Beeswax Linen Covers for Pots

We’ve been offering Beeswax linen covers for pots, cups and jugs for a while now. With the heat of your hand, they can be gently pressed around the container, keeping the inside protected and making it easier for storage and transportation.

Were these extremely handy items a part of medieval life though, or just a ‘re-enactorism’ – one of those things everyone feels is very medieval, without any actual evidence?

We pride ourselves on offering only items which enhance the quality of your re-enactment portrayal and reflect the latest historical research. With no detailed resources available from our supplier, we’ve set out to document waxed linen covers for our readers.
Here are the documented resources that we have so far been able to track down which show what we believe to be linen beeswax covers over the jugs. Any other sources found will be added to this list so that future people don’t need to go nuts trying to track down original extant sources.

Waxed Linen Covers in Artwork

It is impossible to determine from artwork whether or not the covers shown are waxed, or indeed linen. A lack of a string to retain them might suggest waxing, without which an untied cover has no way of staying on. Linen is a best guess from the colour, availability and written record.

14th Century

Tacuinum Sanitatis,  IBN BUTLÂN 

The French National Library has a 14th century copy of Tacuinum Sanitatis which has several images of jugs and pots covered with cloth. Some have string tied, some don’t. Several look like jugs with beeswax cloth.

See also: F99 F114 F119 F20 F189 F193 F196 F197 F199 F200

 

 

Also the Tacuinum Sanitatis 14th century but a different facsimile:

Written Reference
“Rosemary….; and if you would send them [rosemary branches] far away, you must wrap the aforesaid branches in waxed cloth and sew them up and then smear the parcel outside with honey, and then powder with wheaten flour, and you may send them wheresoever you will”
The Goodman of Paris; A treatise on moral and domestic economy by a citizen of paris c 1393, Translated by Eileen Power

 

15th Century

The Annunciation with Saint Emidius, Carlo Crivelli, 1482

https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/carlo-crivelli-the-annunciation-with-saint-emidius

(Zoom in onto the shelf above the lady by herself, underneath the peacock)

 

 

 

 

Interior of a pharmacy (fresco), Italian School, 15th century

Castello di Issogne, Val d’Aosta, Italy.
http://www.gettyimages.com.au/detail/photo/apothecarys-shop-fresco-in-the-portico-of-high-res-stock-photography/173284581?esource=SEO_GIS_CDN_Redirect

 

Unsubstantiated written reference

Women in Medicine, by Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead (published 1938)
https://archive.org/stream/historyofwomenin00hurd/historyofwomenin00hurd_djvu.txt
says that
“Ferrari’s Practica (1471) was the first medical book from an Italian press. He wrapped a copy of it in waxed cloth, and sent it humbly to the then reigning Duke of Ferrara, as a present to the Duchess.”
Unsubstantiated because I cannot find any other source than this one.

15th century written reference, unsubstantiated because I cannot find the original primary source.

“Benedetto da Maiano, one of the “most solemn” workers in intarsia in Florence, became disgusted with his art after one trying experience, and ever after turned his attention to other carving. Vasari’s version of the affair is as follows. Benedetto had been making two beautiful chests, all inlaid most elaborately, and carried them to the Court of Hungary, to exhibit the workmanship. “When he had made obeisance to the king, and had been kindly received, he brought forward his cases and had them unpacked… but it was then he discovered that the humidity of the sea voyage had softened the glue to such an extent that when the waxed cloths in which the coffers had been wrapped were opened, almost all the pieces were found sticking to them, and so fell to the ground! Whether Benedetto stood amazed and confounded at such an event, in the presence of so many nobles, let every one judge for himself.”

Arts and Crafts in the Middle Ages A Description of Mediaeval Workmanship in Several of the Departments of Applied Art, Together with Some Account of Special Artisans in the Early Renaissance – Julia De Wolf Addison (published 2006)

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/18212/18212.txt

Waxed Containers

6th Century (Greek)

Priscian: Answer to King Khosroes of Persia – Translated by Pamela Huby, Sten Ebbensen, David Langslow, Donald Russell, Carlos Steel and Malcolm Wilson.

https://books.google.com.au/books?id=-InCDAAAQBAJ&pg=PA57&lpg=PA57&dq=sea+water+filtering+through+a+wax+container&source=bl&ots=-kxwUdJyyc&sig=EBd_6A4Yz8XO1E7sOK1SKi4ZmEY&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjv1-vr4tPTAhXDsJQKHepzB1EQ6AEIOzAD#v=onepage&q=wax&f=false

“if one makes a container of wax, and plunges it into the sea, first tying up its mouth so that the sea water does not fill it, the water that penetrates the wax container is drinkable, and what was coarse and earthy and productive of saltiness in the mixture is seperated, as by a filter”

 

Now, the “tie up the mouth” bit suggests to me that this is an ordinary container (likely earthernware) and that the wax container is  a wax cloth tied tightly over the mouth. But it’s unclear to me.

