I've been looking at a lot of medieval tiles and architecture which I use to instigate my own tile designs, and so I thought I might write a short post about medieval tiles. What follows is a 'potted' history of medieval tiling (sorry for the awful pun).
Some of the earliest know medieval floor tiles found in Britain are mosaics. They were cut out using a template and had little or no pattern on them apart from a few which would have been the centrepiece of a large design. By utilising various coloured glazes, intricate patterns could be created. Mosaic tiles will have been complicated and time consuming to manufacture but visually stunning such as these excellent examples at Byland Abbey:
Line Impressed Tiles
With the rise of the abbeys across Britain in the early 12th C there was a call for a lot of tiles to be made. The early mosaic tiles were very time consuming to make and the geometric patters they created were complicated, and so tilers began making simpler tiles which could be produced at a quicker rate. Along with mosaic tiles, some of the earliest medieval tiles in Britain were line impressed. These were done by pressing a carved wooden stamp into the wet clay leaving an impression of the design. A simple lead glaze (powdered lead oxide) was then applied to the wet tile to produce a 'honey' coloured glaze, or additions such as copper could be added to produce a green glaze.
I saw the following tiles on a trip to Ystrad Fflur (Strata Floriday) near Pontrhydfendigaid. Unfortunately they have worn quite badly and have acquired a good covering of lichen so it is difficult to appreciate what they will have looked like when first made.
Inlay tiles are made by pressing a wooden stamp into the wet clay and then filling the resultant impression with a light coloured clay slip. Once the clay slip has dried enough, a tool is used to scrape off the excess slip which then leaves behind a striking two colour design. The designs would then be further enhanced by using different coloured glazes.
There are some excellent examples of inlay tiles from the late 13th to the early 14th century at the Casglu'r Tlysau :: Gathering the Jewels website (a repository of thousands of images relating to the history and culture of Wales). Unfortunately the tiles that I have been looking at are currently in storage, however I have been informed that they will go on display at St Fagans National History Museum of Wales in a couple of years time.
The following fragments which we're kindly lent to me by a friend show clearly where the impressed wooden stamp has left it's mark. It is clear to see on the larger of the three pieces where the light coloured clay would have filled the impressions but has crumbled and flaked off.
Norton Priory which is situated near Runcorn is well worth a visit as they have a fantastic collection of tiles that cover almost all the different types produced in the medieval period. A vast amount are in storage as there isn't the space to display them in the museum. It also has these fantastic vaulted ceilings which are the only original parts of the abbey left standing.
If you are interested in finding more out about the tiles at Norton Priory, then take a look at the lecture notes by J. M. McCornish titled A Walk on the Tile Side. The lecture covers all the known manufacturing methods of medieval tiles in a lot more depth.
- Medieval Tiles by Hans van Lemmen
- Medieval Craftsmen: English Tilers by Elizabeth Eames