Jewelry of the middle ages

A photo of an  ancient reliquary cross, Palestinian, AD 1000-1200

Museum of Art
Rhode Island School of Design
Gift of Mrs. Murray S. Danforth
Photography by Erik Gould

Click on the above image for a larger detailed view


The period covered in this chapter will be from the fall of the roman empire, approximately 500 AD to the expulsion of the Moslems from Spain in 1492, which many historians consider the end of medieval history. Although these years embody the longest period of human history, there are intertwining events that work to hold this time together. The growth of Christianity continued to evolve, giving many estranged peoples a similarity of beliefs. This religious development had many effects throughout a tumultuous world, ranging from the broadening formation of universities, to the violence of the ensuing crusades. Contrary to many popular beliefs, the middle ages did not cause a halt to creativity. Under the auspices of Charlemagne, the Carolingian renaissance occurred. There was also an Irish renaissance during which was created many spectacular illuminations such as the book of Kells.

After the fall of the roman empire, design of jewelry became less important than the portraying of a mystical significance in the piece. Speed was desired over quality, most probably because of the feeling of "impending doom" due to the drastic change in life as it had been known. As Christianity spread, one institution was produced which brought back the perfection sought in earlier times. Strange as it may seem, the monastery holds this position. For the men who became monks, it was essential that they practice a trade to keep the monastery flourishing. While the majority of the monks turned to farming or wine making, some of them preferred goldsmithing. Most of their talent for this art was concentrated on ecclesiastical jewels. Even when the jeweller was commissioned by private patrons, there was always a strong religious influence.

Like the jewelers of the pharaohs, the monk craftsman was expected to be not only a goldsmith, but a designer, sculptor, smelter, inlay and enamel worker, and an expert in the cutting and mounting of stones. Their methods were not much improved, for they retained those used by the "pagans". Less is known about the creations of these monks than earlier jewelers, because the practice of burying a man’s possessions with him was a custom disapproved of in this developing religion of Christianity. For this reason, many precious stones have been removed from pieces created in the middle ages and the metal melted down for use when new designs were formed, when capital was needed to support a conflict or a monarch wanted to continue to live in the manner to which he was accustomed.

When monasteries turned more to the business of religion in the later middle ages, workers in the same metals developed a different method of production. Jewelers with similar interests, who produced similar objects, consorted together and often dwelt on the same streets and thoroughfares for protection. This also led to a smoother pursuance of their business. In France, these groups of jewelers were known as corporations, while in England they assumed the name of guild.

An example of these organizations of jewelers was the worshipful company of goldsmiths located in London. Like many of the guilds, this was developed in a semi-religious mode. They all had a patron saint and the worshipful company’s was St. Dustan. Because of the institution of a system of purity for the metal used, this guild established a high reputation. This association of goldsmiths also fixed a standard "by which the quality of the wares wrought by the members could be gauged and known". One of the most important duties associated with the creating of jewelry was the thorough scrutinization with which every article for sale had to pass. Several practices were used to cheapen jewelry, which the guild protected against. Tin was often covered with gold so cleverly that the public was easily deceived. In addition, counterfeit stones were used to replace real jewels.

As the manufacture of jewelry became more involved, guilds divided into different areas. The busiest of these guilds was involved with making brooches. This organization was further divided, with the fine work done by the goldsmith and the everyday brooches created by the lower orders of craftsman.

A photo of a classic cameo brooch,Italian  19th Century 

Museum of Art
Rhode Island School of Design
Gift of Dexter B. Potter
Photography by Erik Gould
Click on the above image for a larger detailed view

Even though jewelry design was dominated by Christian ideas, impressions were expressed from other cultures. The German tribes, better known as "barbarians", contributed the popular inlaid jewelry. The gems are ground flat and each is fastened in its own compartment. This creates the inlaid appearance. The effect sought seems to be to attain a rich, flat color. Garnets, turquoise and mother-of-pearl were used, manifesting a semblance of eastern design.

When Constantine the great founded Constantinople in 330 AD., jewelry began to take on a more oriental look. The influence of the Byzantines characterized jewelry design throughout the middle ages. One of these distinctions was the greater use of stones, with a leaning towards more splendor in color. Cloisonné was used in place of stones when more specialized colors were sought. Niello work was often used when decorating gold and silver.

