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Bracelets – decorative adornments for the wrists or arms – appear in almost every culture throughout the medieval period. Although a precious few have survived to us in the modern era, we can speculate about what sort of jewelry medieval people might have worn, and intrepid modern jewelers have done a sterling job of creating modern reproductions. Here, we’ll take a whistlestop tour through what we know about medieval bracelets, and we hope it will give you inspiration when choosing from our selection.
Gold As for thousands of years, gold and silver remained the go-to rare metals for the creation of medieval jewelry. Gold was still mined in Europe during the Middle Ages, but the Romans had been unappeasable in their production of fine gold objects and coinage in Antiquity, so most of the gold deposits in Europe – particularly those in Gaul and Germany - had already been exhausted. Most of the freshly mined medieval gold which found its way into the European market came from the Muslim states in North Africa, but the prime source for almost all of the gold used to make medieval jewelry was melted down and recycled pre-existing jewelry and coinage. This comparative scarcity of gold meant that medieval jewelers sought to produce items that had the appearance of solid gold, without its enormous cost. Thus, much medieval innovation in the realm of goldsmithing is in the creation of finer and finer degrees of gold leaf and gold foil to put over less expensive materials. Goldsmiths also developed means of creating different purities of gold which could be used to more easily solder, or to stretch meagre gold supplies out by alloying. Numerous production techniques were used in various periods. For example, this incredible early-Christian Byzantine bracelet shows the finest relief-work in its decoration and depiction of the Virgin Mary. Filigree, the extrusion of gold wire, was used extensively in Middle Eastern medieval bracelets, such as in this minute bracelet charm from the Fatimid Dynasty in the Levant.
Silver Silver was a much more common and accessible precious metal, and it formed the basis for the first post-Roman pan-European trade economy: that between Northern European Viking traders and the Islamic world. Hence it was also commonly made into bracelets. Vikings, it appears, treated their jewelry as somewhat of a wearable wallet: though they had aesthetic value and were carefully decorated, it appears that a Viking would have little qualms in taking off a silver bracelet and hacking off a few pieces to make up weight in a trade. We see this throughout Viking-colonised areas – and it is most obvious in hoards of Viking silver. For example, the vast hacksilver trove discovered in Cuerdale, UK known as the Cuerdale Hoard contains dozens of chopped-up fragments of arm-rings from all over Europe: archaeologists have identified a distinctive stamped arm-ring from Viking Ireland, numerous bits from Scandinavia, and also several that closely resemble this discovered in the Baltic area of Eastern Europe. Clearly, Vikings were not as precious about their medieval bracelets as we are today!
Don’t Be Fooled By The Rocks That I Got Precious stones in the medieval period were perhaps the most highly prized of all decorations for medieval bracelets. There is an enduring fascination with gems and precious stones in almost all medieval art, and for good reason: there were no sources for any of the most prized gems anywhere in Europe – they were rare and exotic, having been imported by traders over many miles. For example, Lapis lazuli retains its position as the rarest and most valuable of all stones in the medieval period, having been imported from northern Afghanistan. Although it had no intrinsic symbolism, its monetary value was such that the pigment ultramarine, made from grinding the stone into powder, was reserved for only the holiest of purposes, such as in depictions of the Virgin Mary’s clothing (which, incidentally, is why she is often associated with the colour blue). There was little distinction made between precious and semi-precious stones, as gems were often valued for their reputed magical properties: depending on the stone, they were said to be able to counteract imbalances in the Humours, to ward evil spirits or to bring good fortune. See below for some surviving examples. Many gemstones were incorporated into medieval bracelets through the process of ‘setting’, where a gemstone is held in place by a framework of individual metal tines. These were almost all in the form of the cabochon, that is, gemstones finished by shaping and polishing rather than cutting. For much of the medieval period toolmaking had not advanced to the point of being able to construct tools capable of creating the extremely fine faceting of precious gems. This impacted on the choices of stone made by medieval jewelers; diamonds, it seems, were of comparatively little interest, being less impressive when finished in cabochon, with the rich colour and size of the gemstone generally being far more important. However by the end of the medieval period we see the genesis of faceting techniques – Islamic and Italian inventors had begun to develop lensed magnification by the 13th-century, and improving metalworking meant harder and better tools, resulting in the ability to cut and work fine gems. From the Renaissance onward, we begin to see a few examples of faceted cut gems incorporated into medieval bracelets.
