Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Medieval table manners

When you attend a feast at the lords castle, you will need to behave and show that you have table manners. One of the things was (and still is) that you had to wash your hands. From the 12th until the late 14th century, an aquamanile was used to hold and pour water (aqua) over the hands (manile), although the name aquamanile for the vessel was invented in the 19th century. The real name of the vessel was lavoratorium, and the bowl receiving the water was called manilia. The aquamanile was a heavily decorated vessel, often cast in bronze or brass in the form of animals like lions, griffins, stags, or men. They were a luxurious show-piece on the lords table. For more humble lords (or guild-masters) less expensive aquamaniles were made from baked clay. That aquamaniles were also used by medieval citizens is shown by the fact that they were mentioned in two (of sixty) inventories of the city of Deventer, the Netherlands. One of such a stoneware aquamanile we encountered during a visit to the Kolnischen Stadtmuseums in 2012.

The Kolner aquamanile is 16.2 cm high and 17.5 cm long. It has a light yellow glaze with orange-brown spots. The inside is also glazed orange-brown. Dated 13th century. 

Also in the Netherlands medieval stoneware aquamaniles were found: a very beautiful one in Castle Hoensbroek and two others are on display in the Booijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam. These are shown below as well as some other from the Victoria and Albert museum in London.

Two aquamaniles from the Booijmans van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Left: An aquamanile dating around 1200-1300, made from white earthenware and glazed with a copper-oxide leadglaze. Size 18 cm. Right: A stoneware aquamanile dating from 1400-1500 with a saltglaze. Size 13 cm. Images from the museum database.

The aquamanile from Castle Hoensbroek which was found in the castle moat. 
The figure is supposed to be a ram. The aquamanile is dated mid 14th century and decorated with green-tin glaze. 
Image from internet.

Aquamanile of red earthenware in the form of a stag covered with a yellow glaze tinged with green. It has a tubular body and the antlers lie back to form the handle. The hind legs are missing. Found in Rye, UK and dated  around 1300-1399.  Sizes: Height: 24 cm, Length: 35.5 cm. Victoria and Albert museum, London, UK.

Late medieval / early renaissance aquamanile from Pesaro, Italy and dated 1490-1500. Tin-glazed earthenware, painted with colours. Height: 41.5 cm, Length: 36 cm - twice as large compared to the other ewers. 
Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK.

It may not come as a surprise that we  liked to have an aquamanile on our table as well, especially during visits to chic places, like castle halls. Anne has made a lion-shaped aquamanile from white baked clay and glazed it with a green glaze both in- and outside. The pouring spout is at the lion's mouth, while the vessel can be filled with water through a hole in the middle of its back.

The Lion aquamanile on the dressoir in the castle hall of Castle Loevestein.

And of course we (do have table manners and) used it at our dinner in the castle hall of Castle Loevestein a few weeks ago. In the 'Mesnagier de Paris', a 14th century cook- and housekeeping book, a description is given for the water used to wash the hands:

'Pour faire eaue a laver mains sur table, mectez bouillir de la sauge, puis coulez l'eaue et faictes reffroidier jusques a plus que tiede. Ou vous mectez comme dessus comomille et marjolaine, ou vous mectez du romarin, et cuire avec l'escorche d'orenge. Et aussi feuilles de lorier y sont bonnes.'

This has been translated into the following recipe:
Boil 1 litre water with 2 branches of sage or 1 branch chamomile and 1 branch of marjoram or 1 branch of rosemary and strips of untreated peel of two bitter oranges. Infuse, pass, and serve in an aquamanile over a washing basin.


Sources used:
Mittelalter in Koln - eine auswahl aus dem bestanden des Kolnischen stadtmuseums. W. Schafke and M. Trier (editors). Emons:, 2010. ISBN 978-3-89705-654-1.
Huusraet - het stedelijk woonhuis in de Bourgondische tijd. B. Dubbe. Uitgeverij Poldervonsten, 2012. ISBN 341-5688-943-1.
Fêtes gourmandes au moyen âge. J-L. Flandrin and C. Lambert. Imprimerie Nationale, 1998. ISBN 2-7433-0268-2.


  1. Good morning gentlemen.

    It would be possible to buy Byzantine chess game pieces

    National Museu of Chess the Catalunya

  2. Dear Salvador, I looked for the 'National Museu of Chess the Catalunya' but could not find it. I think it is better to provide the complete link. The comment on byzantine chess would also be more appropriate with the blogpost on byzantine chess.

  3. Are antique aquamaniles available at auctions and if so what price do they sell for (obviously allowing for age size and qualitu)?

    1. Yes, actually there is one on sale at Prunier auction, France on 11 October. Its estimated price is 20,000-25,000 Euro.