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Medieval Jewelry: Fashion and Status



Types of Jewelry and Their Functions

 An Illustrated Dictionary of Jewelry by Harold Newman defines jewelry as any decorative article that is made of metal, gemstones and/or hard organic material of high quality, contrived with artistry or superior craftsmanship, and intended to be worn on a person. Besides such decorative items as necklaces, bracelets, ear-rings, or brooches, here belong also such articles that are functional as well as decorative (for example, cuff links, buckles) and, by extension, also movable jewelry and articles that are sewn on a garment, for example, a hat ornament (enseigne), decorative buttons, and jewelled dress ornaments. In the Middle Ages and in Renaissance jewels, being a part of personal adornment, played an immense role in self-expression and self-representation.

Utilitarian use of pieces of jewelry as a part of dress is one of the natural and most ancient functions of jewelry. Throughout the Middle Ages  “functional” jewelry such as belts, buttons, clasps stood in close connection with the development of dress fashion.

In the early Middle Ages, most jewelry was functional. Dress fashions did not allow for a great display of jewelry. The long, high-necked, sleeved under-dress, and shorter-sleeved over-tunic that were worn by both sexes, though they might themselves be richly adorned with embroidery, left little scope for jewels. The belt that was worn by men and married women, and the brooch that fastened the tunic at the neck, were the only jewels that naturally formed a part of dress, though a coronet or other head ornament might also be worn.

However, these few pieces of jewelry that were used were monumental and possessed an imperial and hieratic beauty that made them as stately and as noble as any ornaments designed for church use.

Round fibulae or brooches that closed the neck slit of the undergarment, for example, were continuously used from the Carolingian period onwards. Brooches were usually circular or of some other type of centrally symmetrical shape. A special type, called the ring brooch, was circular and richly decorated with stones and pearls or worked in repoussé. Ring brooches were universal in the thirteenth century. In the fourteenth century, also cluster brooches and wheel brooches came into fashion.

The upper garment was fastened at the breast with a larger and usually round brooch or clasp. From the thirteenth century, double robe clasps came to be used as well, attached to each end of a ribbon holding the front parts of a cloak together. Ecclesiastical morses—clasps to hold the priest’s cope together—also evolved from the type of the traditional cloak-clasp. These were often based on a cruciform or multi-lobed (often quatrefoil) shape.

Brooches and clasps were also often decorated with common heraldic motifs, such as a twelfth-century Rhenish eagle-shaped gold fibula created with repoussé technique and decorated with coloured pastes and garnets.

From the later Middle Ages we have numerous brooches executed in form of personal coats of arms. Fourteenth-century French inventories, for example, include many references to brooches with fleur-de-lis motifs. Such a large lozenge-shaped brooch from the early fourteenth century, once part of French royal regalia, is in the collection of the Louvre. The large golden lily in its centre is decorated both by traditional gems en cabochon and a large table-cut stone—a very early occurrence of the latter technique.

Figural brooches often had religious imagery as well. A beautiful silver-gilt brooch from the late fourteenth century was, for instance, prepared in the form of a letter M (letter-brooch), standing for the initial letter of Mary, and represents the Annunciation (New College, Oxford). The two figures, the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin, stand in the double arch of the letter. At the top of the letter M there is a small crown symbolising the status of the Virgin as Queen of Heaven. The central
shaft of the letter is decorated with a large vase with the lily, standing for the purity of the Virgin, whose three buds signify the moment when the Trinity comes into being.

Many brooches were set with antique cameos representing profile portraits.

Brooches were also used for affixing the rim of hats, and men’s headpieces were also embellished with badges or pendants (enseigne) that had a decorative function only. Such hat decorations were enormously popular in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and often conveyed some message about their wearer: they were decorated with initials, short mottoes, coats of arms, mythological, allegorical or secular themes, etc. Some hat badges were worn as pilgrims’ badges, others imparted moral messages. A Franco-Flemish hat medallion from c. 1520-30 (Metropolitan Museum, New York), for instance, portrays a buxom young woman with two men. On her right there is a luxuriously dressed old man with a large money-bag into which she reaches. Her other hand, with a hardly concealed erotic gesture, holds the handle of the dagger of a young man on her left. The French inscription leaves no doubt as to the meaning of the scene: “Love does much but money does everything.”

Belts were often richly decorated with applied metal fittings and mounts, often of considerable fineness. The buckles and ends of a fifteenth-century Venetian velvet belt (British Museum, London) are, for example, decorated with niello, and filigree enamel was used on the belt mounts.  Among earlier, thirteenth-century belt clasps there are also some decorated with figural scenes. On an early thirteenth-century Lotharingian gilt bronze belt clasp two figures (the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon?) are seated among garlands (Metropolitan Museum, New York). Another Lotharingian silver belt buckle from c. 1230 shows a lady receiving a knight followed by an attendant (Statens Historiska Museum, Stockholm).

