The Mystery of the Dog Legged Gate?
History is full of mysteries, and this is one of them. Granted it’s not a very big mystery, as mysteries go it’s pretty minor. In fact if the importance of this mystery was turned into gasoline, it wouldn’t drive an ant’s motorcycle halfway around the inside of a cheerio. (I’ve been waiting more than three decades to use that line, my life is now complete.) That’s of course assuming the mystery even exists at all. Yes, it’s the mystery of the dog legged gate. What the hell is a dog legged gate? One is helpfully illustrated above. And in fact gates very similar to this appear in a number of paintings and prints from about 1500 to 1600, by a number of different artists. If it was just one artist that showed the dog legged gate, maybe it was just a quirk of his art, but no, a number of artists show these gates for over a century. The dog legged gate was a real gate.
So what’s the mystery? Well, the mystery is that’s a very bad way to support a gate. Gates tend to sag, and normally one places the cross beam with the bottom side on the hinge side, like this: Gate ajar. (Yes, I know, it’s a metal gate, but it’s the best public pic I could find.) For a gate braced like this to sag, the crosspiece would have to compress or buckle. For a gate braced the wrong way, and one sees a surprising number of them in the typical suburb, for the gate to sag all that has to happen is for some nails to loosen. I dare say almost everyone has seen a sagging wooden gate that had to be dragged on the ground to open.
And with the above gate, the problem is even worse. See the point at the top where the two angled pieces of wood join at a right angle? That joint is going to be under great strain as the gate tries to sag, and even with modern metal attachments making a joint like that that could resist deforming under the strain would be impossible. Now granted there is something called a yeoman gate where the crosspiece does run the “wrong” way, but it differs in key respects from the dog legged gate shown above. Basically it doesn’t have the angled joints of the dog legged gate, and would be quite resistant to sagging.
Many more illustrations of dog legged gates can be found here, this in fact is the site that brought this mystery to my attention. And a discussion of the problem can be found here, though I didn’t find it terribly enlightening. So what the heck is going on with these dog legged gates? Why were they apparently standard for a hundred years or so and then replaced with more “modern” designs? Historians are baffled. OK, maybe historians aren’t baffled, but it’s still an interesting question. And drawing on my vast knowledge of history and the fact that I’ve been fixing gates for 30 years, I think I have an answer. If the gentle reader wants to mull this problem themselves, best to stop reading for a moment as I am about to reveal the awesome secret of the dog legged gate.
Got it figured out? I think the answer lies in the era which these gates were common. This was in the very early days of the modern era, and iron fittings for things like gate latches and gate hinges would have been pricey and rare. Would peasant spend a month’s salary on a few pieces of iron to make a nice modern gate to keep his cow in the pasture? Seems unlikely, especially since thieves would likely make off with the gate hinges as they were more valuable than the cows. No, I think the answer is twofold. A gate like this would require nothing more complicated than a few nails to make, and it could indeed be made with wooden pegs. OK then, so why not use a design that wouldn’t sag? Simple, because they wanted the gate to sag. A gate like this would always sag, and thus the far end would always touch the ground when at rest. So basically the gate would stay closed or stay open of it’s own accord, no latch of any kind required! And it would be flexible enough that it could easily be opened or closed without dragging it on the ground.
So that’s my answer. The dog legged gate was a simple way to make a practical gate out of the most basic of materials without using any iron fittings at all. It wouldn’t even require hinges, the hinged end could be attached to the pole with rope and it would work. I strongly suspect that’s the reason why these gates were common for a long time, they were an elegant economical solution to a problem using the materials available in their day. There’s a lot of stuff in history like that, it’s easy to look back and say “Wow, they were sure dumb then.” No, they weren’t, they just didn’t live in the same era as us and had to do things differently.
Is there any big point to this post? Nope, just a fun post. I’m not even sure how serious the original dog legged gate post was, I detect some tongue-in-cheek elements. I just thought it was an interesting diversion from more serious topics. Tomorrow, who knows, whatever rattles out of my head tonight I suppose.
(The above image is the painting “The Prodigal Son” by Hieronymus Bosch. As he died in 1516 I think I can safely say that this image is Public Domain under all known copyright law. I tried to find a medieval joke to end this with, but apparently telling jokes wasn’t common in the Middle Ages. The closest they seem to come to modern jokes is repeating funny incidents. Like one about a knight who cut off a man’s head as he was running away … and his body continued to run for some paces before collapsing, astounding the other knights who witnessed it. Or the one where barbarians won a battle, and finding a cocked crossbow one of them hung it around his neck, never having seen such a thing before. His friends were also amazed, and upon examining it, one of them set it off, and the bowstring fatally cut the wearer’s throat. Yeah, funny times the Middle Ages.)