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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Cast Bronze Jug

Object 87 - This cast bronze jug was made between 1375 and 1400, so more than 150 years before Shakespeare was born.

Victoria Jackson

This post is by Victoria Jackson, who is a doctoral researcher in the History department at the University of Birmingham.

English Bronze Jug, probably late 14th Century
English Bronze Jug, probably late 14th Century

It’s likely that at the time of its production, this jug would not have been seen in a domestic interior, so in this blog I want to put the jug back into its original context – the church.

This cast bronze jug was made between 1375 and 1400, so more than 150 years before Shakespeare was born.  Originally, it would have had a lid, which is now missing, but you can still see the base of a hinge on the top of the handle.  It has a pointed spout, which makes it especially useful for pouring and has a bulbous body so that it’s capable of holding a good amount of liquid.  An inscription – raised from the surface of the jug – encircles the widest part of the vessel.  We will come back to the inscription in a minute.

It’s presumed that this jug was used in the services of a church, that is the liturgy - which is a collection of ceremonies and rites employed for public worship in the church.  Jugs like this example were commonly employed in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.  They held the sacramental wine – believed to be the blood of Christ.  When the Eucharist took place, the wine was poured from the jug into the chalice or communal cup, which the congregation then drank from.  However, metal jugs were also used to hold water in a ceremony called the offertory, another part of the Eucharistic service.  After the bread and wine – transformed into the body and blood of Christ – are placed on the altar, the priest washed his hands at a side altar with a jug and basin.

Because of its probable connection to the ceremony of the Eucharist, vessels like these are considered primary liturgical objects, because without them the Communion of the clergy and congregation could not take place.  Jugs for containing the sacramental wine or water for hand-washing are among the most important items that survive in Church treasuries today as they were essential to the services of the Church.

But, by the time Shakespeare was born, the liturgy had gone through fundamental transformations as a consequence of the processes of the Reformation.  Perhaps this jug has survived because it remained in use in the revised, Protestant version of the Eucharist or perhaps it entered the domestic sphere after the Reformation.

The jug’s inscription reads “Wele, herying and worshipe be to Christ that dere ous bought”.  The word “wele” can be translated as ‘well-being’, but in the context of this line it probably means something more like ‘splendour.’  The word ‘herying’ means praising or glorifying.  So we can read this inscription as ‘splendour, praise and worship be to Christ that dear us bought.’  This line comes from a Palm Sunday hymn of six couplets, 'Gloria, laus et honor' written by a Franciscan friar named William Herebert, who lived between 1270 and 1333.  And this line was the refrain, so it is repeated again and again throughout the hymn.  So this jug visually reproduces the words sung by the parishioners.  And while most medieval songs and hymns leave very little record and are lost to us today, this jug is a fascinating material trace of that oral culture.