Victoria Jackson is a Doctoral Researcher in the History Department at Birmingham. Victoria takes a look at a Glass Bowl which may or may not have been a 'Gossip's Bowl'!
A Glass ‘Gossip’s Bowl’?
SBT 1868-3/448. An Elizabethan crystal glass wine bowl with diamond point engraving. This bowl was probably made at the Crutched Friars glassworks in London, close to Shakespeare's house in the city. Made c. 1600's, possibly from Venetian Glass. Part of the F.W. Fairholt Collection. Diameter: 31.25 cm Height 12.5cm
This Elizabethan glass bowl is, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating objects held in the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Its appeal may not be immediately obvious, but it possesses foreign decorative techniques, was made at the most fashionable glass-making factory in Tudor England, and represents possible connections to childbirth and rituals of post-natal female festivity.
The bowl was made at the Crutched Friars glasshouse in London, near Fenchurch Street, around 1600. The Crutched Friars had been established thirty years earlier for the production of glass à la façon de Venise, or glass in the ‘Venetian-style’. Venetian-style glass was incredibly valuable and admired across England and was owned exclusively by elite members of society. By 1574 the glasshouse was granted a license by Elizabeth I for the production of Venetian-style glass for 21 years, which also prohibited the import of Venetian glass and the production of Venetian-style glass by other glasshouses. The glassmakers employed at the Crutched Friars were French, Flemish and Italian, which explains the decoration found on the exterior of this glass bowl. The deep incised vertical lines and shallow swirls are formed using a technique called diamond-point engraving – a method of decoration previously unused in England – where a small tool tipped with a fragment of diamond is used to scratch or stipple glass.
Glass bowls were often intended to contain wine or punch, so were used in the context of special occasions and celebrations. While there is no evidence to connect this particular bowl to any such occasion, one place these objects were sometimes found was in the birthing room. This sort of bowl could have served as a ‘birthing bowl’, or a ‘gossip’s bowl’, taking its name from women [gossips] present in the birth room. Gossips’ bowls usually held caudle, an alcoholic concoction of wine or ale mixed with egg yolk, spices and sugar, probably similar to eggnog today. It would nourish the new mother post-labour and would be ritually passed around the birthing room, each woman taking a drink in turn, as part of a celebration of the new mother’s delivery.
Special birthing bowls, called scodella, were made in Italy. Often made of painted earthenware, they can be incredibly ornate. A scodella from Urbino, currently in the collections of the V&A, dates to the 1530s. It possesses a lid brightly painted with a scene depicting a woman in labour, seated in a birthing chair, her legs extended to allow the midwife access. The interior of the bowl shows the successful outcome, a newborn baby, attended by nurses by the fireside. These bowls portraying birthing scenes were intended to commemorate this defining event in the young woman’s life and were cherished items of post-natal celebrations, treasured by the family for generations afterwards.
A gossip’s bowl is also mentioned in Romeo and Juliet. Enraged over his daughter’s refusal to marry Paris, Capulet lashes out at the Nurse when she tries to interject:
Peace, you mumbling fool!
Utter your gravity o'er a gossip's bowl,
For here we need it not.
By referencing the gossip’s bowl, Capulet is referring to gossipy women who were thought to chatter excessively about trivial matters, as well as alluding to the fact that the Nurse attends to women.
While we can’t say for sure that this glass bowl was used as a gossip’s bowl, it certainly is intriguing to probe the many uses it might have had. Undoubtedly though, this was an object of exceptional value and worth, a prized possession for any Tudor family.
 For more information on the Crutched Friars glasshouse, see Oxford Art Online.
 See Jacqueline Musacchio, The Art and Ritual of Childbirth in Renaissance Italy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).