Medieval London

Toy Ewer


(Fig. 1) Pewter toy ewer from the fifteenth century, found in the Thames River and now located at the Museum of London. 

Screen Shot 2020-11-01 at 2.48.29 PM.png

(Fig. 2) Detail of the Life of St Margaret in a Book of Hours that depicts a man at an altar with an ewer used for holding and pouring water. From Morgan Library, MS M.754 fol. 33v (between 1320 and 1329).

There has been some debate about the extent to which medieval children actually went through a stage of childhood similar to what children today experience.[1] Archaeological finds such as this pewter toy ewer (Figure 1) recovered from the Thames River give medievalists a glimpse into this issue. While ewers were used by medieval Londoners to collect and pour water for washing their hands (Figure 2), this miniature ewer is only 43 mm tall with a 12 mm diameter rim and 18 mm by 15 mm base, making it the perfect size for a child to play with.[2]

This toy ewer is made of pewter, an alloy consisting of tin, copper, lead, and antimony, which made for a malleable metal suitable for making into a variety of curved shapes.[3] The pewter ewer is now a dull metallic brown color, however, it was probably a shinier grey color when it was first crafted. The cross-hatching present on its spout and the bands of gadrooning that decorate its base suggest that this toy ewer was hand crafted. [4] The toy's handcrafted nature suggests that skill would have been necessary to create this ewer, from the initial metalworking to designing its artistic elements. Also, as a toy, it is much smaller than a regular ewer and would have been harder to manipulate.

This small toy ewer was probably used by a child to recreate a dinner scene while he or she played.[5] During this period, metal toys were often created to imitate adult objects so that children could use them while they pretended to be housekeeping. Small jugs and ewers were very common and were often paired with small plates and cups to stimulate the child's imagination.[6] This object suggests that in medieval London, childhood was seen as a separate stage of life in which parents provided toys and trinkets to their children. This act of gift-giving may support the idea that the bonds between parents and their children in the medieval period were not as cold and apathetic as some scholars once believed.[7]


(Fig. 3)  A seemingly mass-produced pewter toy depicting a knight on horseback. This image demonstrates that small pewter objects were often manufactured for children and that young boys were encouraged to develop their military skills. Museum of London.

Screen Shot 2020-11-01 at 1.30.25 PM.png

(Fig. 4) Detail of the Luttrell Psalter that depicts a medieval individual holding a bow and arrow. This image demonstrates that archery was an important part of medieval life and that boys were encouraged to practice their skills in case they were called upon by the Crown to participate in its many wars. This image can be found in the British Library. 

Just as is the case today, children of all classes needed to play. In medieval London, the toys they used would have differed based on the child's household's social status. The presence of toys suggests that medieval children were not so different from modern children.[8] Documentary evidence also supports this idea, as children played with metal toys like the one pictured in Figure 3 and with dolls and any other objects they could find around their household, particularly if they were poor.[9] Children, especially boys, would also often participate in physical and team games similar to the games modern children play. [10] In imitating adult male activities, young boys could be groomed into successful soldiers. In 1512, it was mandated that boys be given bows and arrows and learn how to shoot (Figure 4).[11] This merging of playtime and military training was also seen when boys were encouraged to participate in sports that would develop their muscular strength or were gifted with 'pop-guns'. [12] Perhaps young girsl were gifted miniature versions of household items to learn how to be homemakers and successfully fill the role that medieval society expected of them.

During the medieval period, there were still many operational lead mines in England that may have been the source of pewter's main components to craft this toy ewer.[13] One such mine was located in the Mendip Hills, located north of Glastonbury, a medieval town west of London.[14] There were also many tin mines throughout England, particularly in Devon and Cornwall.[15] Once the base metals reached London, the Pewterers Guild would closely regulate their use to ensure their products' quality and profitability.[16] This toy ewer could have spent its entire life in England if its components came from mines to London's north and west. After the lead and other components were transported from a mine into London, they would have been molded into the miniature ewer shape and then sold by the Pewterers to a medieval patron. Archaeological evidence suggests that during the period that this toy ewer was constructed, there was a vibrant pewter industry in central London.[17] Pewterers could use several techniques to craft the desired pewter product, including casting, soldering, and turning.[18] In order to manufacture a hollow item, such as a toy ewer, a Pewterer would have to use multiple molds and solder them together (using a solder alloy to add handles or other extras to a product) before finishing the production by hand.[19] Pewter items were more expensive than the same items made of other materials, which suggests that this toy ewer was bought and owned by a middle or upper-class household. [20] Indeed, pewter wares were often prominently displayed in medieval households to project their wealth and status, as illustrated in the large collection of pewter items, including an ewer, above the Virgin Mary's head in an image of the Holy Family (Figure 5).

