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 8 – Manufacturing Buckles and Belt Ends

Last time we were talking about how generous the modern belt makers are with their metal – something that is a readily available and cheap resource today.

Comparing the belt fittings that we purchased at Pennsic to actual artifacts was very revealing. The first thing that I noticed was how thick and heavy the new metal pieces were in comparison to the actual artifacts. The thickness of the Pennsic purchased mounts on my belt was almost 1/16 of an inch, which was comparable to the pre-1600s mounts, but the mounts on my husband’s belt were a full 1/8 of an inch thick. The majority of the actual period mounts that I own are only about 1/16 of an inch thick. They often have hollowed out backs to reduce the amount of metal that is needed to make the piece, while making the piece look large.

Looking at the buckles, my buckle was 3/16 of an inch thick. My husband’s buckle was 1/4 inch thick at the end of the plate that is riveted to the belt, and 3/16 of an inch thick where it wraps around the cast part of the buckle.

But what did the real pre-1600 buckles and belt ends look like? Well, here are a few examples. You will notice that the form of the belt end immediately to the right of the buckle is virtually identical to the form of my husband’s belt end.

belt buckle and  belt endsThese belt ends and the buckle look very much like the pieces that we bought, a tad smaller, but in the same ballpark, until we look at the construction techniques and the thickness and weight of the metal.

artifact buckle and ends sideviewAnd here is a side view of the actual artifacts. The artifacts are all laid against the sides of a large charcoal pencil. Looking at each one in turn, the buckle is in the lower left hand position. You can see that the cast part of the buckle is held in place by a folded piece of sheet metal, just like my husband’s buckle. The biggest difference? The thickness of the metal – my husband’s buckle is made with metal sheet that is almost 1/16 of an inch thick, while the period artifact is less than 1/32 of an inch thick, even allowing for the fact that my husband’s buckle is larger, the modern metal sheet is definitely quite beefy. One of the fun things about having intact rivets on this sort of buckle is that you can tell how thick the end of the leather belt was where it fit into the buckle. My husband’s leather belt is 3/16’s of an inch thick, and the pre-1600’s leather belt would have been 1/16 of an inch thick.

The belt end that looks like my husband’s is in the lower right position. You can see that it is not a solid cast piece. It is actually a sandwich of three pieces of metal, two outside pieces of thin sheet (each about 1/32 of an inch thick and a center cast piece of metal that is 1/16th of an inch thick. This makes the entire piece 1/8th of an inch thick, and it weighs, with the rivets still in place, .4 ounces. The leather belt would have been just about 1/16 of an inch thick.

The two top belt ends are both made from two single sheets of metal, riveted together. The upper right belt end has the thickest metal sheet – 1/16 of an inch thick, and the leather looks as if it would have been 1/16th of an inch thick. The upper left belt end was made with much thinner metal, only about 1/32 of an inch thick and the leather would have been 1/16th of an inch thick.

But what does all of this mean? Well we will talk about the possibilities next time!

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!