The festive season is upon us and with it traditions of historic communal drinking and singing. We are fortunate to have a number of large wooden wassail bowls made for just such events in the mid 17th century. They are made from lignum vitae, Guaiacum Officianale, a tropical hardwood from Central and South America.
Lignum Vitae wood was first brought to Europe in the early 1500s. It must have been viewed with a certain amount of curiosity and awe as there is nothing quite like it in Europe. It is the heaviest wood in the world; so dense and heavy that is cannot float even in salt water. Its shiny, oily texture gives it a wonderfully lustrous finish which woodworkers found invaluable for making boxes where it was important to keep the contents from drying out. Plus the dense interlocking grain which made the wood so strong meant it was ideal for making anything which needed to be especially durable. But the thing which mattered most in the early 1500s was that it came with a supposed guarantee that it could cure syphilis. Traditionally, the Taino people from the Caribbean Antilles had boiled lignum wood shavings and extracted the resin which they applied directly on to wounds. Europeans, eagerly anticipating a cure, called this new wood ‘Lignum Vitae’ – tree of life.
Now all this might seem a long way away from good cheer and carolling but the prospect of a drinking bowl which contained medicinal properties made lignum vitae the perfect choice of wood for a ceremony called waes-hael, or as we would say today – good health. Traditionally maple wood had been used for such celebrations and the diameter of drinking bowls, known as mazers, was naturally limited to the size of the trees growing in the local landscape. But the size of lignum vitae logs was larger than anyone had seen before so there was no holding back: it was now possible to turn larger and deeper bowls which was ideal for community festivities.
This bowl is one of the smaller ones and can be described as a loving cup as it would be possible to lift it; drink from it and then pass on to your neighbour. Some of the larger wassail bowls would have been too heavy to lift when they were full of drink and instead smaller cups were used to dip into a wassail bowl to refill the loving cups. It would have been used in a wealthy household as working with wood this hard and dense required specialist tools and access to a ‘machine’ lathe with one or two apprentices providing the power needed to turn the great wheel. The decoration provides another clue that this is a prestige object. The criss-cross and wavy lines which are so often found on wassail bowls are known as rose engine turning from their similarity to rose petals. They represent the peak of wood turning skill and many of the turners capable of carrying out such work also worked in ivory and other expensive materials.
Wassailing was not restricted to Christmas. There were many other times in the year which called for the bowl to be in use. Shrove Tuesday; Halloween and All Saints Day on November 1st were all associated with wassailing in various parts of the UK. But one of the main celebrations in which it played a part was at the end of Christmas at Twelfth Night on January 6th. The poet, Robert Herrick (1591-1674) mentioned wassailing in his poem “Twelfth Night” and gives us a tasty glimpse of the contents which were bound to make the party go well.
“Next crown a bowl full
With gentle lambs-wool;
Add sugar, nutmeg and ginger,
With store of ale, too;
And thus ye must do
To make the wassail a swinger.”
Curator (Applied Art)
As it is Halloween it’s timely to look at a rather unusual bowl currently on display in the Industrial Gallery at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. It is a small, deep bowl, about the diameter of a pudding dish and all over the external surface there are carvings of animals and curious oval mounds which look a bit like walnuts. The carvings are both technically proficient and full of emotional appeal. The backs of the animals are smooth from handling over the years and the snake’s body curves round the bowl in a way which almost gives the impression that it is alive. All in all it is an intriguing object but sadly that does not mean that we can be 100% certain about what it is.
The bowl came to the Museum as part of a collection of over 7,000 wooden objects built up over several decades by Edward Pinto. He called it a Witches’ Brew Bowl and put its date at somewhere in the 18th century. This may all sound rather vague but wooden objects are notoriously difficult to date with pin-point accuracy. They do not tend to reflect changing fashions in the way ceramics or textiles can and unless they come with a supporting historical context it is possible to end up attaching quite a wide range of dates to them.
Although he did not acquire the bowl from a Witch he had good reasons for giving it this name. All the creatures carved on the bowl represent remedies used in medicine before the middle of the 19th century. Powdered toads and snake flesh were believed to be a cure for poisoning and dried toads were used to treat plague victims. Syrup made from snails was good for coughs and colds and blood from dragons, or perhaps more usefully lizards, was said to clear boils. The curious ‘walnut’ shapes probably represent brains. Powdered animal brains were used for a number of complaints; mice were believed to be especially good for the teeth.
However, the carvings also represent animals which were associated with witchcraft. Belief in traditional cures, methods and witchcraft were still very much a part of life in the 17th and 18th centuries. This was especially true in rural areas where people were not so influenced by the fashionable, new ideas about medicine which were starting to gain a foothold in the larger towns. A bowl like this could therefore not just represent traditional medical practices; possibly, drinking from such a carved bowl could act as a protection against witchcraft.
We will have to leave you to make up your own mind…
Curator (Applied Art)
For more Halloween themed images please look at the spooky x-rays on our BMAG Facebook page.