Medieval London


Ceramic Cistern.jpg

(Fig. 1) Ceramic cistern from The Museum of London. Coarse Border ware bunghole jug with a thumbed, slightly convex base, simple red paint decoration and green glaze on the upper body. The strap handle has incised and stabbed decoration.

Ceramic cisterns, or jugs, were used for safeguarding liquids such as fresh water, ale and other alcohol drinks. This piece is classified as a bunghole jug because of the characteristic hole found on the side of the vessel. Cisterns and other ceramics similar to it were usually made out of clay in kilns, with different minerals being added to achieve  specific textures and colors. The cistern could be seen as a transfer vessel, used to transport liquid from a larger source of water or wine to smaller cups or glasses.

The cistern itself is 285mm tall, with a raised lip and wide waist. The handle connects the waist to the lip, providing a crucial lifting point. There is nothing covering the opening, or bunghole, as it would have been plugged with a ceramic disc or a spout to prevent any liquids escaping.[1] A thumbed pattern at the bottom of the cistern (Fig. 1) while across the rest of the cistern there is a visible ribbed pattern going horizontally across the ceramic. The green glaze that covered the top portion of the cistern is visible despite being deteriorated, but the red paint that is said to cover the rest of the cistern is not visible. The way in which the cistern is decorated can give evidence as to where it was made and used.

Monk Drinking.jpg

(Fig. 2) Detail showing a monk filling up a jug/cistern with wine while also drinking from a bowl. This depicts how the cistern would be used as a transferring vessel for liquid from one source to smaller vessels for consumption. In this case the monk could not wait and decided to drink straight from a bowl. From British Library, Sloane 2435, f.44v. 

The cistern was found in Bell Alley, Holborn (Fig. 4), in 1876 but was made elsewhere.  This specific piece can be identified as is a Coarse Border ware cistern, which was made in kilns in Hampshire and Surrey, but primarily used in London.[2] The green glaze, white ware, and coarse texture characteristics of the cistern are the key indicators that that it is in fact Coarse Border ware. Coarse pottery ware is made from a mixture of clay and sand that has other minerals including quartz, ironstone, sandstone, flint and shell fragments.[3] Depending on what was added to the clay, different colors could be obtained to therefore create different styles for the pottery. Coarse Border ware is somewhat rare and not as common as other types of ceramics because of the way in which the sand and mineral mixture was used.[4] This cistern (Fig 1.) is a much lighter color because of the materials used, and with the lighter color of ceramic, the green glaze that would be applied would seem brighter and more vivid than if the cistern was made of a ceramic that was dark in color.

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(Fig. 3) Detail showing a group of men celebrating with drinks. The man here is pouring himself a drink from a jug into a vessel made from horn The jug would have been passed around to all the members so everyone could have their share of the drink, presumably alcohol but it could also be water. From British Library, Cotton MS Julius A VI f. 4v.

The way in which the cistern was glazed and painted could help reveal the function of how the cistern would be used. The green glaze and red paint on the cistern were purely for a better visual effect. Stylized jugs, ones that used better materials and were decorated with glazes and paints, would have a higher value than jugs and cisterns that were made of very basic ceramics. Higher end ceramics were embellished with intricate designs, sometimes with anthropomorphic imagery, such as an intricate face design (Fig.5).[5] Not only is this face jug green glazed, but it has a very detailed and protruding eyes, ears, and large smile. None of the designs seem to be adding any functional value, so the designs were added for aesthetics and design purposes. Perhaps it was used as more of a decoration than a fuctional jug.

Map of London c1300.pdf

(Fig. 4) The yellow star shows where the cistern was found, in the area of Bell Alley, Holborn, which suggests that it was used in medieval London and that Coarse Border cerami ware made outside the city was marketed to medieval Londoners.

The different designs that can be found on the ceramics can also tell us where the pottery came from, and how there was a market and competition between ceramic makers for these different types of pottery. Primarily there was a competition between potters in the cities and rural potters. Urban potters, even the well-established ones, had to deal with many problems that came with being in the city. Although the urban potters had superior technology to make the ceramics, the risks of starting a fire in the city, as well as the smell, water pollution, high rent, and transport costs of fuel and clay would push some potters out of the city.[6] Rural potters had the advantage of being able to have the clay and materials needed to make ceramics close to them, and the heat that comes with firing a kiln would not be jeopardizing any houses like urban kilns could.

There was also a large portion of pottery that was imported to England from different places in Europe, multiplying the variety of pottery styles, shapes, and decoration that were marketed to medieval Londoners.[7] Over time different styles for drinking vessels  beaome more popular. One popular medium for making jugs and cisterns was glass, which was more expensive to make.[8] Precious metals and paints as well as colored glass  could be able to be incorporated into glass pieces.

Anthropomorphic Jug.jpg

(Fig. 5) A ceramic face jug from the British Museum. This jug is evidence that some ceramic pieces were much more stylized than others; it is very possible that this piece was used more for decoration than function.

Ceramic cisterns were not just used for keeping water and other drinks clean--they were able to be used to display their owners' style and wealth. The different sizes and decoration of cisterns meant that well-off households could purchase different styles, suggesting that the market for the pieces was very large. The consumer demand for cisterns and other ceramic ware in the large city of London must also have stimulated the ceramic industry and trade elsewhere in England and even abroad. This particular cistern,  identified as Coarse Border ware by the materials it was made with and the way it was decorated, was probably made in Surrey, the county just to the west of London, where access to the London market was easy by overland or river transport. 

-Robert Largey

End Notes

1 “A Guide to the Classification of Medieval Ceramic Forms”, Section 3.

[2]  Vince, “The Saxon and Medieval Pottery of London: A Review”, 47.

[3] Vince, “The Saxon and Medieval Pottery of London: A Review”, 44.

[4] Moreland, “Shefflield Castle: Archaeology, Archives, Regeneration, 1927-2018”, 190.

[5] Willmot, “Cooking, Dining, and Drinking”, 7.

[6] Hinton, “Gold and Gilt, Pots and Pins”, 161.

[7] Vince, “Ceramic Petrology and the Study of Anglo-Saxon and Later Medieval Ceramics”, 239.

[8] Hinton, “Gold and Gilt, Pots and Pins”, 162.

Works Cited

Medieval Pottery Research Group. A Guide to the Classification of Medieval Ceramic Forms Occasional Paper 1, Medieval Pottery Research Group, 1998.

Vince, A. G. “The Saxon and Medieval Pottery of London: A Review”. Medieval Archaeology 29, no. 1 (1985): 25-93.

Moreland, John, et al. "Pots, Pins and People." In Sheffield Castle: Archaeology, Archives, Regeneration, 1927–2018, 185-214. Sheffield; York: White Rose University Press, 2020. doi:10.2307/j.ctv16kkwpd.11.

Willmott, Hugh. “Cooking, Dining and Drinking”. The Oxford Handbook of Later Medieval Archaeology in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

 Hinton, David. Gold and Gilt, Pots and Pins: Possessions and People in Medieval Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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