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L’Art et la mesure

Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel

Troisième partie. Défis pour l’approche métrique

Boundless configurations

Analysing fashions, styles and taste in late medieval Northern European jewellery

David Humphrey

Texte intégral

  • 2 For a comprehensive overview of jewellery during this period, see Ronald Lightbown, Medieaval Europ (...)

1The period between the Sack of Constantinople in1204 and c.1450 was a golden age of development for Northern European jewellery. Thousands of pieces of goldsmiths’ work were manufactured in the workshops of Paris, London and other centres of production. Their commission and manufacture was mediated through interrelated networks of clients, craftsmen and middlemen. Precious materials for the construction of objects were acquired from the furthest extents of the known world. Today we are left with only a very small percentage of those objects : the remainder are now lost or broken up or reworked for new pieces. In many cases they were the victims of the ever-present demand for the latest fashions in jewels and the rush to change for the sake of change that underpinned the history of jewellery during the period2.

  • 3 An example of this approach to research is found in, Sheridan Bowman and Colleen Stapleton, « The A (...)

2The extent of the knowledge we have today of jewellery from the period is fragmented at best and relies, to a large extent, on assembling and arguing cases based on small pieces of disparate data that somehow appear to bear discernable interrelationships. From extant items we can draw some conclusions about the physical nature of some of the jewels found at the courts of France, Valois Burgundy and England during the period3, but beyond that research is reliant on inventories, pictorial images and sculpted works as core resources. They in themselves are susceptible to ongoing and widely accepted question marks about accuracy, honesty and reliability. For researchers such resources are fait accompli by nature : we have what we have and must evaluate their validity and impact. The danger for researchers is that it is all too easy to allow assumption to override the level of rigour necessary to build and defend cases for research outcomes that stand the test of logical argument and peer review. Pieces of disparate data often seem to make naturally neat and tidy fit, but ultimately are revealed as related only through false assumption or a misplaced belief that they should bear a degree of relationship.

3Analyzing sources of data and subsequently building knowledge and understand of, and about, jewellery from late medieval Northern Europe is a task built, in large part, on information recorded by individuals often with little or no specialist knowledge of goldsmiths’ work and at the mercy of the whims of individual interpretation. The level of credibility, in relation to the accurate identification of specific gemstones for example, is a constant issue in developing threads of research. Reduced to its simplest, the issue is : can we trust that an entry recording for example a ring with a ruby set in it actual existed, or that if it did, can we be sure it was a ruby ? The issues dealt with in this work are done so on the basis that unless evidence to the contrary is available, inventories and other sources of data should be considered with caution as valid, but with the caveat that they probably cannot be corroborated as such.

Data resources available to research

4For historians of jewellery and others goldsmiths’work of the period, the sources of historical data available fall into four core categories : extant objects from the period, image-based sources, sculpted works and text-based sources. Exploration of these in the context of developing a broader overall understanding of late medieval Northern European jewellery – in terms of both objects AND the circumstances of their usage – has largely been pursued as separate research threads. The rationale for that may be seen as lying in perceived levels of what can be meaningfully extrapolated with any degree of accuracy from different types of data sources. At one end of the scale extant works offer considerable insight into issues ranging from metal composition to gemstone usage and provide tangible hints towards undercurrents in design thinking. At the other end of the scale, the depictions of jewels in illuminated manuscripts are often extremely poor in terms of even basic representational accuracy : furthermore the object depicted may well be no more than a design drawn from the artist’s imagination rather than from life. As dubious as this type of data may seem to valid research it may, if viewed through a different and less demanding lens, provide clues and cues to the exercise of artistic licence and pictorial shorthand based on the real world observation of jewellery during the period.

5All of the sources available to researchers today, from extant objects to gestural representations in illuminated works, share the fact that they are, in one form or another, databases : they contain information of various degrees of physical, pictorial or descriptive accuracy with associated degrees of value to research which can be analysed in response to a range of research issues. It would be a step too far to suggest that they represent a cohesive body of knowledge capable of functioning as a tool for a cross-corroborative approach to research. Seen as a group they can provide a degree of such an approach, but more crucially they provide the opportunity to consider late medieval Northern European jewellery along a number of integrated strands of research activity : for example, illuminated works, although not necessarily providing much detailed information in terms of the structures of jewels do provide considerable insight into the relationship between garments and jewels.

