Hugh of St. Victor: A Hint on Medieval French Woodworking

I would not have expected to find information on woodworking in a Medieval French guide to the liberal arts. But while reading the Didascalicon* by Hugh of St. Victor, a twelfth-century scholar who lived and taught in and around Paris, I found a brief description of the components of woodworking. Hugh’s book was originally composed in Latin, and was intended as an introductory textbook for university students, and while the book focuses on describing and categorizing each branch of academic learning, it also mentions details about several manual crafts, including woodworking in book two.

Hugh describes woodwork in chapter twenty-two, and interestingly, he places woodworking under the heading of “Armament,” or “things under which we take cover” and things “by which we strike,” whether it be a house or a shield, a mallet or a sword. Hugh seems to have carpentry, or timber-framing, particularly in mind when he lists the tools of the “wood-worker” and the “carpenter,” which include “mattocks and hatchets, the file and beam, the saw and auger, planes, vises, the trowel and the level . . .” These are used in operations such as “smoothing, hewing, cutting, filling, carving, joining, [and] daubing.” Clearly the references to the “trowel” and the activity of “daubing” indicate that plastering over wattles to build walls was an important part of house building.

A few things puzzle me about this list, though. First, the use of the word “mattock” is strange, since a proper mattock is an agricultural implement, basically a large hoe. According to a book called Agricultural Implements of the Roman World, the word translated “mattock” (L. “dolabra“) is similar to the modern Pulaski axe, which the author calls a “hatchet.” The implement is mounted on a long handle, having a digging blade on one side of the head and a chopping blade on the other. I am not aware that such a tool ever had much currency with timber framers, who usually prefer their axes separate from their adzes. Could it be that what we now call the “adze” was called by the same Latin name as what we now call a “mattock”? The tools look almost identical, so it would stand to reason that they would be called by the same name. Similarly, I am not sure what the “beam” refers to. Perhaps a straightedge or a measuring rod of some kind? The Latin word is “assiculo,” which isn’t of much help to me.  The word apparently survived in eighteenth-century Italian, in which it meant a kind of small hinge, but I do not know whether the term is related to Hugh’s word. 

Secondly, the list is notable for what it leaves out. There is no reference to the mallet or the chisel, both of which are essential to nearly all forms of woodworking, timber framing included. The list also appears to leave out layout tools like the square, the plumb line, the compass, and dividers, though it does include a level. But even the inclusion of a level in the list is problematic, since the modern spirit level (the liquid-filled glass tube with a bubble in the middle) was patented in 1905. Medieval and Renaissance levels were of a different sort, usually a wooden right triangle with a plumb bob hung from one corner. Perhaps this important tool is what Hugh has in mind.

The inclusion of a plane in the list is also intriguing. In later practice, the hand plane was the distinguishing mark of the joiner and cabinet maker–the furniture maker–who used planes regularly, whereas the carpenter–the timber framer–typically had no use for planes. If Hugh is describing timber framing, why does he include planes in his list? Is he failing to make an important distinction between similar but discrete trades, or is were the two trades identical in Hugh’s day? What little Medieval furniture that survives tends to look pretty crude by modern standards, and it is possible that the same tradesmen who built a house were also responsible for furnishing it in the twelfth century. The division of woodworking into “carpentry” and “cabinetry” may be a later event.

Regardless, Hugh’s list is obviously meant to be representative rather than comprehensive. It provides enough information that the contemporary reader can tell instantly which craft he is talking about.  Apparently, I am not the first person to remark on Hugh’s interest in manual crafts, though the one work I found that discussed Hugh’s list was more interested in the broader cultural implications of the passage than in the details of the tools and techniques listed.  A careful reading of the passage is bound to raise questions in the modern woodworker’s mind while still providing a tantalizing glimpse into early Medieval woodworking.



*Note: I read the text in this translation by Jerome Taylor. The complete Latin text is available for download here. I do not actually read Latin, though I can use a dictionary if necessary. Any learned comments regarding my use of Latin here are most welcome.

This entry was posted in Wood and Woodwork, Woodworking Literature and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Hugh of St. Victor: A Hint on Medieval French Woodworking

  1. Cal says:

    I was once told about an academic and woodworker in England who was able to deduce by the marks left by axes in ancient Roman timbers, the origin of the woodworker who had cut it. As I understood it, the diversity in the styles of axes used by members of the Roman army left marks so distinct that he could trace their heritage.

    Happy to have stumbled across your blog…

  2. I’m glad you found it interesting. It doesn’t surprise me at all that different regions (Roman, Celtic, Scandinavian etc.) had different techniques and different tools. I only wish we knew more about these early European woodworkers, in all their variety. Every once in a while I run across a passage like this in an old book, and it’s fun to try to mentally reconstruct the author’s images.

  3. Brother David says:

    Medieval Latin “dolabra” certainly does not mean a mattock, although it did have that meaning in Classical Latin; it is glossed in the 14th century “Western Glosses” as:
    unum dolabrum est un dolabre (M.E. a brod ax)

    Dolabre is the Anglo-Norman term for an adze or broad axe (brod ax in Middle English), which were viewed as variant forms of the same tool.

    The digging blade of a mattock has to be set at about 80 degrees to the handle for use in two hands, while the sharp blade of an adze is at a much shallower angle for use as a single-handed woodworking tool.
    Medieval mattocks did not always have the double head you describe; illustrations from the 11th and 12th centuries show them only with the single digging head, almost always used in conjunction with another man using a metal-shod wooden spade.

    “Assiculus” is an alternative form of axiculus, which has a range of meanings: a pin, a pole, an axle, a beam, a small plank or slat. It is difficult to understand which is intended in this case.

Join the Conversation:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s