The Wonderful Wooden Bowl

Ah the humble, wonderful, wooden bowl! What more could a medieval person need?

Well, to be honest, not much!

Wooden bowls were treasured items during the middle ages as they were the predominant vessel used to eat from and to drink from. This meant that people were precious over their bowls and were keen to keep them in good repair and stop anyone from taking them. Many bowls recovered from the Mary Rose give evidence of this as they have the names of the owners carved into them to make certain no one took another’s bowl.

Why would a simple bowl be so important?

It may seem strange now but in the middle ages a wooden bowl was quite an expense for most and would be one of few possessions they might own; this would make it quite a precious and personal item.

Bertram turning a wooden bowl on his pole lathe at an Iron Shepherds event

Wooden bowls were hand turned by skilled professionals on pole lathes. Time and effort was put into each bowl and this would add to the cost. Being a turner myself I can attest to the fact that turning a bowl from a lump of wood is tricky, exhausting and time consuming. Granted medieval turners would have been much quicker than I and had apprentices to prepare the wood pre-turning but it is still a great skill that takes time.

Most people might have enough to buy one, maybe two, bowls and they would make sure this would last them for a long time. They would keep the bowl regularly oiled to protect it from rot and if it were to crack they may even seek to repair it. There have been several examples of wooden bowls discovered that have large metal staples pulling a large crack back together – you wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t important.

What about pottery, would that not be better?

One of Bertram's wooden bowls freshly off the lathe

Pottery may be more long lasting and less susceptible to rot compared to wood but pottery wasn’t used for dining for much of the medieval period. Following the heady heights of the Roman Empire the technology for producing finely glazed, water proof pottery had been mostly lost. Instead pottery was poorly glazed and would soak up water quite quickly. This wasn’t ideal for eating or drinking from. Instead wood was a much better material to use and thus the wooden bowl, which had become relatively obsolete during the Roman period, had a comeback – and what a comeback!

It thrived and for a thousand years from around 500 AD everyone across Europe would eat and drink from a wooden bowl.

Of course pottery would start to advance again and better glazing was developed but the wooden bowl endured.

Surely wood was only used by common folk?

Illuminated letter showing a monk drinking from a wooden bowl

To be clear the wooden bowl was a commodity used across all social classes. The common folk would most certainly use wooden bowls and as mentioned they would be prized possessions. Nobility would also use them – all be it rather more expensive bowls.

Monks in abbeys and monasteries across Europe would use wooden bowls too. You can see in the picture (right) an illuminated letter from a monastic manuscript, which shows a monk having a sip of ale from a wooden bowl. Illuminated letters can be a great insight into the past.

Wooden bowls even graced the dining tables of royalty!

The wooden bowl truly is a wonderful thing. Used by everyone they stood the test of time and even in todays modern world we use wooden bowls on many an occasion.

As a wood turner I love to make bowls, there is something so unbelievably satisfying about cutting into a prepared lump of wood as the shavings fly off to form that well known shape... the bowl!

Bertram finishing off the outside of a wooden bowl on his pole lathe

If you are interested to see how a wooden bowl is created using a traditional pole lathe do come along to one of our medieval events this summer to see myself, Bertram, turning on my lathe.

Written by Bertram

Facebook Nav
Twitter Nav
Blogger Nav
YouTube Nav
Instagram Nav