By Danièle Cybulskie
Medieval Europeans had yet to discover the wonders of chocolate, so what did they use to impress their lovers? Here are five popular gifts of love from the Middle Ages.
Perhaps the most classic piece of all medieval jewellery, the brooch was a thoughtful gift from one lover to another because it had the dual advantages of showing off the wealth of the giver, while also keeping the receiver’s clothes from falling off (perhaps, in that sense, it’s a bit of an odd gift between lovers after all). In a time before buttons (13th century) and zippers, a beautiful brooch could be used every day to fasten a cloak or a hood, in which case it would be very visible. The Anglo-Saxons were particularly skilled at creating complicated and gorgeous brooches, but brooches were still apparently in vogue in the fourteenth century when Chaucer wrote of the Prioress’
… brooch of gold full sheene,
On which ther was first write a crowned A
And after Amor vincit omnia. (The Canterbury Tales, ll.160-162)
(…brooch of gold very shiny/bright
On which there was first written a crowned A
And after, “love conquers all”.)
The Prioress was not the only one with a love-themed brooch in medieval England: in Medieval Life: Archaeology and the Life Course, Roberta Gilchrist notes, “Around 50 heart badges or brooches have been recovered from the Thames foreshore” (p.110). If that many were found in just one relatively-small region, it suggests that while a brooch was not the most original gift to give a lover, it was certainly a dependable choice.
2. Knightly Favours
For a classic gift of love, a medieval lady could bestow a favour on a knight on the tournament circuit, usually one of her detachable sleeves, a handkerchief, a ribbon, or a scarf. Something fluttery and easily tied would make a good public declaration; something foldable and small could be tucked away in the knight’s armour as a private symbol of devotion. What made a gift like this particularly special was the fact that it was most likely handmade by the lady, herself, and so could have her family colours or her own special symbol stitched on it. As with similar tokens throughout the centuries, it may even have held a signature scent from the lady’s favourite lotion, bathwater, or perfume. Other handmade gifts from ladies, as Gilchrist notes, could be “a pillow, towel, kerchief, girdle or purse” (p.110).
While a wealthy lover could afford to send expensive gifts, the more ordinary sort could not. In place of sending big items, it seems that some medieval lovers gave each other miniature versions of those gifts they would have liked to afford, somewhat like charms. “These tiny replicas,” says Gilchrist, “copied the courting gifts exchanged by more prosperous couples, including purses, combs, shoes, chaplets and jewel-boxes or caskets” (pp.110-111). These tiny tokens could be easily carried in a purse and were a bit more ambiguous than rings, so they would have made the perfect gifts for those who were making secret promises to each other.
4. Practical Gifts
Brooches were not the only practical gift medieval lovers could give each other: pretty much anything made of metal could be inscribed. Sometimes, medieval people gave each other belts as marriage tokens (Mazo Karras, p.178), rich as they are in their symbolism of a circle and/or knot. Archaeologists have found “Belt fittings in silver show[ing] two clasped hands and inscriptions such as AMOR” (“love”, Gilchrist, p.110), which may have been used as marriage gifts, or just as gifts between lovers. Another practical love token (and perhaps my favourite) is a spur that was found near the Wars of the Roses battle site at Towton with the inscription “in loyal love all my heart” (Gilchrist, p.110). Thanks to that tender inscription, whoever it was would have known he was loved as he fastened his spurs and rode into that fateful battle.
Rings were exchanged all the time in the Middle Ages, and were especially a part of the betrothal and marriage ceremonies. Following ancient tradition, lovers could wear their rings on the third finger of the left hand, as this finger was believed to be a direct line to the heart (a tradition most married couples continue today). Rings could be made of precious metals and stones, as with royalty, or with simple bone or glass (Gilchrist, p.112), and engraved with sentimental words and images. Because bone is easily carved, even people of humble means could wear beautifully embellished rings. A ring was a very visible symbol of one’s feelings, so it was more often used for publicly-known relationships, but, as Gilchrist suggests, they could also have secret messages between lovers inscribed on the inside (p.112), which added that ever-romantic element of being “just-between-us”.
These are just some of the classic love tokens of the Middle Ages that historians and archaeologists have uncovered, and they take their place in humanity’s long history of giving pretty things to people we love. For more on medieval archaeology, check out Roberta Gilchrist’s Medieval Life: Archaeology and the Life Course. For more on traditional love, take a look at Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages by Frances and Joseph Gies, and for more untraditional love, check out Ruth Mazo Karras’ Unmarriages and Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist
Top Image: Fuller Brooch as displayed in the British Museum – Photo by Johnbod / Flickr