When I was thinking about the website I considered calling it Brogues and Shoes and other stuff, but was advised that such a title was just a bit long and cumbersome. I had to agree, but now it’s time for some other stuff. This particular piece is inspired by a second-hand book I bought years ago entitled ‘The Hunting Book by Gaston Phoebus’. It is a facsimile of one of the best examples of late 14th century illuminated books written in French. As the title suggests, it is a book about hunting or more precisely a book about how to hunt. You could consider it as the medieval equivalent of the ‘Teach Yourself’ series of books. Everything you need to know about organising a medieval hunt is in it and the illustrations are meticulously detailed, except for the shoes!
Once I overcame my initial disappointment on the shoes I began to notice all the other articles of leather which were needed for a hunting party. Which brings us to Folio 67 ‘comment l’assemblee se doit faire en ete et en hiver‘ or ‘how the meet is arranged in winter and in summer’. The accompanying illustration depicts Gaston and his team of huntsmen and their dogs and horses having a relaxed outdoor lunch by a stream. What caught my eye were the leather bottles or costrels. There are three different sizes in use at the tables as well as a bottle hanging in the stream to cool its contents – obviously a summer hunt.
In this detail the costrel is quite small and fits neatly into the man’s hand for drinking. A pair of raised bands are clearly visible on the side.
In this case the costrel is more substantial and needs both hands to hold it for drinking. The carrying strap as well as the twin bands can be seen.
The largest of the three resting on a corner of a board. It is a substantial size when compared to the man or the plate. Again the carrying strap and decorative bands are visible as well as the lugs which hold the strap.
Keeping the wine cool. Two jugs and a leather bottle placed in the stream below a bridge. A raised crest can be seen on the bottle.
Of the four images, the first three are of bottles which are considered to be the standard medieval type. Oliver baker in his book Black Jacks and Leather Bottles (1921) traces the evolution of this bottle type in the medieval period in England from where it was exported to France and copied by French bottle makers. He quotes a passage from the Comptes de L’Hotel 1487 which states
“Les plus renommees toute fois etaient importees d’Angleterre. Souvent celles fabricees en France etaient copiees sur les modeles importees et faites a la mode d’Angleterre” – the best known ones were imported from England. Often, those made en France were copied from the imported modes and made in the English way. He also mentions a gift of hunting horns and leather bottles “des trompes de chasse et des bouteilles de cuyr” from Edward IV of England to King Louis of France. Both of these items feature prominently in the Livre de Chasse.
Unfortunately, for anyone today who wants to make a leather bottle, Oliver Baker was a cautious man. He appreciated the workmanship which went into making a leather bottle and he received a detailed account of the process but then decided to leave it out of his book for fear forgers would produce copies and debase the value of the real thing. He did however leave clues buried in the detail of his text.
On pages 55-6, he describes the “leather bottel” – only that of keg or costrel shape as the leather bottle par excellence” which he dates to at least 1430 by reference to a carving in the “north porch of Inkberrow church in Worcestershire”. He describes the bottle as having three perpendicular ridges up the sides, parallel to those made by the end seams. They are purely ornamental and are not intended for hoops, because they are not continued under the bottom”. He notes similar hoops, again “always on one side only” on actual bottles he had examined. The bottles in three of the images above are shown to have hoops on one side.
A further detail on page 56 concerns the “holes on each side of the necking these early bottles are never rounded small as if for a cord (which is invariable in late bottles), but are elongated slits as if for a thick leather thong.”
On page 57 Baker refers to an ancient bottle as “quite cylindrical in shape, with raised bands on the sides and the usual mouth-piece in the projecting top seam, through which ornamental slits were pierced for thongs”.
On page 181 can be found a further clue concerning the construction.
and finally the pattern and measurements.
Making the Costrel
My efforts at making a small costrel took a short cut – I omitted the raised bands. This will be made good on the next attempt.
But first, the waxed threads had to be prepared. Lengths of linen thread were cut, rolled and immersed in melted beeswax until soaked, then lifted and allowed to cool.
Once the parts are cut out the assembly is straightforward – only about 300 stitch holes to be punched. Then the leather needs to be soaked and made pliable for shaping. John Waterer describes this process as “samming – to soften vegetable tanned hide in clean cold water by soaking it for a period varying with the nature of the leather and leaving it for a time to ‘sam’ – that is until it has become thoroughly soft and pliable; it can then be moulded until it assumes the desired form; the leather is then dried under carefully controlled heat when its form is permanently set”(1946, p.42).
When the bottle is assembled, it is packed with sand to give it its characteristic shape and then dried slowly at no more than 70 degrees centigrade in an oven. This takes several hours but the leather, when dry, is hard and retains its shape. A modern take on cuir bouilli.
The next stage involves pitching the inside of the bottle to make it waterproof. For this I used brewer’s pitch which is food safe. It melts quickly to a fine, free-flowing liquid which is poured into the bottle and swirled about. When it has set, test it with some water. If any damp patches appear on the outside, the process has to be repeated – and repeated………….. I did not blacken the outside of this one but just applied melted beeswax which I rubbed into the surface to make the outside rainproof.
The coat of Arms of the Bottlemaker’s Guild after they had amalgamated with the Horners. The bottles are the early cylindrical pattern with raised decorative ribs and projecting lugs on eight side of the mouthpiece.
These three images are from John Waterer’s Leather in Life, Art and Industry (1946) and illustrate some early and late bottle types. The elongated slots for the carrying strap are clearly visible on the early examples with the round hole on the later post 1600 example.
The final images are of a bottle I came across recently while on a visit to Ross Castle in Killarney. A lovely example of a probable 17th century bottle which had been repaired at some time.
The completed costrel with beeswax finish and carrying strap.