Friday, May 9, 2014

Tableware in early Medieval France

In 1838, workers at a Frankish grave site brought the archaeologists a circle of metal with triangles sticking up from it and a crosspiece curving across the middle. The latter then showed it in their published report, placed on a skull. After all, it clearly was a crown.

Except that it turned out the workers, having detached the crosspiece by accident, had replaced it on the wrong side; the triangles should have pointed down, with the crosspiece curving above them. What was mistaken for a crown was in fact the metal band from a wooden bucket.

It did not help matters that these and other similar finds were often handsomely worked. One found at Wiesbaden includes downward pointing triangles, each decorated with a man's head. The band across the top – in fact, the bucket's handle – bears serpent heads at each end. But nor did their true purpose make these finds any less precious. Wood rarely survives in archaeology, despite being widely used for a variety of purposes; often it is detected only by more permanent items associated with it. This metalwork was an invaluable witness to the wood it once held.

One English archaeologist believed these buckets were used for soup, but the more common opinion is that they were used for drink. The Abbé Cochet, who reports all these finds, found one such bucket at Envermeu in 1854 and writes that the surviving metal gave off “a strong odor, like that of beer, or another fermented drink”. The same grave contained a cup in white glass which held a reddish residue, resembling the dregs of red wine. (Would all these organic artifacts have survived for over a millennium? That is a separate question.)

One find in France at least confirmed the purpose of the metal bands themselves; enough wood was preserved on it to show the original bucket with the slats held by the metal.

This is not the only case in which wood has survived across the centuries. Alemanni graves found in 1846 held a rich trove of wooden items preserved by groundwater. These included a barrel and over thirty platters, bowls, jugs, bottles and other tableware. (Wylie) This rare find probably dated from the Carolingian era. Various low wooden bowls from a later era, the twelfth century, were found in Beauvais in 1987.

Otherwise, if it is not unreasonable to speculate that wood was the material most readily available to those of limited means, some further evidence of its use comes from texts. Fortunatus (c.530–c.600/609) writes of wooden dishes being used at Christmas, probably for a more public event than the meals where he mentions luxurious tableware. Gregory I (pope 590-604) writes of wine served in “two wooden vessels, commonly called flagons” (vino plena duo lignea vascula, quae vulgo flascones vocantur). And wooden did not necessarily mean simple. When Brunehilda (c. 543–613) sent gifts to the King of Spain (then a Visigoth) they included two wooden basins, decorated with gold and gems.

Luckily for archaeologists, the other materials used for tableware, even by the poorest of the time, were more substantial. These reflected an approximate hierarchy: “The distinction between silver tableware (highly luxurious furnishings), bronze tableware (very luxurious furnishings), glass tableware (luxurious furnishings) and earthen tableware (normal furnishings) has become a classic schema.” An example from six cemeteries in Lower Normandy (with over 2200 graves) is illustrative; it included 5 bronze recipients, 170 in glass and over 300 in earthenware. Similar proportions have been found in the Loire. (Berthelot)

Ironically, luxurious items in metal, especially in gold and silver, if they were most likely to be noted in written records, were less likely to survive simply because they were often melted down.

The texts, primarily in Latin, use Roman terms for kitchen and tableware, though not necessarily for the same objects (one reference to an “amphora” may in fact be to a barrel, for instance). What is more, some not only refer to specific plates, bowls, pots, etc but also by extension to other items. The patina, a round pan with low sides, also lent its name to a number of dishes and even, sometimes, cooking itself. Fercula, the name for a large serving platter, also became the name of either (depending on context) a service in a meal or a platter of food.

Tableware can be classified both by the material used to make it and the specific item made; each classification has its use in different contexts.


The ubiquity of pottery in excavations not only reflects its relative durability, but the fact that it was a humble and so common material. If items like bowls and plates might often have been made of wood, a wide range of vessels were made of pottery, even including cookpots; some pottery found in the Ile-de-France region bears two holes, allowing it to be hung like a stewpot over the fire. (Mahé)  Pottery is further useful in being easily identified by era. The pottery of the Merovingian era differs clearly from both the Roman productions which preceded it and the Carolingian which followed.

