kiln. Drawn by Mike Lamont
June 26, 2023

Kiln dawn by Mike Lamont – Medieval Penn Floor Tiles

Did you know that the quality of tiles was regulated during the Middle Ages?

Guardians of Quality: Medieval Regulations for Tile Craftsmanship

During the Middle Ages, these flat ceramic pieces were among the first products to receive specific quality regulations. Here's the story:

During those times, tiles were considered true treasures and were very expensive, especially the those with decorative designs. Something so valuable needed to be protected in order to ensure that consumers got quality products.

an arduous job

The process of manufacturing tiles began by collecting the raw material, the clay.

It seems simple, but to make tiles for, for example, an entire Church floor, several clay horse carts were needed.

Of course, potters used to work near a clay bank and collect it as close to the cart as possible (near the road or path) and that is how the English word for "Pothole" came about - where the potters collected the clay to make pots.

-Medieval quality certification

Once the clay was collected, they had to clean it of impurities (taking care to separate the valuable pieces of ochre that would be used to make pigments and paints).

Ochre has been used for thousands of years to decorate our surroundings. From cave paintings through the ancient Egyptians to today with our Encaustic tiles.

The tile was shaped with a mold where it was struck to remove the air with the help of a wooden mallet.

Once removed from the mold, it was left to dry on the ground, on top of sand so that it did not adhere.

(Just like we do our fired clay nowadays!)

We now have our first tile… only a few thousand more to go…

Here comes the tricky part...

the firing.

Ceramic kilns in the Middle Ages required a LOT of firewood, were expensive, and usually belonged to the Lord of the land they were working on. Therefore, in order to use them, a permit had to be requested. (In many places only 1 permit was given per year).

But the firewood also had it's tricks... The trees also belonged to the Lord of the grounds. The families that worked the land or “rented” their houses to exploit the land, generally had permits to cut down a certain number of trees per year, although in some cases collecting already fallen sticks from their forests was allowed. And this also had to be loaded onto a cart. And dried.

The firing had to be be perfect! All the previous hard work depended on it!

handmade clay

So now they most important day has arrived. Since first light, potters carefully loaded the kilns with tiles. The tiles had to be well separated so that if one burst, it would not break the ones next to it, but at the same time trying to fill the oven as much as possible. This would take hours.

The oven temperature had to be just right: too hot and the clay could burn or melt. And if it cools too fast, it could burst.

So potters, their apprentices and assistants would stay all day, night and until the next day while the Master potter controlled the temperature of the kiln, making sure that the color of the flames was optimal at each moment of the process and that the cooling was progressive. and suitable.

-Medieval quality certification

The vigil became a small celebration party, with some musical instruments, drink and food to celebrate all the work they had done in the previous months and where the families would accompany them for a good part of the night.

The quality

13th century tiles
13th century floor tiles

So now you know, it is a very long and expensive process and that showed in the price.

The buyers of this very expensive good were people with a lot of money and they wanted guarantees. That is why rules and regulations were established that controlled their production, quality and trade.

The guilds, those associations of artisans and merchants dedicated to different trades, played a key role in this regulation of tiles.

-Medieval quality certification

These guilds were not only in charge of supervising the production of the tiles, but also controlled the sale and trade process.

They set fair prices, ensured fair competition among their members, and even placed special marks or stamps on each tile to indicate its origin and quality.-Medieval quality certification!

These guilds were also concerned with innovation and creativity in tile production.

Although the regulations sought to maintain a minimum quality, they sometimes limited competition and innovation. This meant that some designs and manufacturing techniques could be standardized, but still, there was room for variation! imagination and beauty on every tile!

What was required for these levels of quality?

Regarding what was required to comply with these regulations, For example, the statutes and regulations mentioned the materials allowed for the manufacture of the tiles, such as ceramics or stone, and established quality requirements to ensure their durability and resistance.

In addition, acceptable manufacturing techniques were specified, such as hand modeling, the use of molds or glazing. Quality standards were also established regarding the uniform thickness, regular edges and the glaze consistency.

medieval spanish tile
Spanish Tile - National Archaeological Museum

Another interesting aspect was the size, thickness and shape of the tiles. Standard measures were established to ensure compatibility and standardization in construction. And let's not forget about decoration, as in the case of decorative tiles, the statutes could mention the designs and patterns allowed, as well as the painting or glazing techniques used.

Some regulations required tiles to bear a special mark or stamp identifying their origin and quality. This provided a form of certification and guarantee for consumers, ensuring that they were purchasing a quality product.

In which countries are we aware of these regulations?

Italy, Spain, France and Netherlands are just a few of the places where guild records and regulations relating to tiles have been found. Each region had its own characteristics and requirements.

How do we know this information today?

You may wonder how we know all this about the regulation of tile quality during the Middle Ages; Historians use a number of clues and sources to unravel the secrets of bygone ages.

Historians have delved into a fascinating world of documents and records to discover how tile manufacturing was regulated in different places during the Middle Ages. We tell you some:

One of the first places they found evidence of these regulations was in the guild statutes. A set of detailed rules and regulations written by artisans and merchants.

They are historical treasures that revealed valuable information about the production and trade of tiles.

And we can't forget about the legal documents and records that have survived through time. Local laws regulating tile manufacturing. There they found specific information about the established rules, the unions involved and the sanctions for non-compliance.

Historians have also turned to the chronicles and writings of the time for additional information. Old stories that mention the importance of the tiles, the manufacturing techniques and the associated regulations.

-Medieval quality certification

Even art and architecture have given us clues about these regulations. The designs and patterns on the tiles that we can still admire in historic buildings tell us about the manufacturing techniques and quality standards that were used. A visual language that tells us a part of the story.

So the next time you step on a old tile or admire the patterns on the walls of a medieval building, stop for a moment and think about the history and the efforts that went into ensuring its quality. The window to our Medieval past that shows us how, even in ancient times, quality and concern for products were important, how dedicated the artisans were to their craft and how quality has always been valued throughout the centuries. Remember that behind its beauty there is a whole history of regulations, celebrations, permits, guilds and quality standards and how these regulations have left their mark on history and have continued with us until modern times.

Now you have one more reason to appreciate these little works of art that have lasted through time!

A little more history?

From the coins of ancient Mesopotamia to medieval tiles.

Although we have been carried away by the incredible history of how tiles were regulated during the Middle Ages, we must admit that they were not the first to receive such attention.

In the ancient mesopotamia Quality regulations were already established for something as simple as coins. The rulers of the time implemented laws and regulations to ensure that coins were authentic, of proper weight, and made from the correct metals.

In it ancient roman world, we find regulations even in the quality of food and medicines. They established laws regulating the production and sale of food and medicine.

The ancient egyptians they had quality standards for fabrics, ensuring that they were durable and aesthetically pleasing.

In it greek world, there were regulations for the manufacture of ceramics and glass, guaranteeing their resistance and beauty.

In the ancient china, we find detailed regulations for the production of silk, the crown jewels of its textile industry. The Chinese were masters in the elaboration of this precious fabric, and they established norms to guarantee that they met the high quality standards that distinguished them.

So while medieval tiles have blown us away with their quality regulation, we must remember that many other things had already gone through this process long before. Coins, food, medicines, fabrics and more were already in the crosshairs of regulations and quality standards.

And we can't forget to mention that these early regulations laid the foundation for the quality control systems we use today. They have evolved and been refined over time, but the fundamental concept of ensuring products meet certain standards remains the same.

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