Jewelry has been part of human society for countless thousands of years – longer than we have been human. It can convey status, wealth, religious symbolism or even simple personal taste – and all of these wide varieties of meaning are visible throughout medieval jewelry. We stock an enormous variety of medieval jewelry for sale, and we are sure that you’ll find the perfect medieval jewelry to finish your LARP outfit or re-enactment impression. Keep reading for a quick guide to the historical pieces that have informed our medieval inspired jewelry.
Throughout the medieval period, rings have been layered with symbolic significance. From symbolic offerings of love, to superstitious wards against sickness or disaster, to the heraldic signets of Kings and Queens, they are an incredibly diverse piece of medieval jewelry. They can bring an extra element of status and authenticity to any re-enactment or LARP outfit.
One of the more unusual usage of rings which holds a clue to their meaning is the early-Medieval ‘ring sword’. These swords, dating from the Migration Period and popular in Anglo-Saxon England, would often have a ring (either a wearable finger-ring or a stylised representation of one) built into the hilt of the sword, often welded or riveted in place. There is a fine example of an Anglo-Saxon ring sword at the British Museum, with what looks like an actual wearable ring of different metal incorporated into the hilt. Historians theorise that this represented an ever-present reminder of an oath of loyalty, and the enduring association between fealty and rings remains strong even to the modern day, for example in the phrase ‘to kiss one’s ring’.
Rings were often exchanged as a means of sealing a marriage or as an expression of love. A 13th-century document echoes the Classical idea that the fourth finger bears the vein which flows directly from the heart, - hence that is why a diamond ring should be worn there to symbolise love. Remember this for wearing your authentic medieval jewelry in a period-correct manner!
Signet rings were used to stamp the wax seals of official documents in the medieval period. Whilst in the Early- and High-Medieval period this was likely reserved only for the highest status and wealthiest individuals, whose signets were inscribed with their personal heraldry, wealthy commoners and burgers also began wearing their own personal signets as feudal bonds loosened in the Late Medieval period. A fine example of this type of medieval jewelry is the enigmatic hawks-lure signet ring found in the Fishpool Hoard, a collection of items buried during the Wars of the Roses.
Necklaces and Pendants – Grave Goods and Hacksilver
Some of the finest items of surviving medieval jewelry are the necklaces that appear in a range of cultures and artistic contexts.
A specifically Viking form of necklace was the neck-ring. These were often twisted bands of metal worn by both genders, usually in silver or gold. Archaeologists have discovered that these were often made in standardised weights, and frequently bear marks of being cut or shaved. It seems likely that these were almost akin to wearable wallets of a set value that could be used in the Vikings’ hacksilver bullion trade.
In the High Middle Ages, we can see a clear influence of Gothic architecture on the medieval jewelry of the period. We see fine ‘openwork’ brooches which mirror the symmetrical arches and buttresses of contemporary cathedrals. These are often set with polished cabochon jewels – emeralds and sapphires were particularly popular. This are often the type that is replicated in medieval reproduction jewelry.
A frequent form of necklace is the pendant, where a highly decorated pendant is suspended from a fine chain or cord. Pendants have occasionally been found amongst the burial possessions of Vikings – a famous type is the ‘Mjolnir’ pendant, which is an instantly recognisable shape reminiscent of Thor’s hammer. It is speculated that this form of medieval Viking jewelry has a special symbolism, since pendants are often found in association with other rare and prized objects like glass beads. A particularly fine example of a pendant from the Renaissance period is this reliquary cross at the V&A Museum. It is a spectacularly decorated container that likely once contained a tiny fragment of a holy relic – this would have been worn by a wealthy devout noble, possibly a church official, or maybe even a particularly wealthy commoner. The rubies, which symbolise the blood of Christ, have been cut, demonstrating the burgeoning trade of jewellers who were beginning to assay and shape gems in late-Medieval Europe.
Heavy is the Head that Wears the Crown
What is a Queen or King without a crown? Adding a crown to your medieval outfit can raise it from elegant opulence to the realm of noble superiority. We are proud to include authentic medieval crowns as part of our medieval jewelry for sale.
