In a corner of the Ashmolean Museum is a group of portraits which may not be entirely comfortable with each other.
When museums were just cabinets of curiosities, just collections of hoarders and travellers, John Tradescant collected a stunning array of artefacts: The Ark. You can read the story of how Elias Ashmole connived to acquire the collection after Tradescant’s death here.
Suffice to say that the two men may not be quite so civil with each other in the afterlife as they are, hanging on walls on the bottom floor of the museum.
Fortunately, just along the way, just a few paces from the portrait stand-off, capers some saucy light relief on loan to the museum.
And this is where those of you who are easily shocked should leave us. For the character who capers around in the same gallery is from the Wicker Man school of country lore. He is weird, and strange, and the museum’s label had my mind boggling there, for a while.
Let me tell you a little about Jack Of Hilton.
Jack caused quite a commotion back in the 17th century. It seems everyone who was anyone knew about him. Not on account of the fact that Jack is one of the best endowed brass images to come out of the 13th century – really, quite astonishing; but rather, because he was known for his unparalleled ability to wheeze.
This here is Jack:
It is possible you might be a little too distracted to notice the hole at Jack’s mouth. Jack is not just a pretty face et al. He is a hearth blower: a mediaeval device which holds just over four pints of water.
When men were men and fires were fires, they would leave Jack to get piping hot, and the water inside would turn to steam. the steam would force air, taken in through a hole in is back, out of Jack’s mouth, and he would fan the flames of the fire.
He had his uses. But his wheezing must have been memorable, for it brought all manner of people to see and hear the spectacle of naughty Jack at work. Including Dr Plot: naturalist. The first professor of Chemistry at Oxford.
And the first keeper of the Ashmolean Museum.
The label next to Jack reads: “For many years, he performed an important function in an annual ritual (involving a goose) attending the granting of tenancies within the manor estates.”
Well, I nearly had a fit of the vapours. I could think of only one way Jack could be used alongside a goose, and it wasn’t pretty.
I was forced to endure half a day of boggling before an article in the Black Country Bugle set my mind at rest. Sort of.
So the lord of Hilton Manor had smaller lords who were tenants of his; and every New Year’s Day the oddest ritual helped the tenant of nearby Essington pay homage.
He would bring this goose. And in typical disjointed English tradition, with no apparent logic to the business whatsoever, Jack would be required to stand and wheeze lustily whilst the goose was chased three times round the fire. And then, alas, off to the kitchen. And the Lord of Hilton would eat the goose, and give the Lord of Essington a goose of his own to eat.
And that’s it. There was nothing remotely conjugal going on between Jack and the goose.
Thank heavens. Because though I am not easily shocked, it would just be too weird, wouldn’t it?
It will give Elias and John something to talk about through those long lonely winter nights.