The Bloody Duke of Alva

Bernard Leach…

…I suppose it was only a matter of time before his name popped up…

…Well, I first heard about Leach, and his famous book on pottery, in college.  Some say Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” almost singlehandedly reformed craft ceramics.  In it he certainly sought to establish a standard that would be eternal.  When I finally saw the tome – it was just a little red book – my first thought was of another little red book.  This one by Chairman Mao.  “That’s it?”

I mention Leach because his book created an impression (at least in my eager mind) of a ‘golden age’ of English pottery during the Middle Ages.  We’d certainly be less today if Leach hadn’t expounded his ideas, and I do enjoy Medieval English pottery.  But by and large, English pottery from 600 to 1400AD was still in a pretty crude state.  True, a few monastic potters late in the period tried to keep up with continental trends.  But in general, the forms were limited to the “potts and panns” (pots simply being more tall than wide, and pans the opposite) of the dairy economy.  Households ate off treen ware (wooden items).  Food storage was crude.  Food preparation was cruder – unless you could afford glass, silver, and a household staff…

Between 1566 and 1648, many things changed.  A group of Spanish provinces, known today as “The Netherlands,” revolted.  The Calvinist Reformation was involved, but harsh foreign rule, as is usually the case, propelled the Dutch Republicans to fight.  Spain sought to snuff out this peasant uprising.  The man hired to do the dirty work was the Duke of Alva.  With his “Blood Court” behind him, the Duke encouraged his troops to a level of depravity not seen again for several centuries.  And that’s saying something!  (ie: Issuing, and trying to carry out, a death warrant against every living soul in the provinces.)  Eventually the Dutch cause won out.  But not before waves of refugees poured into increasingly Puritan (thanks again to Calvin) England.

Those Dutch refugees brought with them their food ways.  They drank from individual cups instead of one big bowl passed from hand to hand, they ate off of ceramic plates, etc.  Dutch potters brought their skill and knowledge.  In a few short years, whole villages of “cuppers” would form.  English potters would be copying Delftware.  And English pottery would blossom…

It is said that great beauty can arise from adversity.  English pottery was certainly enriched by refugees from the wanton devastation of Dutch society.  But if Spain had left the Dutch in peace, the English would have eventually figured it all out by themselves.  That would have been much better.

Readings:
English Delftware. GF Garner.  Van Nostrand Co., Inc./New York.  1948.

The English Country Pottery, Its History and Techniques. Peter Brears.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT.  1971.

A Potter’s Book. Bernard Leach.  Transatlantic Arts, Inc./New York.  1976 (reprinted).

If These Pots Could Talk. Ivor Noel Hume.  Chipstone Press/Williamsburg.  2006.

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4 Responses to “The Bloody Duke of Alva”

  1. The Bloody Duke of Alva « This Day in Pottery History | Beauty of Ceramics Says:

    […] See the article here: The Bloody Duke of Alva « This Day in Pottery History […]

  2. Steve Earp Says:

    The actual beginning date of Delftware production in England will always be a bit hazy. There were fits and starts, attempts at copying, industrial espionage and what have you for several years before it was successfully established. And of course, new discoveries will continue to rewrite history.

    Also, this isn’t to suggest that delftware was the real beginnings of English pottery. There were many things happening in different places for different reasons throughout English pottery history. The purpose of this post is to trace the impact of one aspect of historical activity on the overall picture of pottery making. In other words…

    …we have to start somewhere…

  3. sue Says:

    And who invaded who to bring us the drinking bowl instead of drinking out of muddy puddles….?

    Just kidding.
    I love your postings Steve
    See you down the road

  4. Callot | This Day in Pottery History Says:

    […] Spanish mercenaries captured the Dutch protestant stronghold of Breda after a long siege during Holland’s war of independence from Spain.  The Spaniards proceeded to lay the already emaciated town to utter waste.  […]

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