The characteristic Merovingian pot is carinated, widening from the base to a waist about halfway up, then narrowing slightly to a wide collar which itself often flares outwards towards the top. Such vessels are also described as “biconic”, since the general shape is as if two truncated cones had been joined at the base. These are typically made of a blackish, less often grey, reddish or yellow, clay. Marks of fire on many show that they were used for cooking or other domestic purposes. Though some are coated with a soot-based coating, none are glazed or enameled. If they are decorated at all, it is with simple geometric patterns: stripes, braids, lozenges, chevrons, herring bone, St. Andrew's crosses, etc.

The carinated form is even suggested in some earthen bottles, which bulge towards the middle, but narrow to a neck an inch or slightly larger in diameter and widen slightly into a lip. Handles are rare, except on pitchers. Goblets have also been found, some simple cylinders, slightly widening from the base, others also carinated, with a lower section widening from the base and an upper section which may either rise directly up in a wide cylinder or again bend inwards before the cylinder which forms the top third of the vessel.

Compare this to the Roman pottery which still survived at the beginning of the Medieval era. Pilloy, who looked mainly at graves in Belgium, but noted the similarity of these finds with those in the rest of Gaul, provides an overview of pottery from the Roman era; similar pieces no doubt survived in the early years of the Franks:
The pottery takes elegant forms; the clay is white, gray or red. That in this last color and which is named, if in error, Samian pottery is covered with a very brilliant glaze, inalterable; it is often decorated with ornaments and subjects in relief. What further distinguishes the pottery of this era are the marks which the potters printed on it before drying the clay.
According to this author, the later pottery distantly resembled this, but was far less elegant and well made.
White pottery becomes very rare; it is replaced by a dirty yellow clay; red vessels have as their only decoration linear decorations imprinted on the body, with the help of a roller, and as a covering, a glaze which the slightest washing promptly wipes away. What dominates is the rough gray pottery used by the common folk. Vessels with Bacchic inscriptions become rather common.
Salin and France-Lanord describe Merovingian pottery as covering a continuum between these two extremes:
A. Badly baked pottery (recalling certain proto-historic pieces) entirely made by hand or summarily finished on the wheel; gray, yellowish or reddish clay; a charcoal-based coating in the place of an engobe. Typical form: carinated pots. Secondary forms: deep pot, drinking vessel.
B. Pottery well-executed on the wheel; clay that might be red, relatively fine, covered with a red engobe, or might be gray. Typical forms: carinated cup, plates, dishes.
Early France was largely a meeting of Germanic with Roman culture and this is reflected in the pottery. These authors associate series A with German influence or presence, series B with Gallo-Roman habitation, even when the latter takes the form of carinated pots. The oldest of series A are the most poorly baked (which would suggest that Germanic techniques improved with time).

The mingling of these variations, say these authors, is a sign of the progressive fusion between the Germanic and Gallo-Roman cultures. If less plates and dishes are found in Germanic productions, were these more often made of wood in the corresponding areas? Conversely, does the fact that the carinated pots are less typical in Gallo-Roman areas indicate that cooking in those areas was more likely to be done in metal vessels (since, where found, the pots often show signs of having served that purpose)?

