The latter were generally a lot cleaner than I might have led you to believe. People washed their hands before a meal, at least in large houses. Most of the household would wash their hands before coming to the table, but the head of the household would wash his hands in front of everyone else. There was a certain amount of ceremony and ritual attached to this, especially at feasts, when a servant would bring the water and drying cloth to him.
The mounted knight in the photograph above is an aquamanile. The figurine is hollow and clean water was poured in through the hole in his helmet. The horse is not a unicorn who’s lost most of its horn. The hole in its head is a spout through which water could be poured onto the hands of the head of the, in this case rather grand, head of the household. The mounted knight was a popular shape for an aquamanile to take, but there were other forms, usually animals. These were often lions, horses and unicorns. For those of lower rank, an aquamanile could be made out of pottery. I suspect that most households simply used jugs or bowls of water.
Aquamaniles were also used by the celebrants at mass, who washed their hands before the people as part of a ritual cleansing. Like the head of a household, they were presiding at a meal. It would be interesting to know which ritual came first.
Most aquamaniles, at least of those that survive, were made of brass. The knight is made of bronze. Since I had to look it up, I can tell you what the difference is. Bronze is a copper alloy that usually has tin as the main additive, while brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. There are records of gold and silver aquamaniles, but none has survived.
The knight has lost his lance, shield and legs, but he’s still amazing. He was made, in England, for someone with a bit of money to throw around. He’s just over a foot tall and was probably made in the last quarter of the thirteenth century.
The British Museum has photographed him from every possible angle. Some of the angles are less than dignified, but they’re all illuminating.
Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James Robinson