A Newsletter for Lovers of Early Objects


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Our "Rosewater" Bowl. See more
images on our website, click here

Unknown Artist, St. Jerome in his Study,
c. 1530, Antwerp. Detail below

Robert Campin, Werl Altarpiece, 1438
Detail below

Portrait of Elizabeth Vernon, Countess
of Southampton, unknown artist, c. 1600.
Detail below. Courtesy Duke of Buccleuch
and Queensbury

Manuscript Illumination by the Maitre
du Polycratique, 1390

Medieval Brass, Medieval Paintings

As most of you will have figured out by now, I'm a big fan of Medieval paintings - whether they're illuminations in manuscripts or paintings on panels. They're virtually all narrative paintings, retelling familiar biblical stories, but that's not the cause of my fandom.

What I love about them is that these biblical narratives are always set in medieval interiors of the period in which they were painted. They are a wonderful record of how people lived in the 15th and 16th centuries and the things they possessed that made their lives more comfortable. These mundane "things" of course are now highly collectible antiques.

I have a particular case in mind: Last year we bought a large brass bowl from an American collector. He had acquired it from a top London dealer many years ago who had told him that it was from the 17th-century and possibly English.

I doubted the English origin, but I could just accept a 17th-century date, although bowls like this, often called "rosewater" bowls today, were rapidly going out of fashion by the end of the 16th century. They were used to wash diners' hands between the courses of the meal. By the early 17th century, spoons and knives were becoming common, and by the end of it forks had appeared on the most fashionable dining tables. People were no longer eating with their fingers as a matter of course.

I was sipping my evening wine while enjoying a c. 1530 painting of St. Jerome in his study by an unknown artist in Antwerp. I decided I'd send a copy of it to a client who had bought a candlestick very similar to the one on Jerome's desk.

Then my eyes shifted to the lavabo in the niche in the wall, and my heart missed a beat: there was our rosewater bowl underneath it. I suppose that Jerome might have been keen to wash his hands after fingering the skull on his desk, and he washed them in what might have been our bowl! The towel to dry his hands hangs just beside the niche.

I had a vague idea that I'd seen a vignette like that somewhere else. I soon gave up trying to remember where and turned to Google who immediately claimed to have found 49,600,00 medieval lavabos in 0.48 seconds. At my age, my brain doesn't move quite as fast as Google, but among the 50 million I did manage to pick about a half-dozen.

One of them was another painting of St. Jerome that showed a different niche, a different lavabo, but the same bowl and towel. Also, incidentally the same holy water stoop but a different candlestick. I wonder who copied whom, and why they made those differences?

There were two more examples that I just had to share with you: first, a panel from Robert Campin's Werl Altarpiece, c. 1458, because it showed a standing lavabo, but it was still standing in our bowl. The second was a charming manuscript illumination, c. 1390, by the Maitre du Polycratique, It's one of the very rare images of a lavabo in use, and it is still our bowl that is catching the water. Nice.

It also struck me that none of these lavabos were in rooms that were set up for eating. Upscale Medieval Europeans clearly did not confine their concern for clean hands to the dinner table.

Of course, I have now revised my opinion of the date. These bowls changed very little between about 1400 and 1550, so I'm (conservatively) dating this one to 1500-1550.


16th-century pin, collection of L. Mellin,

Medieval pins found by mudlarkers in
the Thames

Pins and jewelry recovered from the
Mary Rose, sank 1545

Portrait of Elizabeth Vernon, Countess
of Southampton, unknown artist, c. 1600.
Courtesy Duke of Buccleuch and

The Countess of Southampton's
dressing table showing a pin cushion
holding multiple pins

A ruff from the early 17th century:
The Regentesses of St Elizabeth Hospital,
(detail) by Verspronck. A ruff
could need as many as 100 pins to
secure it.

A lacey ruff from the 1620s


Talk about mass consumption and mass production! In a six-month period, a customer in Elizabethan London bought 66,000 little objects for his household. He was Robert Careles, and he was the "pynner" to Queen Elizabeth.

