The treasure chest, or area, was an important piece of furniture with the Romans and usually stood in the atrium, or hall, of the Roman house. It was often fixed to the floor, or against the wall, and was under the charge of the doorkeeper who kept the key and paid the housekeeping expenses from it. If not made of iron, this strong-box was of hard wood, strengthened with bands and studs of bronze or iron. Chests of this description have been discovered at Pompeii.
In the predatory Dark Ages, the chest or coffer was of supreme importance. All classes lived an uncertain life and people were frequently compelled to move and to travel; therefore, the chest, coffer, trunk, bahut, huche, arche, or strong-box was a prime necessity.
The earliest chest, or travelling trunk, of Western Europe was made of wicker and covered with an ox-hide; and sometimes the wicker case contained an inner box of wood. In the course of time, the wicker case was given up and the wooden box alone was used, and this was rendered secure with a lock and iron bands. As the chest was exceedingly heavy, it was provided with iron handles, or rings, through which a pole could be passed; and the chest, thus slung from the pole, was borne on men's shoulders.
The heaviest chests were placed on strong carts drawn by oxen, and the less heavy ones on the backs of strong sumpter horses that were called in France chevaux bahutiers, from the bahut. Solidity was the first qualification; and therefore the early chests were ponderous, massive, and covered with iron bands or straps; but towards the end of the Middle Ages when the chest was used for a variety of purposes, it was embellished with ornaments. The arched top was found inconvenient when the chest became a piece of furniture rather than a travelling-box. The ordinary chest of this period was a long coffer that stood on four short, stout feet, or upon the end pieces prolonged below the front and back. The chest proper was therefore raised a little above the floor. The wood was painted, carved or gilded; covered with leather, or ornamented canvas; and made strong with wrought iron bands that were both decorative and useful.
Such chests were in constant use for an infinite variety of purposes. They formed seats on which the merchants sat and sold their wares and paid and received their monies. In the illuminations of some manuscripts such chests are employed for the musicians to sit upon while they play their instruments to the guests in the hall, or ladies, while they spend their long, solitary hours working tapestry or embroidering. A miser also is seen to sleep upon his chest which contains all his worldly wealth. In fact, they formed an indispensable article of furniture in all the chief rooms of the Mediaeval house, serving, like modern safes, to keep gold and silver articles, jewellery, papers, books, deeds, parchments, wearing apparel of all kinds, as well as for the hangings of the rooms when not in use. Chests were often so constructed that they could also be used for couches and beds.
"In the Thirteenth Century, the ornamental iron-work began to be supplemented by simple carving on the wood itself, and the old system of covering every joint and seam with an iron band, so that the whole of each side presented a nearly plain surface, began to give place to a more scientific and less primitive mode of construction, viz., by forming the sides, ends, and flat lid into panels, and in setting these into a stout framework of stiles and rails. A change in construction led necessarily to a change also in the method of ornamentation, and the decoration which had formerly been confined to the terminations of the iron bands, painted leather or canvas coverings, was now followed by mouldings wrought on the angles of the framework, and all kinds of beading and incised carving.
Plate XLV - Carved Oak Chest. Early French Renaissance (about 1500) English Transitional Chest (about 1500) - Metropolitan Museum
"In the Middle Ages, the chest-makers formed such an important body of artificial workmen that they divided themselves in most of the principal towns from the guilds of carpenters and formed a special guild of their own. Such guilds were highly favored and became powerful, their members attaining to the very highest skill, and besides the business of chest-making, they worked in ebony, ivory, and all kinds of precious woods, as well as in horn and shell; in fact they ranked next to the gold and silversmiths amongst the trade guilds of the period. So much were the trunks, bins and chests in use as articles of furniture among all classes that they found it necessary to make supplementary laws in order to prevent them from turning out faulty work." 1
1 Charles Clement Hodges.
The chest appears in old wills and inventories as kyst, kyste, kist, kyrst, kiste, chut, chiste, cheste, cheist, ark, coffer, alrnery, press and casket. It is often described as "bound with yren," a "bound kiste," a "spruce kist" (meaning a fir chest) and a "Flanders," or "Flemish," chest. The chest of the Low Countries was always a prized possession, not only in France and England, but in Spain and Portugal.
One of the earliest, finest and largest carved Flemish chests in existence is preserved in the vestry of Alnwick Church in England:
"The front has the usual division of three compartments, two uprights and a centre piece. The uprights are each divided into four panels, the three uppermost of which on either side are carved with dragon-like monsters, some with wings and some without. All their tails run off into several branches bearing beautifully wrought leaves of various kinds, conspicuous among which is the trefoil in the uppermost right-hand panel. The lower panels are occupied with scrolls bearing leaves of the strawberry type. The centre is divided vertically into three, the upper division being divided into three again by the lock-plate. On either side of this a chase is represented, the animals facing towards the lock. The lower compartments each contain two dragons, ending in foliated branches and with foliage between them. The two lower dragons have human heads and wear jester's caps. The character of the foliage and the entire absence of any architectural features in the design of this chest, place it in the first quarter of the Fourteenth Century.