Mazer (drinking vessel)

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The Scottish Bute Mazer, with an unusually fine boss with a reclining lion and heraldry in the centre of the bowl. 1314-1327.[1]
The Bute Mazer's whale bone cover, c 1500
Mazer, Maplewood with silver-gilt mounts, made around 1380. The boss is engraved with the sacred monogram IHC [Jesus]. The mounts are engraved, 'Hold yowre tunge and say ye best and let yowre neyzbore sitte in rest hoe so lustyye God to plese let hys neyzbore lyve in ese' (Hold your tongue and say the best / And let your neighbour sit in rest / He is so eager to please God / He lets his neighbour live in ease).[2] Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A mazer is a special type of wooden drinking vessel, a wide cup or shallow bowl without handles, with a broad flat foot and a knob or boss in the centre of the inside, known technically as the print or boss. They vary from simple wood pieces all in wood to those ornamented with metalwork, often in silver or silver-gilt. They use dense impervious woods such as maple, beech and walnut wood,[3] and get their name from the spotted or birdseye marking on the wood (Ger. Maser, spot, marking, especially on wood; cf. "measles"),[4] or possibly maserle as a name for Acer campestre.[5] They are a north European medieval tradition, mostly made from the 11th (or earlier) to the 16th centuries.[6]


The examples that have been preserved above ground are generally of the most expensive kind, with large mounts in silver, but some archaeological sites have produced quantities of plain wood mazers, which were no doubt the most common at the time. The wreck of the Mary Rose is one example of a group find, and the Nanteos Cup a single survival. They are typically between five and eleven inches in diameter.[7]

Ornamented types usually have a rim or "band" of precious metal, generally of silver or silver gilt; the foot and the print being also of metal.[8] There are examples with wooden covers, sometimes with a metal handle, such as the Bute Mazer or Flemish and German mazers in the British Museum. On the outside, but generally not the inside of the metal band there is often an inscription, religious, or convivial, and the print was also often decorated with a sculpted or engraved plare, and sometimes a gem.[9] The Bute Mazer is one of the most elaborate to survive, with a three-dimensional reclining lion rising from the base, and enamelled coats of arms in a circle around it. Saints, the religious monogram IHS, and animals, often no doubt with heraldic significance, are other common decorations of the boss. Many metal pieces that appear to be mazer bosses have been excavated.[10] An example from York Minster grants an indulgence of 40 days remission from Purgatory for all who drink from it.[11]

Later examples may be raised on a stem, perhaps copying the style of covered cups;[12] some from about 1550 onwards are effectively tazzas that are partly in wood. The later mazers sometimes had metal straps between the rim and the foot, as were added to the Bute Mazer. Examples continued to be produced after the main period ended in the 16th century, perhaps with a deliberate sense of traditionalism. Some modern woodturners and silversmiths have continued to produce examples, especially Omar Ramsden.[13]

Mounted examples are turned very finely, often from burr maple (Acer campestre). Both the wood and the vessels made of it were known as "mazer", so in contemporary accounts sometimes they are referred to as ciphis de mazer (drinking bowl of burr maple wood), and sometimes simply as a "mazer". The best mazers had silver or silver gilt rims added. Commonly prints were also added (a decorated disc in the base of the bowl), and occasionally, normally on later mazers, a silver or gilt foot was also added.


