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Scribal Desks: 14th to 16th centuries

Early examples of a “copier's” desk in the 14th century and earlier are depicted as a flat surface atop a pedestal structure, usually with a slight angle. This is evident in several manuscripts which depict either the scribe at work in his shop, or the Saints working on the Gospels.

The 15th Century

The 15th century introduced a different style of writing desk which appears as a triangular shaped box with a writing surface on both sides. In some depictions, the desk is used by two people, assumed to be master and apprentice. The stand is set upon either a flat table, desk, or in some cases, upon a podium as both a surface for working and reading. In almost all images of 15th century writing desk, a hole is shown on the triangular end of the box. I was not able to find the purpose for this hole but the images suggest that it is large enough to fit a person’s arm into which implies a storage compartment of some kind for supplies.

Mielot Image Decameron 15th century Geoffroy c.1533

Brussels As you can see in the images above, most of these desks are shown as equilateral triangles with the exception of the image to the right, from Brussels. I was not able to find exact details on this image but it appears to be a transition to the 16th century style which starts to look similar to the writing desks that we know and love.


The 16th Century

Henry 8thThe 16th century saw an influx of large writing desks as furniture rather than portable boxes. Smaller versions still existed such as King Henry VIII’s pictured to the right. The style changed from a two-sided desk, to a box with a single slope. The boxes often had hinged lids which opened to reveal drawers and compartments for holding writing supplies such as pens and ink. Several examples were heavily ornamented but less ornate versions have been found as well. Such as this example: Southwark Desk

  • Place of origin: Southwark
  • Date: 1580-1620 (made)
  • Artist/Maker: Unknown
  • Materials and Techniques: Oak, inlaid with boxwood and bog oak; interior drawers in poplar; tinned iron hinges
http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O79021/table-desk/


My version of the scribal desk

scribal deskI chose to make a desk in the style of the 15th century French writing desks with a few modifications to make it more portable and useful for SCA scribal work. My version contains a drawer for painting supplies such as brushes and paint pots, removable end caps so that the writing surfaces can be collapsed for transport, and I plan to make it usable as both a desktop and podium style display board.

The two writing surfaces are constructed using an oak stair tread, chosen due to the fact that it had some of the nicest joining of the hardwood available at the hardware store and due to the fact that the “lip” was already joined to the board better than I could have done it. It did restrict the size of the desk that I could make but also proved to be the most cost-effective resource. The rest of the desk is made from laminated oak and solid oak board.

I started off by cutting the 42” oak stair tread in half, to give me two equally sized pieces for the writing surfaces. I then measured the width and length of the stair tread so that when I made the base, the resulting triangle would be more or less equilateral, and the length would be sufficient for attaching the tread.

Using these measurements, I was able to begin crafting the box that would be the base of the desk. I wanted to include a drawer for supplies in the base, so the sidewalls of the box had to be tall enough to allow a usable height for the drawer depth. (In retrospect, I would increase this height slightly, as some of my supplies did not fit appropriately.) I built the box similar to a typical 6 panel box, leaving one end open for the drawer to slide into. The sketch above is not quite correct, the sides of the base are actually butt-joined between the top and bottom boards. During construction, I waited to attach the top board of the box until the drawer was finished and I was sure that it would fit.

Rabbet JoinIn the extant examples, the joining of the wood is done with rabbet joints (pictured left), however, I do not have routing capabilities to use that type of join, so I used a butt joint instead with brad nail and some gorilla glue as an adhesive to keep them in place. The end result is very sturdy, though it is a modern method.

With the base completed, I attached the two stair treads using 12” brass piano hinges which are small enough not to be immediately noticed. I did realize that in order for the two boards to fold flat on top of each other, one would have to be mounted slightly higher than the other. So I cut a small strip of pine that was the same thickness as the oak treads to run the length of the base and act as a riser. (I ended up having to trim it back a little so the opposite board would fold completely flat.)

To keep the two sides upright, I had originally thought to use dowels (pegs) at the top of one side to fit into the other. That would have prevented the side from collapsing though, unless the dowels were removable (losable). So instead, I used the same dowel technique, but placed them in the triangular end pieces. Aside from some difficulties in drilling out such skinny boards and properly aligning them to the writing surfaces, this concept worked better than I'd anticipated. To set up the desk, you just have to put the triangle in one side and then it self-supports while you align the other side.

The triangle pieces were the most difficult to fabricate due to the precise angles needed and the riser on one side creating some variation. I ended up making a graph paper template and marking it out on the board in order to cut them out. I'm sure there is probably a better way to do this but I had to use the tools that I had. The dowel holes were extremely difficult to drill out because the triangle pieces were made from oak laminate instead of solid oak. In order to get them correct, I had to use a smaller drill bit to start the hole, followed by the correct drill bit size for the pegs. (It took me three tries before I realized this) Next time, I would recommend using solid oak, slightly thicker wood for the triangle pieces, or a jig designed for cutting dowel holes.

Once the pieces fit together properly, I did some light sanding over the entire desk and applied 2 coats of Minwax Honey Oak stain with a wipe cloth. It took about a day to fully dry before I could apply a clean sealant as a moisture barrier since this will be going to events with me.

*Notes:

I've made some adjustments to the interior of the drawer. Using a 1” spade bit, I drilled out holes for my paint pots to sit in. They are in there tight enough to stay even if the desk is upside-down and will now sit low enough to allow the drawer to close.

I'm still working on a method of storing brushes inside the drawer in a similar manner.

Also, I'm still working on a removable floor stand to use as a portable display/work area.

References:

Hugo pictor, “Jerome's Commentary on Isaiah” (Bodl. 717, fol. 287v), late 11th century. Obtained from http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/dept/scwmss/wmss/medieval/jpegs/imagecat/1500/imac0968.jpg

Machaut(BNF Fr. 1584, fol. Fv), c. 1377 Obtained from http://visualiseur.bnf.fr/ConsulterElementNum?O=IFN-8100286&E=JPEG&Deb=3&Fin=3&Param=C

The tower scriptorium Of Tábara the scribe and illuminator lay out their folios, while a novice trims parchment (PML M.429, fol. 184v, 183), c. 1220 Obtained from http://utu.morganlibrary.org/medren/single_image2.cfm?imagename=m429.183ra.jpg&page=ICA000099352

Tory, Geoffroy: Book of Hours, Ms. Library of Congress. Rosenwald ms. 10 (1533) Obtained from http://www.fromoldbooks.org/Rosenwald-BookOfHours/pages/016-detail-miniature-scribe

Peter Comestor (fol. 1) and St. John (fol. 192), Bible Historiale (BNF Fr. 155), beginning of the 14th century, Obtained from http://visualiseur.bnf.fr/ConsulterElementNum?O=IFN-8100220&E=JPEG&Deb=1&Fin=1&Param=C

Philosophy The City of God (BNF Fr. 170, fol. 334v), fourth quarter of the 14th century. Obtained from http://visualiseur.bnf.fr/ConsulterElementNum?O=IFN-8100256&E=JPEG&Deb=11&Fin=11&Param=C

Laurent de Premierfait writes a translation The Decameron (BNF Fr. 129, fol. 4), third quarter of the 15th century. Obtained from http://visualiseur.bnf.fr/ConsulterElementNum?O=IFN-8100163&E=JPEG&Deb=3&Fin=3&Param=C

H. Clifford Smith, Catalogue of English Furniture & Woodwork (London 1930), cat. 582, Plate 24 Obtained from http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O79021/table-desk/