Item duo morteria lapidea cum pistonis fusteis; Item unum pistonum fusteum magnum (de Bulbono); 1 mortier de fusta em son piston per piquer conserves (Donna Miquella); Item i morterium metalhi cum duobus pistonis ferri (Colini); 1 mortaio di pietra (Pazzi)

References to mortars and pestles, written in several languages and originating from regions across Europe, are sprinkled throughout the inventories of households and shops from the later middle ages. Mention of mortars and pestles appear especially in kitchens and other spaces where food was cooked, spices ground and medicines prepared. A cursory search through the DALME corpus returns more than 140 instances where terms for one or both items are documented, which often—but not always—appear alongside each other as a matching set. Mortars are easily identified by the cognate terms “mortaio” in Tuscan Italian, “mortier” in Old Provencal, and “mortarium” in Latin. The word for “pestle” varies more widely. In Italian, the word for pestle was most often written as “pistello,” in Provencal, “piston,” and in Latin, “trissonum,” “pilum,” or some variation of the verb “pistorare” (meaning to grind or pound) including words beginning with “piston-” or “pistor." Thus, the 1361 post-mortem inventory of Berengarius de Bulbono, a knight from Marseille, lists “two stone mortars with wooden pestles” as well as “one large pestle, made of wood.”

Perhaps mortars and pestles were found in so many interior spaces because the technology upon which they rely is straightforward, effective, and has stood the test of time. The bowl-shaped mortar, which serves as a receptacle, and the elongated pestle, used to apply consistent pressure to the substance being worked, come together to grind, pulverize, mash, or liquify materials and prepare them for use. The worked ingredients might then be consumed, stored, or combined with other substances depending on their ultimate purpose. Mortars and pestles are present in cultures from all over the world, and the same technology has been used since the Stone Age.

Given how simple and useful these tools are, it is no surprise that those who used the mortar-and-pestle technology in the later middle ages adapted it according to the materials they had and the tasks they wished to accomplish. What we find in the inventories, therefore, are mortars and pestles fabricated from stone, wood, porcelain, ceramic, metal, or leather, and scaled up or down in size to fit the job at hand. In an inventory from the pharmacy of Donna Miquella, a fifteenth-century woman apothecary from Vaucluse, for example, we find a wooden mortar with its accompanying wooden pestle that was employed, as the records describe, to pulverize ingredients to make preserves. In an inventory dated to the year 1400 from the shop of Philip Colini, a candler in Marseille, we find a metal mortar listed alongside two iron pestles, presumably used to prepare candles. Although there is no indication in either of these records as to the size of the tools, hand-held or modestly sized metal and wooden mortars and pestles are represented as ordinary household items in drawings and paintings of the time.

Mortars and pestles are also commonplace in fourteenth-century inventories from Florence, and show up so often among the kitchen wares that their absence is remarkable. Although these items are often listed among other cooking tools or bits and pieces from the kitchen, some mortars and pestles may have been quite sizable, perhaps even as large as a piece of furniture. Both the stone mortar and large pestle listed among the possessions of the Massiliote knight, or the “stone mortar” from the Tuscan home of Piero di Giovanni del Dolce de Pazzi documented in 1389 may have been hefty, free standing objects. Given how regularly these items were listed in Florentine inventories, the person-sized mortar and pestle combination now on display at one of the Vanderbilt mansions in Newport, RI may more closely represent what was housed in these Tuscan kitchens than the smaller, handheld versions we may have in our minds as we read through the documents.