Domestic Pottery of the Middle Ages

Fifty years ago the British archaeologist Dudley Waterman painstakingly drew each of the pots that the Yorkshire Museum had at that time acquired. The pots were made over the course of 400 years, from the 12th to the 16th centuries. Waterman’s line drawings are primarily side views cut in half, with the right side showing the exterior of the pot, and the left showing the pot as if it had been sliced open.  In addition, there are a few drawings of details. If you are looking for inspiration or information, these drawings are a modern potter’s dream.

Forty years later, with the collection of pots enlarged, the Museum produced Medieval Pottery in the Yorkshire Museum. It’s a wonderful volume. The book includes photos, Waterman’s drawings, new drawings in the same style by Trevor Pearson and others, and informative text by Sarah Jennings. There are also maps and charts and enchanting drawings of workshops, a kiln and the pots in use after depictions in contemporaneous manuscripts.

Jennings divides the wares into two sorts: “kitchen or coarse” wares and “table or fine” wares. These are all practical pots, with strong shapes, and rich fire wrought colors. There are jugs, cisterns, cooking pots, drip pans, jars, sprinklers, condiment dishes and more. Many items, such as the jug, were made in a variety of shapes. Like much of our pottery today, a single pot, or shape could have multiple uses.

Note: I had to smile to myself a couple of weeks ago while selling at the Coventry Farmer’s Market. I had three or four of my spoon jars on display with a little stand up sign that said, “Keep your cooking utensils handy. Put a bouquet of spoons in a jar.” A woman picked one up and asked, “Can I put flowers in it?”  Yes, of course. Using it for utensils was just a suggestion. So too with the English Medieval wares. A jug might be used for drinking, for storage, for carrying or even for heating: whatever the household needed it for.

The earliest kitchen or coarse wares were left unglazed. Early fine ware was “splash” glazed (dusted with glaze in dry, powdered form), usually only on the top exterior of a pot as decoration. Later, suspension glazes were used and copper was added for color. All of the ware was single-fired.

“Every town and most villages would have had at least one or more potters working in the vicinity,” Jennings writes. “Each ‘pottery’ would comprise a workshop with a wheel or turntable for making the pots on, somewhere to store the finished pots while they dried out, an area to store the raw clay, a store for fuel, a source of water and some type of kiln to fire the finished and dried pots.”

She goes on to say, “Making pottery was frequently a part time and seasonal occupation, often undertaken in conjunction with small scale farming.” We know this has been the norm for potters in various cultures, throughout history. It might only be in 20 and 21st century America that there is a stigma to potters who are not “full time.”

Full time or not, Medieval Pottery will enliven every functional potter’s bookshelf.

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