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The History of Jewellery: Jewelry of the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages (5th to 15th century)

Article Copyright © 2012 AllAboutGemstones.com

The "Middle Ages" was a period in history that dated from the fall of the Western Roman Empire and Classical antiquity in the 5th century AD to the beginning of the Early Modern Period, or "Renaissance" in the 16th century. The broad designation of the Middle Ages is divided into three sub-categories known as the Early Middle Ages or "Dark Ages" (5th—10th century AD); the Middle Ages (11th—13th century); and the Late Middle Ages, also known as the "Medieval Warm Period" or "Medieval Climate Optimum" period (14th—15th century).

The Middle Ages were bookend with natural disasters and plague, marking a ten-century-long period of hardship, followed by superstition, religious oppression, fear and despair. Climate change and its relationship to human activity is not a new phenomenon. After the collapse of Western Rome around 400 AD, the climate of Europe began to cool, causing a mass migration known as the "Migration Period Pessimum" (aka "Dark Ages Cold Period"). As Northern Europe fell into the grip of the "Little Ice Age" (LIA) agricultural activity began to falter, which led to the reforestation of large areas of central Europe and Scandinavia. As Rome was split in two, the Eastern Roman Empire (aka the Byzantine Empire) began under Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus, Justinian I (Justinian the Great).

Black Death

Burned alive during the Black Death (c. 1493)

   Byzantine Empire's Justinian I

Byzantine Empire's Justinian I

As bad luck would have it, this mini Ice Age also coincided with a pandemic known as the "Plague of Justinian," which is estimated to have killed as many as 100 million people worldwide between the 6th and 8th centuries AD. The close of the Middle Ages was no picnic either, as this coincided with the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) which struck in the 14th century, killing an estimated 75 to 200 million souls.

Medieval & Byzantine Jewellery in the Middle Ages

Due to the rampant hardships of the times, superstition and mysticism abounded. Beliefs in the medicinal power of gemstones date back to antiquity, and during the Middle Ages it was commonly accepted that gems could heal every manner of illness. Talismanic rings were used as an antidote for illness, poisoning, or to ward off evil and the envious "evil eye." Animal symbols such as the dragon, serpent or toad, and ancient deities such as the Cupid, the winged god Mercury, or Venus were considered to be "talismanic," bringing good fortune to the wearer.

At the height of the Dark Ages, the Church was one of the only sources of wealth in Europe, and as such, Ecclesiastical vestments were some of the few ornate objects for the craftsmen of goldsmiths to create.

Byzantine cloisonné Medallion

Byzantine cloisonné medallion c. 1100 (photo: Jastrow)

   Byzantine Wedding Ring

Byzantine wedding ring

For the noblemen and Royalty of the Middle Ages, the "girdle" (not to be confused with the modern-day "corset") was an important accessory made of leather, textile or flat metal chain that formed a belt-like strap worn diagonally along the waistline, draping from just above the hip on the right, downward to the left thigh. The Medieval girdle was typically accessorized with keys, knives, lockets, girdle books, decorative bangles, or a pomander (pomme d'ambre). According to a law of 1376, it was forbidden to garnish a girdle of leather, silk or fine linen with an inferior metal such as lead, pewter or tin, and any craftsmen who engages in such a practice should be "punished for their false work" [4].

Jewellery of the Holy Roman Empire

Beginning in the 10th century, most of central Europe was under the control of the Holy Roman Empire, which ironically did not include the city of Rome. Beginning with Otto the Great in 962 AD, the empire fully materialized under the Hohenstaufen dynasty's Conrad III in 1138. This was a time of strife for most of the populace of Europe as the so-called "Imperial rights," or regalia of Rome enumerated explicit rights for levying tariffs, taxation, and ownership of all public lands. Most of the lands outside of the Empire were controlled by church bishops, nobles or feudal lords.

Crown of the Holy Roman Empire

10th century Imperial Crown of Conrad II

   Otto III Holy Roman Emperor

Otto III of the Holy Roman Empire

This was not a period that fostered to consumption of luxury goods by anyone other than the Church, feudal lords, or the dynastic rulers of the HRE. The resplendent crown jewels of the medieval period dripped with opulence - each piece being festooned with countless gems and pearls. Jewelry artisans were either employed in the service of the royal court, or they were left to make simple items such as housewares and rosaries. It was during this period that the art of glass lampworking began in Venice, Italy (Murano), and in Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic and Poland).

Romanesque Jewellery

As Europe became more prosperous towards the end of the Middle Ages, the decorative arts began to emerge from the cloistered world of the royal court. Romanesque metalwork was highly ornate and sophisticated, featuring decorations of Mosan enamelwork, inlayed ivory, and jewels. The Romanesque style gave way to the Gothic style during the 13th century Renaissance.

During this period, little was understood about the natural world. Like the historian and naturalist Caius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder, 23—79 AD) who came before him, a 12th century German monk named Theophilus Presbyter (c.1070—1125 AD) carefully documented the crafts of the Medieval world in his book entitled De Diversis Artibus, or essay "Upon Diverse Arts" (c. 1125). In describing the lapidary techniques for the carving of rock crystal (quartz) Theophilus suggests that the best method is to "cut open a goat of two or three years" and place the crystal near the heart so that "it may lie in its blood until it grows warm," then, "taking it out directly, cut what you please in it as long as the heat lasts."

