Museum Secrets

Windmills and Wagers

April 09, 2021 Ashmolean Museum / Lucie Dawkins / Matthew Winterbottom Season 2 Episode 3
Museum Secrets
Windmills and Wagers
Show Notes Transcript

Lockdown is slowly lifting, and this week, the pubs will be opening outdoors again in Oxford. To get us in the right frame of mind, curator Matthew Winterbottom takes us on a tour of historical drinking games in the Ashmolean. We meet a windmill in the silver gallery, with more to it than meets the eye.

Cup in the form of a windmill – View it here
Cup in the form of an owl – View it here
Cup in the form of a bear – View it here
Cup in the form of a stag – View it here

If you want to take a closer look at the object in this episode, you can view it at the link above, or visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website:

Producer: Lucie Dawkins
Presenters: Lucie Dawkins and Matthew Winterbottom

About Museum Secrets: Welcome to season 2 of Museum Secrets. Every week Lucie Dawkins will  take you behind the scenes at the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. There are a million objects here in the Museum, each with its own hidden story. Come on in, as we track down the weird and wonderful among them, to give us a bitesized pick-me-up in these challenging times. Join us every week for a daily dose of cheer.

Lucie: Welcome to Season Two of Museum Secrets. I’m your host, Lucie Dawkins, and every week I’ll be taking you behind the scenes at the Ashmolean. There are a million objects here in the museum, each with its own hidden story. Come on in, as we track down the weird and wonderful among them, to give us a bitesized pick-me-up in these challenging times.

Today, we’re heading into one of my favourite corners in the Ashmolean, in the galleries in the furthest depths of the second floor. Here, you can find the rings that are supposed to have inspired J. R. R. Tolkein, pocket watches shaped like skulls, and a whole room of silver. And this is where we have stumbled on curator Matthew Winterbottom, peering into a case. Over to Matthew. 

Matthew: Gallery 53 of the Ashmolean is filled with all sorts of strange and fantastical figures made of silver. One of my favourites among them is a curious-looking windmill with four sails, and a flag fluttering on the roof. Such windmills were – and still are – numerous across the Netherlands where they are used to pump water from the low lying dikes. This particular windmill has quite a party going on in it. Three tiny silver men are loitering on a ladder leading up to the door. One is nonchalantly smoking, another flings open the door as if to welcome his friends in. On the sides of the building are two windows, each with a figure poking their heads out and waving. The whole thing is perched on a perfectly curved little hill. 

It’s a delightful little scene - but it gets even more fun when we turn it upside down. 

Because it turns out that the base isn’t a hill at all. It is in fact a drinking cup. 

Known as a wager cup, it was made to be used in popular drinking games. This was the time before hot beverages such as tea, coffee and hot chocolate became popular and alcohol in the form of ale, beer or wine was drunk in astonishingly large quantities by virtually everybody, including children. Weak beer was even drunk at breakfast as it was safer than water! 

Fun drinking games were hugely popular, particularly in northern Europe and novel forms of drinking vessels were made to play them with. 

With this cup, guests would hold the cup upside down and the bowl would be filled with an alcoholic drink. Once filled it is impossible to put the cup down as it will not stand up by itself.  A wager – or bet – would then be made. Next to the windmill’s ladder is a silver pipe. If you blow down the pipe, the mill’s sails rotate and a dial turns from 1 to 12.  The player would have to blow hard down the silver pipe to make the sails and dial turn and drink the entire contents before they stopped moving. If they failed to do this there was a penalty that was decided by where the dial stopped. The forfeit might be to drink yet more alcohol, or buy to another round of drinks. The number of the dial would dictate how many! 

The cup was then passed around the table for the game to continue. Of course, the more drunk the players got, the more mistakes they made and more forfeits had to be paid. Clearly this was an easy way to get very drunk very quickly! It seems to have been a popular past-time. Dutch genre paintings from this time often depict drunken tavern scenes and revelry.

This is just one of many cups ingeniously designed to play drinking games. Another kind of tankard had a series of pegs on the inside. Drinkers would place pegs . Players who lost in the game were ‘taken down a peg or two’ - hence the origin of the phrase. 

The windmill form of these wager cups first appeared in the trading city of Antwerp in the southern Netherlands in the sixteenth century before spreading to the north over the following hundred years. Our cup was made in the Netherlands around 1640. It is made of gilded silver and has hallmarks that tell us it was made in the city of Nijmegen in the eastern Netherlands, close to the border with Germany, probably by the Goldsmith Hendrick Grondt.

An enormous number and range of drinking vessels survive and are testament to the centrality of alcohol in the lives of some of our ancestors. Today we would be astonished by the quantity and frequency of their drinking. However, we have to remember that water was unsafe and the beer was often much weaker than today. Wine was also often watered down and sweetened with sugar and spices. Communal drinking, with cups of alcohol passed around, was often used to welcome and honour guests. It as descended from medieval feasts and banquets held in communal halls.  In northern Europe ‘Welcome Cups’ often in the form of wild animals or fabulous monsters were used to honour guests or celebrate weddings. Guests were expected to take a drink from the cup – men from the large hollow body of the beast, women from the smaller head that also doubled as a cup. You can see several of these elaborate cups-within-cups in gallery 53, including a pompous looking owl, a dancing bear, and a proudly-striding stag.

With the introduction of non-alcoholic hot beverages later in the seventeenth century, such communal drinking and games fell out of fashion among the wealthy.  However, many Oxford Colleges still have their historic silver Loving Cups, which until modern health and safety concerns intervened were passed around guests in hall during important dinners.

A wander through Gallery 53 is a lovely reminder of our endless capacity for fun when it comes to the simple act of sharing a drink (alcoholic or otherwise!) with friends. Although it’s become an all-too-infrequent pleasure this year, those of us here in England can finally join each other outside pubs again next week. So if you find yourself in the spring sun in the coming days, raising a cup with loved ones, perhaps you will remember the Ashmolean’s windmill, and the many hands that have done just the same for centuries. Do come and visit it when the museum re-opens - those tiny silver Dutchman are ready and waiting to greet you with a wave. 

Lucie: Thank you for listening to today’s episode of Museum Secrets. You can find pictures of all these cups in a link in the podcast notes. If you’re enjoying our weekly tales, then check at the Ashmolean website, where you’ll find more series of our podcasts. Join me next week for a family feud, Ancient Egyptian-style. Until then, stay well.