The term 'refectory table', 'oak refectory table', etc. is a modern description of a style of table that was previously referred to in early inventories as a 'long table' (see Nomenclature below). Whether it's the scholarly and historically correct description or our current more widely known classification, the form of the design is much the same: A sub frame consisting of four legs in each corner (and at intervals along the length for longer tables) joined by rails around the top of the legs, an arrangement of stretchers at the bottom, over which sits the table top as in the sketch here (also see photo below).
The legs, rails and stretchers are connected together using mortise and tenon joints and this method of frame joinery remains largely unchanged since its development in the fifteenth century. The main difference today is that we can produce, very quickly, accurate mortise holes and tenons, which are a perfect fit and can therefore be glued together successfully, rather than drawer-bored-and-pegged, as they were until the emergence of woodworking machinery during late 19th century. This is not to say that the drawer-bored-and-pegged method is no longer used. Early Oak Specialists still use this method for their hand built old-oak furniture and architectural woodwork.
We have relatively recently adopted the word 'refectory', when describing this type of table, or its variants, thanks mainly to the quaint 19th/early 20th century obsession of linking almost any piece of early oak furniture with the 'monastic romance' of pre-dissolution Britain. Even today, there's a lot of nonsense talked about this subject which, unfortunately, helps to keep the myth alive. Even Wikipedia lean towards this trend. In fact there is no evidence to attribute any such surviving table to a monastic refectory, although inventories do refer to more secular origins such as colleges. This style of table (four or more legs joined by rails and stretchers, with a fixed planked top i.e. 'joined long table'), can be assigned more accurately to domestic households during the latter half of the sixteenth century, and onwards, rather than monasteries, abbeys, priories and such like.
An oak carved table in a 'refectory' style, handmade by the author, from ancient oak beams.
Â© Early Oak Reproductions. Reproduced from Nicholas Berry's photo archive.
Author; By Nicholas Berry
Bespoke Reproduction Early Oak Furniture Specialist
From a small boy at infant school, I've had a passion for early architecture and furniture, embracing the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. I've spent almost three decades designing and making replica early oak furniture (and architectural woodwork)...with my own hands!
Nowadays, together with a team of highly skilled and equally passionate craftspeople, I use that valuable experience helping clients commission, from our company, the very best in bespoke oak reproduction furniture, with a particular emphasis on personal service.
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Bibliography: Oak Furniture - The British Tradition by Victor Chinnery
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