As a compensation for the smallness of windows, the early fireplaces were huge, with a staging of bars and irons on a stone dais for the burning of logs and billets. The science of down-draughts had still to be studied, and smoky chimneys must have been the rule rather than the exception.
The life of the artisan, until almost the end of the first half of the sixteenth century, was rude, but his desires were few, and were amply gratified. Crops were abundant in fifteenth-century rural England, and, in consequence, famines were unknown. Food was plentiful and cheap, - so cheap, in fact, that it was very often thrown in with the wages, when masons and carpenters were engaged on work for the King or the Church, - probably coarse, and certainly lacking in variety, - meat and bread, some fruit, but no green vegetables and very few roots, - but, on the whole, the worker's life must have been a happy and contented one at this period. How his status steadily deteriorated from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries will be described in a subsequent chapter.
If the artisan experienced no wants, he was, by no means, a free agent. He could be summoned to work for the King (unless he were in the employ of the Church), at any time or place, which suited the pleasure of the King's carpenter or mason, and the royal mandate empowered such artificer to imprison during their pleasure any who refused.
The Trade Guilds, which reached their highest level at the close of the fifteenth century, possessed unique powers. A master could not take apprentices without the Guild's sanction, and the number was always limited. The apprentice, in turn, was under the absolute dominion of his master, and, even at the present day, the old form of indenture is sometimes retained, by which the apprentice binds himself to his master, to obey all his behests, not to frequent gaming houses, brothels, or places of low resort, and to repair to church when ordered. A workman could not change his location, - other than when summoned by the King's craftsmen, - without the consent of the Guild and the Lord of the Manor. The term " journeyman," which in the later years began to lose its true significance, had a definite meaning up to almost the close of the seventeenth century, implying a craftsman who was licensed to travel from one place to another without fear of detention, arrest or punishment.
The introduction of the Classical element from Italy influenced furniture and architecture almost at the same period. There were two reasons why its effect in the designing of furniture was so soon apparent. A building was necessarily an immovable thing; a site was demanded, and consideration of expense had to be studied. Furniture was movable; it was comparatively easy of manufacture, as no prohibitive cost was entailed. Added to this there was a considerable demand, towards the close of the sixteenth century, as the large houses of this period were so sparingly furnished that it was not uncommon for the furniture to be moved, from house to house, with a change of residence. The second reason was the iron-handed methods of Henry VIII in dispersing the culture of the Church abroad, and, incidentally, the monastical possessions with it, in the dissolution of monasteries, removed one of the best patrons and teachers of the woodworking crafts. Much of the furniture, some of the traditions and a little of the invention which had hitherto been cloistered in abbeys and ecclesiastical establishments found their way into the homes of laymen. The culture of the reign of Elizabeth, however, reinforced by the enlightenment from the Continent, due to intercourse and travel, did much to fix, permanently, in the minds of the laity such ideas of luxury and design as had formerly been the exclusive possession of the Church.
The invention of better methods of construction, such as the table with four, six or eight legs in lieu of the older trestle form, the chair with turned legs and under-framings in place of the former box with arms and a back, the possibilities of framing, all made for greater lightness of construction without sacrifice of strength. In abbeys and monasteries, until the close of the fifteenth century, time was of little moment. The monks and friars were themselves often finished craftsmen, and their influence extended, in very marked degree, to their dependents. England in the fifteenth century could almost have been described as an agglomeration of differing communities, either under the forcible control of the temporal lords of the soil or the more gentle influence of the Church. These communities were as far removed, relatively, - considering the slowness of locomotion and the disturbed state of the country, torn in turn by internecine warfare or religious strife, - as Vienna and London are at the present day. If craftsmen, however, seldom changed their location, the Church possessed unexampled facilities for the interchange of ideas from one part of England to another, and even from foreign sources.
With the dissolution of monasteries and the withdrawal of the guiding influence of the religious brethren, the workmen of the time, too inexperienced to originate much that was fine, turned with avidity to the new Classical manner as demonstrated in the new buildings of this period. We get, in consequence, a jumble of the Gothic and the Classical, with original motives superadded, which render the furniture of the sixteenth century exceedingly heterogeneous in character. It is nearer the fact to say that fashions were too multiform to admit of classification, than to state that they were non-existent. We know that, with the furniture of the reigns of Charles II, James II, William III, Anne and the first three Georges, the design is often sufficient warranty for dating a piece, sometimes within as narrow a margin as a single decade. It is not so evident, however, what the factors are which render this close dating of pieces possible. To begin with, during this period the trade of the maker of furniture was more or less homogeneous. The one town had assimilated the art of another and had given, in turn, the result of its own experience. Villages and hamlets had borrowed from the large towns, and even a journey to the metropolis was a matter less of danger than of time. The strong similarly between many of the long-case clocks produced during the first half of the eighteenth and the last quarter of the seventeenth centuries, alike in London and the most insignificant country villages, shows that this interchange of ideas really existed. This was one factor which tended towards uniformity of production, - or the establishment of fashion. There is, however, another necessary condition, without which we get endless repetition of the same patterns, which after the lapse of a century or more render it impossible to dissociate the originals from the copies; that is a leisured class, influential and wealthy enough to define a fashion, to foster the taste of the moment, and to reject the vogue of the preceding decade. These are obvious stipulations; at the present day we can only date a piece by the currency of a bygone fashion, and it is the latest characteristic which determines our estimate of its age. When we reach the era of repetitions, well-made but bald copies of the furniture of twenty or fifty years before, we are comparatively helpless, and it is only a technical knowledge of the species of the one wood used at the various periods, coupled with an instinct for spontaneity in creation and workmanship, which enables us to detect the later copy. It is idle to look for mere evidences of age. One piece of furniture may wear for centuries in the one household, - of maiden ladies for example, and may assume an appearance of great antiquity after twenty years of usage by healthy children or careless persons.