6Extant jewels are the most valuable data resources available to research – particularly so in circumstances where they have any form of additional data sources capable of corroborating issues or facts about them. Pieces are scattered across the museums of the world with Europe having particularly fine examples in the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Musée du Louvre and Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris amongst others. The paucity of number of extant pieces can only hint at the opulent world of over 600 years ago. Considered on a « by-object » basis they represent multi-planed data sets containing information related to technologies of manufacture, gemstone usage and the allied issue of working gemstones into specific cuts that was very much a developing technology during the period. Taken in a wider context, items dated to the same timeframe and location of manufacture reveal a wide range of variation in the rationales of practical manufacture within the overarching generic processes of jewellery manufacture : in effect the technical « signature » of individual makers or of specific workshops. Viewed as deconstructed objects entered in a database logging basic design forms, gemstone usage and technical development a broad consideration of extant works suggests the steady movement away from vestiges of Romanesque design and the incorporation of Gothic motifs possibly devolved down directly from cathedral architecture together with a transformation of design undercurrents from apparently abstract geometric structure through the use of both obvious and cryptic use of floral motifs to works that demonstrated a narrative, often figurative, content.

7Beyond the world of tangible objects lies the more difficult to interpret domain of pictorial sources : in the context of this article painted and illuminated works are considered together, but acknowledging their different development paths. Visual accuracy in the portrayal of pictorial content slowly emerged during this period : from the relatively naïve levels of detail found in the works of painters such as Henri Bellechose (active 1415-1440) to the more sophisticated approaches of Jean Fouquet (c.1420-c.1481) and the highpoint reached in the works of Jan van Eyck (before c.1395- before 9 July 1441).

8In the period under consideration painting and illuminated works in general are not strong sources of data for information on jewellery and consequently are of limited value to a database approach to analysis – with the notable exception of van Eyck and perhaps a very small number of his contemporaries. What these works do serve to provide however, is some information on the placement of jewellery items : the consistency in works of the period with which jewels exhibit similar stylistic and physical characteristics and similar sites of location on the body suggest that such information is likely to be a fairly credible representation of actual practice. In these respects painted and illuminated works serve as repositories of data with a degree of in-built self-categorization in that they contain common elements capable of further analysis by, for example, the stylistic development of garments and, to an extent, a similar development in jewellery styles.

9A third source of data lies in sculpted works and, arguably, must be considered as probably the least useful to the understanding of jewellery in late medieval Northern Europe in so far as they present to research very few examples that offer highly resolved detail : physical generalization in sculpted representations of jewels reduces many examples to generic representations of jewellery forms. Sculpted works as a source of data is currently a focus of research by the author and, in the context of this paper, awaits findings from that research.

  • 4 See, for example, Léon de Laborde, Les Ducs de Bourgogne : études sur les lettres, les arts et l’in (...)

10The fourth source of data are inventories which have traditional been the key resource for researchers in developing our understanding of jewellery during the late medieval period. The types and number of inventories that survive are many and varied ranging from the great inventories of the Valois Burgundian dukes4 to a myriad of documents left by individuals often recording very small numbers of pieces. The study of inventories is fraught with difficulties and dangers in terms of their honesty of record, their accuracy and their interpretation. As already noted the author takes the view that they must be considered, with caution, as valid sources for research. Inventories as data sources are, of all of the sources available, the most natural candidates to be considered as databases. They are often structured sequentially (often chronologically in terms of object acquisition) and can be mined for data from the occurrence of « ruby » or « diamond » or in some cases the (probably incomplete) histories of transactions with specific goldsmiths or workshops. Their weakness lies in the subjective nature of the original process of recording information which lacked any form of agreed technical lexicon of description and in many cases it is evident that those recording the data simply approximated their description when they were unable to understand in any detail what they were being asked to describe.

The issue of cross-corroboration

  • 5 The so-called “Three Brothers jewel” is an example of a work that has left data in pictorial and te (...)

11Considered together, the key sources of data provide insight into various issues associated with the physical nature of jewellery during the period, its location on the body and its relationship with garments. Each source provides information on the terms of the media employed : from real object to the written word. Except in a few rare cases what they do not do is function as a cohesive unit capable of cross-corroborative activity at the level of the individual object5. To expect them to do so would be to place an impossible level of expectation on the documentation processes of late medieval Northern Europe. Viewed from the perspective of the time there was no perceived need to make disparate data types function in an interconnected and articulated way. Viewed from the perspective of today, below the lack of inter-source linkage at object level, it is possible to find a degree of cross-corroboration through a database approach to the analysis of information that provides, as noted earlier, some insight into the physical nature of jewellery during the period, its location on the body and its relationship with garments, and more significantly for research, brings parallel insight into fashions, styles and taste in jewellery of the period.

