Drinking Mead from a Bear Jug
An interesting bear find in the Potteries Museum in Hanley. Exploring the history and culture of the British bear through an eighteenth century jug.
Me and my offspring went to the Potteries today and took a look around the museum in Hanley. We saw the Staffordshire Hoard exhibition (more on that another time) and the ceramics which is said to be one of the best collections in the country. Bears and their history and culture, especially here in Britain, are a special interest of mine so I was every pleased to find some lovely pieces here.
This bear jug is a superb example of a type produced in the 1700s. The jug and its cover in the form of a baited bear is decorated with an overglaze of enamel colours. Impressed on the base it says, J.Morris Stoke, an unrecorded manufacturer in Stoke-Upon-Trent.
The main part of the jug is formed by the dog and bears body with the spout through the dogs mouth. The cover for the jug is formed by the bears head. I think it is a marvellous piece of naive folk art and I love the details. Just look at those teeth!
There is however, a great deal more to this than at first meets the eye. What we see here in the depiction of this bear is a lot about the cultural references of the time. The jug would have probably been made to contain beer or more likely mead. This would be a natural association to make between the bear and honey. Bearbaiting was, unfortunately, an extremely popular form of entertainment at the time and there was a long way to go before this barbaric practice was finally outlawed.
The depiction of this bear contains all the images that had come to be associated with this animal from its beautiful fur to its large paws. Note the large fingers and toes going some way to describe the claws. It is sat in a classic pose on its haunches and holds close to its chest a dog with which it has been baited. Bears were known to have extremely strong forearms, once caught in its arms there would have been no escape for the unfortunate dog. The teeth on both animals are beautifully depicted.
Behind the bear forming the jug handle is a branch. I couldn't photograph the other side due to the way it was displayed. Bears shown standing beside a small tree or holding a branch or club are very common motifs found in many places from heraldic designs to sculptures to jugs as in this case.
Another thing you will notice is the bears' large red protruding tongue. It's a motif that appears again and again over the centuries both here and abroad.
Other classic features that had come to be associated with bear over the centuries also include the halter, collar and chain. Here you can see it is chained to the floor. This was a typical move in bear baiting to restrict its movements.
All of the features noted above have appeared in depictions of bears throughout the centuries. Churches in particular have many bears, and in cases where the creature is not immediately identifiable it can be distinguished as a bear by looking for these particular features. The nose band is a big give away in particular. I have found many bears in and on churches dating back to Norman times and some from the Anglo Saxons. However some of these motifs, such as the tongue appear even earlier elsewhere too.
This bear jug is therefore an item of great cultural significance in Britain.
This wasn't the only bear we found in the museum, there are some more to come! See you next time :-).
If you enjoy history and folklore you might like to take a look at my shop that has the Green Man, dragons and more. A portion of proceeds is donated to Treespect. www.jackinthegreen.org