Wednesday, 17 November 2010

A Mediaeval Woman, a Potter

For  the many women  potters out there.

All too often, images suggest that early pottery, hand-building, was primarily a women's art, a home-making art, an art of the hearth, but along came the wheel, which was a machine, and we men do love our machines, so, once we have  a machine,  all of a sudden, men get interested in clay. The wheel-throwing of clay is seen as a historically male-dominated activity.
There's some truth in it even now, but that's a generalisation, and I've seen  it reversed many a time.
I was delighted to find this image, countering that generalisation, in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. On a mediaeval German playing card, the image shows an accomplished woman potter making a baluster style cup or vase, we can clearly see she's using a shaped tool, of wood or bone, (we potters call it a 'rib' to this day), to impress grooves into the side.
Look at her dress, it would not be out of place in our times, I look at her face, her posture, her arms, and I think she's very much a real person. I'm interested by the way her wheel is placed upon a wooden pallet, but beneath it is a tiled floor, suggesting, not a humble peasant's shack, but perhaps her employ in the household of a noble family, as is also suggested by the hanging shield.... 
The wheel is mounted upon a fixed spike, probably capped with steel, which would pass through a loose clearance-hole in the flywheel, and sit in a socket on the bottom of the wheelhead, it might have had a metal (iron or maybe bronze) cup on which to pivot. The flywheel, which she spins with her foot, hangs from the wheelhead on vertical spokes.
She's got a lump of clay ready on the floor, but I see no bowl of water, or slip, of which I think she'd need a little.  
The wheel spins anticlockwise, and she's hooking it toward her with her left foot, rather than kicking it. I think the dress might be a hindrance there, snagging on the spokes, but she's hitched it up above her knee on the left there, to free the leg.
I wonder, does she dry her hands on that free end hanging down from her turban? Or is that smudge on her suspiciously wonderbra bosom a hands-worth of clay?

All of this, by the way, is my conjecture from looking at the picture, it in no way constitutes any sort of trained analysis.

Well, Ladies? Any comments?

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  1. What is the word at the top?

    It doesn't look Mediaeval atall!

  2. Hafneryn.
    Hafner: South-german/Austrian/Swiss=Potter

    Hafnerin/hafneryn, feminine of hafner, woman potter.

    The card is from a game called "Hofämterspiel", hand-made, tempera-painted, between 1453 and 1457.
    The Hefneryn's position in the deck is the II of Bohemia.
    Our modern playing card only have King, Queen, jack, and joker as picture cards, however, in mediaeval packs all the cards represented people, and the suits were not, as we have, hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades, but France, Germany, Bohemia, and Hungary.

    She's genuine, I promise.

  3. The next thought is what is the root of the word hafner? Erde= Earth

  4. South German and Austrian: occupational name for a potter, Middle High German hafner, an agent derivative of Middle High German hafen ‘pot’, ‘dish’. This is the normal term for the occupation in southeastern Germany and Austria, and the German surname is found mainly in this area, also in Slovenia.

  5. North and east german use Topfer=potter, topferei=pottery. Yes, there's an umlaut in there but I'm too lazy to dig around windows keyboard map for it.

    Also there's kruger, equivalent to our largely extinct "crocker", though we still use crockery, from the same germanic root.

    Way back yonder, I was very interested in the roots of the words we potters use, because they often go way back, if I can persuade my brain to do it, I'll try write a post one of thesae days.
    Throw is from old english þrawan..."thrawan", which comes from an indo-european root if I recall, "to impart a twist".
    Dreidel, a spinner's weight is from the same root, as is the icelandic dreyja, to throw, (as in clay).

  6. this gets more and more interesting :D


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