The size of wooden mazers was restricted by the relatively small size of the trees that gave the best dense and grained wood. The addition of a metal band might double the capacity of a mazer.[14] Large ornamented mazers were probably passed around the table for toasts and the like, as some covered cups were, but more ordinary ones may have been regarded as personal within a group such as a household, ship or monastery, no doubt with the leading figures reserving the finer examples for themselves. Evidence from inventories suggests many mazers were given names.[15]

A record of customs at a monastic community in Durham records that each monk has his own mazer "edged with silver double gilt", but also an especially large one called the "Grace cup" was passed around the table after Grace. Another such, called the "Judas cup", was only ever used on Maundy Thursday.[16] Parish churches might be bequeathed mazers, and use them at "church ales" and other parish occasions.[17] Decorated mazers are often included and briefly described in wills and inventories. In 1395 John de Scardeburgh, rector of Tichmarsh, left twelve mazers, two more than were recorded in an inventory of the treasure of Henry IV of England four years later.[18] But monastic inventories could include dozens, including an exceptional 132 in an inventory of 1328 at Christ Church, Canterbury.[19]

In inventories, normally in medieval Latin, they are called by a variety of names (all the plural forms): "ciphi or cuppae de mazero or de murra, mazeri, cyphi murrae, mazerei, or hanaps de mazer (French).[20]

Surviving examples[edit]

Over 60 British medieval mazers are known to survive. Many of the English survivals were preserved in Oxbridge colleges, livery companies, hospitals and other institutions going back to the Middle Ages.[21] Relatively few have been passed down in wealthy families, though all such at the time would have owned them;[22] the Bute Mazer is an exception here.[23] A mazer still belonging to All Souls College, Oxford, but on loan to the Ashmolean Museum, was donated to the college in 1437, at the time of its foundation by Thomas Ballard, a landowner in Kent.[24]

Another example in an college is the late 14th-century Swan Mazer of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where a swan surmounts a thin column rising from the boss. If the mazer is filled too full, liquid runs down the column and out of the foot,[25] no doubt a trick played on unwary first-timers dining at the college.

Over the late Middle Ages there is a movement from deep bowls with narrow rims to shallower bowls and much wider rims.[26] In the 13th and 14th century rims tend to be simple and plain, only about 1 cm deep without lettering, 15th and 16th century rims are very characteristic with a very deep (3–4 cm moulded form) often with lettering. One exception to this rule is the mazer which Samuel Pepys drank from in 1660 (on display in the British Museum), the rim of this mazer is hallmarked 1507/8 but it is of the earlier simple form. A good display is at the Museum of Canterbury, where ten 13th and 14th century mazers are shown.[27]

A very fine example in the British Museum, from France or Flanders, probably in the early 15th century, has a very thin wooden bowl, and silver mountings of excellent quality, including enamels, but neither the cup nor the cover have metal on the rim, or ever seem to have done so. The cuir-bouilli travelling-case also survives.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Glenn, 36
  2. ^ "Mazer". Metalwork. Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 2007-08-18.
  3. ^ Taylor, 78
  4. ^ St. John Hope, 129
  5. ^ Cherry, 239
  6. ^ Campbell
  7. ^ Taylor, 78
  8. ^ Wood, Robin (2005). The Wooden Bowl. Ammanford: Stobart Davis. p. 181. ISBN 9780854421305. OCLC 123111733.
  9. ^ St. John Hope, 131-133
  10. ^ One of many examples recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
  11. ^ St. John Hope, 133
  12. ^ St. John Hope, 132
  13. ^ Campbell
  14. ^ St. John Hope, 131
  15. ^ St. John Hope, 133
  16. ^ St. John Hope, 134
  17. ^ St. John Hope, 135
  18. ^ St. John Hope, 183-184
  19. ^ St. John Hope, 176-181, at 129-130 he says there were 182 in this inventory, which he copies at the other pages; Taylor, 79 (132)
  20. ^ St. John Hope, 128
  21. ^ St. John Hope, 136-139
  22. ^ Cherry, 239
  23. ^ Glenn, 34
  24. ^ Cherry, 239. In fact the college was not officially founded until 1438. St. John Hope, 152, quotes an inventory of 1448.
  25. ^ Taylor, 78; St. John Hope, 144-146
  26. ^ Taylor, 78
  27. ^ Mostly coming from hospitals; see St John Hope's catalogue.
  28. ^ British Museum page, AF.3116


External links[edit]