Cerecloth in Literature

A related concept is ‘cerecloth’ – from the Latin word ‘cere’ for wax. There are widespread literary references to cerecloth being used to wrap the dead for burial, and as altar cloths. This doesn’t tie to kitchen use, but establishes the use of waxed cloth as an impervious barrier in common usage.

Firstly,

Dictionary of Medical Vocabulary in English, 1375–1550: Body Parts …By Juhani Norri has some definitions for cerecloth (and ceren cloth and cerid cloth and serge cloth because we can’t just use the same spelling for things that would be too easy!) She has got some references for where they came from but I haven’t been able to follow back to primary source yet.

https://books.google.com.au/books?id=madTDAAAQBAJ&pg=PA211&lpg=PA211&dq=ceren+cloth&source=bl&ots=M1BgZNzZ7C&sig=MjfJgl3fQYhKlij9EBowI1UekFI&hl=en&sa=X&sqi=2&ved=0ahUKEwim7pTq39DTAhUHfrwKHRRBDRkQ6AEIRTAJ#v=onepage&q=ceren%20cloth&f=false

 

14th Century

St Bees Shroud – man preserved in waxed linen. This article also goes on in some detail about other bodies found in cere cloth.

http://www.stbees.org.uk/history/stbeesman/stbees_man2_todd.html

Among the Scythians[878], Assyrians[879], and Persians[880], dead bodies were covered over with wax. That of Agesilaus, because honey could not be procured, was preserved in this manner[881], which indeed ought not to be despised even at present. When the Orientals are desirous of transporting fish to any distance, they cover them over with wax[882]; and the apples carried every year to the northern parts of Siberia and Archangel, from the southern districts of Russia, are first dipped in melted wax, which, by forming a thick coat around them, keeps out the air, and prevents them from spoiling. This property has in my opinion given rise to the ancient custom of wrapping up in wax-cloth the dead bodies of persons of distinction. Linen, or perhaps silk, which had been done over with wax, was used on such occasions, but not what we at present distinguish by the name of wax-cloth, which is only covered with an oil-varnish in imitation of the real kind. The body of St. Ansbert, we are told, was wrapped up _linteo cerato_; and a _camisale ceratum_[883] was drawn over the clothes which covered that of St. Udalric. When Philip duke of Burgundy died in 1404, his body was wrapped up in thirty-two ells _de toile cirée_[884]. In an ancient record, respecting the ceremony to be used in burying the kings of England, it is ordered that the body shall be wrapped up in wax-cloth[885]. In the year 1774, when the grave of king Edward I., who died in 1307, was opened, the body was found so closely wrapped up in wax-cloth, that one could perfectly distinguish the form of the hand, and the features of the countenance[886]. The body of Johanna, mother of Edward the Black Prince, who died in 1359, was also wrapped up in _cerecloth_; and in like manner the body of Elizabeth Tudor, the second daughter of Henry VII., was _cered by the wax-chandler_[887]. After the death of George II., the apothecary was allowed one hundred and fifty-two pounds for fine double wax-cloth, and other articles necessary to embalm the body[888]. The books found in the grave of Numa, as we learn from the Roman historians, though they had been buried more than five hundred years, were, when taken up, so entire, that they looked as if perfectly new, because they had been closely surrounded with wax-candles. Wax-cloth it is probable was not then known at Rome[889].

 

Written in 1884

A History of Inventions, Discoveries, and Origins, Volume I (of 2) Author: Johann Beckman Editor: William Francis J. W. Griffith Translator: William Johnston

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/48151/48151-0.txt

15th Century

Cerecloth found on a body, presumed to be William Lyndwood who died in 1446. (Body found and exhumed in 1852)

http://medieval-church-art.blogspot.com.au/2017/03/cerecloth-pledgets-and-grave-goods.html

16th Century

Elizabeth of York

The Funeral of Queen Elizabeth of York, the First Tudor Queen of England

Calendar of State Papers Foreign: Mary 1553-1558.

