This article appeared in the Spring 1967 (Issue #7) edition of the Kent Archaeological Review.
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Stoneware is a highly fired and almost vitrified ceramic composed of clay and sand coated with a salt glaze. The action of this salt glaze produces a pitted surface on the stoneware not unlike that on an orange skin. During the firing when the kiln is at its maximum temperature, common salt is thrown into the kiln where it immediately vaporizes. It is this salt vapour, settling in minute droplets, which gives the ware its characteristic appearance. Various iron impurities present in the clay impart a brown or light brown colour to the fired vessels.
The manufacture of stoneware and its accompanying salt glaze first began in Germany early in the 16th Century, the centres being Cologne, Raeren, Siegburg and Frechen. Similar wares were also produced at a little later date in the Low Countries, one centre being Bouffioux. At this period the German potters had perfected the art of moulded, applied decoration and the bulbous body of a jug was a fitting place to apply examples of this new technique. Amongst the products manufactured at these potting centres was a jug or bottle distinguished by its squat shape and which bore on its narrow neck the moulded mask, in relief, of a bearded man. These distinctive jugs are known as Greybeards, whilst in Germany they are aptly called Bartmann (Bearded Man). They are popularly known today by antique dealers collectors and archaeologists as Bellarmines, due to an erroneous belief that the bearded mask and rotund form represented the face and figure of Cardinal Bellarmine.
Roberto Bellarmino was a most redoubtable opponent of Protestantism in North Germany and the Low Countries and was detested by the Protestants in these areas.
Whilst these jugs were known as Bellarmines at least as early as 1634 (the name is used in a play of that date) it can be shown that it was not the original intention of the earlier potters to caricature the Cardinal in stoneware. For instance, in the Tower of London there is an early Greybeard which has the date 1550 worked into the medallion design on its body. As Roberto Bellarmino was born in 1542 he would have only been a child of 8 years when this particular pot was made. However, like so many other forms of specialized pottery, stoneware Bellarmine jugs degenerated both in decoration and shape as time progressed and it is possible that this type of vessel became in people's minds the personification of the hated Cardinal and the butt of many an ale-house jest.
The earliest pots in the mid 16th Century bear a carefully modelled mask on the neck and below this some decorative floral motif. The mask is always well moulded, the beard being square-cut and the facial expression benign and dignified. These early examples are also distinguished by their squat bodies and generous footrings. Occasionally they bear a band of lettering, usually an illiterate version of a motto like Trink und esst, Gots nicht vergesst or Hungrigen Speisen (Feed the Hungry).
In the early 17th Century the potters began to embellish the sides of the larger capacity jugs with medallions containing a head or heraldic device. Figure 2 shows such a jug with a crudely lettered inscription (Nero and Claudius). This inscription has probably been copied from an older model as the reversed lettering implies imitation rather than originality. These large jugs were usually roughly daubed with cobalt blue in patches. The arms of Dutch and German towns and provinces were much favoured for moulding in these medallions.
By the mid 17th Century these pots had lost their squat form and became pear-shaped with a much smaller footring. The genial mask degenerated into a caricature with coarse features and a grotesque mouth and teeth and the trimmed beard was represented by a few stylized strokes. See Figure 3. A single button containing a few feeble lines took the place of the once carefully detailed medallion . See Figure 1.
Thomas Rous and Abraham Cul len are reputed to have made Bellarmine jugs in London as early as 1626 under a patent granted from Charles the First. Their kiln is believed to have been in Lime Street, in the City. John Dwight of Fulham is also credited with having discovered the secret of making stoneware but there is some doubt whether he made Bellarmines after the Rhineland pattern.
There are certain peculiarities to be noted about the Bellarmine jug. The handle is slightly twisted and at the lower end where it meets the waist of the jug it is smoothed and finished off in a characteristic shape resembling a lizard's tail. See Figure 4. Another feature worthy of mention is a series of concentric grooves on the underside of the footring. These grooves indicate clearly the method by which the pot was severed from the wheel. It was the practise of the German potter to cut the pot from the wheel-head by pulling a loop of wire under the footring whilst the wheel was rotating.
The smaller capacity jugs were used extensively in the English taverns and ale-houses whilst the larger ones of two gallon capacity were used for holding wines, oils and acids as well as for general kitchen utensils.
Quite apart from their use in taverns as drinking pots the smaller capacity Bellarmines were occasionally used for a much more sinister purpose in the latter part of the 17th Century. This was the period when witchcraft was much practised in country districts. Due perhaps to the demoniacal expression of the mask which was sufficiently suggestive of the Devil, Bellarmine pots were favoured for use as witch bottles. It was believed that the witch bottle could counter the evil designs of a witch. The victim of a supposed spell would prepare a concoction of his urine, fingernail parings and hair clippings and together with iron nails and pins would finally boil the mixture up on a fire. By a process of sympathetic magic this was supposed to boil up the blood and water of the witch. The bottle and its unpleasant contents would then be buried under the victim's own hearth or threshold. The location of the bottle burial would then mark the position where the witch would die of a painful stranguary. Sometimes victims of spells would content themselves by casting these prepared witch bottles into the nearest river. When old cottages are being demolished these buried bottles are sometimes found with the contents intact and still in their original position under the doorstep or hearth. Several have been found in Kent in the past few years.