Bees, Brooches and Books

Richard Barber on the sad reason relatively little medieval jewellery exists and how while writing his new book, Magnificence and Princely Splendour in the Middle Ages, he set about recreating such a piece – with the help of a supremely gifted jeweller.

One of the frustrations about working on Magnificence and princely splendour in the Middle Ages was that while you can visit wonderful royal buildings from the period and listen to the marvellous sound of medieval music, there are some areas where there are only descriptions of things that used to exist. Clothes are of course one of the rarest survivals, but surprisingly there is very little left of medieval personal jewellery, as opposed to spectacular pieces such as crowns and royal regalia. The problem is that jewellery was actually regarded as an asset that you could cash in, and there are almost as many entries in the royal accounts for melting down pieces of gold and taking out the jewels as there are for buying new pieces.

 There is a sad story of the sculptor and goldsmith who worked for the dukes of Burgundy going to his master to discuss a new commission, only to discover that a work he had completed a year or two earlier, which he regarded as his masterpiece, had been melted down to provide the raw material for the duke’s latest fancy.

In the absence of genuine pieces, I thought it might be appropriate to do a bit of re-creation of medieval jewellery to celebrate publication of the book. I’m very fortunate to have a cousin who is a brilliant jeweller, Cassandra Goad, who started her business fifteen years after we launched Boydell Press. She bases her new collections on her travels, and when she came to Sicily, a country I am lucky enough to know quite well, she asked me to suggest a general book to give the background. What I sent her was an old but excellent book by Vincent Cronin, called The Golden Honeycomb. As I packed it up, I suddenly wondered about the title. It refers to the Greek legend of Daedalus, the great craftsman who built the labyrinth on Crete to house the Minotaur. He and his son were imprisoned by the king lest he reveal the secret to anyone else. Daedalus made wings of birds’ feathers coated with wax for his son Icarus to escape. Alas, he flew too near the sun, the wax melted, and he fell to his death. Daedalus later escaped to Sicily, and presented the temple at Enna, near Trapani, with a honeycomb made in gold in thanksgiving for finding refuge there. It was so realistic that no-one could tell it from a natural honeycomb. So I slipped a note inside the book, saying ‘There’s a challenge for you on page 10’. And Cassandra made wonderful pieces of gold honeycomb which became ear-rings, rings and a pendant – all with minute bees crawling across it.

So I naturally went to Cassandra with my idea of recreating a medieval jewel, and suggested that we might start with the Founder’s Jewel at New College, Oxford. This is a wonderful brooch showing the Annunciation to the Virgin, set with pearls and precious stones. Our version is simpler, and secular. It has no figures, but is otherwise a fairly close copy in terms of the size, four centimetres, the overall pattern and the details. The problem was that emeralds and sapphires were beyond our means. But at the end of the fourteenth century when the Founder’s Jewel was made, the art of enamelling was at its height, and so Cassandra used rich translucent enamels in place of the stones, and this was the result:


 This guest post was written by Dr Richard Barber who has had a huge influence on the study of medieval history and literature, as both a writer and publisher.

Richard’s Magnificence and Princely Splendour in the Middle Ages is available now: https://boybrew.co/Magnificence

Browse an online sampler: https://boydellandbrewer.com/media/wysiwyg/Docs/Magnificence_Brochure.pdf

And to see more jewels by Cassandra Goad, go to https://www.cassandragoad.com/

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