Precious Stones in Medieval Secular Culture

The Mineral and the Visual

Stones have always held meaning for people. They were believed to hold certain powers, worn as amulet or talisman, and they were even thought to cure diseases. The Mineral and the Visual explores the role of precious stones during the Middle Ages, and particularly in a non-religious context. And it is a fascinating read!

The Mineral and the Visual centers around the notion that precious stones in the Middle Ages were looked upon decidedly different than we now are accustomed to. They were not merely decorative embellishments in pieces belonging to the realm of what we now regard as ‘decorative arts’, but they represented a world of art, meaning and science. They were powerful in and of themselves, and studying them was a highly valued discipline that required literacy and knowledge. Contrary to our times, where we select precious stones based on their financial value and appearance, for the medieval purpose mattered what a stone could do (p. 6). That is hardly a new concept; the agency of stones is of prime importance among for example the Bedouin [1], but here it is applied to medieval objects.

This book approaches this agency of stones through three case-studies: bejeweled crowns, illustrated texts on stones (the so-called lapidaries) and illustrated travel accounts. And in these three themes, a multifaceted, brightly coloured world emerges of living stones, knowledge about those stones, and trade and commerce in acquiring these stones. Before I take you through the book, here are a few observations. First off, the emphasis of the book is on medieval use of stones in the West, as is clearly mentioned on the back cover. Of course, there is attention for the intersection with the Islamic world, for example in the part on illustrated lapidaries where knowledge exchange is touched upon, but the geographical scope of the book is mainly Western Europe. Where sources from the Islamic world and beyond are used, this is to confirm European practices. As the trade in gemstones itself, but notably also the ideas and beliefs associated with these have always spanned continents, that half the story is left out is something to be aware of as reader. Within that European perspective, the emphasis seems to be on the German-speaking world, which narrows it down further. An example is how the German language is mentioned as recognizing ‘the gender-neutral and class-specific conmingling of human and mineal, for it links Edelmann and Edelfrau to Edelstein…’ (p. 14) – I’m no linguist, but the use of ‘edel’ with objects or notions deemed noble seems to me not limited to people and stones and not specific to the German language, either. Early medieval Anglo-Saxon names such as Aethelflaed ‘noble beauty’ and Aethelred ‘noble counsel’ employ the same form, after all. And second, be advised that this is an academic study, not a publication for a wider audience: I fear the language used may discourage non-academic readers, which is too bad, as there is so much this book offers. Having said that: onwards to the world of stones!

The first part presents the power of bejeweled medieval crowns. We expect royalty to bedazzle and shine, and that was no different for the Middle Ages: kings and queens were covered in jewellery and precious materials. But whereas nowadays that is more of an expression of status already present, in the Middle Ages the use of precious stones was what created that status in the first place. I found that a fascinating notion: the stones themselves have the power to imbue a person with royalty and its accompanying virtues. The few remaining medieval crowns are discussed and analyzed, and placed in their historic context. Here, I could not help but wonder in how far we might interpret crowns as ‘secular’ given the close, inseparable power of royalty and church in the periods under discussion, even with the definition of secular given on p. 10. The 26 early medieval votive crowns from Guarrazar, Spain, for example have been left out of this book. These are excellent examples of the continuation of Byzantine styles and its gem use, and it would be interesting to see if the theory developed by the author on the function of the Leitstein on crowns is also applicable to votive crowns.