I learned this from a Mudlark. Mudlarks are people who scour the foreshore of the Thames as the tide recedes looking for the smallest of treasures. One of them, Lara Maiklem, has just written a book about her mudlarking, and in it she writes "My favorite kinds of treasures are pins, because there's nothing more ordinary than a pin."

Lara continues, "So many lives have touched each pin, the pin-maker and his family who drew the wire to gauge, wound another piece around the top three times to make a tiny head, then polished and sharpened it on a piece of bone with grooves in to hold it still; the Elizabethan haberdasher who sold it; and the ordinary person who bought and used it. Pins are not like precious jewels, they weren't loved or looked after, they were just part of everyday life."

Of course, the "pynner" to the Queen was not an "ordinary person" but it's nice to think that the Queen of England and her ordinary subjects used exactly the same pins to hold their clothes together.

"Everyone used them, both men and women, from swaddling to the grave. They held swaddling in place...they secured hats, veils, jewellery and ribbons; hundreds could be used in the complex folding and gathering of Elizabethan neck ruffs; they held clothes in place and in death secured the shrouds around corpses."

They came in many sizes. The bill to Robert Careles, October 20, 1565, detailed "Item to Robert Careles our Pynner for xviij [18] thousand great verthingale Pynnes xx [20] thowsand great Velvet Pynnes and nyne thowsande smale hed Pynnes and xix [19] thowsand Small hed Pynnes all of our great warderobe."

Velvet sleeves were not sewed as part of the dress, they were pinned on and required the second largest pins: the largest, the "great verthingale Pynnes," secured the heavy farthingales that were fashionable at the time.

Pins were not cheap: Robert Careles paid 6 shillings per thousand for farthingale pins, and 20 pence per thousand for small velvet and head pins. "Pin money" today means low cost, but in Elizabethan times it was a substantial amount that was allocated in the household budget.

Pins were usually brass, because it was easier to draw to size than steel. Some were made locally as a cottage industry, but there was a thriving pin making industry in Birmingham, in the Midlands.

Most households had a "pin bone," a leg bone of a cow or horse that was cut in half and grooved on the cut end to hold a pin while it was sharpened. King Henry VIII's flag ship, the Mary Rose, that sank in the Solent, contained many pin bones and the pins that would be sharpened on them.

People couldn't do without pins, but they couldn't stop losing them!


The Civil War cola bottle containing
rusted nails that may have been a
witch bottle. Photos courtesy Robert
Hunter, William and Mary College

X-ray showing contents of the witch
bottle found at Greenwich. Courtesy
Alan Massey/R. J. Bostock

CT scan of the Greenwich bottle,
showing human urine, pins and nails,
with cork just visible Iron nails - the
longest is 3 1/2 inches - and hair
discovered inside the bottle along with
10 well-manicured nail parings indicating
a classy user. Courtesy Alan Massey

The "emptied" witch bottle in our
inventory. The stoneware jug is of
the same form and size as the
Greenwich bottle. Courtesy Fiske
& Freeman.

Witch bottle

Archeologists from the William & Mary Center for Archeological Research who were investigating Civil War Redoubts in Pennsylvania have uncovered a bottle filled with rusted iron nails. The bottle had been made by a cola company in the 1840s and had been buried next to a hearth built by Union troops in the early 1860s. The archeologists believe that they may have found a (very late and very rare) example of an American witch bottle.

Less than a dozen American witch bottles have been recorded, but over 200 English examples are known.

Witch bottles date back at least to the Middle Ages and were designed to protect people from the wicked power of a local witch. Typically they were filled with the victim's urine, and/or menstrual blood, hair and nail clippings, together with thorns, needles, pins or nails. They were usually buried deeply behind or underneath the hearth.

