Tag Archives: medieval

Awake the Trumpet’s Lofty Sound, ca 1283-1300 BCE

Friday Links

Only 11 more days to enter the world’s greatest Prop Building Guidebook Contest! Don’t wait until the last minute! More importantly, starting this Monday (April 22), your friends, family and colleagues can vote for your entry. The prop with the most votes on April 30th will win $100 worth of Focal Press books. You can vote once a day, so be sure your friends know to vote early, and vote often. Now, onto the links:

Harrison Krix (of Volpin Props fame) has an article up at Tested.Com detailing the making of a mask from the video game Bioshock. It’s a great example of using “slices” to help make a precise carving, and the cracked paint treatment is an interesting technique as well.

Another replica prop maker, Bill Doran (of Punished Props fame) is doing a live Google Hangout tomorrow (Saturday, April 23rd, at 3:00pm EST) where he answers your prop-making questions. With a Google Hangout, you can watch live from your computer as it happens. You can also participate if you have a webcam and questions (Bill gives you the details in the post I linked to). Finally, the whole thing is recorded, so you can watch the whole thing on YouTube after it finishes (I’ll post the link in the comments once it goes up).

Here is a blog of random medieval imagery, mostly taken from manuscripts.

Awake the Trumpet’s Lofty Sound, ca 1283-1300 BCE
Awake the Trumpet’s Lofty Sound, ca 1283-1300 BCE

Finally, Chris Schwartz ruminates on technical perfection when building something, and whether it is necessary.


Why the term “prop master”?

Why do we use the term “property master”? In our modern world of “directors”, “managers”, and “heads”, why use the word “master”? Where does it come from?

The term “property master” is in reference to the old European guild systems. In a guild, a person would apprentice to a master for several years, learning the trade. He (or she) would then become a journeyman, traveling from one master to the next, practicing their craft in exchange for housing and a daily wage. Finally, one would apply to the guild for membership, often having to complete a masterpiece showing competence in your given trade. Only a master could run their own shop. Thus, a props master denotes one who is proficient in the craft of props, and is qualified to run a props shop.

Did props people actually belong to a guild in the Middle Ages? Probably not; as seen in my previous post, guilds supplied the props for Medieval pageants. Thus, the bread was supplied by the master bakers, and the ships provided by master shipwrights. A “property-master” would be redundant. It would appear that the term did not exist while guilds were predominant in Europe.

The term “property” was used in a theatrical sense since at least 1425 A.D. We have evidence of what these properties are from the late Middle Ages on through the Elizabethan Period. We know that the companies accumulated and stored props, that they commissioned special props from the guilds, and that the actors themselves would supply a lot of the more personal props. However, we don’t know the term for the person who would head the organization of all these props. Perhaps there was none, and the duties were split between the owners, managers, and artists of the company.

We first hear about a general “property-man” in 1749. W.R. Chetwood’s A General History of the Stage describes a property-man as “the person that receives a bill from the prompter for what is necessary in every play; as purses, wine, suppers, poison [etc.]”. The earliest occurrence of the term “property-master” I could dig up is in England in 1831. This sentence appears in “The Royal Lady’s Magazine”:

The other parts were filled as usual, Curioni being the Idreno, and Lablache the Assur. Curioni makes a woful [sic] mistake in dressing himself like a Cherokee Indian: somebody should instruct him, that there is more than one India, and that he errs in thinking he is king of that which is in the west. Talking of costume, cannot the property-master find something more resembling a crown than the bottomless tin-pot which is at present stuck on Arsace’s head.

The Royal Lady’s Magazine. July, 1831 (pg. 56)

It would appear than that the head property-man began to be called a property master well after the guilds had begun their decline. This terminology is also confusing because a props shop does not operate as a guild in the legal sense. Some occupations, such as electricians or contractors, are required to be licensed, which is similar to the requirement that a crafts-person belong to a guild in order to participate or run a shop. A property master does not need a license nor any specific schooling or degrees to operate.

Unofficially of course, a props career still operates like a guild in many ways. I began as an “apprentice in props”, followed by a property carpenter journeyman position at the Santa Fe Opera. The Actors Theatre of Louisville where I once worked also hires journeyman. (Check out “The Wanderers“, an interesting look at the modern revival of journeymen artisans in Europe.) The idea, if not the name, of journeyman can be seen in the career paths of many theatre artisans as they travel from theater to theater taking a variety of seasonal and over-hire positions to build their resumes and portfolios.

You don’t hear a lot about formal apprenticeships anymore, where a beginner spends five to seven years cleaning the shop of a master in exchange for knowledge and housing. Many theaters have apprentice programs (sometimes called “internships”) which last for a season or a year, some of which are quite good. There are of course, many other theaters which hire apprentices and interns and use them merely as cheap labor, imparting no guidance or knowledge whatsoever. We all like the satisfaction of solving a problem on our own, but the value of being taught the basics in the beginning cannot be underestimated. It is highly inefficient for so many people to be reinventing the wheel every year in theatre, especially when there so many more worthy prop challenges.

