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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Gentleman's Magazine
Vol. 215, Nov. 1863, pp540‑543

The text is in the public domain.

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 p540  Acoustic Pottery

An interesting archaeological question has lately been raised by M. Didron in his Annales Archéologiques. It relates to the acoustic means employed in the middle ages to repeat words or sounds in our religious edifices. This question has been introduced to France by a Swedish architect, M. Mandelgren, and by two Russian architects, Messrs. Stassoff and Gonestaeff, who are now in Paris, engaged in the study of our ecclesiastical architecture. These skilful architects, who are also distinguished savants, have consulted the professors and archaeologists of the capital, with the view of learning whether there are found in French churches, as is frequently the case in Sweden, Denmark, and Russia, cornets and pots of baked earth, placed either in the interior walls or in the vaults. Christianity was introduced into Scandinavia principally by French missionaries, and it would appear probable that the mother country had preserved traces of a custom of which the daughters (in an ecclesiastical sense) furnish so many examples. On the other hand, the first French churches having had a Byzantine model, it appeared difficult to believe that a known detail of that epoch was not brought to the West with the architecture itself.

M. Didron, who was among the first applied to in the matter, replied in the Annals, which he has directed so well for twenty-two years. He cited two facts to shew the existence among us of acoustic pottery;​1 the first is an observation made in our own time, and the second is furnished by a MS. of the fifteenth century. He stated that in 1842, a correspondent of the Committee of Arts and Monuments announced to the section of Archaeology the recent discovery of cornets of baked earth in the church of St. Blaise of Arles. These cornets, which corresponded to pots of twenty-two centimetres in diameter, were placed in the thickness of the walls, but as to their date we can say nothing more than that the church is believed to have been built in the year 1280.​2 To this observation,  p541 which is due to modern research, M. Didron added a valuable passage, extracted from a manuscript of the fifteenth century, namely, the Chronicle of the Celestines of Metz, published by M. E. de Bouteiller, in his Notice of a convent of that Order established in the capital of the ancient Austrasia. The chronicler Messin thus writes, under the date 1432:—

"In the month of August in this year, on the vigil of the Assumption, after Brother Odo Leroy had returned from the before-mentioned general chapter, it was ordered that pots should be made for the choir of the church of Ceans, he stating that he had seen such in another church, and thinking that they made the chanting resound more strongly. They were all put up in one day, as many workmen having been employed as were necessary."​3

To these facts, which shew the custom of acoustic pottery existing at two extreme points of France, I am able to add a few more which I have collected in Normandy during the thirty years that I have devoted to the study of the churches of that province. Normandy has much to interest us in historic matters, as she was the cradle of Christianity for Norway, and the originator of a new style of architecture for England.

During these thirty years I have, five or six times, had occasion to notice the particularity in question in churches of Upper Normandy, but I must remark that this kind of observation is very difficult to make, and can indeed scarcely be expected without the demolition of a church, a circumstance that does not happen every day; beside which, the workmen who demolish our ancient edifices are rarely very observant.

Nevertheless, in 1862, the workmen engaged in pulling down the old church of St. Laurent en Caux (canton of Doudeville) were surprised to meet with a large earthen vase, of which the form was as remarkable as the position. This vase, placed in one of the angles of the choir, was entirely enveloped in mortar, and its form was that of a cone closed at each end. It had no other opening but a beak, which appeared in the form of a cornet at the surface of the wall. The exterior of the vase was furrowed with horizontal grooves. The form of the vase, and the earth of which it was composed, led me to ascribe it to the thirteenth century. I had remarked the same peculiarities of fabrication on vases of that epoch found at Leure, in the tomb of Pierre Berenguer, in 1856. I send here a representation  p542 of this strange vase, which is one of the most singular that I have ever seen. It is well fitted for acoustic purposes, and appears quite unsuited for any other.

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Vase from St. Laurent en Caux

Vase from Montivilliers

The second acoustic vase that I shall mention came from the abbey of Montivilliers, and is now preserved in the Library of that city. It was taken from the vault of the choir under the tower of that royal monastery, and I conceive it was placed there at the rebuilding of the house in 1648 by the ladies of L'Hospital, abbesses of that establishment. I noticed also a dozen acoustic holes in the four angles of the clock-tower, of which the vault was ruined in the seventeenth century. I give here a representation of the vase, which is of an ash-grey colour. Its height is thirty-four centimetres; its opening is furnished with a neck moulding, and the base terminates in a point. I conceive it to be of the same date as the vault, viz. 1648.

The third vase, that I have found, and of which I give an engraving, is one of the sixteenth century, discovered in the  p543 choir of the church of Fry (canton of Argueil). During the reparations there in 1858, four of these vases were found, two of which were in the sacristy. They appear to me culinary vases, which have been put to a monumental use. The height of the one here represented is thirty centimetres.

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Vase from Fry

Thus I have three times met with acoustic pottery, either in the choir or the nave of the churches of Upper Normandy. In 1852 I remarked, in the now destroyed church of Alvimare (canton of Fauville), circular holes in the prisms which surround the pillars of the choir and the clock-tower. These holes were nothing but the openings of earthen vases placed in the walls as agents of repercussion.4

In the church of Mont aux Malades, near Rouen, these vases fill the windows of the nave and the choir. These were found in 1842, when the Romanesque pilasters of the twelfth century were restored, but the acoustic operation appears to belong to the seventeenth.

I have also observed these acoustic vases in the church of Contremoulins, near Fécamp, and in the ruins of the choir of Perruel, near Périers sur Andelle (arrondissement of Andelys).

Now that attention is called to this matter, I have no doubt that numerous analogous facts will be found to corroborate those already given. Germany, England, and France will add to this little gleaning from Normandy — we would almost say that the theatres of antiquity have known these resources, and that Vitruvius himself has spoken of acoustic vases. The future will clear up this matter; for the present we are satisfied to endeavour to awaken the interest of our compatriots and contemporaries.​a

L'Abbé Cochet

The Author's Notes:

1 Didron, Annales Archéologiques, t. XXI pp294‑297, année 1862.

2 Bulletin Archéologique publié par le Comité historique des Arts et Monuments, t. II p440.

3 E. de Bouteiller, Notice sur le Couvent des Célestins de Metz — Didron, Ann. Arch., t. XXI pp275, 276, année 1862.

4 Les Eglises de l'arrond. d'Yvetot, 1ère édit., t. I p275; 2e édit., t. I p289. Ann. Archéol., t. XXI pp354, 355.

Thayer's Note:

a Interest was duly awakened, in the pages of the Gentleman's Magazine in the very next issue ("Acoustic Vases", December 1863, in the Correspondence section). The subject was then taken up again and amplified by George C. Yates, in Antiquities and Curiosities of the Church (ed. William Andrews), pp34‑43.

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