What is scaffolding? Ask a Shakespearian-era criminal, the Renaissance painter Michelangelo, and a contemporary architect, and you're likely to get three very different answers. To find out what they are, you'll need to read our brief guide to the meanings and uses of scaffolds.
History has a funny way of changing the meanings of things. That's often the case with words. In the medieval era, to call someone silly meant that they were happy or blessed - and don't even try to call someone nice. In that age, nice meant foolish or stupid. Scaffolding is a rare example of how the meaning of structures can change over time as well.
The Bad Kind of Scaffold
Ask "What is scaffolding?" to an Englishman of Shakespeare's era, and he'd likely give you a frightened look before scurrying away. At that time, the scaffold was best known as an elevated platform on which a criminal was executed. In fact, "the scaffold" was commonly used as an implicit reference to hanging or beheading. According to the history book Hang by the Neck, "Professional hangmen sometimes invented their own scaffold-machine and carried or shipped them about from one county-seat to another. Such apparatuses were sometimes referred to as ‘galloping-gallows'."
The meanings and uses of scaffolding haven't usually been so macabre, but the word scaffold did derive from the Latin word catafalque, a temporary raised platform on which a body rested in state before and during a funeral. Today, it's the "platform" part that's most important.
The Good Kinds of Scaffolds
Historically, scaffolding has most often been used for constructive or theatrical purposes. Until the past century or so, such scaffolds were usually built from wood, creating an elevated platform or series of platforms supported by poles or trestles (though sometimes scaffolds were suspended with ropes). Unlike ladders, scaffolds could support multiple people at once.
From the sturdy heights of a scaffold, many different activities could be - and have been - performed. Scaffolds were used for making proclamations or seating spectators at a public event. The scaffold was critical to architecture and painting. Workmen used scaffolding when erecting and repairing buildings. In the medieval era, scaffolds were used as military engines for assailing the walls of castles and fortresses.
The scaffold has even played an essential role in the creation of humanity's greatest artworks. To paint the Sistine Chapel's ceiling, Michelangelo designed his own scaffold, which rested on brackets protruding from holes in the wall, rather than floor-based supports.
Contemporary scaffolds are usually modular systems of metal tubes that support wide wooden decks. Locking swivel casters allow for easy yet secure movement from one spot to another, allowing for continued work without scaffold disassembly and reassembly.