At the turn of the 14th century luxury began to creep into the French court, and then spread all over Europe. More delicate and richer cloths were used for clothes; dress fashions changed so as to allow more room for decoration: ornamental embroidery or jewelry. Other applied decorations for clothing included motifs beaten on metal dies and sewn onto the textile of the costume.

Even finely executed dress jewels, decorated with gems and enamel, were sometimes sewn onto clothes for decoration. Medieval paintings of the Virgin and of God
the Father often represent sumptuous jewel-studded vestments.

The growing demand for jewelry multiplied not only the amount of jewels produced but also the types and functions of jewels. Older types of functional jewelry remained, of course, but they also had a tendency to grow into decorative pieces, sometimes forfeiting their immediate practical purpose for the sake of additional embellishment.

This happened, for instance, with belts. Until the mid-fourteenth-century, belts were rather narrow, made up of a chain, cord or strap and worn on the actual waistline. In the later period belts became broader, more decorative, and worn either lower or higher than the waistline. In some extreme cases two belts were used in male costume: a narrow belt with few decoration, worn for its functional purpose, and a broad, highly decorative belt suspended on the straps stretching from the actual belt. Renaissance women occasionally wore decorative belts of pearls or of a gold chain.

Buttons were introduced into fashion when the traditional medieval robe worn by both sexes in the earlier medieval period was replaced by new, fashionable jacquettes for men and tight bodices with short skirts (the jupes) for women. Known already in ancient Greece, buttons did not come into use in Western Europe until thirteenth century. From the mid-fourteenth century on, large, decorative buttons embellished with filigree, enamel, or cameos became a very characteristic feature of male costume, functional in their original purpose but purely decorative in their final form.

Jewels more independent of clothing such as pendants, roundels, necklaces, and rings have been used since Antiquity, but it was the age of the Renaissance which, along with the discovery of the beauty of the human body, first used jewelry in the modern sense: embellishing the body itself, independentlyof dress. It was in the second half of the fifteenth and in the sixteenth century that changes in fashion allowed the use of necklaces, bracelets, and so on to their full advantage.

Ornaments for the head became increasingly sophisticated. Fantastic coiffures were prepared and decorated with intricate headpieces, strings of pearls or beads, and delicate pendants.

Other types of headpieces, however, had been worn in earlier periods also. Diadems, often richly decorated with precious stones, had been worn by men and women since Antiquity. A Carolingian source describes Charlemagne as follows: “On festive occasions he walked in robes woven with gold thread, with shoes covered in precious stones, his mantle held together by a golden clasp, on his head a diadem of gold and jewels.” Unmarried girls in the 14th – 16th centuries often wore a wreath or chaplet of pearls or precious stones round their heads. These were the precursors of the bridal crown. Chaplets were made up of links, sometimes silver worked in repoussé and surmounted with decorative motifs such as fleur-de-lis. A Hanseatic piece of this type from the first half of the fourteenth century is in Stockholm (Statens Historiska Museum).

Medieval necklaces and neck bands were often quite simple. Strings made up of pearls or beads of rock crystal or glass were very popular and universally worn by the upper classes during the Renaissance. Though uncommon, such necklaces were used earlier as well: strings consisting of 1339 beads (1274 carved from rock crystal, the rest made from glass) dating from the early thirteenth century were found in a clay vessel in the Michailowski monastery in Kiev during archaeological

More sophisticated necklaces, such as the one from the treasure of Empress Gisela (11th century) found in Mainz, were made up of pearls, beads, and jewels arranged in an intricate design, or consisted of large metal beads decorated with gold filigree and enamel.

Bracelets were similarly made of pearls, beads or metal decorated in various ways.

The habit of wearing earrings originates in Byzantium and did not become widespread in the West until the sixteenth century. Until the thirteenth century, earrings were worn also in the West, but most of these had a characteristically flat, sickle-shape influenced by Byzantine typology. A beautiful example of the type of earrings worn in the West but based on Eastern prototypes is a pair of late tenth-century earrings probably made by a Rhenish workshop (formerly Schlossmuseum, Berlin). These flat, lunette-shaped jewels once belonged to the Empress Gisela, wife of Conrad II.


Pendants, occurring with greater frequency from the fourteenth century, were usually made of silver and greatly varied in shape. Pendants containing relics or bearing inscriptions were worn for the reasons of devotion, sentiment, protection, superstition. An enamelled, ivy leaf-shaped pendant from 1293, decorated with double-headed eagles, fleur-de-lis and a naturalistic tree, is one of the most beautiful examples of thirteenth-century jewelry and was perhaps intended as a reliquary of a particle of the Holy Cross.

Other reliquary pendants, such as a northern French pendant from c. 1330-40, had natural, bean-like shapes. The famous Middleham Jewel, set with a large sapphire, has the popular lozenge shape (Yorkshire Museum, York).

Pendants known as pectoral crosses could be either small crucifixes, or  openable reliquaries in form of a cross.

A unique mid-fourteenth-century French pendant has a medieval agate cameo of Christ’s face in the centre. The cruciform halo of the Redeemer is formed of cornelians and rock crystal pieces. Many other pendants, frequently of oval shape, enclosed — mostly antique but also medieval — cameos and intaglios in sophisticated settings, richly decorated with gems. Most pendants had a geometric shape (medallions, rosettes, crosses) and had both sides decorated. Many pieces dating from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century were decorated with translucent enamel over an engraved silver design, which often presented religious, moral or allegoric imagery. Pendants were usually worn hanging in their owner’s neck on a chain or a ribbon.

Devotional jewelry included also rosaries, or paternosters: strings of beads used in continuing prayers: each bead corresponded to a certain prayer and was named after it. The rosary was first used by the Eastern Christian Church and was brought to Western Christendom by the Crusaders. Originally the rosary consisted of three chaplets (garlands of 55 to 59 beads) each composed of 15 decades (groups of ten small beads known as Ave) and 15 bigger beads called Paternosters. Attached to a rosary was usually a crucifix, a cross or an ornamental trinket, and sometimes a finger ring. The larger beads were often made of gold and silver (sometimes engraved or enamelled) or of carved ivory or boxwood, while the smaller beads were made of many materials including coral, jet, jade, amber, glass, wood, etc. A rosary was sometimes worn by a woman as a necklace or bracelet, and by a man tucked into his belt.

There existed also devotional rings, like  a gold brooch with clasped or praying hands  from the British Museum. The inscription, AVE I MARIA G (a contracted form of AVE MARIA GRATIA PLENA), echoes the devotional motif of the praying hands.

Finger rings were among the most frequently worn pieces of jewelry. They were made from various metals (gold, silver, bronze) and—especially the cheaper types— were also worn by the lower classes. Rings were placed on both the upper and middle joints of fingers, but until the Renaissance it was unusual to wear more than one or two finger rings.

Rings had many types. The simplest were set with a stone either en cabochon or cut.

Signet rings with engraved  bezels served not only as decoration and symbols of status, but also as the identification mark of their wearers for verification purposes (documents, letters). Engraving could consist of an inscription, such as "S[IGILLUM] RICHARD RE[G] P[RIVATUM]" ("A personal seal of King Richard") or a heraldic figure, as is the case with a late fourteenth-century signet ring engraved with the coats of arms of the Grailly family.

Merchants actively used signet rings for making proprietory marks on their merchandise. Also, signet rings could be engraved with various emblems, symbols of crafts, initials.

That the mark made by a signet ring or a ring in itself was a sufficient means of identification, that in in some way a ring represented or “substituted” the person of its owner or endowed someone else with the power and identity of the owner of the ring, becomes clear if one remembers a popular folk motif: a husband sends home a messenger with his personal ring, and  the wife is supposed to obey this messenger as though it were her husband.

One more important function of inscriptions and images on rings and other pieces of jewelry has already been mentioned in connection with incised gems. The magic of the Divine name (or names), invocations of saints, cabbalistic formulas were usually placed on rings, cuffs, brooches fastening undergarment or a cloak, and had the same protective function as, according to ethnographers, was that of embroided ornaments: to protect from physical and spiritual harm those places of the human body where it is not protected by dress.

Inscriptions on rings and other pieces of jewelry could also indicate a certain type of relationship between the bearer of the jewel and the person or organization who had commissioned or presented it. This could be a relationship of sentiment, feud, or political commitment.

Beside inscriptions on "ordinary" rings, rank, affiliation, loyalty, or affection could be signified by specific forms of rings and other jewels. Some of these rings can be considered as insignia.

One such special type of ring was the lovers’ ring. Its bezel depicted an engraved blessing hand and the ring ended, opposite the bezel, in two joined hands calleda  "lovers’ knot". Lovers’ rings were given, as now, as a sign of engagement.