Crowns have a long and august history, at least as far back as the pagan Roman emperors, who wore the corona radiata (radiating crown). In seeking to emulate their Classical forebears, Holy Roman Emperors in the early medieval period resurrected the tradition of ‘crowning’ their monarchs. The spectacular Crown of Saint Wenceslas was commissioned by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV for his coronation in 1346. It is a near-peerless solid-gold crown of the High Middle Ages, being inset with 91 jewels and 20 pearls, weighing more than 2 ½ kilos (5 ½ lbs)! Heavy is the head that wears this crown, without doubt.
Perhaps the oldest surviving medieval crown is the Iron Crown of Lombardy. It is a spectacular piece of medieval Celtic jewelry, parts of which date back to the Lombard era of Italian history, in the 5th or 6th century CE. Its six beaten-gold panels are richly inlaid with cloisonné and set with 22 gemstones - these panels are all affixed to an inner silver band that gives the crown its name: legend has it that this band contains an iron nail from the True Cross itself. It was used in an unbroken line of dozens of coronations of Kings of Italy, the earliest we are certain of being Henry VII in 1312, via Napoleon Bonaparte in 1805, all the way through to Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria in 1832, in his claim as King of Lombardy and Venetia.
A tragically lost crown is that of the Queen’s Crown, which was part of the Polish Crown Jewels – in it is bound up the sad history of Poland itself. The crown was a glorious one, consisting of eight segments topped with fleurs-de-lys and inlaid with hundreds of jewels, richer even than the crown of the King. It was commissioned in 1320 by the magnificently named Władysław I the Elbow-high for his wife Jadwiga of Kalisz, and it was the crown of dozens of Polish queens. Yet Poland was dismembered in three partitions from 1772, and in 1795 was entirely disbursed between Austria, Russia and Prussia. The majority of the Polish regalia, including the Queen’s Crown was melted down in an act of historical and cultural vandalism in 1809. Only the Polish sword of state Szczerbiec survived.
Earrings – Eastern Mysticism
Earrings are another persistent feature of medieval jewelry in Europe – although in Western Europe, ear-piercing was far from consistently practised. This has much to do with the Catholic Church, whose teachings in the Middle Ages generally forbade the modification of the flesh through tattoos and piercings. But this was far from strictly observed as, for example, Levantine tattooists would often give Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land a tattoo to commemorate their trip; one modern tattoo parlour in Jerusalem claims to have an unbroken line of 27 generations tattooing pilgrims since 1300 CE! Thus, most of the medieval earrings you’ll find for sale today are medieval inspired jewelry, rather than faithful exact reproductions.
That said, outside of the strict Catholic heartlands and in the Orthodox East, ear piercing was common for both men and women. For example, a famous pair of Byzantine earrings reside at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. These date from the 7th-century CE, and were found in the Visigothic kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula. It is theorised that this rich gift of gold and semi-precious stones might well have been a gift for a ruler of the area. Aside from their great age, you could walk into any trendy jeweller and see something near-identical today!
It appears that the wearing of earrings became much more popular towards the end of the medieval period amongst both men and women. However, it retained its association with the exotic and the Orientalised East. This can be seen in van Eyck’s 1432 Erythrean Sybil, a depiction of a Greek prophetess from modern Turkey, who is depicted with a silver earring, or Balthazar, depicted by Heironymus Bosch in the 1480s work Adoration of the Magi as a sumptuously dressed dark-skinned man with a pearl earring. Yet we can see how the fashion-forward were beginning to adopt the earring as their own: a portrait of the pioneering French socialite and mistress of King Charles VII Agnès Sorel by court artist Jean Fouqet shows her with an exquisite earring – doubtless this was thought highly daring and the height of fashion by her contemporaries. Over the next century, ear-piercing would become much more common amongst men and women, due in no small part to the superstitious belief that an ear piercing would improve the eyesight. This made it popular amongst sailors, pirates and the lower classes; this, along with the Church’s continued disapproval, did little to improve the image of this type of medieval jewelry in the settled European West. By the end of the Medieval period, earrings were just becoming popular enough that they appeared on a portrait of William Shakespeare, giving him a rakish air, but that is outside of our ambit.
