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

Purses Part 3 Understanding the Basics of a Frame Purse

Way back when I saw my first purse frame, I really did not completely understand the mechanics of the frames. What was the most common form of purse frame? What sort of fancy frames were available? Was there a bargain basement purse frame available? How were they worn?

So let’s start at the beginning. When I started writing this blog I remembered that I had seen my first purse frame ever at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England. So I went looking for it in their digital collection. This is the purse frame that I saw at the V&A. I actually found it online in their collection! And now I totally see why I was confused. This is not a “typical” purse frame. Add to that the fact that the frame was displayed flat on a board, without any clarifying pictures, or or an explanation of how it would have been used.

If you go to the link you can see the Niello decoration on the one purse frame loop, and the top. I admit I spent a couple of hours “off in the bushes” doing a little Latin research to see if I could figure out exactly what it says on the purse frame. Some of it is quite obvious. O Domine on the left part of the top bar, IHS on the center pivot, and Chrisste on the right side of the bar. The curved bar says: Ave Maria Gracia Plena, Dominus tecum, Benedicta tu in melieribus et… but then they lose me in the abbreviations. For non-Latin scholars that last part is the beginning of the “Ave Maria” that was said as part of the rosary – Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women. According to the museum listing it also says St. Maria and St. Barbara somewhere on the purse frame, probably on the back of the main support bar. The origins of the purse says it was found near Binham priory. Binham was a Benedictine Priory that, like all of the Catholic Priories in England was suppressed in 1539 during the reign of Henry VIII. It makes me wonder if this piece belonged to the Prior (head of the Priory) when the suppression occurred. Several Abbots were actually executed and hung from the gates of their own monasteries, and the looting of the monasteries and churches was commonplace.

Anyway, back to purse frames. The most common form of large intact purse frame that we find looks like this.

typical purse frame

Intact frames are moderately rare. Usually we find broken pieces of the curved bars, because they are more fragile than the rather beefy crossbar. I have added two red arrows to this picture because the picture has a very important construction clue. I might not have understood this clue if I didn’t own a broken piece of an actual purse bar frame.

Next Time: What the Clues tell us and More about purse forms!

Purses Part 1

Purses. They take many forms, they are used by all social classes, and they are an important accessory for just about everyone from at least the Late Stone Age on. The actual definition of what constitutes a purse is a more complex issue than you may think. What are the size limitations, the materials that they can be made of, the method of construction, the method of closure?

Probably the most common materials are leather and cloth, and the most common closures are a draw string or toggle. I know that for the first ten years of my life as a reenactor that describes all of the purses that I, or any of my friends had. Simple bags with drawstrings, or leather belt pouches with some sort of toggle or latch completed our need for carrying small things (like money and eyeglasses). We often had other small bags and pouches in our purses to control the chaos that tended to develop in the purses.

Now that is not a complaint or any sort of put-down. Some of these purses, were truly lovely, embroidered pouches with silver spangles and tassels, leather belt pouches with leather tooling, appliqué, studs, or lacing. Totally documentable, and something that anyone should be proud to wear.

There are some excellent resources out there for people who are interested in making a reproduction of one of these types of purses. Archaeological reports often have very good pictures or drawings of the purse patterns. Probably the most notable collection of solid archaeological information on purses, that has been made much more user friendly with the inclusion of photographs, drawings, Medieval illustrations and good explanations is “Purses in Pieces” by Olaf Goubitz. Although the book focuses on the Archaeology of the Netherlands, the purse forms are fairly universal throughout Europe, just as any important accessory would be today. As a side note, the reason so much leather survives in the Netherlands is because of the soil conditions. The naturally wet conditions often preserve the leather instead of causing it to rot. We find the same sorts of preservation of leather and wood in the Novgorod (Russia) “black earth” areas.

As I mentioned before, the size and materials that an item is made of might also define its name. At what point does a purse become a Pilgrim’s bag? At what point does a net bag become Shepherd’s purse? But I have to admit that my plan is to leave that discussion for another place and time. Despite the fact that the purse forms that I have mentioned are very common in Medieval Illustrations they are definitely NOT the only form of the purse that we see represented. What interests me, and in fact has become something of a research obsession for me, is purses with frames.

Now that may seem a bit confusing at first, but most people are familiar with at least one purse that has a frame, the elaborately decorated purse lid from the Sutton Hoo burial.

Purse-lid from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial 1, E...

Purse-lid from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial 1, England. British Museum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)









Next time: My first attempt at making a purse with a frame.