17th Century rerferences to seare-cloth

“When the Liquor hath beene settled and Clarified by the winter frost in a larger vessell, then at the beginninge of the Springe, it is the best season in a Cold Eveninge or morninge to Drawe it into Bottles, yf we Can allowe that Charge, and then the Bottles well Corked will preserue it in a Coole roome to what strength you please, For your better Safeguard the Corks may be luted or bound with a searecloth of wax or pitch <as> in the ancient,/ wee here abhorr all mixtures whatsoever, The best approued is a pynte of Mustarde Seede, or halfe soe much to every hogshead, bruised and mingled with Sacke or the same Cider it Doth hasten Clarification”

The Harlib Papers (8 May 1658)

https://www.hrionline.ac.uk/hartlib/view?docset=main&docname=52_044

Using Seare-cloth to prevent water and air from getting into a wound – 17th Century

The remedy is, if you find him before he be perished, cut him close, as in the 11. Chapter: if he be hoald, cut him close, fill his wound, tho neuer so deepe, with morter well tempered & so close at the top his wound with a Seare-cloth doubled and nailed on, that no aire nor   raine approach his wound. If he be not very old, and detaining, he will recouer, and the hole being closed, his wound within shall not hurt him for many yeeres. –NEVV ORCHARD AND GARDEN, published 1631 (this is also about the husbandry of bees)

Also from this same source, a reference to using gummed wax to cover things so that the rain and cold doesn’t hurt them.

“The furniture and tooles of a Grafter, are a Basket to lay his Grafts in, Clay, Grauell, Sand, or strong Earth, to draw ouer the plants clouen: Mosse,   Woollen clothes, barkes of Willow to ioyne to the late things and earth before spoken, and to keepe them fast: Oziers to tye againe vpon the barke, to keepe them firme and fast: gummed Wax, to dresse and couer the ends and tops of the grafts newly cut, that so the raine and cold may not hurt them, neither yet the sap rising from belowe, be constrained to returne againe vnto the shootes.”

Also from that same source, this advise about grafting twigs to trees

“Some vse to couer the clift of the Stocke, vnder the clay with a piece of barke or leafe, some with a sear-cloth of waxe and butter, which as they be not much needfull, so they hurt not, vnlesse that by being busie about them, you moue your graffes from their places.”

“The remedy is easie if they be not growne greater then your arme. Lop them close and cleane, and couer the midel of the wound, the next Summer when he is dry, with a salue made of tallow, tarre, and a very little pitch, good for the couering of any such wound of a great tree: Barke-pild, and the remedy.vnlesse it be barke-pild, and then sear-cloath of fresh Butter, Hony, and Waxe, presently (while the wound is greene) applyed, is a soueraigne remedy in Summer especially. Some bind such wounds with a thumbe rope of Hay, moist, and rub it with dung.”

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/29058/29058-h/29058-h.htm

 

 

May 5.
Rome.
502. Sir Edward Carne to Queen Mary. … …sends herewith a box of them to her Majesty, …  Has put some cere-cloth about the box, both for its safe carriage and lest it should be opened by the way.

Cloth of Gold Cerecloth, coloured Purple

An interesting reference more likely to be related to fine altar cloths than kitchen covers.

https://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/common-pleas/1399-1500/hilary-term-1462#highlight-first

Experimenta de Coloribus, 1431

There is at least one example of linen with glue being used as a cover for a pot, but that is as a secondary seal to secure a wooden lid and in the context of containing a chemical reaction used to generate a blue pigment. – Experimenta de Coloribus_ by Jehan de Begue, Secretary of the King’s Mint in Paris, 1431

How to make black seare-cloth (probably 18th century)

18. The Black Seare Cloth.

Take half a pound of the best virgins wax and half a pint of oyle of roses and half a pint of oyle of olive melt them altogether let them coole in a pan till it be half cold then take half a pound of the finest white lead you can get, pound it as fine as possibly you can put this into the oyle and put it over a fire of coles and let it boyle half an hour then take 2 ounces of mastick 2 ounces of frankincense 2 ounces of mirrh 2 ounces of Gum oblibanum beat them into fine powder then put it in and let it boyle half an hour more, then take a quarter of an ounce of camphir and put it in and Stir it till it be black then take it from the fire and dipe your cloth or make it up in roles for your use. “A book of Simples” (The author goes on to suggest using sear-cloth as part of a using an ointment against palsey,

