Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Roll out the barrel - random research

One of the ways I do my research is by selecting books at random from my reference library and dibbing into them as the mood strikes.
I had one of these moments yesterday when my husband returned from the allotment and remarked upon a tool someone was using to clear the cround. A long shaft with a blade on the end basically. We had no idea what it was called, but I thought I knew where to find out, went hunting in my library and came across the beastie in one of my reference books - The Forgotten Arts by John Seymour: A practical guide to traditional crafts. It's used in hedging and it's called a long handled slasher - I guess it does what it says on the tin!
Anyway, now I had the book off the shelf, I began to re-acquaint myself with its pages and found myself reading all about the art of coopering while I was eating my lunch. The author John Seymour seems to think that coopering is allied to boat building. If you can craft something to keep water out, then you can equally craft an item to keep liquids contained - seems logical to me.
When we think of coopering today, the main container word that has survived is 'barrel' and it has come to mean the shape rather than being a statement of quantity. We have a biscuit barrel on the sideboard for example, as well as a beer barrel - same shape different size. But once upon a time, each container had its own capacity name. A pin held four and half gallons. A firkin held nine gallons. A kilderkin 18 gallons, a barrel 36 gallons, a hogshead 54 gallons, a puncheon 72 gallons and a butt 108 gallons. One advantage the barrel has in its shape is that it can be easily handled, even if it contains a great weight. You might not be able to carry one, but you can roll it or trundle it i.e. tilt it on one of its rims and spin it along.

Barrels are apparently mentioned in the old testament and are also supposed to have been used in Classical Greece - although surely amphorae were the more usual type of container. The Romans had them and so did the Medievals. They're famously depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry when William the Conqueror is preparing to invade from Normandy.

In England, oak staves for making barrels were imported by the Hanseatic league from Russia and Eastern Europe because oak from those countries apparently has less knots than English oak and therefore made a better product.
I've also seen references to silver pennies being transported in barrels, and sheaves of arrows - although whether they were called barrels is another matter as I haven't seen the original text to see what they were called in Latin and Old French.
The cooper's art also incorporated such domestic items as buckets, butter churns and bath tubs and was once a vitally important part of medieval life - now replaced by mass produced metal containers. When John Seymour published The Forgotten arts in 1984, there wasn't a single apprentice cooper to be had in all of Britain - which is sad, but a sign of progress.

It would take the length of a novel to write about how a barrel is produced and since I'm still on library tour this week, I'm keeping it short, but I can highly recommend The Forgotten Arts by John Seymour for anyone wanting to take a look at skills we have lost or are in danger of losing, or are now hobby crafts, but which go far back in time. Subjects covered in good detail include ladder making, charcoal burning, wood turning, basket making, dry stone walling, wheel-wrighting, boat-building, saddle making, pottery, soap making (author reminisces about making soap from lion fat when living in Africa!) spinning, weaving and dyeing.
It's about ready to go back on my bookshelf. Next random read to catch my eye just now is a history of Lambeth palace (I'm going to dip into the Medieval bits this evening) by Tim Tatton Brown.


Jan Jones said...

I do love your posts, Elizabeth. They are like your books - lots of interesting titbits slid in to make a harmonious whole. For example, it really hadn't occurred to me that ladder-making might be a forgotten art.

I do like the link between coopers and boat builders. Seems pretty natural to me too.

Carla said...

Is John Seymour the guy who writes on self-sufficiency?

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Hi Carla,
Yes, it's the same John Seymour. I have one of his self sufficiency books and it's marvellous - I got a lot of my pig-sticking lore out of that one! He'll be in his 90's now if he's still around.

Thanks for the comments Jan. I don't know if there still are UK wooden ladder makers around, but I can't imagine there being that many if there are!

Anne Gilbert said...

Your piece on barrels is quite interesting. I remember a barrel that we had in our house for the longest time when I was growing up. You(or the people in the Bayeux Tapestry, for instance) would surely recognize it, though not the use it was put to. You see, my mother stored Christmas decorations, in the basement of our house, in this barrel!
Anne G