But I digress. What I’ve described here is the most reasonable sounding theory I’ve heard on why the head of a props department is called a “property-master”. If you’ve ever heard your own theories, or heard additional evidence either for or against this one, let me know!

Drawing of a mystery play by David Jee, from Thomas Sharp's "Coventry Mysteries", 1825

Medieval Theatre and Trade Guilds

Drawing of a mystery play by David Jee, from Thomas Sharp's "Coventry Mysteries", 1825
Drawing of a mystery play by David Jee, from Thomas Sharp's "Coventry Mysteries", 1825

How were props made in Medieval theatres? Before Shakespeare’s time, European theatre consisted of festivals and traveling religious pageants. Trade guilds were maturing into full-fledged institutions by the fourteenth century. It would seem that most of the props (and other production values) were provided by these guilds.

Gradually, too, the priests lost their hold even on the plays themselves; skillful actors from among the laymen began to take many of the parts; and at last in some towns the trade-guilds, or unions of the various handicrafts, which had secured control of the town governments, assumed entire charge…

Generally each play was presented by a single guild (though sometimes two or three guilds or two or three plays might be combined), and sometimes, though not always, there was a special fitness in the assignment, as when the watermen gave the play of Noah’s Ark or the bakers that of the Last Supper. In this connected form the plays are called the Mystery or Miracle Cycles…

(A History of English literature for Students, by Robert Huntington Fletcher, 1916: pp. 85-88)

Thus it would appear the productions were very artisan-based; a ship was built as a ship would be built, rather than as some cheap facsimile. We read further that:

at York before 1378 the management of the different plays was already divided out between the different crafts, and it is probable that the allusions to the method of representation which have been gleaned from later records apply equally well to these fourteenth century performances…

On the morning of the performance each pageant would be rolled out of its shed and dragged in its turn to the first of the ‘stations’ at which the plays were acted. The first performance over, the pageant would be dragged through the streets to the second station, and then the play repeated. At York each play was performed twelve times, and occasionally oftener, the choice of the stopping places or stations being determined by the liberality of the owners of the adjacent houses. These contributions were much needed, for the cost of the plays fell heavily on the guilds; five or six of them had sometimes to club together to produce a single pageant, while the sharing of the expenses led to frequent disputes. In a few cases the reason for the assignment of a play to a particular guild is obvious; thus the Shipwrights or Fishmongers commonly interested themselves in Noah and the Flood, while the Goldsmiths and Goldbeaters played the Magi. But as a rule the wealth of the guild and the cost of the necessary dresses and stage properties were the chief considerations.

(Chamber’s Cyclopædia of English Literature, by Robert Chambers, 1902: pp. 47-48)


Each guild was entrusted as far as possible with a performance in harmony with the character of its own craft; thus the building of the Ark was represented by the shipwrights. The number of these associations seems startling, until the great subdivision of labour in the Middle Age is considered, and the jealousy lest one craft should encroach on the domain of another. We hear o’ bladesmiths, sheathers, buckle-makers, girdelers, corvisors (shoemakers), spicers, fletchers (arrow-makers), pinners, needlers, and whittawers (workers in white leather).

(English Literature: From the beginning of the age of Henry VIII, by Richard Garnett and Edmund Gosse, 1903: pp. 223-225)

In many ways, it would seem the guilds provided these pageants as a way to showcase the skills of their members and advertise their abilities. Between the numerous guilds, these pageants must have had quite the variety of props and costumes. Some of these pageants lasted all day, encompassing the entirety of sacred history. By dividing up the parts between the different guilds, it became economically feasible.

Let’s look at some of the more practical aspects of Medieval theatre production.

The expense accounts of the guilds, sometimes luckily preserved, furnish many picturesque and amusing items, such as these: ‘Four pair of angels’ wings, 2 shillings and 8 pence.’ ‘For mending of hell head, 6 pence.’ ‘Item, link for setting the world on fire.’…

To the guilds the giving of the plays was a very serious matter. Often each guild had a ‘pageant-house’ where it stored its ‘properties,’ and a pageant-master who trained the actors and imposed substantial fines on members remiss in cooperation.


We can compare this to a later account of expenses in my previous post on Theatrical profits and expenses in 1511.

Finally, let’s take a quick look at the construction of some of these props and effects:

There could be little attempt at scenery, but details of costume and stage fittings are abundantly supplied by the account books of the municipalities, when these have been preserved, and are full of curiosity and interest. The representation of Paradise naturally surpassed the powers of the scenic artists of that period, but they were perfectly at home in Hell, and especial pains were taken with Hell mouth, delineated as the literal mouth of an enormous monster, and with the pitchforks and clubs of the demons. The latter implements were considerately made of wadding: but the gunpowder which the fiends are enjoined to carry about various parts of their persons, if not mere brutum fulmen, in which case it might as well have been omitted, must have been productive of considerable inconvenience to the performer.

(Garnett and Gosse)

Ha ha, blowing up performers with gunpowder. That’s props!