Screen Shot 2020-11-01 at 2.45.51 PM.png

(Fig. 5) Detail of the Hours and Masses of for the Seven Days of the Week illuminated manuscript that depicts the Holy Family, in this case only Mary, in a domestic setting. There are many pewter objects above Mary’s head, one of which is an ewer. This display shows how pewter could be used as a symbol of wealth in Medieval London. This can be found in the Morgan Library.

This toy ewer may have been a gift from an adult to a child. In this case, the toy ewer would have had far more emotional or sentimental value than the monetary value of the pewter employed to make it. Once the child grew up, the toy ewer may have been passed down to other children, or it may have been forgotten about and thrown away, which would explain how it ended up in the Thames since landfill garbage was used to extend the riverfront. No matter how many hands it passed through, this toy ewer would have had sentimental value to the children who played and interacted with it and an economic value to the adults who purchased it. The notion of gift-giving is important in the biography of this toy ewer, mainly because it probably did not have any utility other than to entertain children and possibly help develop a relationship between a child and an adult as the child was prepped for adult life.

-Gabriella Langella

End Notes

1 Orme, "The Culture of Children in Medieval England," 48.

2 “Toy Ewer,” Museum of London Collections Online.

3 “About Pewter: What is Pewter?” The Pewter Society.

4 “Toy Ewer,” Museum of London Collections Online.

5 “Toy Ewer,” Museum of London Collections Online.

6 Orme, "The Culture of Children in Medieval England," 53-54.

7 Oosterwijk, “The Medieval Child: an Unknown Phenomenon?”

8 Oosterwijk, “The Medieval Child: an Unknown Phenomenon?”

9 Orme, "The Culture of Children in Medieval England," 51-52.

10 Orme, "The Culture of Children in Medieval England," 58-64.

11 Orme, "The Culture of Children in Medieval England," 63.

12 Strutt, The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, 300.

13 “Minerals and Mines,” British Geological Survey Natural Environment Research Council.

14 Crabtree, Medieval Archaeology: An Encyclopedia, 208.

15 Weinstein, The Archaeology of Pewter Vessels in England 1200-1700, 43.

16 Hilton, Old Base Metal Spoons, 14.

17 Schofield, London 1100-1600, 144.

18 Weinstein, The Archaeology of Pewter Vessels in England 1200-1700, 44.

19 Weinstein, The Archaeology of Pewter Vessels in England 1200-1700, 45-47.

20 Weinstein, The Archaeology of Pewter Vessels in England 1200-1700, 52.

Works Cited

“About Pewter: What is Pewter?” The Pewter Society. The Pewter Society. Accessed Oct. 12, 2020.

"Book of Hours Fragment With a Life of St. Margaret."The Morgan Library. MS M.754 fol. 33v, 

Hollinrake, Charles and Nancy Hollinrake, "Glastonbury." In Medieval Archaeology: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Pam Crabtree.208-15. London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 2001.

"Hours and Masses for the Seven Days of the Week." The Morgan Library, Ms M. 917/945, pp. 146-9.

"Luttrell Psalter." British Library, Additional MS 42130, f. 215r. 

“Minerals and Mines.” British Geological Survey Natural Environment Research Council. Accessed Sept. 24, 2020.

Oosterwijk, Sophie. “The Medieval Child: an Unknown Phenomenon?” The ORB: The Online. Reference Book for Medieval Studies. Accessed September 24, 2020. 

Orme, Nicholas. "The Culture of Children in Medieval England." Past & Present, 148 (1995): 48-88. Accessed October 12, 2020.

Price, F.G. Hilton. Old Base Metal Spoons, With Illustrations and Marks. London: B. T. Batsford, 2007. 

Schofield, John. London 1100-1600; the Archaeology of a Capital City. Sheffield: Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2011.

Strutt, Joseph. The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England. London: Methuen & Company, 1801.

“Toy Ewer.” Museum of London. Accessed September 24, 2020. 

“Toy Knight.” Museum of London.  Accessed September 24, 2020.  

Weinstein, Rosemary. The Archaeology of Pewter Vessels in England 1200-1700: A Study of Form and Usage. Ph.D. Thesis, Durham University, 2011. 

# Google Analytics Portion 06-02-2016