A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture


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Sir Walter Raleigh smoking a pipe, but of what?

The start of the anti-smoking movement?

High Times in Elizabethan England

Shakespeare is often considered the high point of the English Renaissance. It turns out that "high" is an even better word choice than it might seem. Some enterprising scientists from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa got the idea to analyze the residue in fragments of clay pipes found in Shakespeare’s garden (and elsewhere) in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The scientists were trying to find out more about the "tobacco" (you’ll see the reason for the quotes in a moment) that England had imported by the boatload ever since 16th-century travelers were introduced to it in the New World.

But guess what? In the pipes that contained analyzable residue, eight had been used for smoking cannabis, two for Peruvian cocaine, and only one for tobacco. (Incidentally, one of the "cocaine" pipes came from the garden of Harvard House, the home of the mother of John Harvard after whom Harvard University was named.)

In Elizabethan English there was no verbal distinction between tobacco and cannabis: the word "tobacco" (along with the more vernacular "sotweed") appeared to refer to either or both.

In his often overlooked (deservedly) Sonnet 76, Shakespeare appears to admit that he finds "invention in a noted weed." The sonnet is about the contemporary criticisms of his other sonnets, and includes the lines,

Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth and where they did proceed?

So which plays do we think Shakespeare actually wrote while drawing on a pipe of "noted weed"? The high jinks of the comedies, the high heroes of the histories, or the high drama of the tragedies?

And there we were, thinking that the most exciting thing that Raleigh brought back from the New World was a potato!

Secular Life

One of the many things we love about medieval art is that while its subjects are usually religious, its details are often domestic, sometimes fascinatingly so. Take this painting, Christ in the House of Simon, done in the 1440s by Dieric Bouts.

The meal took place in Palestine, but Bouts shows it in a medieval Dutch interior with interesting dining furniture and implements (and an Italian landscape!). The table consisted of a loose top laid on moveable trestles -- obviously it was put up and taken down for each meal. The diners are sitting on a bench built into an alcove -- there is no moveable furniture except the table.

There are four diners, and the table is laid with two pewter chargers, two knives, two stoneware jugs, three glasses (unusually many for four diners -- obviously a prestigious dinner!) and something unidentifiable near the larger of the jugs. The stoneware is from Raeren or Siegburg, the glasses are certainly Dutch, and the pewter and the knives probably so. The knives are pointed, showing that they were used to convey food to the mouth (forks would have to wait another couple of centuries before they became common: when they did, knife ends were rounded).

Look closely at the stoneware pot on the floor that the woman is using to wash Christ’s feet. It has a lid. We have never seen a reference anywhere to a stoneware pot with a stoneware lid or even one referenced as "missing lid." Very interesting. Help us out, please, if you’ve come across a reference to a stoneware pot with a lid.

But perhaps the most interesting thing on the table is the bread. When it was to be eaten, it was cut vertically. But when it was to be used as trenchers (the equivalent of plates), it was cut horizontally. Each diner has a bread trencher in front of him.
The painting came to us from a collector of medieval stoneware who’d just sold us part of his collection, including a funnel-necked jug virtually identical to the one on the table here. The four fourteenth-century mugs from Siegburg are on our site under Pottery, but we’ve put the Raeren funnel-necked jug in Objects of Interest.

A Reader's Request

One of our readers has just purchased an early piece that has a panel carved with two birds with entwined necks. The motif is illustrated in John’s When Oak Was New, p. 81, where its context was clearly religious (the panel also contains the initial "IHS" and a cross). Our reader wondered where the motif came from and what it meant (almost every image signified something in this period).

We found some confusing information about its origin (oriental, classical, Franco-Norman), but no hint of what it meant or referred to. We’re sure some Acorns reader knows more about it than we do.

Here’s a sampling of what Google told us:

"...birds with entwined necks appear on a ceramic tile dated to 1509. These grottesche also have a classical origin and were highly fashionable in the early years of the 16th century..." from Venice and the Islamic World.

In the British Museum there is a 17th-century ivory panel from Sri Lanka of two geese with entwined necks, and apparently the motif was woven into the Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1070).