Amulets: A Ward for Devils and Demons
In an age before disease was well understood and when demons lurked around every corner, it in unsurprising that we find amulets worn almost universally throughout the Middle Ages. It is often tricky to guess at the precise meaning of charms and tokens that have often come down to us without commentary – and without their wearers to explain. Medieval inspired jewelry attempts to reconstruct the hidden meaning imbued in those amulets, and brings them to modern wearers.
A wonderfully enigmatic amulet is held at the British Museum: the Ballycottin brooch. The amulet is a cruciform made from gilded copper, with animalistic Anglo-Carolingian designs on each arm – but what leaps out is the black glass setting in the middle. It is inscribed with an Arabic figure, possibly ‘sha'a allah' or 'tubna lillah’, meaning ‘As God wills’ or ‘We have repented to God’. It is a testament to the interconnectedness of European trade and culture that a piece of medieval Celtic jewelry found in a bog in the Republic of Ireland can be inscribed with a good-luck-charm from North Africa.
Nowadays, there feels like a clear distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘magic’, but in the Medieval period, superstitions taken from organised religion and folk customs frequently overlapped and combined. A great example of this is the incised Coptic amulet at the Met Museum, New York. It is inscribed with a passage from the Bible which details the healing of a woman who was bleeding for twelve years – and the amulet itself is a setting made from haematite, a stone which was thought to aid menstrual health and reproductive problems. Could this have been a charm made for a woman who was suffering from the same issues? It is fascinating to speculate.
Another means of calling for spiritual aid with worldly problems was the ‘textual amulet’. These were liturgical or Biblical scripts written on a piece of parchment or paper, and folded tightly into a size small enough to be placed inside a container which could be worn. Dozens of examples exist, and they range between anything from simple scrawled prayers, all the way up to highly illuminated manuscripts. Although they tend to date generally from the earlier medieval period, many fine examples from the High- and Late-Middle Ages have been discovered, such as this spectacular French illustrated textual amulet, dating from around 1400 CE. They were often worn at times of great danger, such as for women in childbirth or those passing on. The selections written upon this particular textual amulet seem to have been selected for their relevance to demons and repelling dark spirits… If you want to take your LARP or re-enactment into the stratosphere, you could make a textual amulet for yourself to go with our medieval reproduction jewelry – even if nobody will ever see it, you’ll know it’s there and it’ll inform your character.
A gorgeous example of bracelets in the medieval period is the Viking arm ring. Their wearers seem to have had a very practical approach to medieval Viking jewelry, being worn both for decoration and for trade in hacksilver. Like the neck-ring, they were generally made to be a standard weight, and seemed to be partly for a ready source of value for trading, and partly to display that wealth – kind of like having a coat made out of dollar bills. The arm-rings found in Silverdale Hoard illustrate this duality perfectly: three complete nested arm-rings were found as part of the hoard (whether they were nested for storage or whether this had some other symbolic meaning is unknown) – but also, dozens of silver fragments that were clearly cut from other similar arm-rings were also included. We know from contemporary descriptions that both men and women wore these arm-rings as part of their medieval jewelry.
Medieval royal regalia sometimes included armillae: highly decorated armlets that were usually worn in pairs. They have a rich heritage, descending from the armilla that was given to ancient Roman soldiers as a mark of distinguished military service, and also with antecedents in pre-medieval Celtic jewelry. Only an incredibly small handful of medieval armillae have survived into the modern period, the most famous and most well-preserved being the armillae of Andrei the Pious, Grand Prince of the Dutchy of Vladimir in the Kievan Rus’, the Norse-influenced state that preceded later Russia. These arm-decorations, opulent devotional artworks in and of themselves, are made from gilded copper inlaid with champlevé, a master-craftsman’s technique where shapes are inlaid into the surface and filled with vitreous enamel. Clearly this is craft of the highest quality, and it is likely that Andrei was gifted this spectacular medieval jewelry in the 1165 CE by Frederick I Barbarrosa, the Holy Roman Emperor.
The beauty of medieval jewelry is that only a tiny fraction of the vast material culture that medieval people would have been intimately familiar with has survived into the modern period. Using the historical record and the techniques that we know were used as a starting point, we can play around with symbolism and meanings to bring exactly what we want to our re-creations of authentic medieval jewelry.
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