On Radio 4 Now


21:30 - 21:58

Libby Purves meets actor Brian Cox and singer June Tabor.

Coming up at: 21:58


View full schedule

Episode Transcript

Episode 57 - Hedwig glass beaker

Hedwig glass beaker (made twelfth century), probably from Syria

For most English speakers, the name Hedwig, if it means anything at all, conjures up the obliging owl that delivers messages to Harry Potter. But if you come from central Europe - and especially if you come from Poland - Hedwig means something quite different: she's a royal saint who, around 1200, became a national and religious symbol, and who through the centuries has delivered not messages, but miracles.

The most famous of all the Hedwig miracles was that the water in her glass turned regularly into wine, and across central Europe there is to this day a small, puzzling group of distinctive glass beakers alleged to be the very glasses from which she drank the miraculous liquid.

One of Hedwig's beakers is now in the British Museum, and it takes us at once to the high religious politics of the Crusades, the great age of Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, and to the unexpected fact that the war between Christians and Muslims was accompanied by a great flourishing of trade. And recent research is now leading us to think that Hedwig's beakers, revered in central Europe as evidence of a Christian miracle, were most probably made by Islamic glass-workers in the Middle East.

"Acre on the Palestinian coast became the chief terminus of the Asiatic spice trade, and was an enormous revenue generator." (Jonathan Riley-Smith)

"There were very vigorous attempts to resolve this paradox, as it was, that the Christians seemed to be benefitting so much from their trade with the Muslim world while, at the same time, a whole series of crusades was being fought against the Muslims." (David Abulafia)

"That one port - according to an English contemporary, actually - provided for the crown of Jerusalem more than the total revenues of the kingdom of England." (Jonathan Riley-Smith)

This week we're looking at how, about a thousand years ago, objects moved around the world in the context of war, trade and faith, and Hedwig's glass beaker is an extraordinary example of the intersection of all three.

Hedwig was married to Henry the Bearded, Duke of Silesia - a territory that straddles the Polish, German and Czech borders. Henry and Hedwig had seven children, including the deliciously named Konrad the Curly, and then in 1209 - perhaps not surprisingly - they took vows of abstinence. By then, the Duchess was already displaying distinctly saintly tendencies; she founded a hospital for female lepers, and she treated the nuns in the local convents with disconcerting reverence:

"She used the water in which the nuns had washed their feet to wash her eyes, often her entire face. And more wonderful yet, she used this same water to rinse the faces and heads of her small grandchildren, her son's children. She was firmly convinced that the sanctity of the nuns who had touched the water would profit the children's salvation." (from 'Vita Hedwigis')

Although a duchess she dressed poorly, she went barefoot, even in the snow, where it was reported that she left bloody footprints, and, almost unheard of in those days, she drank only water. This teetotal behaviour worried her husband a good deal; drinking wine was much safer than water that was usually unclean, and he was worried that she would fall ill or fade away. But one day, so the legend goes, the Duke watched her raise her glass of water to her lips, and saw that it miraculously turned into wine. Her sainthood, and presumably her health, was pretty much assured from then on.

And so was the fame of her glass. Medieval Europe had an insatiable hunger for relics connected to miracles. Among the most famous of them all was a cup which had been used at the Wedding at Cana, where Christ performed his first miracle of turning water into wine. But what about Hedwig's cup?

I have it in my hand or, at least, I have in my hand one of the dozen or so glass beakers, all strikingly similar, which were identified by the pious as the vessels from which Hedwig had drunk. It's a thick glass, a smoky topaz colour, and it's about eight inches (20 cm) high, and it's really much more like a small vase. You need two hands to grasp it, and it's not at all easy to drink out of. If I put some water in to it, and then try to take a proper gulp, the rim is so wide that it spills. And sadly, I have to tell you, that when I drink from this it does not turn into wine.

But a miracle of a different sort has ensured that a dozen or so vulnerable or fragile glass objects like this should all have survived the centuries intact. They must have been very carefully cherished, and we know that many of them were preserved in princely collections and in church treasuries. So it's probable that many of them were in fact used as chalices in royal chapels and churches. Many of the surviving Hedwig beakers have been mounted with precious metal for use in the mass, and when you look at the foot and the sides of our beaker, you can see that it, too, once had metal mounts.