The classic cameos of the Greco-roman era were surpassed during their medieval revival. German agate was chosen as the best material for creating cameos. There were some essential differences between the classical and medieval cameos. Greek cameos had an underside quite flat, while on the revival ones the underside was hollowed out. The later cameos were also worked in a higher relief than the ancients. Their basic similarity was in the subject matter, with the medieval craftsman using classic gems as examples.

During the later middle ages, the Byzantine traditions maintained their strong influences. New patterns of settings did begin to emerge though, which continued into the renaissance. Stones were cut en cabochon and were irregular in outline. This was attained by not cutting facets into the stone, but smoothing its natural shape with the result being a flat underside for easy setting, and a rounded top to display more color.

One important type of jewelry was created during the middle ages, but was neither influenced by, nor did it affect the rest of the jewelry world. This was found in the extreme west in the country of Ireland. Because of its physical separation from the rest of the medieval culture, Celtic metal work maintained its independent existence.

There are many peculiarities which separate these designs from others of the same time, one being the use of hammer and rivets due to their ignorance of soldering. The general popularity in all cultures of brooches and bracelets was not changed with Celtic jewelry. But, two of their most widespread pieces of jewelry are of pure Celtic design. One of these was the penannular brooch. The purpose of this brooch was to fasten the heavy cloaks of the Celts. For this reason the brooches were generally of a large size. They also served to demonstrate the level of skill with which the Celts had accomplished in enameling. Their work was minute and fine in detail, with both sides of the brooch completely filled with design. These patterns were rather geometric, comparable to the mosaics of the Arabs. Most probably due to their lack of material diagrams were first worked on the bone of an animal to see how the completed design would appear on metal. These bones were collected by the jeweller to demonstrate to future patrons his fine work and craftsmanship.

Another Celtic original was the torque. This was a neck ring of twisted gold, usually rather massive in form. Most of them were worn around the neck, but it is conjectured that those of close to five feet in diameter were worn from the shoulder across the chest, probably for ceremonial purposes.

The culminating point of Celtic adornments was reached with the influx of Christianity into Ireland. With this the most regal of settings were designed for the enhancement of Christian relics. Cabochon stones were used dramatically, with clear ones often set over relics for magnifying purposes.

Moving from the Celts back to the continent, there were two developments in jewelry which were distinctly medieval. Perhaps the most popular and widely used piece of ornamentation were the pilgrims’ signs. 

When a pilgrim made the journey to a shrine, he or she was given or bought a token of the saint of the particular shrine. These were made of lead or pewter in unlimited numbers at the shrine itself. These signs were worn on the hats and because of the meaning they took on as being talismans, the tokens were collected by many who never visited a shrine. The most popular token was from the reliquary of Thomas A. Becket. By the time of the renaissance, these tokens developed into a more jewel-like form called the "enseigne", which will be discussed in that chapter.

The pomme d’ambre was another typically medieval ornament, most probably worn out of necessity more than for beauty. The apples of amber, or pomanders, were elaborate openwork metal in shape of a hollow sphere. Pomanders were used initially to carry a religious image or relic. They soon became highly ornamental and were divided into sections, each of which held a different perfume. Due to their rather large size, the pomander could not be worn as pendants so they were draped from the girdle. One can understand the need for these objects, for cleanliness was not the order of the day.

As Cato found necessary in Rome to limit the wearing of jewelry, so it was in the middle ages. Ever since jewelry became a symbol of wealth, restrictions for its use were often set by those who used jewelry as this type of symbol most frequently. In 1283, a French edict was proclaimed to prohibit its citizens from wearing precious stones, pearls and certain jewels of gold or silver. In a statue "de victu et vestitu", Edward  IIIi of England delegated the kind of costume and adornment that the various classes of society might aspire to. The lower classes, including craftsmen and yeomen, were prohibited from wearing any jewels of gold or silver. How they could have afforded them in the first place is another question. Only nobles and merchants maintaining a certain income were authorized to own precious stones. In 1380 and 1404, even more stringent laws limiting jewelry were passed in Spain.

Although the middle ages were not as productive as the preceding era, it did serve to continue the basic methods of manufacture and a conception of jewelry that truly represents that period of growth and new ideas.

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A Jewelry History
Table of contents|
 Introduction |Glossary| Ancients and Classical Jewelry| Jewelry of the Middle Ages|
  Jewelry of the Renaissance| Jewelry from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century| Rings| Necklaces|
Bracelets and Earrings| Brooches| Bibliography| Ancient Jewelry Photo Gallery




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