’This post is by Victoria Jackson, Doctoral Researcher in the History Department at Birmingham University.
This beautifully preserved jug in the collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is a wonderful example of a typical ‘Bartmann jug’. These jugs were commonly made in the Rhineland region of Germany in the 16th and 17th centuries and the name is taken from the German word Bartmann meaning ‘bearded man’. They tend to look very similar to one another: they have round squat bodies with shorter necks and loop handles and are covered in a brown and red glaze while on the front of the neck is the face of a bearded man. The image of the bearded face is believed to derive from the ‘wild man’, a mythical figure that was popular in the medieval art and literature of Northern Europe, and is found in metal and ceramic objects, embroidery, portraits, illuminated manuscripts, and stained glass.
The uses of Bartmann jugs varied considerably: they were known to be used for storing food and drink, for transporting goods, and for decanting wine. Another fascinating use of these Bartmann jugs, however, is as ‘witch bottles’.
When one of these jugs was dug up in Greenwich in 2004 it was still sealed with a cork so that the contents could be analysed by archaeologists. It was found to contain pins, nails, hair, fingernail clippings and human urine! This indicated its use as a charm against witchcraft.
In a rare court document from 1682 it is recorded that an apothecary recommended to a husband, who believed his wife was under the spell of a witch, to “take a quart of your Wive’s urine, the paring of her Nails, some of her Hair, and such like, and boyl them well in a Pipkin [an earthenware cooking pot].” After it was filled with these bodily substances, the container was buried somewhere on the property, usually beneath the threshold of a door or under the central hearth (probably to keep the urine warm and therefore a more realistic substitute for the person). It was believed that after being buried the bottle would absorb whatever spell had been cast against the owner of the bottle and torment the witch who had cast it.
Perhaps the choice of the Bartmann jug as an appropriate witch bottle may be related to the bearded ‘wild man’ face on the neck of the jug. It appears that jugs with particularly malicious or feral looking faces were chosen most often for this use, perhaps to extend the protective, guardian-style function of the witch bottle.
So, although this was a relatively common and mundane object used for the everyday purposes of storage or transporting goods, this sort of jug might also evoke the supernatural and tells us about how people in Shakespeare’s time attempted to protect themselves from the frightening threat of spells and witchcraft.