Purses Part 7: Back Down to Earth

Having looked at some of the truly amazing purse frames that were available as luxury goods in the Late Middle Ages in Europe, it is now time to come back down to earth and my original project to study and create replicas of original purse frames.

So, this is what I decided to start with.

My Purse frame with words

This is a picture of the actual artifact that I own. I have broken pieces of several purse frames, most of which are for considerably larger purses, but I decided to start small and simple. My goal with this purse was to replicate the actual frame of a real purse, without any of the preconceived notions or gaps in knowledge that I had on my last project. I also wanted to see if I could actually cast all of the pieces that they would have cast, instead of using a bunch of formed metal pieces. I wanted to create a purse frame that any middle class individual from western Europe would instantly recognize as a “normal” purse frame.

First let’s give a few facts about my purse frame. The frame was found by a metal detectorist in England. It is cast of bronze. The purse bar is 61 mm long (2 3/8 inches) and the pivot top is 13 mm across (about half an inch) and 22mm top to bottom (about 7/8 of an inch). It is a small purse, probably originally intended for coins. The pivot actually does spin around all the way on this purse frame. I am not certain what the advantage to this would be, but perhaps turning it with the front against you would make it more difficult for pick pockets to get into.

So how did I start on this project? First I spent quite a bit of time just looking at the frame. I wanted to understand how it was made.

Was it all cast? Yes, although it is possible that the washer at the bottom of the pivot was actually created from a heavy piece of plate bronze.

Were there any places that were soldered? How were the pieces held together? The answer to both of these questions is related. There is no detectable solder on the piece. The parts are all riveted together by peaning over the ends of the metal purse pieces.

How many pieces were there? What pieces appear to be missing? This is a difficult set of questions to answer. The surviving frame consists of three pieces: the purse bar, the pivot, and a washer on the bottom of the purse bar that helps keep the pivot in place while allowing the pivot to rotate. The bare ends of the purse bar show wear marks. There was originally at least one purse ring, and possibly two. There does not appear to have been a washer on the ends of the purse bar to help retain the purse frame rings, but it is possible that there was, and it didn’t leave a discernible mark.

Next Time: Where Do We Go From Here?

Purses Part 6: The Tip of the Iceberg

Last time I mentioned that there are a considerable number of other types of metal purse frames, including some that are truly odd, and some that are totally over the top.

So first let’s start with an odd one. This next purse belongs to the Museum of London and dates from the 14th or 15th century. It has a single metal support bar. The leather, which is original, is cut in an unusual asymmetrical shape and is beautifully tooled. Be sure to look at both of the pictures, the back is plain, but the front has two incised hearts with lattice patterns. There are no metal purse frame rings or attachments and no obvious indication that there ever were any. The leather is attached directly to the support bar. I would love to be able to see an x-ray of this piece to determine if the original attachments were simply broken off and the support bar was reused, or if it was actually designed that way from the beginning.

After a simple purse like this is seems appropriate to go in a completely opposite direction – all the way to the over-the-top luxury purse. This purse belongs to the British Museum. It is dated to around 1450 and is believed to have been manufactured in France or Flanders. The British Museum actually dismantled the purse frame as part of an effort to conserve the piece, which does show some damage from previous conservation actions. You will notice that this purse frame has even more rings than usual. The smaller partial frame would have created an additional pocket in the purse. The artifact listing has something like nine pictures, including pictures of the purse while it is taken apart. It is a really nice, and fairly elaborate purse frame, but NOT the fanciest that I have seen.

Here is a purse that belongs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Made of Iron – a material that most people do not think of a being capable of delicate detail. The top of the purse is a true masterpiece of the iron worker’s art.

And just so that you don’t think that this purse is the only one of its kind, here is one from the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection that is even more magnificent. This piece is also made of iron, and was probably made in France. I have actually seen several of these elaborate “rose window” purse frames in my travels, and they are really quite amazing.

Iron Purse Frame MET

And then there is this purse from the Museum of London. It is a simpler form than the previous two purses, more like the original simple purse frames that we looked at, but the level of decorative detail is outstanding. The Niello decorations and words on the frame are truly masterful. It also shows us another form of purse frame rings that was fairly standard during the 1500 and 1600’s. Be sure to enlarge the image so that you can see the details!

Next Time: Back Down to Earth

Purses Part 5: What Other Forms of Purse Frames Do We Find?

I often wonder if they asked each other “How many rings does YOUR purse have?” That may have not been the exact approach that Medieval people took, but purses were definitely an important display item.

The “typical” purse frame that I have shown you is definitely common, but it is by no means the only form that we find. One frame ring, two frame rings, three frame rings and simple wire rings are all found. The majority of the frames are made by casting, and are composed of some sort of bronze alloy or iron.

Let’s take a look at a two ring frame. This is a drawing of a purse that belongs to the British Museum. A quick glance will show that this is a small purse, probably used for coins. It is only about 5 cm (a little less than 2 inches) across at the support bar. The much larger, roundish purse frame rings allow a person to at least put their fingers into the purse to grab a coin, probably while pushing up the purse from the bottom with the other hand.

British Museum purse 1985,1101.92This is a particularly excellent example of a nicely built purse frame, Because amount of detail that they included in the drawing we can really see how the frame works. The drawing shows the lip that was cast on the purse frame ring to attach the bag of the purse.

The Museum of London has a purse frame of similar form that has had a modern velvet bag sewn onto it. If you go to the link you can see how the larger purse frame ring forms the cover for the purse, and the smaller ring, along with the two support tabs on the purse bar actually support the bag portion of the purse. This particular purse bag shows the purse frame loops almost completely covered by the fabric of the purse. There is no way to determine exactly the form of the original purse rings, because you can’t see them. The frame rings may not have had the pierced lip that allows the metal frame ring to support the purse bag while still showing off the metal of the frame. There is both a front and back version of the purse picture, which is great because it allows you to actually see all of the details of the frame, the velvet purse bag, and the way it was attached.

There are a considerable number of other types of metal purse frames, including some that are truly odd, and some that are totally over the top.

Next time: The Tip of the Ice Berg