Tag Archives: British Museum

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – The Chaucer Astrolabe

The Chaucer Astrolabe

The Chaucer Astrolabe, British Museum

The astrolabe was a multi-purpose scientific instrument in the Middle Ages. When the illegitimate child of Abelard and Héloise was born in the early twelfth century, he was named Astrolabe in its honour.

An astrolabe, according to James Robinson in Masterpieces of Medieval Art, is a two-dimensional map of the three-dimensional celestial sphere. In much the same way that an Ordnance Survey map can help you find your way through a wood, up hills and over streams you’ve never seen before, so an astrolabe can you to find your way through the heavens. It was, as you can see, a sophisticated instrument.


The Chaucer astrolabe is dated 1326, 16 years before Chaucer was born, and is the earliest dated European astrolabe. Although it didn’t belong to Chaucer, the poet wrote a treatise on the astrolabe, the first in English, and described an instrument very like this. Dedicated to his son Lewis, it was written by 1391. There are more than thirty surviving manuscript copies of the treatise.

Most texts about the construction and use of astrolabes were written in Latin. They were used to tell the time in the many different time systems that existed in fourteenth-century England. It could be used to work out angles and the height of objects. It could also be used while casting horoscopes.

Saints’ days in English and the latitude for Oxford are written on the back, indicating that it was principally for use in England. There are also inscriptions relating to Jerusalem, Babylon, Montpellier and Paris.

It’s just over 5 inches in diameter and less than half an inch thick. The star pointers are shaped like birds.

On the left in my photograph is Richard II’s quadrant. The raised piece that you can see is his emblem: the white hart. It’s a timepiece, enabling its user to tell the time from the angle of the sun. It’s dated 1399, the year of the king’s death.


Masterpieces of Medieval Art



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Science

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Bacinet and Mail

Bacinet and mail

Bacinet and Mail, British Museum

Although separated by several decades in manufacture, this bacinet and piece of mail are displayed together. Given the high cost of armour, older (usually inherited) items would often be worn with newer ones, provided they fitted well enough. The bacinet comes from about 1430, while the mail comes from the last quarter of the fourteenth century.

The bacinet might be Italian. Originally there would have been a visor to protect the eyes. There is also a slot in the top of the helmet where a crest would have been worn. It was a very popular style of helmet in England during the Hundred Years War.

This one was found in Kordofan, Sudan. It probably got there because French traders sold arms illegally to the Khalif of Egypt around the middle of the fifteenth century.

As you can probably tell from the photograph, I was more interested in the chain mail than in the helmet. Chain mail was, as its name suggests, made up of chains of iron or steel rings linked together. They’re linked by flattening and riveting the ends. The protection they offered varied according to the diameter of the links. This piece of mail is made up of rings approximately 1 cm in diameter.

Mail was an old form of protection by the fourteenth century and was worn over padded clothing. The padding protected the wearer’s skin from the metal rings, as well as from the enemy’s weapons.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries even horses wore mail. By the fourteenth century the technology to make plate armour (large bits of metal which could be shaped to protect various parts of the body) was being developed. This meant that there was less need for those who could afford plate armour to cover themselves completely in mail.

Mail could be made into almost any shape and it was very flexible. The most common items were the habergeon and hauberk: the short and long mail shirt. The shirt could be made with or without sleeves. Head protection in the form of a mail coif was also used. When an item of mail was damaged it was easy to repair and, if necessary, the rings could be taken apart and reused. For this reason, very few pieces of mail survive in their original form.

A better photograph of the bacinet cand be found here and there’s a slightly better photograph of the mail here.


Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James M Robinson

Masterpieces of European Arms and Armour – Tobias Capwell


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Hundred Years War, Medieval Warfare

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – The King’s and Queen’s Pavements

The king's pavement

The King’s Pavement, British Museum

The King’s and Queen’s Pavements were laid in Clarendon Palace, near Salisbury, in Wiltshire. The palace was originally a royal hunting lodge and Henry II and Henry III both spent a lot of money converting it into something fit to receive them for longer periods.

It was Henry III who was responsible for the pavement above. He had a circular floor laid in his private chapel around 1244. The floor was about 4m in diameter.  Up until this point tiled floors were mainly found in ecclesiastical buildings. Once the king had one, everyone wanted a decorated pavement in their houses.

