What size were brooches in the Middle Ages – Part 5 – Fibulae, Dress Pins and Miscellaneous Brooches

So, the first thing I should probably do is describe a fibula (singular). Think safety pin without the safety. Fibulae (plural) appear on the scene by about 1,000 BC in Mesopotamia, and we still use their descendents today, in the form of kilt pins and safety pins. Pre-1600 fibulae can be made of bronze, iron, silver, or gold, They can generally not be made of lead or tin because these metals are too soft and will break when flexed repeatedly. Fibulae can be plain and functional, or large and ostentatious. This gold Etruscan Fibula shows just a hint of the type of complexity and beauty that was put into crafting some of the ancient fibulae. And this winged fibula from Panonia (an area that bordered the Danube) is an exquisite example of the jewelers art.

But on a practical level, most fibulae were relatively plain and functional. This picture shows a selection of fibulae and pins that I own. The left hand column is a 1500’s pin, a Celtic fibula (3rd to 2nd c BC), and a Celtic fibula (from Yugoslavia 1BC to 1 AD). The large dress pin on the left is a Roman silver hairpin pin (found in Yugoslavia 1st to 3rd c BC – and yes, that is a duck on top), and the large pin on the right is a silver reproduction Viking dress pin that I use for closing my shawl. The right hand column contains reproduction pieces from The Treasury. Three sets of two: dress pins – 1200’s to the Victorian Age. The top set are small brass pins, the middle are large brass pins, and the bottom are large nickel silver (looks like silver). The bottom of the column is two small fibulae, one in brass and one in nickel silver.

Fibulae and PinsAnd what about dress pins? I personally believe that dress pins are probably one of the oldest types of closures that were used by mankind. A large thorn, a sharpened stick, and eventually sharpened pieces of metal were used by almost every culture to close a cloak, hold hair in place, or close a more complex garment. The size and complexity of construction of dress pins varies dramatically depending on the available materials used, and the technology available to the maker. Earlier dress pins were generally (always a dangerous word!) larger, usually three to six inches long. Later period dress pins could be much smaller, often only 1 to 1 1/2 inches long, but larger specialty dress pins, in the form of hair pins and hat pins are still in use today.

And then there are the “miscellaneous brooches”. Different shapes, different sizes, different metal alloys, and we often find them out of context. What were they used for? Were they decorative? Were they functional? Were they both?

It is known that in Roman times there were specific large brooches awarded to certain men of rank. This bow brooch, which is a specialized form of fibula, is an excellent example of this sort of brooch.

And some of the huge ring brooches that we find in Scotland and Ireland, certainly fall into the “I am obviously important” display category. This brief article on the Tara Brooch has a couple of great pictures.

There are also tons of brooches shaped like animals, hearts, flowers, and geometric shapes, just to name a few. But going back to our possibly long forgotten original point – most don’t lay flat, and while they may work well on an outside layer of clothing, they don’t work well on an interior layer.

Next Time: Buckles!

What Size Were Brooches in the Middle Ages Part 2 – Bronze Brooches and Other Tiny Things

Last time I mentioned the fact that a lot of pre-1600 items are actually quite a bit smaller than we might modernly assume. In addition I mentioned the easy manufacturing techniques involved in lead and tin items.

Bronze requires dramatically more heat – nearly four times the heat! Temperatures near 2000° F require a furnace, with some sort of blower system, like a bellows. Bronze items would therefore have been a more specialized and expensive production. Not as elite as silver or gold, but not the bottom rung of lead and tin either. And even more important, bronze is much stronger than tin or lead.

Getting back to tiny things, let’s talk a little more about tiny brooches. Tiny brooches can’t be used on thick fabrics. This does NOT mean that they can only be used on linen, cotton, or other plant fiber fabrics. It just means that the fabric needs to be relatively thin.

Brooches like the little one that I bought have a big advantage over penannular brooches. A penannular brooch, if tugged and shaken enough can eventually open. But an annular brooch has to break, bend a lot, or have the fabric that it is attached to tear in order to let go. This gives it a couple of big advantages over the other forms of simple closures that were available pre-1600. It won’t open and it can lay super flat.

ringandbrokenringbroochesThe brooch on the left is an annular brooch and the one on the right is a penannular brooch, with a dime for scale (18mm). I chose a heart shaped annular brooch because I wanted to make a point about annular brooches. They must form a closed ring, but that ring can be just about any shape.

