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Medieval Necklaces

Necklaces have adorned the necks of women with the means and the inclination to do so since time immemorial. The desire to own and wear beautiful things has often coupled neatly with the protective properties of the materials the item was made from. Necklaces were thus worn to protect and to give status to the wearer. At almost all periods in history, images of necklaces and artifacts can be found.

Shown at left is a pendant with a gold setting with a blue stone surrounded by small white stones from the mid-15th century from the Fishpool Hoarde

An examination of 14th century paintings and illuminations show that European women appear to be more likely to have worn beaded necklaces and pendants than their English counterparts. Brooches and rings continued to be worn everywhere. It is particularly interesting to note that the period from the late 13th century to the early 1400's necklaces, both artifacts and images in artwork, are conspicuous by their absence, especially in medieval England.

Italian and Spanish women continue to wear beaded necklaces throughout the entire medieval period.

While images of collars and chains of office for men are regularly portrayed, neck jewellery for women is scarce. The image at right is from The Nine Worthies tapestry in 1480. It would appear that it is a representation of the pewter artifact necklaces which have been excavated from Meols.

That is not to say that necklaces were never worn, only that they seemed an exception, rather than the rule, to the current fashion trends in England. Even household accounts which list rings and expensive gold belt buckles seem to omit references to necklaces or pendants.

Why this might be can only be guessed at. We do know that Sumptuary Laws regularly sought to limit the excesses of dress during these times. We know that jewelled items with a practical function were worn- brooches as wedding gifts and for fastening mantles and cloaks, lavish belt buckles for clothing and jewelled headpieces for women in order that the hair be restrained in a pretense at modesty. It could be suggested that during and after the period encompassing the Black Death, necklaces for women may have been seen as an excessive item of vanity and pride and therefore heavily discouraged by the church.

One express written reference for this comes from Prague where a statue of Saint Dorothy dated at 1400 is criticised vehemently for wearing a necklace which draws attention to the slender, white neck.

Bead necklaces
Bead necklaces of precious and semiprecious stones have been worn by women world wide since the earliest times. The red, 13th century necklace shown at right is from Stormbroek and is made from an unidentified red stone. The beads are uneven shapes and not evenly sized making it unlikely to be for devotional use.

The image at right is one of the rare tomb effigies of England to show a women wearing neck jewellery in the 1400s. The effigy is of Emma Pollard from St Michael's Church in Horwood, England.

It shows what appears to be a combination of a bead and pendant necklace. It is not possible to tell from the image whether the pendant is devotional, protective or merely decorative.

Bead necklaces are regularly portrayed in medieval art from the 15th century onwards. Italian women often wore strings of beads woven into their hair as a part of their hairdressing along with necklaces made of pearls and precious stones. It is interesting that in this country, the veil was abandoned much earlier than other countries leaving the head open to other forms of ornamentation.

The Italian painting at left from 1465-1466 by Francesca is the Portrait of Battista Sforza and it shows an elaborate bead collar with bead necklace. This type of jewellery was quite popular and wide spread throughout Italy during this period.

Necklaces with pendants have also been worn for a great deal of history by both men and women alike. Often pendant necklaces are devotional, but just as often, they are purely decorative. The pendant part of the necklace might be as elaborate as gold or silver linked chain or as simple as braid, leather thonging and ribbon with the pendant dangling below. The necklace chain might be short or long.

The English pendant shown at right dates from 1540 -1560. The stones were carefully selected for their protective properties. Hessonite garnet, peridot and sapphire. The setting has no back, allowing the stones to rest against the wearer's skin for maximum potency. The back also includes an inscription to protect the wearer against epilepsy and drunkenness.

Many items of jewellery which have been found are tempting to categorise as pendants when it is unclear if that is what they actually were. Many pendant-type jewels were hat ornaments which were pinned through the loop at the top. Many examples of these can be seen in contemporary artworks. One example can be seen in the painting of Mary of Burgundy below on the painting in the collars section..

The pendants at left has a large sapphire in a diamond-shaped gold setting known as the Middleham Jewel.

Collars are the neck ornamentation which are set high and at the very base of the wearer's neck. This particular style of necklace was extremely popular with the dress known as the Burgundian Gown and the Houppelande.

The wide "V" neckline of the first offers a large expense of white skin to display the wide jewellery collar on, and the high neckline of the houppelande also offers a perfect fabric backdrop for jewellery.

The detail from the painting of Mary of Burgundy from 1490 by Pacher shows the wide, jewelled collar popular during the late 15th century. It also shows what appears to be a beaded necklace and a brooch on her hennin.

Livery Collars
Livery collars are not a common item of neck jewellery for women over the bulk of the medieval period. Men commonly wore these and are often depicted wearing them in the middle ages, but ladies are depicted only in the 15th century.

A few written references do mention that women of a certain household may wear a livery collar to denote their allegiance to a particular person or household. This is reflected in several 15th century tomb effigies and brass rubbings.

The effigy at the right is from St Mary's church at Broughton in England.

Coral necklaces for babies
In the same way that amber necklaces are popular today for infants and toddlers, red coral was a popular choice for medieval babies.

The red coral was believed to have special properties which were beneficial to the baby.

There are many painters like the one at left which show the baby Jesus wearing red coral on a string around his neck. The mother does not wear a necklace herself.


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