Among rings used at the ceremony of marriage Jewish ritual rings are of a particular interest. They usually had an inscription MAZEL TOV (Good luck) and an image of the Temple of Jerusalem, that is the house the wedding couple will eventually have built: A Talmudic formula reads that "his house is his wife." A number of such rings were found in the 14th-century hoard in Colmar. Noteworthy is the function of the wedding ring within the rite of marriage: by placing his ring on the finger of the bride, the groom symbolically “buys” her and she hands herself over to him.

There were also special types of rings for mourners. These were of fine gold, and represented Christ as the Man of Sorrows, his five wounds, and inscribed with related texts, early 16th c. . Such rings were made for mourners, as it turns out from the last will of Sir Edmund Shaa who ordered 16 such rings to be made for his mourners.

There were also several types of hollow rings with an opening bezel.  These could either serve as reliquaries or as containers for poison. Both types enjoyed extreme popularity in the Renaissance.

A very special class of jewelry is that of insignia: special distinguishing signs to mark their owner’s rank or status.

For example, lawyers with a title of "Sergeants of the Law" and thus eligible for the post of a judge, had special rings engraved with Latin devices. Sir John Fortescue first mentioned such rings in his book, De Laudibus Legum Angliae, in 1463. This tradition was perpetuated in Europe till 1875.

Vassals and servants wore signs of their overlords to express their fidelity and loyalty: rings, brooches, collars, badges. 

Members of guilds or knightly orders had their own insignia. Thick gold or silver collars made up of intricate buckles and links marked membership in the various prestigious orders of the late Middle Ages. The pendant on these collars often referred to the name of the order: the collar of the famous Order of the Golden Fleece, for example, had a sheep for a pendant.

The insignia of secular rulers – kings and dukes – had particular importance since the possession of these highly symbolic regalia testified rulers' legitimity and indicated the sacred nature of  their kingship. The ceremony of consecration of the king necessarily included the ritual of conferring the insignia. According to the French Coronation Order of 1250 (Bibl. Nat. ms. 1246), the coronation programme for the age of Saint Louis prescribed, among others, the following procedure:

The archbishop puts the ring on the king’s finger, symbol of royal dignity, the Catholic faith, and perhaps the marriage that God contracts with his people. Into his right hand the king receives the sceptre and into his left the rod, which represents – this document offers the oldest evidence for this interpretation – “a hand of justice”; and justice, of course, is the most sacred of all royal duties. At the end follow two principal insignia of power: the crown, which the peers are called upon to place on the king’s head, and the throne, on which he is seated, thereby establishing the fullness of his dignity and power.

The set of royal insignia varied depending on the country and the period. In  Scandinavian countries, for instance, crown did not come into use until the twelfth century. Scholars suggest that the reason for this was that in Scandinavia, unlike France, a king was not God’s elect but rather a person chosen by the people’s assent. Both in Norway and in France kings had two staffs, or a sceptre and a staff, as indicators of their judicial power and power over the realm. In Britain an orb was an indispensable element to symbolise kingly power and justice, as well as the dominion of the Christian religion over the world. It was placed in the left hand of the Sovereign during the coronation ceremony (in place of a rod in France).

Also ecclesiastical leaders had their symbolic jewels. Pontifical, or papal rings, are first mentioned in a letter by Clement IV in 1265, where they are referred to as signet rings, the "Fisherman’s seals", used in private papal correspondence. According to some researchers, the "Fisherman’s ring" represented Saint Peter sitting in a boat and pulling a fishing net out of the water. We have no examples of such rings preserved. We have, however, another type of pontifical ring, such as the one that belonged to Paul II (1464 - 71). An intaglio on sardonyx depicts two bearded heads, of St. Paul and St. Peter, facing each other, with a processional cross between them. On the reverse of the ring, an inscription PAULUS II PONTIFEX MAXIMUS is engraved in cameo technique.
The ceremony of papal consecration, also sometimes called coronation, included the procedure of conferral of papal insignia. The mitra preciosa was placed on the pope’s head, while the bishop’s ring and the Ring of the Fisherman were put on the pope’s finger.

Episcopal rings conferred on bishops during their ordination were first mentioned in 590, when Pope Gregory the Great decreed that the dignity and authority of bishops should be symbolised by a special ring worn on a middle finger of the right hand and by a pectoral cross. These rings were handed to the newly nominated bishop by the king. Popes received a bishop’s ring during their coronation due to their position as bishop of Rome.These rings were usually very rich and elaborate so that they could be seen during festive services from afar. A beautiful example of a pontifical ring, once worn by Walter de Gray, Archbishop of York (d. 1255), is in the treasury of the York Minster.


Central European University