Since the mudlark we enjoyed at the beginning of October, I’ve spent some time finding out more about the pieces we found. What they were part of and how they were used. I know that most of the pieces are parts of cooking pots, pans and storage vessels. They would have broken at some point and then been thrown into the river Thames, which was a massive rubbish dump for at least two thousand years.
The pieces that may have formed a 16th or 17th century ale cistern have intrigued me for several reasons, partly because there are the marks of the potter’s hands on them – you can see where the potter created indentations, probably with a thumb, to give a better grip to the handle.
On, the underside of the piece shown top right you find the indentation of the potter’s fingers; this must have been made as the pot was lifted when the clay was still malleable and when I put my own hand to it, it fits the shape of my own fingers. Maybe this potter had similar sized hands to mine.
So how were these things used at the time? In what settings? How did the kitchens look and what was being cooked? Who used these kitchens?
I turned to looking at old paintings and came across the Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger (15 December 1610 – 25 April 1690), and his depictions of peasant life. They took me on a journey through time to the types of places my ancestors inhabited and gave me a glimpse of how their lives could have been.
Teniers used the same props time and again and some show up in many paintings – the jugs and dishes that sit on tables or on the floor; the benches the peasants sit on; a rough wooden block used for a foot rest; the same view of a particular tavern, where there is always a rag hanging from a hook on the wall next to the fireplace.
In the background, there is often a seated woman holding a long-handled pan over the embers of a fire. She appears to be cooking pancakes. Did people eat a lot of pancakes in the 1600s? Other interiors show meat roasting on spits over open fires, while fish, game and fruits are prepared elsewhere.
In the paintings of merry-making, whether inside or out, somewhere in the image there is often a man urinating, being sick or sleeping off his excesses.
People talk and laugh, sing and dance, caress one another, play cards, drink and smoke. All seems cheerful and no fights are shown.
One can image the noise, musical instruments, singing and shouting, and probably the smell – wood and tobacco smoke, ale, food, grease, candle wax, urine, vomit, dog shit and body odour.
There is a certain grossness to these images that both repulses and intrigues and I wonder if I would enjoy visiting the 1600s for a short time. One might be best advised to visit in the guise of a man in order to avoid the fondling that takes place; better yet to be invisible and a skilled linguist to understand what was being said.
I ask myself again, given the chance, would I visit? Thinking of my family’s history, they were country people from the north of England and were mainly farmers and millers. Although the records we have go back only to 1785 and the birth of my Great Great Great Great Grandfather, Joseph Hodgson, they were likely not dissimilar to the people in these paintings; peasants leading rural lives, closely entwined in their communities. They’d have attended local merry making and would probably have sung and danced with the best of them. So the answer is, I might not want to live there but, yes I’d visit, like a shot.