect three-inch diameter.

When King Henry VIII's flagship, the Mary Rose, was raised in 1982 just outside Portsmouth where she had sunk in 1545, the hull contained a treasure trove of 19,000 artifacts, among which were 600 logs cut precisely to these specifications.

Much of the information here came from Ruth Goodwin's fascinating book, How to Be a Tudor.

Over the Fire

Sometime in the 1570s, William Harrison listened to the "old men yet dwelling in the village where I remaine" as they marveled at the changes they had seen in their lifetimes. One was "the multitude of chimneys lately erected, whereas in their young dayes there were not above two or three, if so many, in most uplandish townes of the realme." Harrison recorded their account of how England was changing A Description of England, which he published in 1577.

Before chimneys, houses were heated by a fire in the middle of the hall -- so the hall had to be two stories high to allow the smoke to billow around in the rafters before gradually finding its way out through little louvred turrets in the roof (see When Oak Was New, Chapter 1).

A chimney, however, took the smoke outdoors directly from the fire. There was therefore no need for the hall to be two stories high, so a floor was inserted half way up (what the English call the "first floor" and the Americans the "second"). This floor allowed smaller rooms, called "chambers," to be built above the hall.

As the Middle Ages faded and the English Renaissance began (a bit late, as the English typically are), the chimney and the fire moved to the wall -- on the margins of the hall, no longer at its center. But the hearth, though physically marginal remained psychologically central, and people gathered round it as the most comforting and important place in the room. As the most important spot in the room, it obviously had to carry the most important carving in the room. Hence, the beautifully carved and inlaid overmantels of Tudor and Jacobean England.

The overmantel illustrated here (and on our website) is from a gentleman's house (a gentleman was one step below the aristocracy and one step above yeomen -- who worked on their own land: gentlemen did not work with their hands). It's a fine example of the artisanal Renaissance typical of rural England (the Italian Renaissance as we all know was driven by the greatest artists in the world; most of the English Renaissance was artisanal -- woodworkers, housewrights, painters, musicians -- but then, of course, there is Shakespeare).

The central panel of the overmantel shows the tree of life within an applied architectural arch. Flanking it are two panels of flowers and foliage, derived directly from late medieval pew ends, and outside them are a caryatid and an atlas -- derived more distantly from the architecture of Greek temples.

A touch of the Renaissance, a bit of rural England, and the key point of your room when you hang it above the fire.

Pricket and See

Early Netherlandish 'sticks are not exactly thick on the ground, but ones whose pans are crenellated like a tower on a castle are rare, and, more important, attractive. Can't you imagine Lilliputian archers firing through the slots at the Goths and Vandals massed below!

It'll bring beauty and history to a modern collection, but in its day, it was a functional item in a wealthy household. View it on our website.

How can we be confident of this? Easy, just follow the details.

In the second half of the 15th century, when this stick was made, there were two types of candle and two types of stick to hold them. Candles were either tallow or wax. When a candlemaker was called a "chandler," he made tallow candles: wax candle makers were specified as "wax chandlers," and in 1358 the wax chandlers applied to the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London to be officially separated from their inferior brethren who worked in tallow.

Economics and therefore class came into play here: one account shows a wax chandler paying just over £314 for 1714 pounds of wax (44 pence per pound) and a tallow chandler a mere £31 for 1319 pounds of tallow (5.6 pence per pound.) Wax cost about eight times as much as tallow.

Tallow was also much softer than wax, so tallow candles had a maximum diameter of about three-quarters of an inch -- and they needed socket holders to support them. Wax candles could be much fatter, and sat well on prickets. Pricket sticks more than about 12" high were ecclesiastical -- the Catholic church was enormously wealthy, so the cost of candles was irrelevant. (An extra reason for churches burning wax candles was that bees were believed to have flown straight from Paradise.) Pricket sticks smaller than 12" were domestic, but still costly. So, for a rich house, not a church!

Tallow candles were made in molds or by dipping, but the fat wax candles for pricket sticks were made from a slab of wax that was warmed till it became soft and could be rolled around the wick into a candle shape. A wooden spike made the hole for the pricket. (If you use a pricket stick today, drill a hole in the bottom of the candle -- trying to press it onto the spike will only split the candle in half!)

Most tallow was produced domestically: the fat from slaughtered animals was plentiful, but even this was not enough for the demand that grew with the steady increase of population after the Black Death, and large quantities of tallow were imported from Russia.

Wax was harder to produce domestically in the quantity needed. Venice became the largest supplier of wax candles and of raw wax in Europe: the Port of London recorded £11,000 worth of wax imports between 1479 and 1483.

So this stick: high quality workmanship and decoration, made to burn expensive wax, too small for a church: ergo made for a wealthy household. Case proved!