Mazer Wood and the Mazard Bowl

Mazer Wood and the Mazard Bowl#

In issue no. 74 of Notes & Queries, dated March 29th, 1851, the following query appeared on page 239:


In the Musaeum Tradescantianum, or a Collection of Rarities preserved at South Lambeth, near London, by John Tradescant, 1656, I find, amongst “other variety of rarities,” “the plyable Mazer wood, which, being warmed in water, will work to any form;” and a little farther on, in the list of “utensils and household stufFe,” I also find “Mazer dishes.” … Perhaps some reader may give an instance of Mazer wood being mentioned by other writers ; or inform me if the word Mazer, in itself, had any peculiar signification.

W. Pinkerton.

Gutta percha looks to be a fascinating substance, a biologically inert, electrically non-conductive thermoplastic, scientifically classified in 1843, and naturally derived from a tree of the same name.

It is unlikely that the mazard bowl, of maple, full of beer Moggridge described at the meeting at Ludloq eighteen months later, via Aubrey, as being used by the sin-eater of the Rosse highway was a mazer wood bowl; but W. Pinkerton’s request for information as to whether “the word Mazer, in itself, had any peculiar signification” does perhaps throw some light on the sin-eater’s bowl.

In a response on April 12, 1851, in Notes & Queries no. 76, p288-9, we learn the following:

Mazer Wood (Vol. iii., p. 239.). — The Querist asks, “Has the word Mazer any signification in itself?”

It is used to signify a cup. Vide Walter Scott’s Lord of the Isles, where Robert Bruce is speaking:

“Bring here, he said, the Mazers four, My noble fathers loved of yore.”

And it is probably derived from the Irish “Maeddher,” a standing cup, generally of wood, of a quadrangular form, with a handle on each of the sides. The puzzle was how to drink out of it, which was done from the angles. A silver “Maeddher” was presented to Lord Townshend when leaving Ireland, who puzzled many of his English friends by placing it before them filled with claret. Uninitiated persons usually attempted to drink from the flat side, and poured the wine over their clothes. I think another was presented to Lord Normanby when in Ireland. We see gutta percha cups and buckets everywhere now-a days. Perhaps such an utensil might have been among the dishes, &c. mentioned in the Catalogue of the Tradescant Museum.


[See a curious note on Mazers, used as large drinking-cups, or goblets, in Walter Scott’s Poetical Works, p. 488., edit. 1848.]

This suggests an etymology based on the Irish “Maeddher”, describing *”a standing cup, generally of wood, of a quadrangular form, with a handle on each of the sides”.

A few weeks later, in the edition of June 7, 1851, no. 84, p466 we find a derivation based on the Welsh word Masarn, the maple tree, suggesting that the Irish derivation, based on the word for cup, is probably incorrect, and that a derivation based on the Welsh word for maple is the more likely.

Mazer Wood (Vol. iii., pp. 239. 288 ). — Your Querist asks, “Has the word Mazer any signification in itself?” It signifies Maple, being a corruption of the Welsh word Masarn — the maple-tree. Probably, therefore, the use of the wood of the maple tor bowls and drinking-cups prevailed in this country many centuries before the times of Spenser and Chaucer, in whose works they are mentioned. In Devonshire the black cherry-tree, which grows to a large size in that county, is called the mazer-tree. From this circumstance I conjecture that this wood has been used there in former times for bowls and drinking-cups as a substitute for maple. That the original word, mazer, should have been retained, is not to be wondered at. It is known that when the mazer bowl was made of silver, the old name was retained. The name of the maple-tree, in the Irish language, is crann-mhalpais; therefore the name of the Irish wooden drinking-cup maedher cannot be derived from it.

S. S. S.

Another three months on, and in edition of September 20th, 1851, volume 4, Issue 99, p211, we get another reply which mentions the tradition from the Rosse highway, providing the now all too familiar quote, to us, from Aubrey:

Mazer Wood and Sin-eaters (Vol. iii., pp. 239. 288.).— The following extract from Hone’s Year Book, p.858., will add to the explanation furnished by S.S.S., and will also give an instance of the singular practices which prevailed among our ancestors:–

“Among the Lansdowne MSS. in the British Museum are statements in Aubrey’s own handwriting to this purport. In the county of Hereford was an old custom at funerals, to hire poor people, who were to take upon them the sins of the party deceased. One of them (he was a long, lean, ugly, lamentable, poor rascal), I remember, lived in a cottage on Rosse highway. The manner was, that when the corpse was brought out of the house, and laid on the bier, a loaf of bread was brought out, and delivered to the sin eater, over the corpse, as also a mazard bowl of maple, full of beer (which he was to drink up), and sixpence in money, in consideration whereof he took upon him, ipso facto, all the sins of the defunct, and freed him or her from walking after they were dead.”

Perhaps some of your readers may be able to throw some light on this curious practice of sin-eating, or on the existence of regular sin-eaters.

E. H. B.

The editors also add another useful note, referencing Ellis’ edited version of “Brande’s Popular Antiquities”, as well as noting its republication in Gentleman’s Magazine:

[Mr. Ellis, in his edition of Brande’s Popular Antiquities, vol. ii. p. 155, 4to. has given a curious passage from the Lansdowne MSS. concerning a sin-eater who lived in Herefordshire, which has been quoted in the Gentleman’s Magazine, vol, xcii. pt. i. p. 222. ]