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Medieval Brooches & Badges

One of the most constantly depicted pieces of jewellery over the entire of the middle ages is the brooch. Brooches were used as wedding gifts, to close cloaks, at the shoulders of mantles, to pin paternosters to clothing and as markers of visits to holy places in the form of pilgrim badges.

Artifacts have also been found over a wide expanse of time periods and countries- from the viking and dark ages to the late renaissance. Many were simple in their design, although many of immense beauty and excellent workmanship have been found.

The brooch from The Gilbert Collection shown at right is from 14th century France and is made of silver gilt. It has a quatrefoil design with fleur-de-lys at the terminals and would have been worn by an Abbess or rich noble woman. At 4cm across, it is quite large for the average medieval brooch.

The ring brooch shown at left is dated to the 14th century from England and has three remaining glass-paste blue stones. It is the size of a man's thumbnail, and still has traces of gold gilding remaining. It is also from my own personal collection.

Materializing Resistant Identities among the Medieval Peasantry is an article from 2009 which looks at archaeological finds from rural villages throughout England, such as Wharram Percy and Bolton. The author, Sally V. Smith, looks at the dress accessories found at these sites and burial places. It includes brooches, buckles and pins.

Her research finds that few of these items were made of poor quality metal. Surprisingly, most were copper or iron, with one made from gold. She concludes that peasants were not choosing items made using the cheapest metals available. Over half were decorated or purely decorative providing an interesting contrast to the common perception of peasants in ragged clothing laboring in the fields.

It is possible that these items were not worn daily and saved for best or special occasions the same way that special jewellery is reserved for special occasions today. One would hardly wear a diamond tiara to work or shopping these days and it is possible that the same attitude was prelevant then also.

What is interesting to note is that they possessed these items at all. It is possible that these items were acquired for a life milestone such as a marriage, but without documented evidence, it is difficult to say for certain. Pictured at right is a beautiful ring brooch with gemstones set into it from the middle Rhine region of Germany which dates between 1340 and 1349.

Brooches could be copper-alloy, gold or silver or silver gilt or pewter for the lower classes. The gems set into them reflected the status and wealth of the wearer, although it was not uncommon for brooches and other jewellery to use fake gemstones made of glass-paste instead of real ones.

The ornate brooch at the left is from the mid-15th century collection, the Fishpool Hoarde. It is enameled with blue and white enamel with tiny gold flowers. It has three circles near the bottom of the base of the heart which may have been for pendants.

Marriage Brooches
Along with wedding rings, wedding brooches were a traditional gift from a man to his bride-to-be. It was not only a token of his love but a marriage brooch provided her with an icon befitting her new status as a wife. It also idealised her 'cleanliness of heart' as a married woman.

The brooch shown at left is made in Burgundy or Germany and is dated at 1430. It is constructed from gold and is enameled and set with precious stones- pearls, a diamond above and a ruby below. It shows a man and a woman together both wearing blue robes, the colour associated with consistency, and a woven fence around them. The clear white of the diamond represented the durability of love while the ruby represented love's fiery force.

Johannes de Hauville wrote of a marriage brooch when he wrote:

My bride shall wear a brooch, a witness to her modesty and proof that hers will be a chaste bed. It will shut up her breast and thrust back and intruder, preventing its closed approach from gaping open and the entrance to her bosom being cheapened by becoming a beaten path for any traveler and an adulterous eye from tasting what delights the honorable caresses of a husband.

Cloak Clasps
Brooches worn as cloak clasps were of two distinctly differing kinds.

The first style was a largish ornate single brooch which held the cloak closed at the centre of the throat. An example of the single-clasp style can be seen in the detail of the image at right Virgin and Child from Prague in 1345-1350. It shows an exceptionally large and elaborate gold brooch with gemstones set in a pattern radiating from the centre. Most brooches were substantially smaller than this, but the Virgin Mary is often shown in clothing and dress accessories which were royal, and not a good indication of daily wear.

The second style of cloak clasps, which were also usually very ornate, were a jewelled pair of brooches and were used by the wealthy to fasten their mantles. These were worn roughly at collarbone height and fastened with a cord which was often shown in artworks and sculptures as being tasseled.

The sculpture from the Namburg Cathedral in Germany at left is from the pair Count Eckkhard II and Uta is dated from 1250 and shows a large, jewel set brooch which is joined to a band which runs across the wearer's chest and to another identical brooch on the other side.

Ring Brooches
Plain circular ring brooches were used for their simple design and practical use throughout many stages of history by both men and women. They could be plain, have inscriptions or be set with precious and semi-precious jewels. Many were given as gifts and were designed to be worn at the breast.

The ring brooch shown at right is from the Museum of London's collection and is dated at the 13th Century. It is defined as a Lovers Brooch and is made from gold and set with alternating rubies and sapphires. It is believed to be either English or French manufacture.

The message on the back translates to I am here in place of the friend I love.

The double ring brooch shown above is made from gold as has green stones and a large sapphire set into it. It is from England from approximately 1300 and it would have been worn across the front of a cloak- each ring brooch fastening one side of the mantle and the rigid setting across the chest would be instead of the usual cord fastening.

Pilgrim Badges
Pilgrim badges were one of the most popular types of souvenir in the medieval period. Badges were produced for two main reasons- to raise extra revenue for the shrine or church and to avert pilfering from holy places.

It seems that pilgrims who were keen to take a souvenir back home were less likely to steal from relics if they were able to buy a badge instead, especially as it was thought that a badge bought at a particular shrine retained the properties of the saint which was honored there.

Mostly, pilgrim badges were worn prominently attached to hoods, bags and sewn onto hats.

Pilgrim badges were made of an alloy of lead and tin or pewter. These were cast in moulds and were often cheaply made with the quality of the pewter varying greatly. Badges favoured by women featured Saint Katherine, patron saint of learning for young women, or of the Virgin Mary.

The badge at left depicts the head of John the Baptist, patron saint of Perth in Amiens, France. It is completely intact, with four rings which enabled the badge to be sewn onto the pilgrim's hat or cloak. The back is decorated with a crucifix design and the inscription on the front identifies it as the sign of John the Baptist.

Secular Badges
Secular badges were similar to pilgrim badges in that they were made from pewter and cheaply made. Unlike pilgrim badges, they were not of a religious nature and covered more mundane topics, like hounds, flowers, hearts with love slogans and an eye-watering range of carnival badges which we see today as X-rated.

Medieval people, however, appeared to be hilariously fond of them.

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