Tuesday, 12 April 2016

A Danish Chest? Evidence from the Essex Wills

This post is part of a series on the vocabulary of the sixteenth-century Essex Wills. For an introductory overview, see The Words of Sixteenth Century Essex Woman and Man.

A common item of household furniture bequeathed by testators in The Essex Wills was the dansk chest. Numerous examples occur. It is also commonly found in many other collections of wills and inventories.

The Essex Wills include three examples that are earlier than the single  example that you will find in the OED’s unrevised entry DANSK adj. (and n.): they date from 1560 (I. 37), 1563 (I. 163), and 1566. They also contain examples of dansk coffer and dansk hutch, which were probably very similar objects. F. G. Emmison’s volume Elizabethan Life: Essex Gentry’s Wills (1978) contain three further examples:

1593 p. 279 the hutches saving a danske chest I give to Alice.
1596 p. 307 my yellow danske chest in the north loft with the linen.
1600 p. 291 the new danske chest therein.

The OED’s example dates from 1569: ‘a danske chiste that was his sisters’. It comes from Wills and inventories, illustrative of the history, manners, language, etc. of the northern counties of England, which clearly shows how widespread was both the expression and the thing it denotes.

Like many other household terms of the period, the word scarcely appears in ‘literature’. I have found two examples of Dansk so used in Early English Books Online:

1571 T. Knell Declaration Tempestious & Outragious Fluddes  [STC 15032] Two Shippes laden with  Danske Ware.  
1580 J. Stowe Chronicles [STC 23333] Trussed hym in a  Danske Cheste. (This also occurs in Holinshed.)

So what is Dansk? Well, OED has two other adjectival examples:

1596 On her head a crowne She wore much like vnto a Danisk hood. 
1610 Our English [Iron] is best, the Spanish next, and the Danske worst.

And a noun:

1568 The rootes are now condited [preserved] in Danske.

On the basis of Danish, Swedish, and Icelandic Dansk the adjective is defined as ‘Danish’ and the noun as ‘Denmark’. This has been followed by several historians and editors of documents. 

This is, in fact, one of the few examples of the OED, first edition, confusing two things. I think we can accept that the ‘Danisk hood’ may well be Danish, and possibly the ‘Danske’ iron. But the place Danske is not Denmark at all, and Danske chests are not from there. The 1568 example is from Turner’s Herbal; Turner is discussing angelica, and the quotation continues:

for a frende of myne in London called maister Alene, a marchant man who hath ventered over to Danske sent me a little of these well condited with very excellent good honey.

In the Essex Wills there is also an example of the word as a place name which points to its true etymology: a will of 1565 ‘Written in haste in Danske’ by the master of a ship. Danske can only be the name of the port where the will was written, not the name of a country.

In fact Danske was the contemporary English name of Danzig (now Gdansk), the port from which the timber or the chests made from it were brought to England, as the OED itself shows elsewhere:

1390 Earl Derby’s Exped. (Camd.) 37 Item Herman, skypper de Dansk. (at SKIPPER n.2)
1533 St. Papers Hen. VIII, I. 414 The Cytees of Lubeke, Danske, Hamburgh, Bromeswyke, and all other the Stedes of the Haunse Tutonyk. (at STEAD n.)

There was a thriving import trade in timber from the Baltic to England. Many imports came from SPRUCE (OED, = Prussia, this form of the name attested from the 14th century), the region in which Danske was situated. One article was the SPRUCE n., sense 2, ‘a Spruce coffer or chest’:

1481–90   Howard Househ. Bks. (Roxb.) 273   Item a sprusse conteining ij. coffres of my Lordes. 
1507   in E. Hobhouse Church-wardens’ Accts. (1890) 54   Item one spruc.
or more fully:

1461   J. Paston in Paston Lett. & Papers (2004) I. 98   On of the canvas baggis jn the gret cofir or in the spruse chestt. 
1540   in J. W. Clay North Country Wills (1908) I. 174   The spruse chest which is in my litle chamber. 
1445   in J. Raine Testamenta Eboracensia (1855) II. 195   j cistam vocatam sprusse coffre. 
1522   in W. Greenwell Wills & Inventories Registry Durham (1860) II. 106,   I bequeathe to my said Wyffe..a spruse coffer.

And one might guess that the wood of which they were made was that of the SPRUCE FIR n. (much later in OED: 1731), though that would need confirmation by a historian.

In further support of this thesis, OED also has an unrevised entry for DANTZIG ‘used attrib. chiefly to designate kinds of timber grown in that district, as Dantzig deal, fir, oak’. The examples date from the 19th century, by which time the early modern English form of the port’s name had been replaced by the contemporary German form.

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