How many bear jugs does one person need in his or her life? The answer, in the case of Dr J.W.L. Glaisher (about whom I have written before), appears to be at least twelve. This is the number bequeathed by him to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1928, and at the moment a fine clutch (the collective noun is given variously as pack, sloth or sleuth …) is on display in Gallery 27.
The earliest of the Glaisher examples appears to be c. 1735, and most are dated to between 1750 and 1780. They were made either in Staffordshire (predictable) or in Nottinghamshire (rather less so, but what do I know?), of salt-glazed stoneware, though in no case can the specific factory be identified. Their intended function was as a jug, with the head detachable as a cup – though, like those egg-shaped vodka glasses, probably not a cup you could put down easily.
I wonder how much they were used (I’m assuming they were intended to hold beer or ale), rather than being put on the mantelpiece as an ornament, like those pairs of Staffordshire dogs,
or (later) Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, or (even later), the Great and Good in Parian ware?
The crudest dog is a Nottinghamshire beast with a quite elaborate covering of coloured fragments of clay, and a good set of teeth, but not much character.
The most bizarre is from Staffordshire, a white stoneware piece which is almost a deconstruction of bear features, with his shaggy fur indicated by rows of little indentations, a crude decoration familiar from Neolithic times onwards.
Most of the others have their fur indicated by sieved curls of clay (as with the one on the right above), though some have a mottled paint finish.
Six are crushing to death an unfortunate creature with their massive forepaws: this is usually a dog, best depicted here:
but it is not quite clear what this one is holding – a snake?
Eight have rings through their noses, leading to chains; one has a muzzle as well, and another a muzzle and collar, while seven have collars, some decorated. This combination of restraining features demonstrates that we are looking at ‘tame’ or ‘show’ bears, and the squashed dogs indicate the time-honoured ‘sport’ of bear-baiting.
The popularity of bear-baiting seems to have been at its height in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries – the Shakespearean age, in fact. Famously, a number of playhouses were built on (or transferred to) Bankside, where they were side-by-side with bull- and bear-baiting theatres, which were architecturally very similar to them. (It is thought that both ‘sports’ originally took place in fields but moved to purpose-built arenas both to reduce the danger to the spectators and to marshal and hence extract money from them more easily.)
Bull- and bear-baiting consisted mostly of tying or chaining the beast to a stake and setting mastiffs or bulldogs to attack it. (There is an alternative, equally charming ‘sport’, which consisted of putting a (cheap) horse, saddled and bridled, with a monkey tied to the saddle, into the ring for the dogs to kill, assuming it didn’t kick them to death: the screams of the monkey, known as a jackanapes, as the dogs leapt up and bit him, were all part of the fun.) Some bears were famous: Shakespeare refers to Sackerson the bear in The Merry Wives of Windsor; other names known at the same period were Blind Bess, Ned Whiting, Harry Hunks, Tom Hunckes and George Stone.
Moreover, the playhouses and the animal baiting were surprisingly intertwined. The arrival of the actors apparently drew away the audiences for the animals, whose owners complained. But, remarkably, Philip Henslowe and Edward Alleyne, his son-in-law, both much involved in the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, bought the Mastership of her Majesty’s Game at Paris Garden (the most famous of the Bankside arenas) for £450 and ran the baiting alongside their theatrical interests. In 1613 the bear-garden was torn down and a year later a new, dual-purpose arena, the Hope Theatre, was built in its place.
But it was not just the sophisticated metrosexuals who provided the audience for these spectacles. Congleton in Cheshire was known as the town that sold a Bible for a bear: in the 1620s they had run out of good bears, and used the funds (16 shillings) they had accumulated to buy a new Bible for the parish church to get a new bear instead. This brought such profit to the town that the Bible fund was replenished …
And although the devout, and specifically the Puritans, railed against these forms of entertainment, it was not because of the cruelty involved but because they were often held on Sundays. The wrath of God caught up with one event, on Sunday, 13 January 1583, when part of the arena (which could hold 1,000 people) collapsed, killing seven people and injuring many more. (See this account in The Shakespeare Blog, which also contains the intriguing suggestion that in The Winter’s Tale, a live bear borrowed from the neighbours was used to make an end of Antigonus – after all, the audience would have been familiar with real bears, and would probably not have been impressed by a man in fur.)
The wrath of God caught up with the whole practice (and the playhouses too, of course) during the Commonwealth, but at the Restoration both the players and the animal cruelty were also restored: the practice was not finally banned until 1835. (In South Carolina it was not banned until 2013.)
However, enthusiasm for bear-baiting seems to have declined gradually throughout the eighteenth century – precisely during the period when the bear jugs seem to have been most popular. (There are still plenty of depictions, but they suggest ad hoc gatherings in barns rather than regular stagings in purpose-built arenas.)
In fact, were it not for the fact that so many of the jug-bears were depicted with dogs in their paws, one might almost assume that they were dancing bears, of a type still found (alas) in many parts of the world.
So perhaps they were a comical reminder of a form of entertainment, that was (thankfully) passing away?