Pitchers and cups

In Northern Europe, wood was the basis for most containers, at first. Wood could be carved into bowls, which served as cups. Sometimes they really did use hollowed-out horns as cups, but these may have always been ceremonial. Horns can’t be set down unless they have been fitted with stands. At Dark Ages feasts, cups were passed hand to hand as a bonding ceremony, so using a horn was less of a problem.

The parts of Europe that had been colonized by Rome were still making pottery with the methods Rome had taught them. It could be glazed or unglazed; glazed was much preferred for a drinking vessel. Unfortunately, the glaze that Rome left behind was made of powdered lead. When the pottery was fired, the lead chemically combined with minerals in the clay. It changed color depending on what was in the clay. Some came out yellowy, some greenish, some yellowy-brown or greenish-brown. Here is a picture of some medieval English pottery with the full range of lead-based color options.

For much of the Middle Ages, this is what sat on tables and shelves around Northern Europe. Its technology was cheap and well known. The poorest families drank from wooden bowls, while the lower middle class used lead-glazed pitchers.

A new kind of pottery look came from Spain. I’ve already written about the development of tin glazing in the Middle East and Spanish Andalusia. The island of Majorca and city of Barcelona were major shipping ports for Andalusian wares, so Northern Europe first knew white pottery with blue, green or black designs as “majolica.” (alt. spelling maiolica)

Upper middle class families used majolica all over Europe. Once the tin-glazing secret leaked from the Muslim world, Italians picked it up.  Each city had its own type of design (grapes, flowers, leaves) and color. Cobalt powder created blue, but copper-green was favored by many Italian artisans. One of these cities, Faenza, became the common name for the Italian style: faience.

Naturally with an expanding market, artisans farther and farther north picked up the technique. Clay was abundant in the Lowlands region; most houses, even castles, were made of brick. During the 13th century, potters there produced red and white pitchers and tiles, due to the discovery of a deposit of naturally-red clay. When the faience/maiolica style arrived at the end of the Middle Ages, Dutch sailors were making the voyage to the Far East. So tin-glazing, invented in Baghdad to compete with Chinese porcelain, arrived in Holland just in time for sailors to unpack imported Chinese porcelain…so that Dutch artisans could compete with it. In the 16th and 17th centuries, “Delftware” became the common term for white and blue pottery.

There was another, unrelated, development in pottery. In the Rhine Valley, potters developed a way raise kiln temperature much higher than previously possible. When unglazed pottery went into the kiln with a pile of salt next to it, the salt vaporized and then joined chemically with the clay. The pottery came out of the kiln glazed. Salt-glazed pottery varied in color, depending on how it reacted with minerals in the clay. Aachen’s clay turned reddish-brown, while Siegburg’s clay was white.

Salt-glazed pottery was at first decorated by pressing molds onto the surface. Then they began to combine cobalt blue and other mineral colors as decorations on the natural white or tan of the clay. The styles we know as German came out of these late medieval experiments. Beer steins started here, too.


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