Brooching the Subject: Mediaeval Jewellery in Context

Jewellery is one of the longest-standing features of human cultures. Made from the most varied of materials, from shell and bone to metal, wood, and stone, its evolution has allowed it to remain an important means of communication about not only individuals, but also societies. Today, for example, a rapper’s ‘bling’ has become emblematic of the loose-spending, big-living aspirations of street culture, and even an item as simple as a gold band–worn around the third finger of the left hand–can dictate how others will interact with its wearer. Affiliations to schools, branches of the military, and other institutions are also captured in our jewellery, as are rejections of these social norms (think of the less-common piercings.)

The purposes of mediaeval jewellery, like those of its modern counterparts, was incredibly varied, and yet no object captures these contradictions between personal and social meaning quite like brooches. The brooch, often called by the Latin term fibula (pl. fibulae) has an ancient pedigree in European societies. Developing from the straight pins used in the Neolithic, brooches were originally functional items, used to fasten garments more securely around the body. Over time, their forms diversified to include bow, square-headed, and saucer- brooches, to name only a few, and a number of decorative styles proliferated.

Spectacular 5th century Germanic fibulae from the Untersiebenbrunn grave. They adorned a woman. (Wikimedia Commons.)

Because of the popularity of brooches, not only through time, but also through space–they can be found from the plains of Hungary to the bogs of Ireland–these items have captured the attention of generations of archaeologists and historians hoping to use them  as a window onto the complex social worlds of textually under-represented groups. In these researches, a particular focus has been ethnicity, a concept of particular importance in the so-called Migration Period (from the 4th-10th century), when a number of previously unknown tribes and peoples arrived on the historical horizon.

Penannular-style brooch on display at the National Museum of Scotland. The relationship between brooch, clothing, body, and society was redrawn for every object and individual, making a consistent archaeological portrait difficult.

Their efforts have met with mixed success. Square-headed brooches, for example, are characteristic of eastern England, and the southeastern area of Kent in particular. Their design hints at affiliations with Jutland, in continental Europe, and may imply that this area of Britain was settled by, and retained links with, populations from this area from the 6th century onwards. Likewise, in Hungary, differences are seen in the brooches worn in the east and west of the country, pointing perhaps to (purposefully cultivated) differences between the tribes of the Gepids and the Lombards.

Brooches were not always, or only, markers of ethnic identity, however. Where they are found in burials, they are often associated with gender and with social status. In many areas, men of all ages are buried with finery according to their standing. Women, however, are often buried with the most jewellery when they died between the ages of 20 and 30; younger and older women possessed fewer grave goods.

What emerges from these distinctions are the complex associations of jewellery. Often made of precious metals, and requiring great skill to create, brooches were treasured symbols of wealth and authority. They spoke not only to which group one belonged, but also to where within the hierarchy, and these meanings could change as the brooch was passed down between generations or deposited with the dead.

The Hunterston Brooch, made of gold, silver, and amber, is an outstanding example of mediaeval metalworking.

These conclusions are exemplified by the Hunterston Brooch. Held in the National Museum of Scotland, the brooch was made ca. 700, probably at a royal site in Ireland or western Scotland. Its outstanding beauty, both in the harmony of its proportions and the fine detail of the decoration, declares it as clearly as a status object and symbol of great wealth. As such, it was prized long beyond the lifespan of its original owner. On the back of the brooch, a runic inscription declares ‘Melbrigda owns this brooch,’ demonstrating that several hundred years after its creation, it was still a valued possession.

By this time, however, clothing habits had shifted. Brooches were no longer needed to fasten clothing, which had begun to be tailored to the body, rather than pinned. Because of their social importance and artistic merit, however, fibulae remained an indispensable part of the mediaeval jewellery box. From the earliest brooches to their elaborate mediaeval successors, then, we can see a functional object adapting, first to Greco-Roman, and then to Germanic tribal tastes, reflecting, though imperfectly, the customs of the societies that employed them.

Learn More: 

Curta, Florin, ‘Some Remarks on Ethnicity in Mediaeval Archaeology,’ Early Mediaeval Europe 15 (2007), pp.159-185.

Pohl, Walter, ‘Telling the Difference: Signs of Ethnic Identity’ in Pohl and Reimitz (eds.), Strategies of Distinction: the Construction of Ethnic Communities 300-800, (New York, 1998).

Hinton, David A, Gold and Gilt, Pots and Pins: Possessions and People in Mediaeval Britain, (Oxford, 2006).




5 thoughts on “Brooching the Subject: Mediaeval Jewellery in Context

    • Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it!
      I’m not sure if our use of jewellery has decreased in scope, or just that it’s more difficult to appreciate what we take for granted. Earrings, for example, can often send very different messages. They usually mean something different when seen on a man than on a woman; large hoops are often considered trashy, while gauges and other less-common piercings (or multiple piercings on an ear) usually are perceived as subversive or angsty. More than anything, I think it’s the multiculturalism, and the individualism, which marks modern jewellery-wearing out as different from the mediaeval past–our status objects are more likely to be cars or electronic gadgets, leaving our jewellery to be more expressive about personal preference.

  1. Pingback: Where the Bodies are Buried | mediaevalmusings

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