The Medieval Guild System

During the the medieval period, tradesmen of all stripes, from goldsmiths, to glassmakers, silversmiths and gem-cutters work in specific trade "guilds," similar to a moder-day union. The guild system was very important to the economic life of small towns and villages. After years of training as an apprentice in a particular craft, the junior was tested by guild members to see if his workmanship measured up. Secular goldsmiths — those who did not work for the church — worked as either court-jewelers or in urban jewelry workshops.

The Goldsmith by Petrus Christus

The Goldsmith by Petrus Christus, 1449 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

   Imperial Glove made in Palermo

Jeweled Imperial glove made in Palermo c. 1220

The medieval goldsmith didn't just make jewelry, but also made cups and hanaps (goblets), candelabras, chalices, crosiers (pastoral staffs), vases and shrines. One of the patron saints of the goldsmith, St. Eloy or Eligius (588—659 AD), began his career as an apprentice of the court-goldsmith to King Chlothaire II, eventually rising to the rank of goldsmith to the Bishop of Noyon [8].

In the c.1220s book Dictionarius, University of Paris professor Johannes de Garlandia wrote about the medieval goldsmith's work, saying: "Goldsmiths sit before their furnaces and tables on the Grand-Pont (Paris) and make hanaps (goblets) of gold and silver and brooches and pins and buttons, and chose garnets and jasper, sapphires and emeralds for rings. The skill of the goldsmiths hammers out gold and silver sheets with slender hammers on iron anvils. It sets precious gems in the bezels of rings that barons and noblemen wear."

The goldsmith's guild kept detailed records of their members and the marks they used on their jewelry, which assisted historians in identifying their work.

Celtic Jewellery of the Middle Ages

The "Celtic" culture's roots date back to the Late Bronze Age, and the formation of the Hallstatt culture (8th-6th century BC), and the Iron Age peoples of the La Tène culture (450 BC—1st century BCE). During the Middle Ages, the Celts (pronounced kelts) flourished amongst the people of Britain, Cornwall, France (Gaulois in French, Gallia in Greek), Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and the Isle of Man, beginning with the Roman withdrawal from Britain in the 5th century, and continuing until the establishment of Romanesque art in the 12th century. These people were generically referred to as the "Gauls" by the ancient Romans.

Celtic Artwork

Celtic artwork from the Lichfield Gospels (c. 1026)

   Northants Romano-Celtic Bronze

Northants Romano-Celtic bronze mirror

The pre-Christian Celtic social structure based formally on class and kingship, and they believed in polytheism, worshiping multiple deities, gods and goddesses, under the Druids, or priests. The Celts also practiced Paganism or Neo-druidism, worshiping various aspects of nature, such as sacred trees and plants such as hazel, the oak, and mistletoe.

During the 10th and 11th century, Celtic art began to be influenced by the Norse Vikings and the Scandinavian Ringerike or Urnes styles, and later by the Romanesque style that was sweeping across Europe towards the end of the 11th century.

The Celtic Cross & Celtic Knot

The Celtic cross (aka "high cross," or "sun cross") is a familiar, and iconic motif that is associated with Celtic Christianity, although its origins are pre-Christian, dating back to the Bronze Age in the 3rd millennium BC. As a "sun cross," the Celtic cross represents both the Solstices and equinoxes. Other interpretations say that the Celtic cross symbolizes the the four elements of air, earth, fire, and water, or perhaps the four quarters of the earth.

The best known motif in Celtic art and jewelry is the "Celtic knot," with its geometric, interlacing spiral pattern which is similar to that of the ancient Norse culture. The repetitive interlocking pattern is said to represent the bond of friendship, love, unity and marriage (tying the knot), or it could represent the interconnectedness of all living things. Within the seemingly consistent patterns their are several variations that include circles, crosses, spirals, waves, and trinity motifs. The "Trinity knot," or "Triquetras" is said to represent the Holy Trinity, while the Celtic spiral, or "spiral of life" is said to represent the never-ending seasons of the year, and the never-ending cycle of life, death and rebirth.

Celtic Motifs, Symbols and Patterns

Celtic motifs, symbols and patterns

   Contemporary Celtic Jewelry

Contemporary Celtic motif jewelry (Victoria Buckley)

Although the ancient tradition of glyptic carving remained in practice during the Middle Ages, mainly carried on by Monks, it was believed that recycled glyptic gems from antiquity were the work of nature.

Amber was a favorite gemstone during the Middle Ages, and the Amber Route transported the precious gem from Gdansk, which had become the center of amber production, to capitals throughout Europe. Amber Celtic crosses were popular during this time, as well as amber bead necklaces, healing rings of amber, and amber pieces for board games.

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Bibliography on Medieval Jewelry

1. Oppi Untracht, Jewelry Concepts & Technology - Complete Reference Guide . Doubleday

2. Crystalinks, Clothing in Ancient Roman . www.crystalinks.com

3. Barbara F. McManus, Roman Clothing & Jewelry . www.vroma.org

4. F. Rogers, A. Beard, 5000 Years of Gems & Jewelry. FA Stokes Co., N.Y.

5. Fordham, Essay Upon Diverse Arts . www.fordham.edu

6. Theophilus, De Diversis Artibus . Clarendon Press

7. Clare Phillips, Jewelry: From Antiquity to the Present . Thames & Hudson

8. John W. Bradley, Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts . www.gutenberg.org

9. SUNY College, Medieval Guilds and Craft Production . www.employees.oneonta.edu

10. Italians, Florentine Goldsmith, Filippo Brunelleschi . www.greatitalians.com

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