— by Christian de Holacombe, Guild Chronicler
All that glitters is not gold — but glitter makes a magnificent show, and to royalty, nobles and wealthy people through the ages, that’s good enough. Spangles, studs, bezants, sequins, medallions, and other glittery bits of metal have decorated rich clothing for almost as long as we have surviving bits of clothing at all.
While there are plenty of shiny metal bits used to decorate clothing in Asian and other cultures, for this article we’ll concentrate on bezants (as we’ll call them all for the moment) in medieval western Europe.
The word “bezant” originally referred to a round gold coin from Byzantium, but the term was quickly extended to refer to round flat shiny things in general, and then to other shapes. Most of the bezants we see in the twelfth through sixteenth century are thin, flat cutouts, often with an embossed or stamped design like those shown in the elaborately beaded and bezanted border shown at right. Most seem to be made of gilded silver, but there are some in pure gold and others of base metals such as pewter. They’re also called “gaufres” (which means “wafers”) or spangles.
Books on embroidery often ignore bezants, although they are certainly used along with gold thread, beads and pearls to decorate a number of historical embroidered items. This may be because bezants are seen more as the province of metalworkers than of embroiderers. There are also not that many examples surviving of textiles decorated with bezants, and most of those are church furnishings that haven’t been extensively studied.
Medieval European Jewellery, that indispensable reference to all things medieval and glittery, has a chapter on “Dress and Head Ornaments” that mentions many examples of bezants from the 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.
In 1167, for instance, the Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England, left the Abbey of Bec a robe “covered with drops of gold” to be made into church vestments. Common also at this time were heavy gold-embroidered or braided borders on royal and imperial garments, with pearls, enameled medallions and other gold bits, as on the robes of the Holy Roman Emperor (1130-40).
Below are the equally elaborate borders of a church furnishing, a cloth drape for the front of an altar. Not only bezants and spangles, but coral and glass beads decorate this altar frontal from Halberstadt, Germany. As is proper for church furnishings, many of the themes — the Crucifixion, the heads of saints, the Lamb of God — are religious, but perhaps we can say that elaborate borders on clothing could have looked something like this as well.
Satires of the 13th century tell us that such ornaments quickly filtered down the social scale from royalty to nobles, knights and even rich merchants’ wives. Etienne de Bourbon (d. 1261) denounces rich girdles (belts) of silk adorned with “lions, dragons and birds, and with precious stones set on the stuff so that their fashion[ing] costs even more than their materials.”
Two 14th-century molds for making bezants survive, one in Hungary and the other in Norway. Each has carvings for various types of rosettes, quatrefoils, leaves, roundels, and biblical or legendary scenes. Some bezants may actually have been versions in precious metal of the common pilgrims’ badges sold at famous shrines and cathedrals, such as those pictured in the Museum of London’s book Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges.
Many examples of bezants appear in royal and noble household accounts through the 1300s and 1400s. A girl from the Accarisio family of Trieste, who married the Venetian patrician Antonio Erizzo in 1371, brought among her jewels “a guarnaccia [robe] decorated with fifty stampe [bezants] of silver.” Others wore “broad trimmings of gold all around the collar at the throat that are as wide as a dog’s collar,” comments Giovanni de’ Mossis, the chronicler of Piacenza (1388). You might suspect he didn’t have a high opinion of such ornaments!
In the mid-1300s there was a particular fashion for bezants in the shapes of letters of the alphabet. These could be the initials of the owner’s or a sweetheart’s name, or could even spell out words or mottoes. Borders could also feature a dangling fringe of bezants as well as those sewn onto the garment itself. One garment is described with a fringe of “little silver tubes”, which sound something like the metal tube beads called “liquid silver” in modern catalogs.
Many of the surviving examples of bezants are on church furnishings. This is probably an artifact of survival: church furnishings tend to be carefully preserved, and are often kept unchanged as a memorial to the donors, rather than being updated or re-made with each new generation as secular ornaments often are.
On our cover is a closeup of a robe made for a famous statue of the Infant Jesus in Sarnen, near Lake Lucerne in Switzerland (photo at right). Legend says that the deep red silk was from a dress given by Queen Agnes of Hungary in 1318. It is studded all over with bezants, love tokens and religious medals, some probably sewed on as decoration by the nuns in whose chapel the statue is housed, others given by devotees as thanks for answered prayers. Many religious statues have been given richly decorated “robes” like these in which they may be clothed for special festivals.
The Dominican friar Francesco Eximenis, in 1382, writes disapprovingly of maidens who “wear hats like men, with badges and plumes.” Gold-decorated borders could also appear around the ends of sleeves, the edges of under-sleeves, and hoods. El Corbacho, an anti-feminist satire written in Castile in the 1430s, comments that some women have so many ornaments that they seem more like walking advertisements than ladies!
Mounts, spangles, buttons
The various types of gold or other metal ornaments cover a lot of territory, but can be more or less distinguished by how they are made and how they are attached. While the terms are used inconsistently and somewhat loosely, some definitions are useful.
We can refer to spangles as flat metal ornaments that are usually plain, rather than bearing some sort of additional design. Spangles may be cut or stamped out of flat metal, in plain rounds or shapes, and are usually sewn onto fabric by pierced holes. In the 16th century the classic Elizabethan spangles or “Oes” are often made by hammering flat a tiny circle of wire, leaving a central hole for attachment. Modern sequins and “paillettes” (now usually plastic) are their descendants.
