Jitske Jasperse shared her conference report with us on “Seals and Status 800-1700” at the British Museum from December 4th to 6th, 2015.
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The conference Seals and Status 800-1700, held in London’s British Museum from 4-6 December 2016, was an engaging conference. This was largely due to the variety of topics addressed: from the well-known seals of kings and queens to those of the lower classes, from seal matrices from Anglo-Saxon England to Chinese seals on paintings and lead seals in Byzantium, and from saints and seals to the manufacturers of seals and their production process. In addition, the multidisciplinary approach, with speakers presenting material from different perspectives, certainly stimulated the exchange of ideas and was inspiring for those who would not label themselves sigillographers. While no justice can be done to all individual contributions, some general observations can be made.
Materiality turned out be an important theme. While this might not come as a surprise, that many seals survive as fragments and are often detached from the documents they were originally attached to can make us forget that these wax of lead objects were originally related to matrices, parchment, cords and other seals. Moreover, they were of specific dimensions, shape, colour (green, red, brown/black, and natural) and material, as Elke Cwiertnia and Paul Dryburgh demonstrated. Markus Späth’s paper on city seals from the Upper Rhine region cleverly showed that iconography of German wax seals attached to a charter of 1284 in which the towns of Speyer, Worms, Mainz and Strasbourg agreed to a two-year peace (Landfrieden), instigated by King Rudolph I of Habsburg, is just one element that aids to our understanding of the function and meaning of the seals. Size and the sequence of the seals as attached to the parchment charter (of which three copies exist, originally one copy for the five party involved) were and are equally important for our understanding of the seals’ use, function and the status of the parties involved.
Späth’s research is part of a project ‘Verkörperung kommunaler Identät’ in which fingerprints that are left in Speyer’s wax seals are forensically investigated. Brigitte Bedos-Rezak emphasized that fingerprints found in the wax are life size and that through these imprints the body was incorporated in the seals. Fingerprints are thus part of the sealing process and offer an extra level of identification. While we do have little information on the actual sealing of documents, it is evident – amongst other from fingerprints – that seals were not merely markers of an agreement, but that they also were part of gestures and ritual. The relation between ritual and seals was investigated by Laura Whatley who studied the iconography of lead seals in the Latin Kingdom. She argued that the depicted architectural features and liturgical objects, such as censers and lamps, were not simply meant to refer to an actual building (with the Holy Sepulchre as the most famous), but also to evoke the place and its rituals. These objects were thus about the active imprinting of (past) experiences.
These social aspects of seals – the way people interact with them – were also addressed by Mei Xin Wang in her paper on Chinese seals as stamps of status on Chinese paintings and calligraphy. The so-called Admonitions Scroll (fifth to early seventh century AD) from the British Museum are a fine example of Chinese art collectors who stamped their seals on paintings in order to proof their ownership, as well as to demonstrate their status and taste. In addition, the seals add to the value of an artwork since they are proof of its provenance. As a result both art and seals were collected. Seals became an integral part of painting and even a scholarly form of art. The use of seals was, however, not restricted to the happy few, as became evident from Elizabeth New’s discussion of the seals below the nobility and knightly classes in medieval England and Wales. Even though these seals offer more challenges than those of the nobility because of their (sometimes) poorer quality and absence of legends, this should not withhold us from investigating them, as Judith Bennet’s research on medieval working women reminds us of. Thinking about the relation between seals and status, can – and should – also include the way women interacted with seals. Louise Berglund, in a paper on illustrious ladies in Sweden, pointed out that sealing is a social practice since it involves consent and participation of several persons. Overstepping the social boundaries related to sealing practices could lead to problems of authority. Turning to royal women, such as Birgitta of Sweden, Berglund reminded us that the absence of seals, as is the case for Birgitta although charters survive, must not be taken as straightforward evidence that women played no part in matters of state.
Although the mentioned examples leave much unsaid there’s no doubt that seals, even when small, in poor condition and often are detached from their original material surroundings, trigger many questions and offer inspiring food for thought.
Jitske Jasperse, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas