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Medieval Jewelry: Fashion and Status

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Economic and Social Value of Jewelry

Economic and social aspects are invariably intertwined in medieval attitude toward jewelry.

As has already been mentioned, most materials for jewelry were costly. There actual market prices certainly changed over time, depending on the availability of the material, market demand, and general development of fashion. The bigger the stone the greater was its value and the more it was sought for.

The sapphire, the most appraised stone up to the end of the thirteenth century, later yielded to the ruby not only in symbolic value but also in price. In the late Middle Ages the diamond became the most valuable and expensive of all stones, although in Spain and Portugal the emerald held superior position, due to the characteristic Iberian fondness for emeralds. Pearls circulated in huge quantities and were usually sold by weight. The greatest European market for pearls imported from the East  was Venice. Venice was also a principal centre of forgeries, at any rate in the thirteenth century. For instance, glass cameos, Byzantine in style but produced in Venice, gave cause for concern for the fourteenth-century Paris purchasers.

Kings and princes, great noblemen and even rich merchants invariably kept a store of precious and semi-precious stones and cameos. By merchants and those noblemen, who had relatively little jewelry, stones were kept as a reserve of valuables but in noble and princely circles they were stored for use in jewelry and plate or to give away as presents. Precious stones were often given as presents at weddings and at New Year and on other occasions. The stones and bits and pieces from the objects which had been broken up were also preserved with care. The practice of keeping a store of precious stones and pearls was fostered by the conditions of medieval goldsmith’s work, in which the commissioner was so often expected to supply the costly gold and gems which were the raw materials of the art. For safe preservation precious stones were frequently mounted in rings or fixed in wax. They were also kept loose, wrapped in a bag or cloth.

In the late fourteenth century the significance of stones of price is shown by the fact that they often received their own special names. Jean, Duc de Berry (1340 - 1416), owned the Great Balas of Venice, bought from Valentina Visconti in 1407, the Balas of Orange, bought in 1408 from two French courtiers, the Balas of the Chestnut, the Balas of David, the Balas of the Cock-Crest, the Ruby of the Ear, the Ruby of the Quail, the Ruby of Gloucester, the Ruby of Apulia, the Ruby of the Dimple, a fine small ruby called the Barley Grain, the Ruby of the Mountain, bought in 1405, the Ruby of Berry, bought in 1408, a ruby called the Coal of Burgundy, and the King of Rubies, bought for him as a present by his nephew Jean Sans Peur, Duke of Burgundy, in 1413, and given this name by Jean de Berry, so great was his delight in its splendour.

Some stones or jewels were cherished not so much for their price or beauty as for their family associations. In 1370 Jeanne d’Evreux, Queen Dowager of France, left a small diamond which her brother Philippe, King of Navarre (1305 - 43) had given her many years before ‘that he ever wore upon his person because it had been their father’s.’

The acquisition and possession of precious stones were matters of thrilling interest and deep satisfaction to medieval princes, as well as providing them with a treasure which could be used to increase their magnificence of array and largesse in the form of dress, jewelry and plate. Sometimes it is difficult to decide whether medieval lovers of stones, such as Jean de Berry,  should not be properly called connoisseurs and collectors.

Individual jewels or collections of jewels were sometimes sold by their noble owners to other great personages. An exchange of jewels between distant courts was a custom among rulers. On occasions precious stones passed down as heirlooms. In many cases jewels that had once been worn by secular noblemen and noble women were later included into a devotional bequeath to the Church and ended up in an ecclesiastical treasury or as a part of church decoration. It was a common custom to offer jewels as pious donations to churches,  shrines, and statues of the saints.

The giving of jewelry to a bride first at her betrothal and then on marriage was a recognised social custom among all social classes throughout Western Europe. In most countries it seems also to have been expected that either her family or the bridegroom should provide the bride with the ornaments suitable to her standing as a married woman. In addition to these the bridegroom must often have given the bride-to-be some personal token of love – usually a ring or a brooch.

Among the classes that could afford gold and silver there was no social situation in which two lovers  -- in the illicit sense of the word – could freely make each other gifts of jewelry or openly wear such gifts. In the chivalric relationship of courtly love the lover had of necessity to conceal his affection under enigmatic language and symbols, so as not to expose the lady of his thoughts to scandal and dishonour. In the fourteenth century the device and motto provided a resolution of this problem, for they enabled the chivalric lover to conceal with an image – a flower or bird, a letter – the object of his cult, while figuring, if only by remote allusion and private significance, the mood of his passion, whether of hope, longing, or despair.

Men could receive gifts of jewelry as a prize for a victory at a tournament, as a gift from the patron, or for the knightly initiation.

We know little of ordinary usage in the wearing of jewelry. It figured as a matter of course  on great occasions, at feasts and festivals – weddings, banquets, dances, tournaments and the great religious  anniversaries of the year, which  the Middle Ages celebrated with secular splendour as well as pious devotion. Moreover kings, queens, nobles and knights can rarely, if ever, have appeared in public without some jewel in token of their degree.