Bezants in the narrow sense are flat pieces of metal that usually have a design of some sort stamped into them. Something like a fleur-de-lys or a fish can either be a raised design, cut out along its outline, or a similar raised or channelled design on a round or some other shape.
Usually these types of bezants are sewed down through holes pierced in the edge. They may also be fastened by wires or thin metal prongs. Modern so-called nailheads are simply such bits of stamped metal with sharp metal prongs around the edges, which can be pushed through cloth and then bent on the reverse side to hold the decoration in place.
Larger, heavier, and more elaborate bezants may be set with pearls or jewels, and are usually made thicker to hold them. They are commonly made by a jeweler and parts may be cast, engraved, or made from filigree rather than merely stamped from flat metal. These are often called buttons even when they are merely used as decoration and not as fasteners. The decorative uses of buttons seem to be at least as old as their use for practical garment fastenings.
Finally there are metal decorations fastened by rivets, which are usually referred to as mounts, especially when they’re used to decorate a girdle or belt. The rivet attachment is especially helpful in attaching mounts to leather, which may be too heavy to sew through. Mounts may have practical functions as well as decorative ones, such as stiffening bars, hooks or loops to hold a purse. They are usually cast metal. The Museum of London’s book Dress Accessories has many examples, both loose and attached to remnants of cloth or leather (examples below).
Motifs and styles
Finally, the variety of reported motifs and surviving examples is enormous. Rounds, diamonds, squares, hearts, quatrefoils, and other geometric shapes are common. So are leaves, both single leaves and sprays of leaves, and flower heads. Flat roses are among the Museum of London examples and also appear on the period examples in Halberstadt. There are also oak leaf and acorn examples and curling vines.
Stylized animals, swirled figures, stars, and symbols like the fleur-de-lys were also popular, and could be worn either purely for their decorative character, or as a reference to noble heraldry. Some may even be “livery” badges given out by nobles to retainers and members of their households.
Studying the surviving examples in detail also reveals many bezants stamped with elaborate coats of arms, or even entire scenes with figures, depicting legends and bible stories. These were not confined to pieces intended for the church, but were also worn on secular clothing. Bezants could also be stamped with mottoes or initials.
Bezants could be scattered over a surface or arranged in regular patterns. As you can see from some of the pieces shown and described here, they can be part of a beaded medallion, sewn in rows to make borders or panels, or used alone. Several different types are often combined in the same piece, including various sizes and shapes. All these variations are easily adaptable to new projects.
Finding bezants (and similar stuff)
With a little imagination and a bit of investigation, it’s not too hard to find suitable bezants, spangles, studs and mounts for your medieval clothing or furnishings. Of course many of the things you find will have totally modern motifs (bicycles, cell phones, beach balls), but if you look carefully you can also find much more medieval-looking stars, crosses, geometric shapes and rosettes that are quite suitable for medieval projects.
Fabric and craft stores are a good place to start looking, although your hopes shouldn’t be too high. Still, you can find metal buttons with plain, domed, geometric, or lightly engraved designs that look reasonably medieval, and sometimes a few nailheads or flat metal shapes will appear as well.
Bead stores are another good place to look. There are quite a few flat “spacer” beads that are good approximations of plain round or geometric bezants. Online and mail-order bead sources are likely to have a much bigger assortment, as well as seed beads and real or glass pearls to combine with them. Fire Mountain Gems in particular now has a line of small metal plaques they call “patina disks,” some with stamped designs such as fish and grape leaves.
Specialist suppliers and scrapbooking sources may also sell some stamped metal items, though these, especially stamped-metal bezants in medieval styles, are among the hardest to find. Often what you can find here is shapes such as roses or stars, and again it takes some careful picking and choosing to find things that look medieval.
Finally, don’t forget sellers of supplies for historical clothing and needlework. You can now buy excellent 16th-century style spangles and reproduction cast pewter belt mounts from several sources in an assortment of sizes, though they tend to be priced higher than other sources. But you’re paying for quality and expertise.
These are not by any means the only sources online, but a few to get you started:
Nailheads & some “charms,” (i.e. metal stampings): http://www.scrapbookcottage.ca/Scrappin%20Extras.htm
Metal stampings (“charms”): http://www.fancifulsinc.com/site_map_page.htm
Fire Mountain Gems: spacer beads, metal “patina disks” (under jewelry components): http://www.firemountaingems.com/
Period spangles & metal threads: http://www.hedgehoghandworks.com/
Dress Accessories: Medieval Finds from Excavations in London by Geoff Egan and Frances Pritchard (1991, reprinted 2004, Boydell Press, ISBN 0-8511-5839-0)
Medieval European Jewellery by Ronald Lightbown (1992, Victoria & Albert Museum, ISBN 0-9481-0787-1). Huge, out of print and very expensive; try the library.
Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges: medieval Finds from Excavations in London by Brian Spencer (1998, reprinted 2004, Boydell Press, ISBN 0-1129-0574-9)
Grizel’s Bead Pages: http://www.medievalbeads.com/docs/docs-bezants.shtml
Marburg Foto Archive: http://www.bildindex.de
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This particular web page last updated on March 19 2006.