The construction of the pavement was ordered on 12th March 1244. The tiles were made on-site and a kiln was built nearby to fire them.  The thin green tiles are just green tiles, but the brown tiles are inlaid with designs showing very stylised leaves and fleurs de lys. There was an inscription around the outer edge of the pavement, but no one knows what it said since most of the letters are lost and the ones that were found were not necessarily in their original location.

The chapel for which the pavement was made was on the first floor and the tiles were scattered when the building collapsed. The palace was in poor condition before the time of Elizabeth I, who had to eat somewhere else when she visited it, so unsafe had it become. It was a ruin by the eighteenth century.

The queen's pavement

The Queen’s Pavement, British Museum

The Queen’s pavement covered the ground floor of Eleanor of Provence’s personal apartments in Clarendon Palace. She was Henry III’s queen and was a bit of a trend-setter, bringing fashions from France with her. Even in those days the English were in thrall to French fashion. In her private rooms there were glazed windows and a fireplace, both of which took a long time to spread across England.

The tiles depict symbolic animals: regal lions and griffins who guarded treasure.

These are the last of my tiles from the museum.


Sources: Masterpieces of Medieval Art by James Robinson


Filed under Medieval Buildings, Thirteenth Century

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Doorknocker in the Shape of a Lion’s Head


Doorknocker in the shape of a lion’s head, British Museum

This object has a cumbersome name, but it’s impressive enough to deserve it. It’s about 14 inches across and dates from around 1200.

Some time ago I wrote about how the idea of sanctuary worked in English law. The doorknocker played a vital role for the criminal who wanted sanctuary, as he had to knock on the church door to gain entry. In theory, but not always in practice, the criminal could remain in the church for forty days without harm from those pursuing him. After that time he had to leave the church and take his punishment or leave England.

Most churches in the fourteenth century had knockers, but they began to be removed and melted down when the laws about sanctuary were repealed in the seventeenth century. Few church doorknockers survive now and this one is such a lovely example.

It’s bronze and was made by the sand-casting method, which means it’s unique since the mould, made of sand, straw and manure, couldn’t be used twice. Once the molten bronze had been poured into the mould it was packed with sand, where it stayed until it had cooled. It was not a quick technique, but it was a proven one, having its roots in antiquity.

No one knows which church it belonged to, but its size and value indicate that it must have been an important one.

Lions were popular forms for ecclesiastical doorknockers and other examples have survived.

Sadly the ring is not original, so no thirteenth-century criminal grabbed it and pounded on the church door in the hope of gaining time for himself.

Here is a better photograph of the doorknocker than mine.



Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James Robinson


Filed under Church, Medieval Crime and Law, Thirteenth Century

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – The Dunstable Swan Jewel

The Dunstable Swan Jewel

The Dunstable Swan Jewel, British Museum

Some time ago I wrote a post about goldsmiths and used this item as an illustration of their work. What I didn’t realise at the time was how tiny it is. It’s about an inch and a quarter high and I walked past it before I realised it was there. I included the information cards in the shot so that you can see how small it is.

The swan was created around the beginning of the fifteenth century. It’s gold with a white enamel known as émail en ronde bosse. This was a technique that fused molten glass onto the gold. The surface of the gold was roughened before it was covered with the glass. This method was only perfected at the end of the fourteenth century.  It’s not known whether the jewel was made in France where the technique was developed, or in England.

Swans were considered an expression of nobility.  When that and the value of the jewel are taken into consideration, it must have belonged to someone of an elevated status, possibly from the de Bohun family or House of Lancaster, both of which used the swan as their symbol. You probably can’t see it from my photograph (this one is better), but there’s a crown around its neck which is, apparently, a very strong indication that it belongs to the house of Lancaster. One of the reasons for the confusion, though, is that Henry of Lancaster (later Henry IV) married Mary de Bohun in 1380 and adopted her family’s badge.

The jewel was a livery badge, which enabled others to identify the wearer’s family and political allegiance. Other members of the household would have worn a much cheaper version of the badge.

It was discovered in Dunstable at the location of a Dominican friary. Since many tournaments were held at Dunstable, it’s possible that the jewel was lost there by a knight or his lady. More prosaically, it might have been left with the friars for safe-keeping during the rather turbulent fifteenth century and its owner either forgot about it or was a victim of the turbulence.  I know which version I prefer.


Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James Robinson

Medieval Goldsmiths – John Cherry


Filed under Fourteenth Century

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Relief Tile from St Albans Abbey

Relief Tile from St Albans

Relief Tile from St Albans, British Museum

Yes, it’s another tile. This is an unusual tile in many ways. The most common type of tile in the fourteenth century was the encaustic tile. Whereas the design on an encaustic tile was level with its surroundings, the design on a relief tile stood proud of its background. That immediately makes this one stand apart. The second thing is that, like the Tring Tiles, it retains most of its glaze.

When Robert of Golam was abbot, in the mid-twelfth century, the chapter house at the Benedictine St Albans Abbey was paved with relief tiles. Relief tiles were more common in Eastern Europe (Germany, Denmark, Poland) than in England.

This particular tile must have been in a part of the floor that received little use, for the glaze is mostly intact and the raised parts of the tile have barely been worn down at all.

Relief tiles are among the earliest found in ecclesiastical buildings. The Anglo-Saxons used them in the late tenth and early eleventh century, but they were rare. This one dates from the mid-twelfth century (1151-1166) when they became more common in churches and abbeys.

There are two types of relief tiles: relief and counter-relief. Relief tiles have a raised design, while counter-relief tiles have a raised background. The St Albans tile is a relief tile. Its design was stamped into the clay with a wooden or metal stamp.



Medieval Tiles – Hans Van Lemmen


Filed under Church, Twelfth Century

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – A Knight on Horseback Aquamanile


Knight on Horseback Aquamanile, British Museum

I’ve mentioned table etiquette in a couple of posts, here and here, and I thought it was time to talk about other things that were used at a fourteenth-century meal besides knives and hands.

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


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:



Filed under Medieval Life, Thirteenth Century

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Knives and Sheath

Hunting Knives

Knives and sheath, British Museum

I was very happy to see these knives in the British Museum, because I quite often write about knives and daggers in my novels and it was useful to do a bit of research into them.

These particular knives are French and date from the first decade of the fifteenth century. The longest knife is about 15 inches long.

All four of the knives in the picture fitted into the sheath. The larger knives were used for carving meat. Once carved, the slice of meat was presented on the flat of the blade.

It’s thought they were a wedding present, but that’s not a certainty. They’re certainly very expensive, though, as the handles are enamelled and the leather sheath is also decorated. Whilst not every knife handle was enamelled and not every sheath was made from leather, sheathes and scabbards would usually have been decorated. Decorations would not just have been carved, but painted and occasionally gilded. People of the fourteenth century liked bright colours.

Many more ordinary blades were decorated. This was often little more than a maker’s mark, but the blades could also be inlaid with designs. The blades themselves were usually made with iron mixed with imported steel. The handless were made from bone, wood, horn and metal. Of these, wood was the most common.

Only knives and spoons were used at meals and people carried their own knives with them for use at mealtimes, even when they were guests.  Towards the end of the fourteenth century hosts began to provide knives for important guests. Sharing a knife with someone at a meal was a sign of trust

There were, of course, rules of etiquette concerning the use of knives during meals. Knives brought to the table were supposed to be clean and sharp. They should not be wiped on the tablecloth and neither should anyone lick their knife. Rules such as these were usually written down in an attempt to change people’s behaviour. You can assume, therefore, that, if there’s a rule against it, lots of people were doing it.  You were not supposed to use your knife to trim your nails at the table. Using the knife to carry food to the mouth was forbidden: that’s what your fingers were for. You could use the knife to put food on your trencher, but it was fingers only from that point. If you wanted to salt your food, you had to use the flat of the blade to lift salt from the salt dish, not your fingers. Above all you were not to pick your teeth with the point of the blade.

People carried knives about with them. Chaucer’s reeve had a Sheffield knife tucked in the top of his hose. I have no idea how secure this was, unless the scabbard was attached to the laces which tied his hose to his braies. The people to whom the knives in the British Museum belonged doubtless had very secure ways of transporting them.



Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James Robinson

Knives and Scabbards – J. Cogwill, M. de Neergaard and N. Griffiths


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Seal-Die of Boxgrove Priory

Seal of Boxgrove Priory

Seal of Boxgrove Priory, British Museum

This is the second in the occasional series about medieval objects in the British Museum.