In the lower social circles jewelry fell into two categories: the cheaper and simpler pieces to be worn on daily basis and the “feastday decoration” to be worn on great occasions. Weddings undoubtedly constituted such an occasion. Both the wedding couple and the guests felt it their right to put on their best dresses and most sumptuous jewels.

In the Middle Ages, the gender distinction in jewelry was almost inexistent. Both men and women wore brooches and girdles, chains and collars, circlets and chaplets. The greater richness and variety of women’s jewelry was partly due to a number of head ornaments and of costly trimmings that they wore, and partly to a difference in social roles. Men reserved their jewels for feastdays, while women generally preferred to walk out in fine dress. This must be one reason why high medieval sumptuary legislation restricting jewelry mainly concerns itself with women.

There was a certain disagreement in theoretical question of who ought to be more richly arrayed. One opinion was that the man ought to be more richly dressed, as he has power over women, but he must nevertheless, observe a certain restraint in his array. Another party voiced women’s right to some array: : ‘. . . It is more fitting that a woman should chain a man to her by her pleasing attire than the contrary, for a bird of freer flight requires the greater art in its pursuers,’ wrote Konrad von Megenburg (1309 - 74). Precautions, however, should always be made to avoid excess of ornament in women.  Religious resentment against vanity and ostentation  notwithstanding, economic considerations were even more important. The same author warns: ‘I have seen knights and citizens fall into scantily clad nakedness through pesumptuous spending on ornaments.’

Children had their own types of jewelry. References to children’s jewelry are quite early. Both noble families and wealthy bourgeoisie decorated children with brooches, chaplets, girdles. These were similar in fashion to those worn by the adults, if only cheaper and smaller in size. In Italy in the fourteenth century it was customary to give new-born babies crosses or pieces of coral to be worn round the neck, even more for the protection of the infant than as a decoration. The Child can be seen wearing a coral of this like in a number of quattrocento paintings of the Virgin and the Child. Sumptuary laws often restricted the amount and quality of jewelry worn by children. San Bernardino exclaimed in 1427, addressing Sienese populace: ‘When I think too of your children, how much gold, how much silver, how many pearls, how much embroidery you make them wear!’ On the contrary, in 1528 the edict of Count Enno II of Friesland ordained ‘that all our subjects dress their children according to the old Frisian manner, and adorn them with silver ornaments.’

It was not only the laity who wore jewelry in the Middle Ages. The passion for it was general, and in spite of their vows of poverty it was necessary to make regulations inhibiting monks and nuns from wearing it. In considering the jewelry of nuns, it is important to remember that on their profession they were sometimes given a plain gold ring in token of their espousal to the Church, from the twelfth century onwards. Such rings were rather enseignes of their profession rather than jewelry in our sense. In 1227 the Synod of Trier forbade nuns to wear any jewels or brooches or gold or silver rings or gold braids or silk girdles. The statutes of the Hôtel-Dieu of Troyes, drawn up in 1263, forbid the nuns to wear precious stones, unless when ill, when of course their curative properties were of value. Particularly nuns of royal birth were indulged in receiving and wearing jewelry.
Many of the higher clergy granted themselves a licence in the matter of jewelry, and the lesser clergy followed their example. The clergy of the archdiocese of Milan were several times admonished for their secular style of dress and jewelry. In 1215 the Lateran Council forbade clerics to wear brooches or buttons of gold or silver on any of their garments, or even of gilt or silvered metal. The only permissible kind of jewelry was rings. Indeed, bishops and archbishops wore them as insignia of office, and they were also collected both for giving away as presents and as securities.

Being insignia of some sort – an indicator of rank , status, or wealth – is one of the most important functions of medieval jewelry. In the eyes of noblemen, jewelry of gold and precious stones was the prerogative of knightly degree and above. Christine de Pisan, in her biography of King Charles V of France, written in 1403 – 4, says that because of all that those belonging to the order of chivalry endure in war from hard beds, cold, misadventure and the perils of assault and battle ‘rich array decorated with orphreys and glittering with gold and precious stones were established for them as being a thing due and pertaining to them.’ This was also the view of the Church. Preaching a sermon against vanity in Siena in 1427, San Bernardino condemned those who wore garments that were not proper to their rank and occupation in life.

Sumptuary laws were an expression of this importance of jewels as symbols of rank. Wealthy citizens and their wives were repeatedly banned from wearing gold and precious stones proper only to their superiors. A French royal ordinance of 1283 commanded that ‘no bourgeois or bourgeoise . . . shall wear or be allowed to wear gold or precious stones or girdles of gold or set with pearls or coronals of gold and silver’. Not only noblemen’s jealousy of  wealthier nouveau riches caused the appearance of sumptuary laws. From the second half of the thirteenth century onwards we find merchant communes themselves enacting sumptuary laws to restrain  extravagance and pretension in dress among their wives and daughters, no doubt with the purpose to secure the stability of fortunes and the balance of relative civic rank.

Apart from legal regulations the use of jewelry was also based on such considerations as professional or social propriety, religious feeling, or age. Then as now, women and men advanced in age were expected to dress more plainly. An elderly woman wearing girlish attire was an object of derision and mockery.

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