Hedwig glass beaker

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This beaker is decorated with Christian symbols, including a lion, a griffin, an eagle and a tree. Yet scientific analysis and the deep-cut style of the glass suggest it was made by a Muslim craftsman in Syria during the Crusades. Fourteen Hedwig beakers have been found, all in Europe, indicating that these objects were made specifically for a Christian market. Hedwig beakers take their name from Saint Hedwig (about AD 1174 ? 1243), who supposedly drank water from a similar glass, which miraculously turned to wine when it touched her lips.

How did Islamic glass reach Christian Europe during the Crusades?

In 1095 Pope Urban II called on all Christians to recapture Jerusalem and the surrounding Holy Land from Islamic control. In return, the pope promised Crusaders forgiveness for past sins. Nine Crusades were launched over the next 200 years, with increasingly diminishing degrees of success. Despite the Crusades, trade between the Christian and the Islamic countries flourished. Islamic glassware was particularly in demand and the Italian ports of Venice and Genoa grew rich as a result of trade with the Islamic world.

The Hedwig beaker is so large, if you tried to drink from it you'd drench yourself. Its practical function is unknown

Part of an enormous trade

The crusades are obviously extremely important in terms of military history or religious history. But from the point of view of the beaker, the importance is this: the crusaders captured the coastline of Palestine and Syria which had on it some very important ports. At that time – at the time the crusaders took the coastline – these ports were not as significant as Alexandria in Egypt which was the main terminus of the Asiatic spice route, but, around 1170 the Asiatic spice routes changed, and Acre on the Palestinian coast – which is now in Israel – became the most important commercial port in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the chief terminus of the Asiatic spice trade, which meant that shipping from the west was coming out – bringing out European cloth – and bringing back to the west spices.

And Acre was an enormous revenue generator. Even after Saladin’s conquests of the hinterland and Palestine and Syria, the kingdom of Jerusalem or what remained of it for another hundred years, was regarded in the west as enormously rich above all because of Acre. 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.

Now the export of the beakers to the west must be seen in that context. We know that material from Egypt – goods from Egypt – in transit passed through Acre either going east to Damascus and perhaps further east still; or to the west. And we have an absolutely fascinating list of commodities traded in the port of Acre in the middle of the thirteenth century, with the customs duty that was 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 of 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.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, University of Cambridge

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  • 1. At 19:31 on 29 June 2010, annetrevelyan wrote:

    I have just listened to this programme from this lovely series. I note that you have restored her old title to the Princess of Wales, deliberately and with premeditation, I hope.

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  • 2. At 15:29 on 31 October 2010, oktawia82 wrote:

    Thank you for another great programme!
    One point of criticism: it seems you are confusing two Saint Hedwigs - the one you are referring to should not be called "royal". She was a daughter of a German prince, and wife to the duke of Silesia, one of several Polish states of the time - there was nothing royal in her birth or marital status.
    The other Saint Hedwig, who could rightly be called "royal", lived almost two hundred years later and was crowned the King (yes, king) of Poland after the death of her father, Louis of Anjou. Her marriage to the Grand Duke of Lithuania started the union of the two states, which allowed for the unified state to play a pivotal role in Central and Eastern Europe for almost two hundred years. She was only canonised 13 years ago, unlike the Silesian Hedwig who was canonised within a few decades of her death.

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Probably made in Syria


12th century AD


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