A Newsletter for Lovers of Early Objects

MAY 2020

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The Adam & Eve Alms Dish, 1487.

The dish in Tiedemann

The Central Motif

Page from a block book, Biblia Paupurum, Nordlingen, Bavaria, c. 1470. Block books had up to 50 pages, printed on one side of the paper only and printed from woodcuts in which both the image and text were carved. They were produced in Europe between about 1450 and 1500.

"Basin Beater" working on a steel die. Hausbuch Mendel II, Nuremberg, 1573

Reproduction female die (in Tiedemann)

Detail of the "other" dish with holes that retain the original maker's repairs

The Fall of Man (with holes in)

All antiquers long for that fabled "OMG! moment." I had one recently, not a sudden flash but a slower dawning.

I'd been given the opportunity to buy an alms dish - actually two, but here I want to focus on one of them.

I almost passed on it: At first glance it looked old, worn and beaten up, because that's what it was - old, worn and beaten up. But my gut contradicted my eye: it thought the dish might be something special. I bought both. As it turned out, my gut was a better judge than my eye.

Back home, I turned to Tiedemann, who has written the "bible" on Nuremberg Alms Dishes. At the end of the book he gives a full page to each of 10 "Selected Specimens." The fifth is my alms dish. His is less worn, but the depiction of Adam and Eve is struck from the same die.

It is the earliest alms dish depicting the Fall of Man. To the left of Adam's head is a banner inscribed "ano 1487" in Gothic numerals (I can't read Gothic numerals, but Tiedemann can, and that's what he says it says.)

Tiedemann points out, "[The] figures exhibit slender legs and hide their genitals behind a bunch of leaves instead of a fig leaf - a typical late Gothic iconography." The Gothic was a northern taste, while the fig leaf, that replaced it, obviously, came from the south.

Another early feature of the dish is the Serpent depicted as a woman wearing a crown - a motif that, we assume, leaves the viewer in no doubt that the Fall of Man was engineered by two women!

John Bonnell (1917) notes that the serpent in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (painted between 1508 and 1512) is also a woman: the Nuremberg "basin beaters" and Leonardo da Vinci obviously shared the same source. And that source, Bonnell concludes, was the mystery plays performed by town guilds throughout Europe from the thirteenth century on. In many of them, the serpent was enacted by a man dressed as a woman. The motif, in drama, paint or brass is purely Gothic and is rarely found after 1550.

The top of the wall surrounding the Garden of Eden and the medieval gatehouse are both more or less clearly defined.

A band of text encircles the central scene. It is repeated four times and reads ICH WART DER IN FRID G ["I was in peace."] Not all the dishes struck from this die include this band, and some, like ours, have a second band around it.

Our dish has a wider rim than Tiedemann's but both have the booge decorated in the same way and both rims are decorated with (different) punches.

Tiedemann also reproduces a page from a block book, Biblia Paupurum, printed in Nordlingen, Bavaria, c. 1470, that could well have provided a model for the die maker.


Steel dies were used for the raised decorations on Nuremberg dishes. A die is the "female" or "negative" of the image to be produced.

The dish was placed upside down upon the die and was carefully hammered into its hollows. According to Tiedemann, this is often the source of makers' errors, especially with the early dishes. If the sheet brass were too thin, hammering it into the deeper hollows of the die could cause weak spots or even holes. These were repaired by the maker with thin pieces of brass held in place by a brazing alloy.

This dish has a number of these holes. In most of them the repairs have dropped out, but the one on Adam's hip remains intact. (The other dish has more holes but they all retain the original maker's repairs.)

(The booge on both dishes is decorated with a "soft" motif that was hammered into pitch, not into a steel die.)

OK: It's worn, it's not the most beautiful, but it's very significant and I'm very pleased that I bought it.

For more info and pictures of both, please visit (Brass and Copper)


Klaus Tiedemann, Nurnberger Beckenschlagerschusseln, Nuremberg Alms Dishes, Second, Enlarged Edition, every motif presented. J.H. Roll, Dettelbach, 2018 (in German with some English translation.)

John K. Bonnell, "The Serpent with a Human Head in Art and in Mystery Play," American Journal of Archaeology, July-Sept, 1917


Whatsit? We've made a guess

I bought this neat little thing as a "Whatsit." Neither the seller nor I were confident about what it actually was. I even entered it in the database with that name, and began my entry, "Whatsits, as we all know, were used for whatever."

