Tag Archives: Medieval Tiles

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – The Tring Tiles

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The Tring Tiles

Following a visit to the British Museum just over a week ago, I’m writing an occasional series of posts about some of the objects I saw there. Some of the posts will cover old ground, but I have new information to record.

The galleries in the British Museum are generally kept dark in order to protect the objects on display, so not all of the photographs are of good quality, but I’m hoping that my photographs will give you an idea of the size of the objects that you don’t get in ‘official’ photographs. I almost walked past an object I know well from photographs because it’s much tinier than I had been led to expect.

I was very excited when the first thing I saw in the gallery were some tiles. I love tiles and I was thrilled to see the Tring tiles in the flesh, as it were.

No one is quite sure where the Tring tiles originated. Although the tiles were, for the most part, found in a curiosity shop in Tring, it’s not entirely certain that they came from Tring parish church which was renovated in the late nineteenth century. No one can quite work out why such an ordinary church would be decorated with such unusual tiles. They are decorations for walls rather than floor tiles.

The tiles are made using the ‘sgraffito’ method, which was mainly used in the early fourteenth century. The tile was covered in white slip. Slip is essentially watered-down clay, with a ratio of approximately 75% clay and 25% water. The design was cut into the slip and the unwanted slip was scraped away with a small tool. No other tiles made in this way have been found in England, although the technique was used in France.

These tiles date from about 1330 and tell apocryphal stories about the childhood of Christ, filling gaps in the Gospels with stories of him playing with friends and being chastised by his teacher.

The tiles are remnants of a larger group. They are associated with the cult of the Virgin Mary, which was at its height in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In the stories told on the tiles it’s the Virgin, not her son, who restores order after a death or some other catastrophe. It’s not immediately obvious, but the children with their legs in the air are dead. Both are restored by the Virgin.

The picture taking up both halves of a tile is the Wedding Feast at Cana, the first miracle of Jesus’ public ministry and, presumably, the end of his childhood.

There are some very good photographs of the tiles here.

 

Sources:

Masterpieces: Medieval Art by James Robinson

Medieval Tiles by Hans van Lemmen

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Medieval Tiles – A Review

Medieval tiles

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’m interested in medieval floors in general and medieval tiles in particular. Tiles were very expensive, as they took a long time and a great deal of skill to make. They were mostly used in ecclesiastical buildings, although some people, like Laurence of Ludlow, were wealthy enough to be able to afford to have them in their houses.

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Medieval floor tiles, Stokesay Castle

When I saw Van Lemmen’s book in the English Heritage shop at Stokesay Castle, there was never any doubt that I was going to buy it. There are only 40 pages, but those pages are glorious. Since most of the pages are full of colour photographs and drawings of medieval tiles, there is not much room for scholarly text.

The photographs in this post are not from the book, they’re mine. The ones in the book are much better.

14th century tiles

Fourteenth century tiles, St Bartholomew’s, Hyde

Such text as there is is very informative, although I would love to know more about how tiles were made. There is a wonderful drawing of a fourteenth century kiln, which highlights what a hit and miss affair tilemaking could be. An imperceptible flaw could destroy a tile and it would be several days before this would be known. It took about six days to load, fire and unload the kiln. A medieval kiln looked like an earthwork. Given the number of days it took to fire a tile, there was no point in making them small. It was sensible to make as many tiles as you could.

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Medieval Tiles, St Mary’s Guildhall, Coventry

Until I read the book, I wasn’t aware that mosaics were made in fourteenth century England. There are some lovely examples in the book from Rievaulx and Byland Abbeys. I can’t share the exact photos with you, but those links are to other photos of the mosaics in question.

It is the pictures which make the book worth buying. They include many examples of medieval tiles from all over England. My favourite photograph is one showing Diana Hall’s modern replacements of damaged tiles in Winchester Cathedral. Her tiles have the colour and vibrancy that all medieval tiles must have had when first laid.

Making tiles was incredibly labour intensive and here are two videos showing how much time it could take just to get the clay into the moulds.

The first is from Guédelon, where a castle is being built in Burgundy using thirteenth century techniques. The second is a  documentary about Diana Hall and her life as a tilemaker.

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The Medieval Floor

 

Encaustic tiles

Fourteenth century tiles

You might not have given much thought to medieval floors, but they were quite varied and these days they offer good opportunities to a novelist for scene-setting or showing a character’s state of mind.

In Beloved Besieged Elaine covers the floor of her father’s hall with rushes strewn with sweet-smelling herbs and flowers for her betrothal celebration. In my current work in progress, the heroine drops to the floor of the main room of the inn in which she’s staying, even though she suspects it will result in an unpleasant stain on her clothes.

Not all medieval floors were equal. In most houses, the floors of the rooms on the ground floor were simply beaten earth. This always sounded unpleasant, especially when I saw the state of the floors in castles that I visited. Thanks to them I had visions of lumpy, uneven floors being swept away when they were brushed, or of bits of a floor sticking to shoes if someone entered the house from the rain, or of it being scratched up by dogs or cats. Then I saw one in the Medieval Merchant’s House in Southampton. That floor is very solid and secure and would last for a long time with only a little maintenance.

 

Earthen floor

Earthen floor in the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

It took a fair amount of effort to make such a floor and sometimes the neighbours were called on for help. As many people as the householder could get would walk on the floor for an afternoon (or longer) until it was flat and smooth. They literally walked round in circles until it was done. They would have a chat or a sing as they walked. This seems to me to be a very satisfactory way of providing a floor surface and is probably quicker and more enjoyable than laying a laminate floor.

The earthen floor would be covered with rushes. Rushes provided good insulation and could help to keep the floor clean. I know that I often point to The Secrets of the Castle for examples, but the archaeologists demonstrate the practicalities of medieval life so well. When she moved into a labourer’s hovel near the building site, Ruth Goodman pondered how the rushes might have been laid, since loose rushes would not stay where they were put for long. She concluded that they would probably have been tied together in bunches and then laid on the floor. Other historians and archaeologists have considered whether the rushes might have been woven into mats before being placed on the floor, but everyone seems to be agreed that loose rushes were not strewn on the floor. Rushes weren’t just used in houses. Almost every domestic beaten earth floor would have been covered in them.

In a public building, an inn, for example, the rushes would have contained dreadful things trodden in from outside by people and dogs, but in a hovel, where the rushes would have doubled up as the bedding for the occupants, they would have been kept much cleaner. In the spring and summer herbs and flowers could be added to make the rushes (and the room) smell sweeter and to disguise less welcome odours.

Encaustic Tiles from Hyde Abbey

Fourteenth Century Tiles

Tiles provided a far more upmarket floor surface. Like everything else in medieval times, their production was very labour intensive. They required someone to dig the clay, which had to be cleaned and homogenised until it could be worked. Then it would be pressed into square, wooden moulds. After the tiles had been pushed out of the moulds, they would be dried and stacked in a kiln to be fired. A medieval kiln was more like an earthwork than an oven and firing could take twenty-four hours or more. Disaster was always close at hand. Bad weather could mean that the firing was delayed, or the tiles could be too wet and would explode when the water became hot enough to turn into steam.

Tiles could be plain or patterned with different coloured clay. Decorated tiles were for the very rich or churches. The photographs in this post are of encaustic tiles recovered from the site of Hyde Abbey in Winchester. The patterns are made by using different colours of clay. Like the ones in the photographs, they were usually of two colours, but they could contain up to six different colours. Because the pattern is not just on the surface, it remains as the tile is worn down.

 

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