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Medieval Lavers in Scottish Tower Houses


When touring Clackmannanshire castles with the SCA in April 2010, I noted the presence of a carved stone basin in each of the halls of Clackmannan tower and Sauchie castle. Both drained out through the wall, and the one in Sauchie had the remains of an iron staple inserted in the stone at the apex of the niche containing the basin. That of Clackmannan Tower had merely two holes in the wall on either side of the basin near the top of the niche. It seemed most likely that these two holes would have permitted a bar to be inserted across the top of the niche, which together, with the better quality embedded staple in Sauchie, would indicate that something holding water was hung there. I was happy with that explanation for a while, until eventually I wondered what their full name and purpose was and carried out some more research.

Lavers at Sauchie and at Brackenhill

Lavers at Sauchie and at Brackenhill

These niches are called lavers, and were the equivalent of wash hand basins in the medieval period, for washing your hands before eating.

The Melrode Altarpiece laver

Such an item can be seen in the top left corner of this illustration of the fifteenth century.

Note the linen towel hanging beside it for drying your hands and the kettle like jug hanging within:

Mention of such decorated basins is made in MacGibbon and Ross, in various towers built in the 15th and 16th centuries. I would assume that at some point the fashion of building such useful things into the fabric of the tower itself spread across the country.

Precisely when this took place I cannot tell, but given that the dates for construction of Clackmannan, Sauchie and Borthwick castles, all of which have lavers, are in the second quarter of the century, when added to the illustration above dating from 1427, it seems likely that the practise entered the country around the 1420's to 40's. Some other buildings may have had these features but they have been destroyed by renovation or rebuilding in the past. It is clear though that earlier tower houses, with their more massive construction, do not have such civilised and expensive embellishments.

The importance of hand washing before eating cannot be denied, given the emphasis upon it in medieval treatises of manners of the period. For example, in a fifteenth century courtesy book reproduced by the Early English Text society (2), the hall servants have to carry around water, jug, bowl and towel, in order that every person eating shall wash their hands before doing so. In the days before forks became commonplace, people used their fingers to eat with. Moreover, many dishes would be served, and it would be rude to dirty food that other people were going to eat. Earlier feasting illustrations often show the presence of a bowl and an aquamanile, a fancy form of water jug, often shaped like a lion or other mythical beast. Of course, being able to afford to have a built in decorative washbasin installed in your hall was part of showing what social level you were.

Wood, in her book "The English Medieval House" (3), suggests that the origins of lavers are with the similar, but earlier, type of recessed basin called a piscina, which was used for the washing of the chalice. They are often found in private chapels and I recall seeing one in the late medieval tower block in Dirleton. They were in use by the 13th century, and secular versions were created shortly afterwards. Wood notes a number in various rich and powerful men's establishments, such as Battle hall (c. 1330) and Dacre castle (1397). Some places went so far as to have lead tanks with pipes running down through the wall to the laver itself, but there is no indication of anything so fancy here in Scotland.

An Act was passed which restricted the importation of "…chauffyngdishes, candelstickes hanging or stondying, hanging lavours…

The Merode Altarpiece illustration (Above) also shows how advanced the use of bronze objects was on the continent. Such items as candlesticks and kettle like object within the laver were made in many places but the most famous in the 14th century was the part of Flanders around Dinant, and wares made there were generically called Dinanderie.

They were often imported into England in the late medieval period, so much so that in 1464 an Act was passed which restricted the importation of "…chauffyngdishes, candelstickes hanging or stondying, hanging lavours, …" (4).

The last name being that of our kettle like pot illustrated in the Merode altarpiece, and exactly what I would have expected to see hanging in the lavers in such castles when they were newly built.


References:

1) Robert Campin and assistants, Annunciation, central panel of the Merode Altarpiece, 1427, oil on wood, 25 1/4" x 24 7/8". Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

2) Chambers, R. W. A Fifteenth-century courtesy book , Early English Text Society Original series no. 148. Published 1914, reprinted 2002. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

3) Wood, M. The English Medieval House. Harper Colophon reprint in 1983 of the original 1965 edition. Harper and Row, New York.

4) Blair, C., and Blair, J. Page 98 of chapter on Copper alloys in English Medieval Industries, Edited by John Blair and Nigel Ramsay. Hambledon and London, London. 1991.



Article by SCA member A. Guthrie Stewart


Date posted: 12 Oct 2012Last updated: 04 Dec 2014


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