Turquoise Medieval Persia had already been using turquoise in jewelry for a thousand years before the medieval period. We see it appearing in a range of Islamic artwork, inlaid into swords and religious artwork – as well as set into gold bracelets. This exquisite gold bracelet from High Medieval Syria, set with a turquoise amidst minuscule gold beading, is a thing of absolute beauty. The German Christian theologian Albertus Magnus remarked in the mid-12th-century CE that the colour and texture of turquoise was “as if milk had penetrated the blue color and risen to the surface” – so it was clearly well-known by that period in the medieval West. Imported turquoise was sought after as a good-luck charm which had a particular reputation for warding off eye problems.
Onyx Sometimes, gems were inscribed with words or images using a technique called intaglio. The British Museum has a beautiful late-medieval onyx, set for a medieval bracelet slide, which has been inscribed with the image of a Classical nude male figure, possibly a boxer. The onyx, particularly the red onyx, was highly valued in the late-Medieval period, as it was believed to imbue the wearer with eloquence.
Enamel Bracelets: Very Byzantine A technique used in the Eastern Mediterranean to decorate medieval bracelets was the application of enamel to a metallic substrate, usually gold, to create durable coloured shapes. The enamel available to medieval jewellers was vitreous enamel, made from powdered glass. Glass itself was a rare and valuable material: whilst glassware is found widely throughout the Roman Empire and glass producing sites have been identified in many different places, archaeological evidence shows that European glass production declined significantly during the withdrawal of the Roman Empire. It remained scattered and small-scale during the Early Middle Ages and most of the High-Medieval period, only recovering from the 14th-century on any scale. Enameled bracelets and jewelry should therefore be understood as an enormously significant marker of status and wealth. The constituents of enamel haven’t changed an enormous amount in the intervening centuries. Glass requires a former, an alkali flux and a stabiliser. Depending on the availability of local materials, the former was generally sand or fine flint dust, the alkali flux was usually wood ash (or mineral natron from Egypt, if the patron could acquire it), and the stabiliser was lime – either powdered limestone or naturally occurring in the sand. When heated in a kiln, this produced a translucent greenish glass, which was then coloured by mixing it with various metal oxides, before being cooled and crushed into a wet paste. This paste was then applied to the fine gold jewelry. The pasted jewelry was then carefully heated in a kiln, and the enamel paste would melt, ‘flow’ to fill the area it had been applied to, and would cool to a hard, semi-translucent shell which could be highly polished. There were two dominant methods of enameling in the Medieval period: cloisonné and champlevé.
Cloisonné Cloisonné was an ancient technique which emerged in ancient Mesopotamia around 3000 BCE, and which continued to be used on medieval bracelets. In this enameling technique, ‘compartments’ for the enamel were created with fine gold wire welded or soldered to the jewelry, resulting in a raised pattern of narrowly-separated enamel shapes after firing. A sumptuous example of this technique applied to bracelets are the 10th-century CE Byzantine arm-bands that are at the Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum – these would have been an opulent addition to the outfit of the Byzantine noble who would have wowed all of their rivals at court. Cloisonné wasn’t only available to the very upper echelons: more humble medieval bracelets inlaid enamels which were probably owned by the less fabulous wealthy have been found across Europe. One example of this are the riazani chains found in the High Medieval Kievan Rus’ – delicate chains of small golden cloisonné medallions which were likely flexible piece of jewelry that could be worn in the hair or around the wrist as a bracelet.
Champlevé From the French, ‘raised field’, the champlevé technique largely came to replace cloisonné enamel by the end of the medieval period. Rather than creating raised ‘compartments’ delineated by gold wire, the jeweller inscribed the shapes directly into the substrate, creating ‘troughs’ for the enamel to flow into during firing to end up flush with the surface of the ‘raised field’. There are some truly spectacular medieval bracelets finished in champlevé; the most spectacular and well-preserved is the armilla of Prince Andrei Bogolyubski in the Louvre, dating from the 1160s. It can be seen how painstakingly the artisan has laid different colours of enamel in the same trough to create gradients and shading – for our purposes, the damage to the armilla enhances its value, for it lays bare the extreme care and detail that has gone into the production of this object.
Elusive Leather Bracelets Frustratingly, medieval leather remains very difficult to pin down with any historical certainty. The main form of leather in the medieval period was cuir bouilli, made by boiling leather in wax or oil until it was soft, then forming it to shape as it dried. Unfortunately, this type of leather was extremely fragile, and no medieval leather bracelets have survived down to us. However, it seems intuitively obvious that medieval people would have made decorative medieval bracelets from leather – thus, modern makers have fused together leatherworking with speculative medieval art from Celtic, Insular and Viking traditions to produce some fantastic medieval leather bracelets.
Bracelet For Impact Now, you’re fully armed with a grounding in what we know about medieval bracelets. Hopefully you’re brimming with ideas of what kinds you want to incorporate into your LARP costume or re-enactment outfit.