There were a few seal-dies in the medieval gallery at the British Museum, but I chose these from Boxgrove Priory because I’ve been there a few times. The ruins of the priory are near Chichester in West Sussex. These dies date from the thirteenth century. The image of the priory is on the front of the seal and the Virgin is on the back.

Boxgrove Priory

Boxgrove Priory

Seals were attached to documents, usually legal ones, by means strips of parchment or silk laces which had been inserted into the bottom of the document. They were the medieval equivalent of a signature. At a time when few could read, or write, they were a useful way of guaranteeing that the people who were supposed to be agreeing to what was in a document had agreed to it. They were made by warming a piece of wax, pressing it around the lace or parchment and flattening it between the two halves of the seal-die, which were locked together until the wax cooled. Some seals were made of gold or silver, which was really a way of showing off the wealth of the owner.

Bronze was the metal usually used for seal-dies, because it was hard. This meant that dies could be engraved with more detail than was possible with other metals and that they would not wear away quickly with repeated use.

Seals were mostly used for transferring property from one person to another. Monasteries were often given property by kings or wealthy men who wanted the monks to pray for their souls after their death and the seals of both parties would be attached to transfer document.


Since they were the equivalent of a signature, they were valuable objects and were usually kept under lock and key. There are tales of monks using the seals to embezzle money from their monasteries.

The use of seals was not limited to monasteries, but they were limited to people who had wealth. Secular seals often depicted the person who owned them. If it was a man, he was probably in armour on horseback (as in the picture above) and, if it was a woman, she would be shown standing. An inscription around the edges of the seal identified its owner.

The seals of merchants and secular men were round. Noblewomen’s seals were usually the same shape as ecclesiastical seals as shown by the seal of Boxgrove Priory.

Secular seal-dies were either destroyed on the death of their owner or buried with them, so that they could not be used again. The heir to that person would have their own seal-die made.

The Boxgrove seal is a communal seal, in that it was used by the prior for the priory’s business, but the prior would also have had a personal seal.

King’s, of course, had seals, but that’s a whole subject in itself.



Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James M. Robinson

The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer

England in the Reign of Edward III – Scott L. Waugh



Filed under Medieval Life, The Medieval Church

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – The Tring Tiles

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The Tring Tiles

Following a visit to the British Museum just over a week ago, I’m writing an occasional series of posts about some of the objects I saw there. Some of the posts will cover old ground, but I have new information to record.

The galleries in the British Museum are generally kept dark in order to protect the objects on display, so not all of the photographs are of good quality, but I’m hoping that my photographs will give you an idea of the size of the objects that you don’t get in ‘official’ photographs. I almost walked past an object I know well from photographs because it’s much tinier than I had been led to expect.

I was very excited when the first thing I saw in the gallery were some tiles. I love tiles and I was thrilled to see the Tring tiles in the flesh, as it were.

No one is quite sure where the Tring tiles originated. Although the tiles were, for the most part, found in a curiosity shop in Tring, it’s not entirely certain that they came from Tring parish church which was renovated in the late nineteenth century. No one can quite work out why such an ordinary church would be decorated with such unusual tiles. They are decorations for walls rather than floor tiles.

The tiles are made using the ‘sgraffito’ method, which was mainly used in the early fourteenth century. The tile was covered in white slip. Slip is essentially watered-down clay, with a ratio of approximately 75% clay and 25% water. The design was cut into the slip and the unwanted slip was scraped away with a small tool. No other tiles made in this way have been found in England, although the technique was used in France.

These tiles date from about 1330 and tell apocryphal stories about the childhood of Christ, filling gaps in the Gospels with stories of him playing with friends and being chastised by his teacher.

The tiles are remnants of a larger group. They are associated with the cult of the Virgin Mary, which was at its height in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In the stories told on the tiles it’s the Virgin, not her son, who restores order after a death or some other catastrophe. It’s not immediately obvious, but the children with their legs in the air are dead. Both are restored by the Virgin.

The picture taking up both halves of a tile is the Wedding Feast at Cana, the first miracle of Jesus’ public ministry and, presumably, the end of his childhood.

There are some very good photographs of the tiles here.



Masterpieces: Medieval Art by James Robinson

Medieval Tiles by Hans van Lemmen


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Interiors