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Medieval Jewelry: Fashion and Status



The artisans

Although the value that lies in the materials of medieval goldsmiths’ work was of prime importance—it is enough to recall the writings of Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis near Paris in the twelfth century, stressing that church vessels should be made only of precious materials that are worthy of the divine service --  the high artistic standard of workmanship was also an important criterion in the value of a jewel. In fact, materiam superabat opus—the expertise of the goldsmith and the precision of workmanship eventually transcended the inherent value of the substance.

In the Middle Ages, jewels were created not by specialised craftsmen working in jewelry only, but by goldsmiths who manufactured a great variety of other objects as well, such as crosses, reliquaries, shrines, liturgical and secular vessels (chalices, patens, monstrances, pyxes, censers, dishes, plates, candlesticks, book covers, croziers, luxury utensils, coinage, seals, and so on). Many goldsmiths worked in silver and other metals as well (bronze), while some artists worked in silver only (silversmiths). The term "jeweller" also occurs in medieval sources, but its meaning is not clear. It probably does not refer to makers of jewels but rather to traders, appraisers, or cutters of gemstones, or retailers of jewels.

There were both monastic and secular goldsmiths working in the Middle Ages. In the earlier Middle Ages, production took place predominantly in a monastic setting; later, however, jewelry production was closely associated also with the courts of rulers and nobility. In the late Middle Ages, urban goldsmiths acquired the leading role in the production of goldsmiths’ works. They worked in independent workshops but were organised in guilds, medieval associations of craftsmen in the same trade that controlled and regulated the activities of its members. Membership in guilds was compulsory, but it also offered great advantages: guilds provided security and protected the interests of its members. The guilds controlled the prices and the quality of the products and also determined the duration and system of training. The growing number of goldsmiths—parallel with the urban expansion and growth in trade in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries—made guild regulations more necessary in the later Middle Ages. In the formation of these regulations, the Livre des Métiers (Book of crafts), drawn up by the mayor of Paris Etienne Boileau around 1268, had a great role, providing a model for similar regulations in other European cities and towns.

A wealth of sources, mainly legal documents and records related to the activities of the guilds, provide information on the names of urban goldsmiths, their families and heirs, their lodgings, workshop premises, positions within the workshop and the guild or any position filled in society. Hardly any sources survive, however, on the training of goldsmiths, their methods of imparting their experience related to technique, the degree of artistic freedom they had in the creation of particular pieces, or on the artistic and business relationship between the various craftsmen and workshops. On the basis of surviving drawings it can be asserted that painters frequently supplied goldsmiths with designs for jewelry.  In the late Middle Ages, descriptions of workshops are rare, but numerous contracts survive which name the artisan, patron, the object to be created and the price to be paid for it. Contracts occasionally also include information on technical issues. Inventories of possession, attached to last wills or drawn up on special occasions in the residences of nobles and wealthy merchants, often refer to goldsmiths’ works also, although these entries are usually very basic and uninformative, and therefore it is usually impossible to associate the references with surviving works of art.

On the basis of written sources, it is possible to gather an approximate idea of the large number of practising goldsmiths in the most important medieval towns. In the thirteenth century, there were 116 goldsmiths and jewellers in Paris alone, as it turns out from a tax list drawn up in 1292. In many other French towns, also, the number of goldsmiths was growing continuously and significantly. Because of this, in 1275 the French king Phillippe le Hardi ordered all the silversmiths in France to mark their products with distinguishing marks. In London, where by 1368 the London Company of Goldsmiths had 135 goldsmiths as members, such marks have been used at least since 1300.

Although the Black Death in 1348 caused a temporary decline in the growth of the goldsmiths’ trade, their number significantly increased again in the fifteenth century. Besides London and Paris, a number of European towns, especially Bruges, Utrecht, Lübeck, Florence, Strasbourg, and Cologne, became major centres of goldsmiths’ activities. Between the late fourteenth and the sixteenth century, the number of goldsmiths in Cologne surpassed 120. In London, there were more than 400 goldsmiths by 1465, as a visitor to the city, Leo of Rozmital, recorded.

Some of the most successful goldsmiths were in high favour and enjoyed continuous royal patronage. The example of the work of two English goldsmiths shows the extent to which an acknowledged goldsmith was employed and the important positions he could fulfil. For the wedding of King Henry III, the goldsmith William of Gloucester—later the King’s Goldsmith—prepared £55 worth of jewels and 11 gold garlands worth £58. On other occasions, he prepared jewels and crowns as gifts for the king’s relatives and foreign rulers. Within a single year (1253), for example, he supplied 141 rings and many brooches, girdles, and other types of goldsmiths’ work to the king. William of Gloucester was even involved in the production of coinage; in fact, the first gold coins minted in England are his only surviving work. Another English goldsmith, the rich and charitable Sir Edmund Shaa, had a similarly spectacular career in the fifteenth century. He was employed by the royal mints, became Prime Warden of the Goldsmiths’ Company and Mayor of London, and he was even knighted for supporting his king, Richard III.

As far as the social standing of the late medieval goldsmith is concerned, contemporary portraits confirm the written sources by showing secular goldsmiths as prosperous men in luxurious clothing. Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of John de Leeuw, Dean of the Goldsmiths’ Guild in Bruges, dated 1436, portrays a dignified, intelligent man dressed in an elegant dark robe with a fur collar and holding a gold ring set with a large ruby in his right hand as a sign of his profession (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).  Another portrait by van Eyck, c. 1430, depicts an unknown goldsmith in a similarly elegant way, with a very elaborate headpiece (Muzeul de Arta, Bukarest). In Gerard David’s Portrait of an Unknown Goldsmith, c. 1500, an well-dressed, earnest-looking man of recognised social standing wears a large signet ring on his right hand, in which he holds a roll of parchment with rings. He has removed one of these with his right hand and seems just about to hand it over to a potential customer (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). Secular goldsmiths indeed sometimes amassed considerable wealth owing to the precious nature of the materials they worked with. The leading members of the guilds also often had important political positions, such as being representatives in the town council.

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