In the second part, the author adds another layer to the reality of living, powerful stones, and that is what contemporary literature tells us about knowledge of these stones and their powers. Lapidaries are an encyclopedia of sorts, presenting knowledge about stones, and they have existed from Antiquity onwards. During the Islamic Middle Ages, many works including lapidaries from the classical world, but also from Buddhist and Hindu libraries as well as sources from further afield in Asia were translated into Arabic and improved upon. [2] It is in this context that I missed a closer examination of eastern sources in particular, as it would be intriguing to see if most lapidary knowledge was indeed based in Classical Antiquity, as the author assumes (p. 75, 83), or that there is evidence to the contrary. [3] This part traces the development of the lapidary in the Middle Ages and explores how knowledge about precious stones was interwoven with not only geology, but astrology, medicine and magic. I enjoyed the elaborate exploration into observation: not just names and colours, but also shades and hues of colours, the touch of stones and even their taste (I can’t help but wonder what stone tastes like rotten fish….!) (p. 99) The knowledge present in lapidaries is presented and discussed, and this journey into the medieval mind and the dangerous world it found itself in is fascinating – what to think of a coral table ornament hung with fossilized shark teeth set in gold, that guests could use to test their food for poison?

From what was originally learned, medical knowledge it is but a small step to magical knowledge, and that is where the knowledge contained in these scholarly books finds its way to a wider audience. An entire chapter is devoted to ancient carved gemstones such as cameos and intaglios: not only were these made of stones that had powers themselves, but they contained ancient engravings that carried meaning, too, and might be at odds with Christianity – here, lapidaries show traces of redaction, and the author walks us through the wider world behind those religious convictions and the developing of other viewpoints regarding the powers assumed to be present in stones.

The third part sees the expansion of all this knowledge into the practical realm: how to get one’s hands on these precious, and often foreign stones? Travel books share insights in how difficult it was to obtain stones mined in faraway lands – or so they would have us believe. The author elaborates on the idea that precious stones in the Middle Ages were coveted because of their powers and magical properties: travel accounts relaying knowledge seen and heard in distant lands confirmed that information on the one hand, and on the other hand emphasized the many dangers one had to face to acquire such precious stones, which in turn was reflected in their price. Here again, we see how world history is incredibly important. These jewels and precious materials could only be imported into Europe from Asia when trade routes were secure: both during the early Middle Ages and the later Middle Ages those circumstances were provided, first by the stability of the young Islamic realm and later by the Mongol conquests. Tracing merchant routes and traders’ inventories, this chapter paints a vivid picture of the gem trade in the Middle Ages.

I enjoyed this book. The way the author combines stones with ideas about those and the economics behind them over a longer period of time is innovative, and based on a richness in sources that is as dazzling as the medieval artworks discussed themselves. In doing so, she departs from general art historian books (which are often limited to one period only), and instead follows the long lines of history through several centuries. It would have made for an even more interesting read if the long geographical lines were also followed, but I do understand that would have presented a massive scope. By looking at precious stones through the eyes of the Medieval person, that person and their world comes to life. It’s a world that I would very much like to see presented in a more easily accessible book for a larger audience, too: there is so much to see and learn in this gem-studded, medieval world of wonders!

This is a fascinating read for curators and medievalists, but certainly also for gemmologists and jewellery historians interested in the agency and life of jewels and bejeweled objects.

The Mineral and the Visual. Precious Stones in Medieval Secular Culture. Brigitte Buettner, 2022

Colour/B&W, 256 pages, in English. Published by The Pennsylvania State University Press

The book was received as review copy from the publisher.

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[1] Popper-Giveon, A., Abu Rabia, A. & J. Ventura, From White Stone to Blue Bead: materialized beliefs and sacred beads among the Bedouin in Israel, in: Material Religion 10-2, pp. 132-135

[2] See Starr, S.F. 2013. Lost Enlightenment. Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane. Princeton University Press

[2] As for example in Content, D. 2016. Ruby, Sapphire & Spinel: An Archaeological, Textual and Cultural Study. Part I. Text. Brepols, Turnhout

Sigrid van Roode

Sigrid van Roode is an archeologist, ethnographer and jewellery historian. She considers jewellery heritage and a historic source. She has authored several books on jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, and on archaeological jewellery. Sigrid has lectured for the Society of Jewellery Historians, the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden and the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, among many others. She curates exhibitions and teaches online courses on jewellery from North Africa & Southwest Asia.