What forms of closures were available pre-1600? Laces or ties, hooks, hooks and eyes, buttons and toggles, penannular brooches, annular brooches, fibulas, dress pins, and other miscellaneous brooches. We already discussed penannular and annular brooches, so let’s look at the other options – remember we are looking at tiny things here, preferably things under half an inch, because that was the size of my little brooch. And there must have been a reason for that size, right?

Laces and ties. Easy to make, inexpensive and widely used. They can be made by the average person with commonly available supplies. They can be made to lie extremely flat, but they can break or untie, and it is very difficult to make them really tiny and still have sufficient structural integrity.

Hooks, and hooks and eyes. Exactly what is the difference? Modernly hooks and eyes are small metal sewing accessories that are available at any sewing supply store. Pre-1600 folks did have small hooks and eyes that were made out of metal wire, and they were definitely used extensively in the 1500’s, but there were also many other types of hooks used, and even some large cast hooks and eyes. Earlier cultures, like the Celts and Anglo Saxons sometimes used what I call “hooks and eyes on steroids” – sets where the individual pieces are each an inch or more long.

hooks and eyesThis picture shows a modern selection of hooks and eyes in various sizes on the right (the numbers are the sizes) and a 1500’s collection of hooks and eyes, from the Netherlands on the left. The size 3 modern hook is about 7/16th inch tall (12 mm).

So, if size is an issue the large hooks are out. The tiny hooks and eyes can lay fairly flat, and they meet the size criteria, but unlike many of their modern versions they did not have a little “bump” on the inside of the hook that make the hook and eye set “lock”. This means that the older hook and eyes would have to rely on tension pulling on them and keeping them in place. Without the tension, they open.

Next time: Hooks – Sharp and Blunt, and Buttons and Toggles

What Size Were Brooches in the Middle Ages?

I could just as easily have asked this question about any sort of common item, and because of my training I often do. I realized a couple of years ago that many people have a total misconception of the size of a lot of things that people used. Despite years of education and extensive training I am NOT completely immune to this problem. I sometimes buy small metal detector finds, and have been caught in this trap.

A little while ago I purchased a very nice annular brooch (ring brooch). It was a good looking bronze piece which had a sort of twisted rope look. There were no dimensions given for the piece and I assumed that it was at least twice the size that it actually was. I was shocked when I saw how tiny the brooch actually was. This made me wonder how common an issue this really was. So, I looked at the given dimensions for many other items that were on sale. Then I went to a couple of the museum sites and looked at the actual sizes of the finds in the museum. And yes, there were a few really magnificent huge pieces, but in general the brooches and everyday pieces were rather small – at least by modern standards.

Researching the size of the people who wore these items in England shows that women during the Middle Ages were generally about 5 foot 2 inches tall and men about 5 foot 6 inches. The article that I read said that this meant that Medieval Women were only an inch taller than modern women. I am 5 foot 9 inches tall. My grandmother, who was born in about 1890, was 5 foot 2 inches, but most of my female friends are at least 5 foot six. Now I consider myself to be a little taller than average, but not dramatically so. Is it possible that these brooches were sized smaller because the people were smaller, or were they sized smaller because of the value of the metal?

I don’t think that we can give a definitive answer to this question, but I would love to hear people’s opinions on this topic. Metal really was a valuable commodity.

Inexpensive metals like tin and lead were commonly used to make lower end pilgrim’s badges and decorative pieces. These metals both have a very low melting temperature, which means that they can be cast using a simple hearth. Pilgrim’s badges give us other important clues as well. Some tears ago I had the good fortune to meet with the curator of medieval artifacts for the Museum of London. Besides the sheer exhilaration of spending time with John in the bowels of the Museum storage looking at pilgrim’s badges, I also noticed the casual finishing of these ubiquitous items. Many of the badges had flashing left over from the manufacturing process. Modernly, we would expect those “manufacturing defects” to be removed. Casting and finishing of tin and lead are easy, so the condition of the pilgrim’s badges indicates the acceptance of a rough finish for some pieces.

Next time: Bronze brooches and other tiny things

One of my pewter brooches, a dime, and the tiny brooch that I bought.

One of my pewter brooches, a dime, and the tiny brooch that I bought.