What Size Were Brooches in the Middle Ages – Part 12 – Figuring out Earlier Cultures

So last time we asked the question – but what about earlier time frames? What can we do to understand cultures like the Romans and the Vikings?

To be blunt, the less figurative art that we have (art with actual life-like representations), the harder it is to be completely confident of our interpretations. Cultures like Rome, Greece, and Egypt, despite having existed a very long time ago, actually left an amazing collection of sculpture, frescoes, paintings, and mosaics.

An excellent example of using this sort of information to help us understand a culture, is the Camomile Street Soldier. I found a single line reference in a book about this being a source of information on the use of buttons in Roman Great Britain. So I Googled it. I quickly discovered that it was a carving that is believed to have been part of a frieze on a tomb. This sculpture clearly shows the clothing of a soldier. I found a small collection of pictures of the carving. You can see the buttons on the front of his tunic, as well as how he wore his sword and how his belt was decorated. In addition, through the generosity of the internet, you can read J.E. Price’s original report on the discovery.

And you can read a follow-up report that reevaluates the frieze in modern terms.

All from one search based on a single reference in a book. Now obviously this was a lucky find.

But sometimes we make our own luck.

The Egyptian tombs had wonderful paintings in them. The Roman frescoes in Pompeii and Herculaneum are legendary for their details. If the culture that you are interested in does not have any surviving carvings or paintings with that level of detail, look at archaeological reports. Join academia.edu (FREE) and start reading the articles that are posted there. You can even set up your preferences so that every time an article is posted in one of your areas of interest, you are notified. Many theses and dissertations will do all of the extensive research that is necessary to interpret the archaeology that is available. Don’t be afraid to let someone else help you do your research – just always approach any research with at least a little healthy skepticism.

Many of the earliest large burials were very poorly excavated by treasure hunting antiquarians, but occasionally we find someone, like Johann Karl Bähr, whose original training was as an artist. He recorded every inhumation grave that he excavated in extreme detail. Unfortunately, his records were for Livian graves, not Vikings, but records like these can provide us with insights into cultures that did not leave good pictures of their members.

Professor Bӓhr’s work is also a good example of a problematical area of study – Vikings vs. Scandinavians vs. Finno-Ugaric cultures. Now this could be a blog series all by itself, but my point is that the Vikings were not a unified culture. They were a generalized group of people who started out in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and northern Germany and spoke the same language – Old Norse. Each area had different influences – the Hanseatic League, the Finno-Ugaric cultures, the Slavs…and different levels of access to imported goods. I would expect the different groups to have dressed and looked differently, with different dress accessories and styles.

But going back to our original theme – what other things are little? More next time!

Territories and voyages of the Vikings

Territories and voyages of the Vikings (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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?

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.