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?

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!