Late medieval attitudes to jewellery

12The four key data sources outlined bring some light to bear on the physical nature of work found in the jewellery collections of the period largely through the somewhat stark process of the analysis of data on the basis of descriptive occurrence : put even more coldly, through the construction and interrogation of databases constructed from extrapolated data. Rationales for choice by those who commissioned and wore jewels were not made in such calculated terms : considerations that are difficult to analyze against any viable criteria often dominated choice. Those rationales for choice have not changed over the course of time. Even today a major reason for wearing a particular item of jewellery is simply that « I like it ». Such simplistic criteria clearly drove choice in the past equally strongly. A even stronger driver for choice in the late medieval period was the use and reliance, by many of those affluent enough to purchase jewels of gold and precious stones, on sources of « knowledge » informing on the benefits and advantages (and disadvantages) to wearers and viewers of specific gemstones : the literature of the many and varied lapidaries.

  • 6 Lapidaries in use in the late medieval period in Northern Europe were drawn from a wide range of so (...)

13By the late medieval period in Northern Europe individual and collective attitudes to jewellery were built on complex rationales constructed from interpretations of lore descended down largely from Greek and Roman beliefs which, during the intervening centuries, had been collected and often modified by many writers. References to the advantages and disadvantages brought by specific gemstones filtered down to the late medieval period through works known as lapidaries6 that outlined in considerable detail what an individual might gain, or lose, by ownership of, or contact with, certain gemstones. Lapidaries clearly had an impact on the choice of gemstones made by those commissioning new jewels or having existing ones modified. Such powerful subjective criteria expose the difficulties of building a socially-contextualized view of jewellery for the period : however much analysis is carried out on those core sources noted earlier, personal, ethereal rationales for choice and aspects of interaction must remain factors that may have dictated personal decision making. Furthermore it is becoming more apparent that for many wearers and viewers of jewellery at this time the pieces themselves were considered in a narrative context and not in terms of abstract design : in essence they told stories or alluded to historical scenarios read through the combination of gemstones and geometry underlying their individual structure.

14The acknowledgement of such a contemporary approach to jewellery would appear to undermine a database-considered approach to the analysis of the various forms of data available to us today : the subjectivity of human response displacing the value of a quasi-objective deconstruction of the more hard-edged sources that have descended down to us. The alternative is argued here : the two approaches compliment each other BUT make the issues involved more complex and much more difficult to develop arguable, reference-supported cases.

A database approach to mapping trends in fashions, styles and tastes

15A database approach to the various individual and collective data sources available that might serve to focus our knowledge and interpretation more definitively is one pushing at the boundaries of general acceptability in relation to methodological innovation. It is freely accepted here that such an approach tries to apply something approaching logical deconstruction to data sources that may be inexact, incorrect or fabricated at worse and thus brings with it issues of robustness and research rigour. What is being suggested is that such an approach, although open to criticism, is worthy of development at least to the point at which its invalidity can be proven if that is the case. Historical jewellery research is beginning to benefit from the application of so-called « new technologies » : from the application of computer-based three-dimensional modelling and animation systems to the manufacture of models of historical objects extrapolated from painted or sculpted reference sources generated through rapid prototyping technologies. The application of database technologies and strategies fits within the wider application of digitally mediated approaches to interpretation and knowledge enhancement.

16A database approach to the analysis of sources relating to jewellery during the period is therefore a difficult task and one with little history in terms of research activity. The overall paucity of information on which to make constructive conclusions is very limited and open to doubts about levels of reliability and validity. With the arguable exception of extant pieces, the issue is overshadowed by the subjective nature of the original recording processes. Nonetheless it is possible to suggest a number of tentative observations on the nature of jewellery and its frame of reference in contemporary society. These may be summarized as :

Ever-rolling stylistic development and change took place driven by the dictates of fashion and the vogue for things new and ever more sumptuous. In the courts of the French kings and the Valois Burgundian dukes, this is evident from those inventories and objects that have survived.

Certain gemstones (principally diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds) together with pearls accounted for the majority of gemstones used in jewellery of the period. This emerges from all of the core research resources available – from extant pieces to inventories in various forms. The presence of these stones may be linked to the use of lapidaries that provided would-be owners with something akin to a catalogue-mediated approach to the selection of individual gemstones, and their use in various combinations within the context of an individual item of jewellery.

In the earlier part of the period jewellery styles and forms reflected the wider interests current in love, honour and the relationship with Nature. This gave way to a more figurative or narrative stylistic foundation.