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/53951/53951-h/53951-h.htm

Other references to wax in pots

“Flaxseed… for pain in the side…this should be strained through a cloth sieve, completely perforated, and put in a new earthen-ware vessel, coated with wax. Use this frequently, while near the fire, to anoint the painful side”
Why wax in the earthern-ware vessel? Presumably the process of making the flaxseed ointment makes it very sticky and the wax allows it to come out of the earthen ware more easily (the process involves boiling deer marrow and gum arabic so quite sticky). Other suggestions is to avoid smells and to stop the ointment sinking in the unglazed pots. 12th century did have glazing, but there are non-glazed examples.

Hildegard Von Bingen’s Physica, translated from the laten by Priscilla Throop

 

Pouring sealing wax over cork – 19th Century

 

Domestic Cookery, Useful  Receipts and Hints to young cooks.by Elizabeth Lea (1859)https://books.google.com.au/books?id=ZYiWP4v_y_sC&pg=PA217&lpg=PA217&dq=with+a+stopper+and+wax+cloth&source=bl&ots=aLwpZMUQ6-&sig=kiLS7nOqdN0X73ug947NBEvy6-Q&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiBnLqV3tPTAhUJpZQKHRcBDDIQ6AEIRTAG#v=snippet&q=wax&f=false

To Preserve milk to use at sea

“…put in bottles, cork it tight, and put sealing wax over the corks, it must be shaken before it is used”

 

Contributors

Thank you to the following, who contributed further information:

Wayne Robinson https://leatherworkingreverend.wordpress.com/

 

4 thoughts on “Beeswax Linen Covers for Pots”

  1. Elden McDonald says:

    Sorry, still not convinced. All the ones without string are hanging straight down on the side which makes me think they are unwaxed linen covers. We’ve been using a plain linen cover on a majolica apothecary jar for a number of years to hold spices and haven’t had any problems with insects, loss or spoilage. Medieval recipes that need preservation in these sort of containers often use a layer of fat to stop putrefaction – see jugged hare and similar. Early modern writers such as Evelyn and Markham talk about parchment, linen or wooden stoppers and are instructing their readers in the use of cork stoppers as they were an expensive novelty until some time after the Restoration. There’s certainly no surviving tradition of cere cloth in early modern England.

    There is at least one example of linen with glue being used as a cover for a pot, but that is as a secondary seal to secure a wooden lid and in the context of containing a chemical reaction used to generate a blue pigment. – _Experimenta de Coloribus_ by Jehan de Begue, Secretary of the King’s Mint in Paris, 1431.

    – Wayne Robinson

  2. Adina says:

    Popping in to look at your crowd sourced evidence for waxed linen, and being struck by an opinion on the Hildegard ointment. I haven’t gone and looked at the original recipe, but on what you’ve got there, I’d think the instruction to use a *new* earthern ware vessel is important. It’s telling you you don’t want the remains of any other smells/substances interacting with the ointment. So I’d expect that is what the beeswax coating is about too. From my owm ointment making experiments I’d be surprised if the beeswax would mitigate any stickiness, though obviously I haven’t made this recipe.

    Cheers
    Adina

    1. Roxanne McDonald says:

      That’s pretty interesting. It could be the smells yeah. I’m wondering if it’s also suggesting that the earthern-ware isn’t glazed on the inside and it’s to prevent it from sinking into the pot? The first part says that it’s not good to eat, so it might be about protecting the pot so that it’s able to be reused for something is. I’ve done stuff with gum arabic before and it gets quite sticky but yeah I haven’t tried to recreate this recipe either so it’s a bit of a mystery.

  3. Teffania says:

    I’m pretty sure ecclesiastical challice covers of plain (unwaxed) white (linen) cloth are an extant thing, but i’m not totally sure. If so, finding these might be a good point for unwaxed usage – did they consider heavy borders desireable so the cover didn’t fall off? Could the covers on the jugs in the pictures be just to keep dust off rather than seals?

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