History of Jewelry Part 3: The Middle Ages|
From England in the eleventh to fifteenth centuries, we see only a few brooches and finger rings preserved. Historians can tell, however, that there were beautiful ecclesiastical treasures at the time and that royals and guildsmen alike also had vast quantities of jeweled objects. William the Conqueror’s court was full of finery and Henry I collected gems. Royal inventories from the late thirteenth century include a large number of clasps given by the king to bishops and restored after their death, brooches, rings, pendants, belts, bracelets, and baldrics – belts worn diagonally from one shoulder to the opposite hip. Head ornaments were also quite popular and for young women and men they ranged from simple gold bands to coronals of gold, wrought with rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and pearls. Women in much of fifteenth century Europe wore enormous headdresses profusely adorned with pearls, gold spangles and precious stones, and the Italians wore simple bandeaus. Spoils from the Crusades had poured into England, and that included gemstones, which were embroidered onto garments and set into brooches worn in hats.
In medieval English inventories, the beauty of a stone counted for much less than the estimation of its talismanic value. Precious stones were considered to have had powers of their own, and their influence was strengthened by particular selection and arrangements. A poem from the fourth century was used to validate these beliefs; called Lithica, it is supposedly written as told by the seer Theodamas to the poet Orpheus. Because people put such faith in their stones, they also tended to engrave figurative images into them. With the onset of Christianity, representing figures from pagan mythology was forbidden, but people still carried little cameos or intaglios with engraved images. People forgot what the images referred to in terms of classical mythology, but knew that the stones were invested with powers, and so had them mounted as rings or seals for people of rank. Sometimes, if the image resembled some subject from Christian symbolism, the stones were even encrusted on the receptacles that held relics such as the bones of saints.
What is true of the Medieval period that such an essay as this can barely convey is the sheer amount of political movement and the great numbers of types of small regional developments that occurred within jewelry-making and stylistic trends in general. For example, in Islamic Spain before the Inquisition, art and design – including techniques and subjects – both looked back to earlier masterpieces of the Islamic golden age in Spain in the ninth and tenth centuries. This is probably because their contemporary political situation was so unstable; the Christian reconquest had already succeeded in severely curtailing their way of life and the mood was uncertain. As politics continued to affect the shape of territories all over Europe people intermingled, new materials became available, new techniques were passed from hand to hand, architecture, art, fashion, and languages all changed. Jewelry changed as well.