The Shaving Horse revisited

Goodman 1966 roman horse, Rheims

Goodman identifies the relief as a cobbler making a wooden last sitting astride a small bench (‘horse’). The workpiece is held firmly on a sort of anvil by means of a strap passing down through the bench top, and held taut with his left foot. (Photo: Goodman 1964, p. 184, Museo di Civilta Romana, E.U.R., Rome. Reproduced without premission citing fair use)

I wrote about the shaving horse in a previous post (in Norwegian) regretting the lack of evidence for its use before the 15th century.

However, further search led to a thread on Tempus Vivit’s forum mentioning a shaving horse on a roman grave relief from Reims. When also St. Thomas Guild mentioned a roman shaving horse in Goodman’s The history of woodworking tools from 1964, I seemed to be onto something.

Most likely the St. Thomas Guild was referring to the text and image of a roman relief on page 184. While the image’s cutline links the relief to Museo di Civilta Romana, Rome, elsewhere it is said to be in the Archaeological Museum at Reims. I’m not sure about the relation between the two locations, but maybe a copy is in play? Either way Goodman seem to be referring to the same relief as the forum post.

What was in Goodman’s book was not as conclusive as anticipated. There is no attempt to identify a shaving horse. Rather Goodman identifies a ‘horse’ holding som sort of anvil with the workpiece held stout by means of a strap passing down through the bench top and around the worker’s left foot. While I’m not sure I agree with Goodman that we are shown the process of making the last (to mee it looks like the cobbler is working on a shoe clamped to the last by the said strap) it is a bit of a stretch to try to identify this with a shaving horse: In my view this cannot be considered proof that any version of the shaving horse is of roman origin.

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7 tanker om “The Shaving Horse revisited

  1. Marijn

    What do you think of the tool rack in the background? To me it seems that contain some drawknives, which are typically used in combination with a shaving horse. I am still convinced this is a genuine shaving horse, but we should have a higher resolution image to make a definite conclusion.
    Marijn – St. Thomasguild

  2. havardkongsrud Innleggsforfatter

    Thanks for your comment, Marijn. Love your work!
    After some more search I finally managed to get my hands on a more comprehensive analysis of the relief. Goodman was referring to the Musée Saint-Remy and the relief should be googled under the name Stele Funeraire d’un Savetier.

    Klikk for å få tilgang til fiche_stele_savetier.pdf

    I see the relief as relatively naturalistic. While the tunic’s folds are a bit blobby and the front and rear part of the bench does not quite line up, there is a clear sense of proportions and use of perspective. With that in mind, my primary argument is that the mechanism of the clamp and placement of the work piece are all wrong, even for a French shaving horse like this:

    I’m not able to identify the tool in his right hand, but the left hand seems to be holding something close to the last. To me it looks almost like he is hammering (with the hammerhead missing) nails into the sole of a shoe secured on a last by means of a string.

    Like you I see a tool rack in the upper right corner. It is difficult to identify the tools from Goodman’s image, but judged by the post card linked to above none of the five tools look like a roman draw knife to me. One looks like an awl and one like a flaring chisel, but I can’t identify the other three and I can’t say I agree with the suggestions by the museum record linked above. The diagonal structure between the rack and the last looks like a shelf to me, but I can’t exclude that it’s a part of his tool. Beneath the bench is a woven basket or ornamented pot containing some unidentified stuff.

    On an end note the museum identifies the artist as a sabotier, a clog maker, not a cobbler (cordwain) shaping a clog with some sort of one handed plane.

  3. Bob Burgess

    Savetier = cobbler (shoe repairer, not a maker) – sabotier (clog maker) is a completely different trade and not anything like the image in the stele… The similarities with a shave horse cannot be dismissed – the worker seated on a bench that incorporates a work piece holder… The strap is common to several trades – shoe maker, saddler, file cutter…. A better area of research may be the cooper – the romans used coopered wooden barrels and casks, and a shave horse is widely used in the preparation of the staves…

    1. havardkongsrud Innleggsforfatter

      Thanks for the comment and correction, Bob. Yes, I agree that savetier should be the correct term. The point stands though, the use of a strap is a different technology from a wooden ‘holdfast’, and until it can be found in image or text we have no source documenting its existence prior to the 15th century. Marjin found some dutch textual sources from early 15th c inventories but nothig prior to that century.

  4. Bob Burgess

    The roman stele image is very similar to the method used by file cutters to hold the blank file while the teeth are being cut… The file is supported on an anvil with a sheet of lead between, and held down by a leather strap as chisels are used ti cut the teeth… The rack behind the worker could contain chisels for this task… Question?? Did iron or steel files or rasps exist in the Roman era?????


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