Even mortars could be made from pottery; ceramic mortars have been found in the same region, showing a great deal of wear inside. These go back to Roman times and often have quartz or grit embedded in the base. Some found in England have been worn right through. “The character of the product resulting from this mixture of cereal, grit and pottery can be imagined.” (Orton et al)

Along the Rhineland, say Nieveler and Siegmund:
Within the group of biconical pots with a straight upper wall occurring from [the late sixth century] onwards, it is the decoration and the general development of shape from wide to tall and slim pots which must be the basis of the typological classification. Whilst some stamp patterns were mainly of local origin, there seems to have been a general development from single stamp decorations... through line/wave patterns... to the earliest rolled stamps... Characteristic of the pottery of the 7th century are tall, slim forms with composite rolled stamps and/or double ribs on the upper wall...
Towards the eighth century "an important change appears in the fabric of all pots with a rough texture: more often than before the clay appears in light colours – it is much more tempered, the tempering finer, and the fabric is soft.” Merovingian pottery was largely characterized by wide mouthed vessels; even many pitchers were very open-topped. This too changed with the Carolingian period, when vessels in general became more closed.

Another characteristic of the later pottery was the increasing use of granular clay, which is variously described as including bits of mica or tiny clumps called pisoliths. Such pottery was also often painted with brushes (which sometimes left traces in the clay) or even the potter's fingers. One common motif in the later period consisted of comma-like forms in groups.

As the Carolingian era ended, granular clays began to disappear and a fine or semi-fine clay, very light, even white, was often used. Some vessels began to have high necks, decorated with horizontal lines. (Mahé)

Though texts tend to mention more luxurious materials, overall, whatever the variations found, these would have been the receptacles used by much of the population. Nor was pottery absent in finer settings; Fortunatus speaks of milk he received in an earthenware jar.


The Franks are hardly known to history for their delicacy. But more than one author comments on their love of glittering things, notably in their personal ornamentation. Which may be why they were, for their time, expert glass-makers.

The Venerable Bede tells how (after 716) Benedict Biscop:
sent messengers to Gaul to fetch makers of glass, (more properly artificers), who were at this time unknown in Britain, that they might glaze the windows of his church, with the cloisters and dining-rooms. This was done, and they came, and not only finished the work required, but taught the English nation their handicraft, which was well adapted for enclosing the lanterns of the church, and for the vessels required for various uses.
Though glass in this period was a luxury, much of it has been found in graves of warriors who, while important enough within their own communities, were not nobles of great rank and certainly not royalty. Glass was probably valued in the way good china is today, something of better but not great value, and used by people of some standing but not always high rank.

While common in this period, glassware typically consists of a limited range of objects: bowls, glasses or goblets, and containers such as bottles or flasks. (Note that the bottles were considered items of some value, not the common containers they would later become). Wide variations exist; some bowls for instance have bottoms which narrow almost to a point, others are wide and flat-bottomed, widening to a waist from which a second ring rises more horizontally for an inch or two. Despite this wide range of variations over time and regions, the objects typically reflect a limited number of types. The glass itself was inferior to Roman productions. Various impurities can be seen in it; the colors – blue, green, blue-green, light yellow – are those of the glass itself, only rarely being colored by additives and then only brownish red, or rendered colorless by the addition of manganese; decoration is typically minimal.

Where exceptions exist, they show true expertise. (Berthelot)  Delort describes a drinking glass found at the fourth century site of Ennery as “as thin as muslin”. One intriguing type of glass consists of two sections, the bottom a globe set on a projecting button, with five narrow channels joining it to what is essentially a small bowl set on the top. Such glasses were common enough to have a name: guttrolf (possibly godolfe in French). As a practical matter, they would have prevented a drinker from consuming the contents of the lower globe too quickly, so they may have been meant to promote moderation; but their purpose has never really been defined.

Such ornate productions are rare however. Overall, the simplicity of most Merovingian glassware suggests local production. Still, evidence of this is rare and uncertain; it is not impossible that some was imported.

Among the various types of drinking vessels a common type is known as a “bell beaker” or sturzbecher. This was literally a tumbler; that is, it could not be set down on its base without falling over. Earlier examples are nearly cylindrical, but with sides curving inwards, and have a rounded base; over time these become inverted cones, with pointed bases. Often, too, these have a button projecting from the base. Such glasses are also called “apodal” (footless). This was a common shape in Germanic vessels and is found in pottery as well as in glass. Norse images sometimes show the narrow conical version. (Andrén et al) Another glass found at Ennery is also a sturzbecher, with a single bud at its base. (Delort).