A slow movement took place away from the functional role of jewels (as fasteners on garments for example) to a role that was more specifically decorative. The functional role was maintained but diminished in terms of the objectives in commissioning a work.

  • 7 The fashion historian Margaret Scott has suggested in her book, Medieval Dress & Fashion, London, B (...)

The occurrence of increasingly standardized design styles in collections. This links to « 3 » above and suggests that the notion of « fashion » in the design of jewels was possibly linked to, and/or reacting to, the development of the idea of « fashion » within the world of clothing7.

The volume of production of jewellery and goldsmiths work in general increased considerably over the course of the period driven by the ever-expanding numbers of people in the regal and ducal courts of Northern Europe affluent enough to purchase them. It is accepted here that the use of those inventories that have survived may obscure the value to analysis of those that have not survived. On the basis of what is available to use for analysis, even over short periods, increased demand on goldsmiths can be seen.

The developing relationship between garments as « landscapes » on which to site items of jewellery and the jewels themselves appears to have been invigorated by the development of the houppelande as garment of choice in the courts of France and Valois Burgundy in particular. The basic structural simplicity of the houppelande made it an ideal garment on which to display the emerging gemstone-heavy and structurally detailed items of jewellery emerging out of more brutish and primitive styles of the Romanesque.

In terms of jewellery forms the pendant began to become an equal to the brooch in its relative ubiquity. This may be accounted for by the development of the houpplande that was often made in a plain black material that acted as a perfect background for the deep yellow gold in use at the time and the various coloured gemstones that the metal supported.

Pearls begin to play an increasing role in setting the visual characteristics of individual items of jewellery. As a generalization their use may be seen as a means of softening the visual impact of often, angular settings and not well-cut or worked gemstones.

The development of the goldsmithing trade and the expansion of its output appears to have taken place in spite of the various sumptuary laws enacted in various parts of Europe aimed at restricting the catchment of those entitled to wear jewels. This suggests that sumptuary laws were often worth no more than the material they were recorded on.

The design development of jewels progressively drew on the Gothic style in its various forms extracting its underlying geometries from those employed by cathedral builders.

17The foregoing points do not represent the total of what may be gleaned from an analytical approach rooted in the possibilities of the application of database-mediated strategies to historical jewellery research. They do represent a number of tentative conclusions which may corroborate generally held views on work of the period but which have been arrived at through other methodological approaches. In that respect they suggest that, although possibly a fledging concept at present, a database approach to historical jewellery research may offer the field a research tool capable of supporting innovative insight into worlds of splendour which have long since become clouded and indistinct.


2 For a comprehensive overview of jewellery during this period, see Ronald Lightbown, Medieaval European Jewellery, London, Victoria & Albert Museum, 1992.

3 An example of this approach to research is found in, Sheridan Bowman and Colleen Stapleton, « The All Souls Jewel : the enamellers art, deliberate or accidental tinting ? », Jewellery Studies, 8,1998, p. 5-10.

4 See, for example, Léon de Laborde, Les Ducs de Bourgogne : études sur les lettres, les arts et l’industrie pendant le xve siècle et plus particulièrement dans les Pays-Bas et le duché de Bourgogne, Paris, 1849-1952, 3 vol.

5 The so-called “Three Brothers jewel” is an example of a work that has left data in pictorial and text-based forms. Made at the end of the fourteenth century in Paris it can be traced in Valois Burgundian ducal inventories and is represented pictorially at the time of its sale in1504. Although outside of the timeframe considered here the image of it may be taken as representing its state during the period as it corresponds with a high degree of accuracy to an inventory entry of12 July1420.

6 Lapidaries in use in the late medieval period in Northern Europe were drawn from a wide range of sources and contain apparently confusing and contradictory statements about the qualities and uses of gemstones. Their study may be considered to be a field of specialist research. The works of George Frederick Kunz have thrown much analytical light on these works. His, The Curious Lore of Precious Stones, (reprint of1913 first edition published by J. Lippincott, London), Dover Publications, 1971 and The Magic of Jewels and Charms, (reprint of 1915 first edition published by J. Lippincott, London), Dover Publications, 1997 serve to illustrate his work on the subject.

7 The fashion historian Margaret Scott has suggested in her book, Medieval Dress & Fashion, London, British Library, 2007 that « fashion » considered as ever-changing appearance, based on novelty and not necessity can be traced to the start of the twelfth century and not the more generally accepted fourteenth century. That view is considered as valid in the context of this article and helps to support the view of an identifiable relationship between the development of fashion in clothing and development in jewellery style.


Royal College of Art, London.

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