What Size Were Brooches in the Middle Ages – Part 11- Theories About Misconceptions

So last time I promised to talk about my theories on where many of our historical  misconceptions came from, and what else besides brooches is not as big as we might think it is.

I was chatting with a friend about some of the common misconceptions that I find in the general public about the size and quantity of jewelry in pre-1600’s Europe. She blamed a lot of it on the Victorians, and I agree. The upsurge in nationalistic pride combined with the romanticization of historical and mythological events in literature. Then you add some extremely talented artists who published romantic photographs and paintings of these events, and you have a perfect storm. There is something about seeing a picture that reinforces the reality of a theory, even if the theory is wrong. All of these things served to make people believe that these fantasies were fact. This article is an excellent example of the type of romantic photography that reinforced these beliefs.

And this article, about the infamous forgers, Billy and Charlie, gives us another peek into the world of the Victorians and how gullible they could be. I have personally seen some of the work that Billy and Charlie did. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England, has a case of Billy and Charlie originals in their “Fakes and Forgeries” Gallery. Their work really was awful: crudely made, overly large, cast pieces, that bear very little resemblance to real historical artifacts.

One of the problems for modern reenactors is that some of this Victorian gullibility has been retained in modern culture. Less than authentic costuming is used in movies, TV programs, and literature and many modern people’s first introduction to anything “historical” is a local Renn Faire. And every time we see a picture it reinforces the “reality” of the costumes, even if they are really incorrect.

Another friend noted that one of the MOST annoying things that she sees all the time among historical reenactors is the use of a simple ring as a belt buckle. She felt that this was a Renn Faire affectation. I agree with her assessment. Pre-1600 people definitely did sometimes tie a knot in a belt, but I have never found an example of a simple ring buckle in any historical drawing or painting. These pictures show the Renn Faire Version on the left and a modern interpretation of the correct historical technique on the right.

Medieval Tied Belts

We have science and research capabilities that are very far beyond the abilities of the Victorians, but yet we sometimes choose to believe their words instead of doing our own work.

So exactly how do we fill some of our knowledge gaps? Well, honestly the easiest thing is to just look at the real facts. We have thousands of illuminations and paintings that were created during the Medieval timeframe that show Medieval people at work and play. We have thousands of surviving artifacts from graveyards and other archaeological excavations that can be precisely dated and give us an accurate image of what people actually owned and used. With more and more museums digitizing their artifact collections it is no longer necessary to have large numbers of expensive research books, we can now go online and see up-close pictures of accurately photographed artifacts and art work.

But what about earlier time frames? What can we do to understand cultures like the Romans and the Vikings? We’ll talk about that next time along with a  few other things…

What Size Were Brooches in the Middle Ages – Part 10 – More Medieval vs. Modern Construction Techniques

Last time I asked, “How could they make cast and formed pieces look heavier than they really are?”

One of the things that I noticed when I first actually handled the pre-1600 artifacts that I own was the extremes that they would go to make it LOOK like the piece was solid and thick.

The biggest tricks that were used involved carefully cast, or formed, pieces of metal, that were riveted together to create hollow structures. Even if a buckle or belt end looks very solid, like the belt end form that was common to both my husband’s belt and one of the artifacts, the originals were actually hollow.

belt end collageThis set of pictures compares my hubby’s belt end, on the left, to the period belt end. The graphic overlay on the right picture shows some common options for the inside piece of the belt end. Remember, the artifact belt end is actually a sandwich of three pieces of metal, two exterior pieces and a center cast piece. The most common form that I have seen for this central piece of metal is a combination of the blue and green areas, but I have also seen larger belt ends with the green portion of the cast piece removed. In either case having the center of the belt end hollow uses a lot less metal, and also makes the belt end lighter.

hollow back belt fitting collageThis chunky looking Byzantine buckle front may look heavy, but as the picture on the right shows, it is actually hollow. The back plate is missing, and would have had a hook to actually close the belt.

Another square belt buckle fitting that I have is actually a carefully cast hollow form. The leather belt fills the entire inside of the hollow belt, and the metal is carefully riveted to the leather. The metal wraps down around the sides of the leather. The only way to tell that the belt buckle fitting is hollow is to turn it over and look at the back – a perfect fake heavy buckle.

Going back to manufacturing techniques, one of the most common differences between pre-1600 belt fittings and modern ones is that many of the modern versions of belt fittings are soldered.

Soldering was NOT common for non-precious metals on jewelry and accessories that were made prior to 1600. They did not have all of the fancy matching solders that we have today. And they certainly did not have oxy-propane torches.

Precious metals, like gold and fine silver can be fused, either in a furnace or soldered with a lamp and a blow-pipe, but base metals were generally riveted. Precious metals have different properties – they can be spot heated, but with base metals you have to heat the entire piece in order to solder them.

One of the important exceptions to this rule is the soldering of the heads of dressing pins. There was a decree during the reign of Henry VIII requiring that the heads be soldered. The solder that was used was lead based, and would show up badly – like the solder on my buckle below. (The decree was actually a form of trade sanction to make it more difficult for pins from the Low Countries to compete with British made pins.)

my buckle sideviewSo what are my theories on where these misconceptions came from, and what else is not as big as we might think? We will talk about that next time!


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?