"The idea of the witch bottle was to throw the spell back on the witch," said Alan Massey of the University of Loughborough, UK, "The urine and the bulb of the bottle represented the waterworks of the witch, and the theory was that the nails and the bent pins would aggravate the witch when she passed water and torment her so badly that she would take the spell back off you."

Massey subjected a witch bottle (actually a stoneware jar) found in Greenwich, London, in 2004, to scientific analysis. It was about half filled with human urine and contained bent nails and pins, a nail-pierced leather "heart", fingernail clippings, navel fluff and human hair. All pretty standard stuff.

We had a witch bottle in our inventory for a short time. It was a Bartmann jug with a wonky neck that resembled the one analyzed by Alan Massey. We asked the man who sold it to us why he thought it had been a witch bottle. His answer was a story of ignorance verging on vandalism:

"I bought it from a friend who had owned it for some time before agreeing to sell the bottle to me. When I agreed to buy it, he announced that when he bought it locally within Norfolk, it had its original stopper in it and when he shook it, you could hear things moving inside. He therefore decided to uncork it and on doing so, found lots of old handmade pins inside. Rather than keep them, he threw the pins and cork away!"

I couldn't believe it!!!

The most complete account of a witch bottle at work can be found in Joseph Glanvill's Saducismus Triumphatus, or Evidence concerning Witches and Apparitions (1681).

For an old Man that Travelled up and down the Country, and had some acquaintance at that house, calling in and asking the Man of the house how he did and his Wife; He told him that himself was well, but his Wife had been a long time in a languishing condition, and that she was haunted with a thing in the shape of a Bird that would flurr [sic] near to her face, and that she could not enjoy her natural rest well. The Old Man bid him and his Wife be of good courage. It was but a dead Spright, he said, and he would put him in a course to rid his Wife of this languishment and trouble, He therefore advised him to take a Bottle, and put his Wives Urine into it, together with Pins and Needles and Nails, and Cork them up and set the Bottle to the Fire well corkt, which when it had felt a while the heat of the Fire began to move and joggle a little, but he for sureness took the Fire shovel, and held it hard upon the Cork, And as he thought, he felt something one while on this side, another while on that, shove the Fire shovel off, which he still quickly put on Again, but at last at one shoving the Cork bounced out, and the Urine, Pins, Nails and Needles all flew up, and gave a report like a Pistol, and his Wife continued in the same trouble and languishment still.

"Not long after, the Old Man came to the house again, and inquired of the Man of the house how his Wife did. Who answered, as ill as ever, if not worse. He askt him if he had followed his direction. Yes, says he, and told him the event as is above said. Ha, quoth he, it seems it was too nimble for you. But now I will put you in a way that will make the business sure. Take your Wive's Urine as before, and Cork it in a Bottle with Nails, Pins and Needles, and bury it in the Earth; and that will do the feat. The Man did accordingly. And his Wife began to mend sensibly and in a competent time was finely well recovered; But there came a Woman from a Town some miles off to their house, with a lamentable Out-cry, that they had killed her Husband. They askt her what she meant and thought her distracted, telling her they knew neither her nor her Husband. Yes, saith she, you have killed my Husband, he told me so on his Death-bed. But at last they understood by her, that her Husband was a Wizard, and had bewitched this Mans Wife and that this Counter-practice prescribed by the Old Man, which saved the Mans Wife from languishment, was the death of that Wizard that had bewitched her."

I doubt that the Union Soldiers who buried the witch bottle by the hearth in their redoubt were suffering as painfully as the poor wife in this story. But they were suffering.

According to Joe Jones, the Director of the William and Mary archeologists, "Witch bottles are the type of things people would use more generally in famine, political strife or feeling under threat...The Union troops were definitely under all those kinds of existential threats or fears. Given the perceived threat of Confederate attack and general hostility of local residents, [a soldier] had good reason to pull all the stops and rely on folk traditions from his community in Pennsylvania to help protect his temporary home away from home."

Plausible enough, but I prefer the high drama of Glanvill's story, don't you?