Elska á Fjárfelli of the Dominion of Myrkfaelinn shares with us one of her entries into the Ice Dragon Pentathalon.
As part of my research into medieval soap I stumbled onto the ritual of hand washing at the table, and the use of whimsical pitchers to pour the water to do so. As black soap is not all that visually exciting, a beautiful medieval aquamanile reproduction would be the perfect eye candy for my A&S displays. Except all the ones I found available were in Europe, and as shipping is worrisome and prohibitively expensive, I took the plunge and decided to build my own.
An aquamanile, from the Latin words for water (aqua) and hand (manus), is an animal- or human-shaped vessel used for washing the hands. Medieval European examples date from the 12th C through the 15th C and, apart from curious shapes, have two water openings, one for pouring and one for filling, and a handle. According to one source, the name aquamanile for the vessel was not invented until the 19th C.; the medieval name for the aquamanile was lavoratorium, and the bowl receiving the water was the manilia. But as most resources including the MET designate these vessels as aquamanile, I will do the same.
From Francis Seager’s School of Virtue (1557) comes this poem to direct children to bring their parents water to wash when clearing the table after a meal:
Then on the table attend with all diligence,
It for to void, when done have thy parents.
Each side of the cloth do thou turn in;
Folding it up, at the higher end begin.
A clean towel then on the table spread,
The towel wanting, the cloth take instead.
The basin and ewer to the table then bring,
In place convenient, their pleasure abiding.
When thou shalt see them ready to wash,
The ewer take up, and be not too rash
In pouring out water more than will suffice.
The hundreds of surviving examples show the popularity of aquamanilia during the Middle Ages. The aquamanile was a sculptural vessel, often cast in copper alloy using the lost-wax method, and made in many forms such as lions, griffins, horses, unicorns, stags, dragons and even men. Aquamanilia were important items for religious hand washing rituals, but were also a luxurious show piece at a Lord’s table. For a more humble clientele pottery aquamanilia were available, evident by their mention in two inventories of medieval citizens in the city of Deventer, the Netherlands. Regular sets of ewers and bowls are found in many inventories, but the aquamanile surely is the pinnacle of medieval hand washing equipment.
Animal shaped aquamanilia were not a new idea. Late Roman, early Byzantine, and Islamic cultures had a vibrant tradition of hollow-cast vessels in animal form. Although late Roman and early Byzantine examples were made to contain oil rather than water, they could be seen as precursors of medieval aquamanila in how they were made, as well as in the use of animal forms. Islamic aquamanilia could have been among the luxury items brought to the West through diplomatic gift exchange, trading routes, or even as booty from the Crusades. Western European metalworkers, proficient in the casting of solid objects, relearned a set of skills that had been lost in the West since antiquity when adapting the designs of Islamic hollow-cast vessels to create aquamanilia.
Example of a copper alloy Dragon aquamanile from The Metropolitan Museum, which has one of the largest and most important collections of aquamanilia in the world. This dragon aquamanile is supported by its legs in front and on the tips of its wings behind, and has a tail that curls up into a handle. It was filled through an opening in the tail, now missing its hinged cover. Water was poured out through the spout formed by the hooded or cowled figure held between the dragon’s teeth. In addition to its visual power, this aquamanile is distinguished by fine casting, visible in the carefully chased dragon’s scales and other surface details.
As is indicated by the name, aquamanilia were used by the general populace to wash the hands. Initially aquamanilia were used in both Christian and Jewish religious ritual, but by the 12th C the vessels start appearing outside the church, and at the dinner table. The aquamanile would be used in combination with a wide, shallow bowl, usually made of metal, and sometimes of pottery, and with towels made of linen, plain white or damask, which could be striped. (Heise 2007)
Sometimes guests were formally conducted to an adjoining lavatory accompanied by the music of a minstrel, but ordinarily they remained in the hall and received from the ewer the warm water; often perfumed with rose-leaves, thyme lavender, sage, chamomile, marjoram or orange peel, one or all. The water and the towels were, of course, presented in the order of social standing of the guest, and it was esteemed a signal honor thus to serve a king or a great noble. In accord with the dignity of the ceremony the water jug and the basin in great houses were often of gold or silver curiously wrought and enameled.
Edward Mead in his The English Medieval Feast, 1967. (Heise 2007)
There are several period scented water recipes available to use with the aquamanile. For instance Sir Hugh Plat’s Delightes for Ladies lists “An Excellent Washing Water Very Cheap” which is distilled and “Diverse sorts of sweet handwaters made suddenly or extempore with extracted oils of spices.” which uses extracted essential oils. Another way to make scented water would be by infusion as suggested by Le Menagier de Paris, a 14th century cook- and housekeeping book, where a description is given for 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.”
“To make water for washing hands at table: Boil sage, then strain the water and cool it until it is a little more than lukewarm. Or use chamomile, marjoram or rosemary boiled with orange peel. Bay leaves are also good.”
Scented washing water samples I have made:
Water scented with Rosemary and Orange: personally harvested rosemary (from the Carolina’s, where it is grown as an ornamental) and dried orange peels, boiled with rain water. The acids in orange peels act as a natural degreaser. Rosemary (family of sage) helps in keeping skin healthy and has an antibacterial effect.