The variety of drinking vessels, low bowls (coupelles), larger bowls and other vessels made of glass is too long to explore here. But here is a brief overview, from Nieveler and Siegmund. of the glass found in Rhineland graves over several centuries:
The glass beaker with a beaten rim..., the ribbed glass bowl.. and the cone beaker, appearing in the graves of the 5th century, are basically derived from glass beakers of the Roman tradition. Cone beakers of the 6th century are larger and higher than the Roman forms and are often decorated with glass trails... Roman glass bottles... were commonly used throughout the 6th century. Typical of the graves of [the late 5th/early 6th century] are the slightly rounded glass bowls with opaque white stripes on the rim.. and strictly conical pieces... are from the second half of the 6th century. The first small, undecorated bell beakers (so-called 'Sturzbecher') appear as early as [the mid 6th century], while the majority of developed examples appear from [the mid 6th to the mid 8th century].
The range of development ends here with high, slim pieces... Palm cups, appearing in the late 6th century..., and some with plain, thickered rims, others with wide, down-folded rims, represent a typical form of the 7th century. Glass as grave goods end in the Rhineland with the pointed palm cup... of [the late 7th to the mid 8th century]. 12, 16
This gives a very general idea of the range of Merovingian glass, which started with Roman models but developed vigorously along its own path. By far the most common objects in glass were bowls and goblets, with bottles mainly appearing early on, as Roman holdovers. While glassware was not as universal as it is today, it must have been relatively familiar to those of any significant means.

Specific items

Archaeology proves that some vessels were made of pottery, metal or glass, or even wood. Gourds could also be used for holding liquids (Marinval et al). But in texts it is rare to say what material is being used for different items. Gregory I's mention above shows that wooden flagons were used and Gregory of Tours talks of “drinking healths in maple cups” (inter acernea pocula salute bibentes); Saint Gregory of Langres was said to drink from a vessel of darker glass so that no one could tell he was drinking water. Overall, such explicit references are atypical.

Otherwise, specific vessels are mentioned in the texts of the time which, being written by monks, are always in Latin – with the unfortunate incidental effect that we do not often know what the vernacular was for these common items.

Pocula was the most common term for a cup, both literally and figuratively. When Gregory of Tours speaks of charitatem per pocula, pocula refers to a drink, given here out of charity or hospitality (one might say, “a cup of kindness”).

In general, Gregory use a variety of terms for different vessels. In his life of St. Julian, he writes of thieves stealing a jug or pot (urceus) of the type “called anax”. In one passage in the Glory of the Martyrs, he refers both to a ewer (hydria) and a bottle (lagena). In his life of St. Martin, he mentions putting oil in a vial (ampulla).

The English word “dish” comes, by a tortuous path, from the Latin discus. This word is used with the same sense in Latin texts, but only tells us that the plate was round, not if it was simple or one of the more substantial objects also mentioned under other names. Fortunatus uses the word in his various mentions of meals, as he does fercula (which could mean either the serving dish itself or the specific services). He mentions one made of “white marble of Pharos”. In another poem, he mentions dishes of marble but also of glass and silver.

Plates were not always just receptacles; some in pottery were stamped with Christian symbols. Maurin suggests that these were derived from silverwork.

Large metal plates were known variously as missoria and gavatoe. The latter word is lesser known, but several times, Fortunatus mentions a gavata (gabata) and Martial too uses the word. Little is known of it, other than that it was typically round and of silver. One writer suggests (credibly) that it was sunken, like a shallow bowl.

The loss of such vessels in precious metals is doubly regrettable, since aside from the objects themselves they bore a form of literature; that is, inscriptions engraved around their rims. Fortunatus may be the only writer whose work in this genre has survived. His include moral admonitions:

Who reads the words which beautifully circle the metal:
If you come pure, you imitate the work;
For as a hot furnace tries silver,
So a pure heart shows the man.

