Many alms dishes made in Nuremberg in the sixteenth century have a band of Gothic script around the central boss. Clients sometimes ask us what this means. The answer is simple: absolutely nothing. The script is totally meaningless and is for decoration only.
The band always consists of four identical quarter-round segments each containing the same bunch of letters. Some dishes had little knobs between the segments to ensure that the punch lined up correctly and finished in exactly the right spot to complete a perfect circle.
Gothic script was just one of the decorative elements available to the Nuremberg braziers — sometimes they used it, sometimes they didn’t.
It may have been literally meaningless, but the Gothic script did convey something about the owner: it told the recipients of the alms that the man giving them his left-over food was educated and literate – and was thus much to be admired.
Giving alms to the poor was one of the social responsibilities of the aristocracy or landed gentry, and most great households had an almoner whose job it was to dish them out. These lords of the manor purposely cooked larger meals than were necessary so that there would be plenty of left-overs to feed the poor who gathered at the back door every evening.
The Gothic script ensured that when the poor received the food, they also received a message about the man who had given it.
Some alms dishes have their central boss embossed with an image of two men carrying a huge bunch of grapes on a pole slung between their shoulders. The two men were Caleb and Joshua, two of the 12 spies (one from each tribe) that Moses sent into Canaan to determine if it could be the “promised land.” Ten gave negative reports, but Caleb and Joshua reported “The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us.”
The massive bunch of grapes that Caleb and Joshua escaped with was proof of the bounty offered by the land. Their image on alms dish possibly conveyed the message that the great man who was giving the alms to the poor was bountiful enough that he would allow no-one to starve at his gate: his manor house became, in effect, “the land flowing with milk and honey.”