Years ago I played in a university ceramics studio, but hand building sculptures was never really my thing. For the past few years I’ve stored a small kick wheel but had no kiln. After a friend of mine offered to bisque and glaze our projects my kid and I played around for a winter or two, with the idea to reclaim clay from our property and throw small Viking type cups, bowls & vessels. Trying to build an aquamanile is lightyears beyond that, and not a minor decision, so in the hope one would work I started work on three different shapes.
The Aquamanile from Castle Hoensbroek
I wanted to do this one as it was found in the Netherlands. But for the life of me I could not throw a pitcher to then narrow the waist without collapsing the clay, so this design bit the dust in the throwing stage. The bump on the rear of this ram seems to indicate it was thrown as one shape, with that being the plugged neck.
Aquamanile in the shape of a stag
Found in Rye, UK and dated to the 14th C. It is 24 cm high and 35.5 cm long and made from red earthenware with lead glaze. The body is tubular, the antlers lie back to form the handle, and the hind legs are missing. The body seems to be made from a large tubular vessel with a smaller vase chest and a bud vase head.
Aquamanile in the shape of a ram
This aquamanile is assumed to be from Scarborough, England and made between 1250 to 1350 CE. It is made from earthenware with green glaze and measures 23.9 cm by 29.2 cm by 13.3 cm. It seems to be made from two larger jars, with a small bud vase as the head and a separately thrown neck as the water intake. It likely is missing its horns, from the absence of glaze on the sides of the head.
Bisque: The first stage of heating clay. Bisque dry means the object is ready to be bisqued. A clay object first is bisqued heated so it is hard, then glaze is added and it is heated again to melt the glaze. So each glazed piece is heated twice, once to harden, and once to glaze.
Leather Hard: letting clay dry for a while (often overnight) to partially dry out to a stage where it will be sturdy enough to withstand adding things onto it, like handles, legs etc.
Kiln: the oven clay is fired or heated in (I borrow the use of a friend’s kiln).
Slip: very watered down clay which can be used as glue.
Score, scoring: drawing lines into the clay with a sharp object to increase the surface of where two pieces of clay will be attached. Slip is added to cover the inscribed lines to soften the clay for maximal stickiness and thus adherence.
Wheel: the apparatus clay is thrown on. A heavy weight is kicked around an axle with a small tray at the top, the heavy weight keeps the small tray turning with just enough time between kicks to throw shapes out of clay. I use a mechanical kick wheel which looks like and works very similar to the kick wheels used in medieval times.
Possible Way of Assembly of the Stag
The Ram Aquamanile
Reconstructing from museum photographs is not straight-forward, especially in this case as the stag is photographed in profile. As no detail is shown from a top view, reconstruction of the handle requires a bit of guesswork and a lot of careful scrutiny of the original image. In this case: as aquamanilia are expected to have two water holes, a small spout and a larger intake, where would the intake be? Is the handle made of one antler with one row of points, as it would seem from the single row visible, or two?
I disagree with this interpretation for the following reasons:
About the antlers: I think there are two staves with two rows of points. There is a slight highlight  on the bottom of the front antler with a darker line behind it and I think that darker line is the bottom of the back antler, indicating there are two staves.
There is one row of antler points visible. I think that is coincidence: the top two happen to have been broken off at some point and the lower ones happen to be hiding behind the front antler (like they are in the photograph of my reproduction). Two oval break points are visible at  and , the right shape for a point and most telling: missing the glaze.
About the water intake: Aquamanilia are supposed to have both a spout and a water in-take, but where is it here? The only place that makes sense would be at the bottom of the antlers, hiding in between. Therefore I interpret the bump at  to be the top rim of the water intake, hiding behind the two horizontal last antler points , one on each side (another reason to need two antler staves). From the very similar profiles on my version and the original version I am fairly confident this interpretation makes the most sense.
Mine seems to be bit chunkier as the original as I am not proficient at throwing thin, plus I worried too small of a footprint for the bottom antlers, which doubles as a handle, would break too easily.
The finished interpretation; top view.
Ready for first use, with the matching bowl.
Amman, Jost (1568) Panoplia omnium lliberalium mechanicarum (Book of Trades); Der Haffner (The Potter), one of 133 woodcut book illustrations. Frankfurt: Sigmund Feierabend. The British Museum.
Chatto, Edith Rickert Francis Seager’s School of Virtue (1557) part of the Babees Book:
Medieval Manners for the Young: Done into Modern English from Dr. Furnivall S. Texts, p.151 London / New York: Duffield & Co., 1908
Greco, Gina L. & Rose, Chrisine M. (ed.) The Good Wife’s Guide (Le Ménagier de Paris, 1393). Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009.
Heise, Jennifer (2007) Hygiene of the Middle Ages and Rennaissance, Volume One: Personal Grooming The Compleat Anachronist #136
Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET): Medieval Aquamanilia
Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET): Dragon aquamanile
Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET): Stag aquamanile
Plat, Sir Hugh (1609) Delightes for Ladies. London: printed by Peter Short.
St. Thomas Guild: Medieval Table Manners; the aquamanile from Castle Hoensbroek.
Virginia & Albert Museum (VA): Ram aquamanile
Waterdene, Chrestienne de: Facebook post Stag Aquamanile.