Medieval homes were sparsely furnished, and each piece usually would have more than one function. One of the intriguing bench styles that can be found in many manuscript images is the bench with a flip-able back rest. The form seems to have become popular in the early part of the 15th century.
To make the bench even more useful, the base could be a storage chest. In manuscripts, the bench is normally seen in front of a fireplace. Warm up facing the fire, and when you were warm enough and it was time to dine, flip the backrest and face the table.
Banc à Tournis
The France banc à tournis (or banc-tournis) typically has a thin backrest that turns inside the side panels. Although they are found in manuscripts, I did not find any French versions with the lower storage chest.
The side panels serve as the legs of the bench and often bear the only decorative element, in this case, linenfold carving.
The pair above with carved panels on the side are a bit longer and a central support is added.
Here you can get a better look at two versions of the turning arm. The center dowel in the pivot does not pierce the side panel. In the (sharper) photo on the left it is easy to see how the side panel is constructed to include a vertical stop for the turning arm of the backrest.
Flemish artists were notoriously good at fine details. In this painting which is the left side of the Werl Altarpiece, Saint Barbara sits on another French-style banc à tournis. In this case the backrest is an six-sided bar with a metal turning arm and mounted on the outside of the side panel.
The open sides of this bench preclude mounting the turning arm on the inside. Another feature of these benches is a footrest. They can be hard to see in paintings due to the voluminous clothing worn by the bench occupants. The footrest is also one of those pieces that gets broken off – or intentionally taken off – as these benches moved through the centuries.
In the Sotheby’s notes about the two benches from Northern France it gave the 1589 inventory of a banc à tournis owned by Catherine de Medici: ‘un banc à dossier mobile e pouvant faire face à la chiminée ou tourner le dos.’ At the time (2007) this was the last known record of one of these benches.
The German version of these benches are the strycsitten, identified by the turning mechanism mounted atop the side panel.
As with the French benches, there are variations in the side panels, decorative elements and whether there is a storage chest.
The pilgrims are sitting on a plain styrcsitten with a narrow backrest and we can definitely see the hinges of the chest.
Based on his painting style, Mälesskircher was probably trained by Flemish masters. He shows us two strycsitten without chests, but with great decorative work on the side panels.
A plain bench with storage chest. The backrest is wider than what is usually seen in manuscripts and paintings and would likely be more comfortable.
This second bench from the 15th century has a beautifully-carved backrest and, as you can see, a storage chest. There are color photos floating around that may or may not be the same bench. I have seen notes that the pictured bench may have been destroyed in WWII.
The turning mechanism of the strycsitten sits on the central point of the side panel. The two outside points serve as the rests. Variations will be the depth of the curves and height of the three points, and carvings or piercings on the side panels.
If you are shopping around for a flip-able bench to make and so far you aren’t wowed by the banc à tournis or strycsitten, let’s go north.
The vändbänk is a Swedish bench with some interesting details. No side panels to worry about, as much turning detail as one might want and a very cool turning mechanism.
These benches were painted in the folk tradition and the seat might have an apron. In the bench above you can still see remnants of paint. The apron is carved with a leaf pattern.
And here is how it turns. I don’t know the Swedish term for the turning arm so I am naming it Thor’s Hammer. Many examples have the same staked legs in what looks like the start of a ballet second position demi-plié. These benches have personality and turnings, lots of turnings.
Another variation is a fence-like apron attached to one side.
When the backrest is turned to the other side the apron is left behind. Here you also get an idea of the heft of the burly turning arm.
This bench appears to be older than the previous two and is from Norra Bäckbo. In the local dialect it is known as a rall. No turnings but a nicely figured backrest.
In the Junkboda Bygdea dialect this bench is a brudsärla and has a heavier build. The legs extend above the level of the seat and act as the stops for the backrest. The backrest is more solid than previous examples and has wonderful quatrefoil piercings while the apron has simple beading. The turning mechanism is the same but without any apparent decoration.
Two more non-Swedish benches with a similar turning arm are from Hungary and Russia.
The Hungarian bench variation has staked stick legs instead of the more substantial Swedish bench legs. The seat is also less substantial but has a nice frilly apron. The backrest has deeply carved and pierced panels. This may have had some repainting, however, it still gives us a good idea of the folk painting found in Eastern Europe.
This beefy Russian bench almost looks like a church pew, except for the legs. The back rest has a carved and pierced design that can also be found in textiles.
The bench shows another variation of how to turn the backrest.
With some similarity to the German styrcsitten the backrest turns atop the side panel and together they give a solid side to the bench end.
The St. Thomas Guild has been exploring the strycsitten for several years and they have a ton of photos of the benches (and other furniture) they have found. You can take a trip over to their blog here. If you get lost they have an alphabetic directory that will help you get redirected on their blog.
As with many folk crafts this bench is disappearing. Whatever your preference in style or decoration I urge you to consider making one of these versatile benches.
There are a few more examples of these flip-able benches in the gallery.
— Suzanne Ellison