A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

APRIL 2017

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What Made Jack Black?

OK, it's a blackjack. We know it was used for drinking beer, but why was it called a "blackjack"? The "black" is obvious -- it's the color of the leather after it has been treated with pitch or wax to make it waterproof. A "jack" was a straight-sided leather jerkin that flared out at the hips that medieval English archers wore in battle. French archers called it un jaque d'Anglois. Put the two together, and voila, "blackjack"!

Blackjacks are almost exclusively English, and were looked down upon by the more sophisticated (in their eyes) French. In 1614, when Henri III of France asked Monsieur Daudelot what especial things he had noted in England during his negotiations there, he answered that he had seen "but three things remarkable": which were "that people did drinke in bootes, eat raw fish, and strewed all their best rooms with hay" -- referring to blackjacks, oysters, and rushes. And in his drama Edward IV, first published in 1599, Thomas Heyward wrote of blackjacks at the Court, "which when the French-men first saw, they reported on their return to their countrey that the Englishmen used to drink out of their Bootes."

From the Guildhall records of the leathercrafters, we know that leather vessels were madein large quantities in the 1300s. In 1350, the Ordinances of the Bottilars of London empowered them to make botellis et aliis vasis de corro (bottles and other vessels of leather).

Leather had many advantages. Very few pottery tankards were made in medieval England, though some, especially stoneware ones, were imported from the continent and were therefore expensive. But pottery broke easily, as did glass. Treen tankards, or "cans," were at least breakproof, but leather was even better: In 1397, the buttery of the Priory of Finchale contained four small jacks and eight large cans of wood, but wooden cans do not last, and when the next inventory was taken in 1411, the wooden cans had been replaced by six large drinking jacks.

Today, genuine blackjacks are comparatively rare, and their consequent high prices have encouraged them to be reproduced -- with honest and dishonest intent. In fakes and repros the bottom is often flush with the sides, not deeply recessed, and the handles are often stitched on, sometimes using metal thread: in a genuine blackjack the handles are always the same piece of leather as the body of the vessel and continuous with it, and the bottoms are recessed to preserve them from wear. Both of these features require high skill from the leatherworker, a skill the faker did not possess.

See the Blackjack on our website.

In Praise of Mud

There's a whole category of antiques for which we have to offer our heartfelt thanks to mud. Thames mud in particular, the mud of Dutch canals almost equally, and even the less salubrious mud of privies and waste heaps. It's the "lost-and-found" method of survival: carelessly lost, buried in mud and then serendipitously found during excavations hundreds of years later. Mud that is continuously wet and never dries out is a wonderful preservation agent.

These muddy antiques are often ones that would otherwise have been lost: most of them are mundane objects made to serve a basic function and no more. Compare slip-top pewter spoons, for example, with lacey trefid silver spoons: most of the former have been lost-and-found in mud, whereas the latter have been carefully handed down through the generations (we do not talk of being born with a pewter spoon in one's the mouth).

We've recently been able to acquire a number of these medieval, mundane, muddy objects from a specialist in England. Look at this bone-handled knife and its leather sheath, for example. It may date from as early as the fourteenth century and has survived only because the Thames mud did a wonderful job of preserving it -- not just the steel (which we might expect), but the bone and the leather as well. Thank you, Father Thames.

The blade is fine and light, which suggests that its main use was at the dining table. The pointed end was used for spearing chunks of meat -- when forks came to dining tables some 300 years later, knife ends were rounded. The sheath tells us that the knife was carried by the diner, and not provided by the host -- we know this was common practice, but it's nice to have it confirmed by an object, and not just a book!

Now turn and look at this medieval key -- it's fascinating, but nobody would deliberately keep a key once the lock had worn out. And what a lock this key must have fitted!

And this stick-in candleholder is of a type made for 200 years or more that have survived in some numbers, but this is tiny: the candle it held was less than half-inch in diameter -- a sign of how very expensive candles were at this early period (15th/16th century) when most light was provided by oil lamps, which means that candleholders were much rarer than in later times.

The pryck spur? That shows how little spurs have changed between the twelfth and the twenty-first centuries!

These little lost things would all have agreed with Ivan Turgenev when he wrote, "We sit in the mud ... and reach for the stars."


More Photos

Bone-Handled Knife with Leather Sheath

Medieval Key

Stick-In Candleholder

Pryck Spur

French illumination, c. 1250. Delilah cutting Samson's hair.

The Abbesss of White Nuns cutting the hair of a novice, c. 1316.

Shear Speculation

How did a fifteenth-century lord of the manor get his hair cut? We don't know, and probably most people don't think it's a question worth asking. But we always find the unremarkable, unrecorded bits of life to be fascinating -- probably because their history is often told only by antiques -- particularly by mundane, functional objects such as these hair shears.

We know that medieval barbers did far more than cut hair: surgery, hair-cutting, dentistry, blood-letting and leeching, the draining of boils and fistulas, and even administering enemas: the barber was quite the jack of all trades. In fact, in the early Middle Ages, he was called "a barber-surgeon." Then in 1450 a law was passed that joined the barbers' company with the surgeons' guild -- which allowed surgeons to stop barbers performing surgery except for the pulling of teeth and blood-letting.

Bleeding bowls are perhaps the most common relics of barbering, though you occasionally come across a rather fearsome razor. But these hair shears are the first of their kind that we've seen. Possibly the survival rate of hair shears is so low because cutting hair was actually the least important of the barber's activities.

Now let's speculate further. We know that novice nuns had their hair shorn regularly in nunneries. And according to medieval illuminations, Delilah used shears much like these to cut Samson's hair. This was, incidentally, by far the most famous and most frequently reproduced haircut of all time! Even Chaucer saw Delilah at work: "And slepynge in her barm [lap] upon a day, She made to clippe or shere his here away" (The Monk's Tale, 1392-1400).

So it wasn't only barbers who possessed hair shears. It seems quite plausible, then, that hair was also cut in the home, though there is no record that it was. But there is no record of many mundane activities -- they just weren't worth recording. So it's possible that giving haircuts was a job of one of the maids, and the lord of the manor did not have to go to town to visit the blood-spattered shop of the local barber. So were these shears professional, religious or domestic? Who knows, and who cares -- except us, and perhaps you?

See the Shears on our website.