Fascinatingly, Hedwig was one of a new kind of saint. By the time she was canonised, in 1267, the number of women saints had hit an all-time high in the history of the church. You really can say that this is the point where women broke through the glass ceiling of sanctity. A quarter of all new saints were now female. This may well have had something to do with the religious revival fostered by the new preaching orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans. They believed that the true Christian life should be lived not in the cloister but in the town, and they insisted that women should play a full part in this. So they encouraged royal women to do good works. Hedwig's support of the lepers was typical and, even today, we all know from the Princess of Wales's work with Aids sufferers how powerful such a royal example can be. The medieval Church strengthened that example by then making the women saints after their death, and the roll-call of royal saints is impressive. St Cunegunda Holy Roman Empress, St Margaret Princess of Hungary, St Agnes Princess of Bohemia, and St Hedwig Duchess of Silesia. All of them were credited with miracles, but only Hedwig received the miracle of the wine.

But the friars were calling not just for good works but for a good war, as another demonstration of religious renewal, and the Franciscans and Dominicans were among the most effective advocates of the Crusades. As St Hedwig drank her wine, the Crusades were in full swing and, in 1217, her brother-in-law, the King of Hungary, took the cross and led an armed expedition to the Holy Land. And yet the curious thing is that, despite this military activity - or perhaps even because of it - trade seems to have flourished. Here's the economic historian David Abulafia:

"The contact between Europe and the Middle East in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was built around some quite intense trading contact; the Venetians, Genoese, Pisans in particular, managed to carry on their business. This sometimes caused a certain amount of scandal, as you can imagine - that they were still present in the port in Alexandria, for instance, whilst Saladin was preparing his campaigns against the Christians in the Holy Land. But the basis of this trade was the exchange of raw materials, really, which came out of the Islamic world - notably silks, glassware, ceramics, things like this which could not be produced to anything like the same quality within western Europe."

And it's this phenomenon of trade coexisting with war that explains one of the most extraordinary things about the Hedwig beaker. The design of the Hedwig beakers all feature similar images: a lion, a griffin, an eagle, flowers and geometric motifs, but this beaker is the only one that combines all these elements. There is a lion and a griffin, each raising a paw in homage to the eagle that stands between them, and the deep-cut design runs all the way round the glass. A mould must have been pressed into the glass while it was still hot and soft, and then details of the texture and pattern were meticulously carved. You get a real sense of feather and fur, but above all, when you look at this you're struck by the style.

I think many people, if shown this cold, would think it was a great piece of 1930s Art Deco, possibly from Scandinavia, and the Hedwig beakers certainly don't look like anything that was produced in medieval Europe. Which may well be why this extraordinary group of glasses was associated with a miracle. These beakers clearly don't belong to the world that they were found in. So where were they made? It's a question people have been asking for over two hundred years, and we may now be nearer an answer, because scientific analysis of this glass, and of other Hedwig beakers, shows that they were made not out of the potash glass of European tradition, but out of soda-ash glass, made on the coast of Lebanon and Syria.

The Hedwig beakers are so similar in shape, material and style that they must have been produced together, in a single workshop. And that workshop must have been in one of those coastal cities; the glass was almost certainly made by Muslim craftsmen. We know that at this period lots of Islamic glass was made for export to Europe; Damascus glass appears in the inventories of many medieval treasuries, and Acre, the main trading centre of the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, was the principal port for this trade. Here's Historian of the Crusades, Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith:

"Acre, which is now in Israel, became the most important commercial port in the eastern Mediterranean, which meant that shipping from the West was bringing out European cloth and bringing back to the West spices. And we have a fascinating list of commodities traded in the port of Acre in the middle of the thirteenth century, with the customs duties that were due on each commodity. And that mentions Muslim pottery. It doesn't actually mention these glass beakers, but it mentions Muslim pottery as one of the main items that would have been taxed. So the appearance or survival of beakers of this sort in Europe has to be seen in the context of the enormous trade between the West and the Levant, and further east to furthest Asia, that was passing through a Crusader port."

All this opens up an intriguing possibility; we know that Hedwig's brother-in-law, the King of Hungary, spent some time in the city of Acre. Could he have commissioned the beakers while he was there? It would explain why they were later connected to Hedwig, the family saint, and how they came to central Europe. A fragment from a Hedwig beaker has been found in his royal palace in Budapest, so it's a realistic possibility. It can't, of course, be any more than just a guess, but I must confess that I'm beguiled by the idea, and I feel it might just be the solution to the puzzle of the Hedwig beakers. But research, as always, continues - and a different answer may well appear in due course, so watch this space.

In the next programme, we'll be with another luxury object connected with rich women, and also freighted with spiritual meaning. We'll be in Japan... with a group of mirrors thrown into a sacred lake.

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.