Medieval London

Glass drinking beaker

Glass drinking beakers are household items used as tableware throughout the Middle Ages in England, primarily during the high to late medieval periods. They were usually found in the homes of the affluent, specifically in the homes of the nobility and the king. The purpose of this vessel was to provide a means to imbibe drinks such as ale, cider, mead, or wine. During the medieval period, glass beakers for drinking had different names in documentary sources such as port customs accounts that listed what was brought into and exported from the country. They were recorded as drinking glasses, glass vessels, drinking vessels, glass, or vitri, the Latin term for glass. 

Drinking glasses, a product of the art of glassmaking, have existed since ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman times. It was during the Roman period that the British learned and then developed their own glassmaking techniques. Evidence has shown that glass industries were created in the twelfth century in areas such Surrey and Sussex (by Chiddingford). 

The ingredients needed to create glass were silica, alkali, and calcium oxide, or lime. Diifferent ingredients affected how the glass looked. Drinking glasses like this beaker used potash glass, in which potassium oxide replaced alkali. There were areas in London, as Tyson notes, where wood ash was used for the alkali, either from beech or oak. Glass that relies on potash  appears either colorless or with a green tinge, caused by impurities in the oxide used. The English also changed the ingredients again in the late Middle Ages to include lead. 

This glass beaker is one imported from the continent, where the potash glas was shaped by glassblowing. The glassmaker continually blows and shapes the melted glass until the preferred shape is reached. In the case of the beaker, a more rounded shape was made, although variations occurred depending upon the period in which they were created. This glass beaker is dated as being from the fifth to early sixth century, when it was customary for the drinking beakers to be more cone shaped. As the Museum of London website notes, these cone shaped beakers were probably used during feasts.  Because the baker had no base, people had to down the liquid all at once since the beaker could not stand on its own. Once they downed their drink, they placed the drinking glass on the table upside down to rest on the rim. 

The beakers could also be enameled and painted as in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, which made them even more expensive.  In the later medieval period, glass vessels were usually imported and seen mainly in the homes of the very wealthy, although glass vessels could also be used for other purposes, such as storing medicines. Their popularity as tableware rose in the thirteenth century, but possession of glass vessels was still a mark of wealth since most medieval people (including servants in noble homes) used wooden tableware, as Woolgar describes for the servants of John Catesby 1392-3. The cost and fragility of glass vessels meant that they were more often used during feasts and times of celebration, although bourgeois households increasingly bought and used glass vessels by the later middle ages. They were also very precious and likely to break, which is why so few remnants are found from the early medieval period.

Glass drinking beaker
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