The life of Man is short, flee things of the present:
Rather cherish what will not die.
Raise up justice, sow the seeds of peace, love Christ.
Seek delights you will hold forever.

But above all – as befits this poet-bishop's hedonistic nature – calls to conviviality:

Who comes as an intimate to dear friends:
What the food lacks, Love holds all the more;
This was not brought by foreign seas to the guest,
Gladly receive a domestic product.

I beg you, bring peaceful souls to lunch:
If it pleases you to fight, seek enemies elsewhere.
Refuse to start quarrels in the midst of delights.
Bear arms in the field; at the table, wield vegetables.

One almost accidentally reveals that the Franks, for all their wars and murders, were already engaged in the more peaceful, if more banal, conflicts of lawsuits, politics and business:

Leave court quarrels arising from business,
A kindly table invites you to live agreeably.
Silence lawsuits, anger, clamor; debates, disputes, laws;
Here enjoy the rest a friendly day provides.

It is unlikely that Fortunatus was alone in producing such verses; unfortunately, others have long been lost to fire.

Legrand d'Aussy makes the interesting observation that in a time before magnificent palaces one way to show one's wealth was in plate, which was (like tables themselves) portable. The Merovingian era provides some striking examples of this tendency. When Chilperic (c. 539 – 584) showed Gregory a missorium weighing fifty pounds and decorated with gold and gems; he specifically said it had been made to enhance the glory of the Franks. Though clearly this was already considered unusually large, St. Arnulf (c. 582 – 640) had a silver platter which weighed seventy two pounds (supererat ei discus argenti habens pondus libras septuaginta duas). Gregory de Tours mentions one silver vessel weighing one hundred and seventy pounds, belonging to the greedy patrician Mummolus.

Note that one of the larger vessels here belonged to a bishop; the glory of God too was reflected in plate. Fortunatus' mention of “golden missoria and silver vessels” in his life of St. Germain is only one example. It is uncertain then how functional some of this more luxurious plate was. But even if its main purpose was for ceremony and prestige, it represents the high end of tableware for the early Medieval period.

Setting the early Medieval table

What was one likely to find on, neither a poor nor a very rich, but a comfortable table in the Merovingian and Carolingian eras? Probably the pots and pitchers were in earthenware; the plates may have been as well, or of wood. For the better off, anything from marble to metal to glass may have been used for serving dishes. Beer, when it was served, may sometimes have appeared at the table in buckets; but these, as we have seen, could be quite elegant. It, water or wine could be drunk from glass or wooden vessels, or even metal cups or bowls. How did drinkers handle the "tumbling" glasses which either had buttons on the bottom or ended in inconvenient points? No satisfactory explanation has been proposed, though perhaps the whole idea was that they not put these down until they were empty. The exact purpose of the eccentric guttrolfs may never be known.

Otherwise, the magnificent gold or silver platters which are mainly lost to us probably appeared on the finest tables, if only so people could read inscriptions such as Fortunatus', but beyond royal courts and the more elegant bishops' tables, this would have been exceptional.

As for silverware, spoons would have been made of wood or, for the better off, of metal. Knives may often have been personal items. Forks were not yet used and hands were the main "implements". Anthimus suggests that one dish of foamed egg whites be eaten either with a spoon or a "new growth" - that is, probably, a twig or a large leaf. Since his mention appears to be unique, it is difficult to know if such improvised implements were at all common, but in a time before industry and commercial distribution, it may have been a logical solution in some cases.

While no truly coherent description exists of such settings, increasingly archeaology makes it possible to envision such table services vividly, if not always completely. A carinated stewpot set on a table next to a bucket with a serpent-tipped handle and perhaps an earthen ewer with, at each place, the narrow cones of bell-beakers and hand-carven wooden plates is only one possible, and perfectly evocative, combination.


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