What Size were Brooches in the Middle Ages – Part 9 – Medieval vs. Modern Construction

Last time I talked about the thickness of the actual metal that was used in the real artifacts verses the metal that was used in the modern belts. Why do we see such a tremendous difference in construction?

Well, most obviously, base metal, which is what brass and bronze are, is cheap today. The artisan is not compelled by cost to try to make the belt fittings as cheaply as possible.

There might also be a level of ignorance on the part of the artisan. They view a larger, heavier item as quality (sort of a reaction to cheaply manufactured stuff from China), and they may honesty not know how large or thick the original artifacts were. Or maybe they have seen some of those Victorian pictures of “Important Historical Figures” wearing large belt buckles.

Why else would a modern artisan choose heavier metal, especially for the cast pieces? Well, to be honest it is easier to cast slightly heavier pieces than lighter ones. The thinner cast pieces have a higher failure rate and require more elaborate molds, or more elaborate masters for lost wax casting.

And we need to also consider how people treat their belongings modernly. In our throw-away society the concept of treating a simple belt as an important “Sunday best” item is very foreign to some people. I have actually had someone tell me that they wanted to be able to throw a fairly elaborate custom piece into the bottom of their armor bag and have it be fine. I refused the commission. If a pre-1600’s person treated the period mounts that I own like this many of them would be crushed. They were intended as decoration. The fact that they have survived for five hundred years, or more, says that at least some of them were sturdy enough, but our modern society sometimes requires more.

If an artisan actually made the belt fittings, or belts, as light as the originals, would people actually want to buy them? I am not sure. Many of these pieces were obviously intended as decorative pieces. Just as we would not expect a decorative pearl necklace to have huge structural integrity and be able to withstand a large weight, these belts were often intended to be a finishing touch to an outfit, rather than a structural part of the garment.

A lack of understanding of how an item is intended to be used, prior to 1600, is a common thing for many modern people. Some classic examples are not understanding what the particular silhouette for a specific dress is supposed to be (compare a Gothic Fitted Gown to an Elizabethan – very different!) or being annoyed when a dress pin bends because you are not wearing the proper underpinnings – which should have taken most of the stress off of the dress pin in the first place.

At this point I should mention that not all pre-1600’s belts, buckles, and belt ends were super lightweight or tiny. There were obviously things like utilitarian sword belts and belts that were sturdy enough to support pouches and game bags. The picture at the end of the article shows one of the clothing styles that really does use LARGE belts and buckles.

But back to size and weight; how could they make cast and formed pieces look heavier than they really are?

What Size Were Brooches in the Middle Ages ? – Part 7 – More Buckles

So last time I was wondering why buckles might be a bit smaller than we might expect. I proposed that some of the reasons could include cost, difficulty of construction, fashion, and functionality.

Looking at cost first – metal was expensive and valuable. Metal was dug out of ore deposits by hand and the smelting and processing of all metals was extremely labor and fuel intensive. Metals that were not available locally had to be imported, adding to the cost. Even the least expensive tin trinkets were cast in such a way as to minimize the use of metal while maximizing the effect. They were made as thin as possible while still allowing them to be functional.

I never really appreciated how much the frugal use of metal affected the manufacturing techniques used for dress accessories until I began making them myself and purchasing actual artifacts.

An excellent example are these buckles and belt ends. They are on two belts that my husband and I purchased at the Pennsic War about 18 years ago. We were looking for narrow belts with some pretty mounts, a buckle, and a belt end. I had seen lots of portraits with narrow belts and a few actual belt ends in museums, and these belts looked pretty good and seemed functional enough. And to be honest, they have worked perfectly well for all these years, and will probably make it for at least another five or six years. But now that I know what the real belt fitting look like it is very interesting to see the construction techniques.

First we have my belt buckle, belt end, and mounts.









The leather of the belt is 3/4 of an inch wide, a respectable width. The mounts are of an appropriate size, and while the buckle and the belt end are fairly large, they are believable.

If we look at the pieces from the side we can understand the actual construction techniques that were used.

my buckle sideviewThis picture shows graphically what it looks like when your solder does not match the color of the main pieces of metal. The actual forms of the pieces are fairly close to the forms of several dismantled pre-1600 buckles and belt ends that I have seen, but the period belt ends and buckles were not soldered, they were simply riveted together.

My husband’s belt uses slightly different construction techniques and suffers from slightly different flaws.

Henry's Buckle top view








The leather belt in this case is 1 inch wide – again an acceptable width. The basic form of the pieces is based on period buckles and belt ends. And then we have the mounts.

Henrys belt mount








Lovely cast pieces that are definitely a period form and look quite nice.

And a side view of the buckle and belt end to show the actual construction techniques.

Henrys buckle side view







You can see that the plate that holds this buckle in place is actually just a folded piece of metal, and the rivets hold the metal tight to the belt. The belt end is a solid cast piece with just a small area where the end of the leather belt can be inserted. The belt end weighs a ton – about an ounce all by itself. By Medieval terms this is a TOTAL waste of metal.

But how thick should the metal be? We will talk about that next time!