But as I looked at it and handled it, it slowly dawned on me that I knew what it was (we're talking 75 percent probability here, not absolute fact.) The shallow bowl with a thick rim and smooth interior reminded me of a counting house bowl that was used for counting coins. The smooth interior and strong rim allowed them to be slid out one at a time. The wear on the whatsit was consistent with such a use.

The unusual, sloping shape was to enable it to sit level on the lid of a slant-lid table desk, or desk box.

A counting house, by the way, was the office of a landed estate or a business where the accounts were kept. I haven't a clue what it may be used for today, but it's a nice little thing to look at and it's got a nice little history to tell.

To see more, please visit (Small Oak)


Yew English longbow, yew wood, 6 ft 6 in long,105 lb draw force, courtesy Hitchhiker89 en.wikipedia

The Battle of Crècy, Froissart's Chronicles, late 15th century. The English archers are in the right foreground, opposite the French crossbow men in the left.

An arrow pierced the top of this man's right eye and exited through the back of his skull. Courtesy University of Exeter.

Medieval iron arrows

Ancient yew tree in Payhembury churchyard.

Straight as an Arrow

Growing up in England, I learned history as gung-ho patriotism. Anything the British did was the best, and, equally if it were the best, the British did it. I remember how my imagination was stirred by the gung-ho stories of English archers and their longbows - particularly how they beat the crossbows of the French in the numerous battles of the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453.)

I wouldn't call myself gung-ho about anything these days, but my schoolboy patriotism was momentarily revived by a recent story by Nora McGreevy in the Smithsonian Magazine. Archeologists from the University of Exeter studied 15th century skull fragments of a man who had been killed by an arrow from a longbow. The entry and exit wounds were virtually identical to those caused by a bullet from a modern-day rifle. The feathers on the arrow had spun it clockwise, just like the bullet from a rifle, which increased its accuracy and its range.

In battle, the massed ranks of English archers became machine guns: in the battle of Crècy in 1346, for example, historians estimate that English archers fired as many as 35,000 arrows per minute.

These arrows could fly about 1,000 feet, propelled by very strong men - the "draw weight" of a longbow was between 150 and 180 pounds. Archers limited their shots to 10 per minute, otherwise their arms fatigued too quickly and they couldn't last the whole battle.

An arrow did major damage when it hit: In the twelfth century, in one of the frequent battles between the Welsh and the English, Gerald of Wales recorded an arrow that hit an English man at arms: It went right through his thigh, high up, where it was protected inside and outside the leg by his iron chausses, and then through the skirt of his leather tunic; next it penetrated that part of the saddle which is called the alva or seat; and finally it lodged in his horse, driving so deep that it killed the animal.

The longbow that propelled such a projectile was about six feet long, usually made of yew wood and strung with a cord made of hemp, flax or silk. More than 3,500 arrows and 137 whole longbows were recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII's flagship that sunk in 1545.

Arrows were made by fletchers and were sold in "sheaves" of 24. Fletcher is a common name in England because the country needed so many of them -- the demand for arrows was enormous. Between 1341 and 1359 Edward III's armorer bought 1,232,400 arrows (51,350 sheaves.) Additionally, every able-bodied Englishman had to equip himself with a longbow and arrows - some of which were, we assume home-made, but some may have been bought from the local fletcher.

Englishmen were required to train as archers and most English churches to this day have a yew tree in their churchyard, a relic of the days when they provided yew wood for the parishioners' bows.

The Assize of Arms (1252) required that all "citizens, burgesses, free tenants, villeins and others from 15 to 60 years of age" should be armed. The poorest of them were expected to have a halberd and a knife, and a bow if they owned land worth more than £2.

In 1363, Edward III issued a declaration:

"Whereas the people of our realm, rich and poor alike, were accustomed formerly in their games to practise archery - whence by God's help, it is well known that high honour and profit came to our realm, and no small advantage to ourselves in our warlike enterprises... that every man in the same country, if he be able-bodied, shall, upon holidays, make use, in his games, of bows and arrows... and so learn and practise archery."

The longbow and arrow might have been the ICBM of its day - well not quite, perhaps, but sort of.