What does the Plague have to do with Jewelry?

During medieval times, Plague swept through the European continent destroying communities and greatly reducing the world population. Family lines ended, congregations evaporated, fear of the unknown and of those who seemed different stressed the social fabric, and in some places, it unraveled altogether. The arts declined, literacy rates dropped, wisdom and knowledge of ages vanished in the span of a few generations.

Gold and black enamel Mourning Ring from the Museum of London, features central skull in white on a gold band with black enamal to either side and in the skull orifices.
Mourning Ring from the Museum of London worn to remember those who died of the Plague.

Today, we look back at the destruction wrought by the waves of Plague and shudder with the fear. Mourning was the only way of life for many years and from that grief-stricken time, we have the legacy of mourning jewelry. (For more information about mourning jewelry view these posts, 1, 2.) Modern medicine does what it can to help monitor, prevent, and eradicate plagues both ancient and new, yet, the horrors of medieval suffering are still with us. What does the Plague have to do with jewelry? The Plague created a gap in knowledge. When artisanship resumed centuries later, jewelry-making techniques, methods of production, and means of education were irrevocably changed. Each successive wave of plague that rolled across Europe reduced the Western capacity for artistry. Fine metalsmiths died, or their students died, or both, and the trade was not passed down from master to apprentice in the way it had been for previous millennia. Every living soul cared for the dying until, in some instances, no one remained. The arts suffered not just during the plagues but after as well.

It took roughly 1000 years for the West to make it through the medieval period. During that time the majority of jewelry was gothic. Gothic style lingered well past the end of the Medieval period in the northern reaches of Europe even as it began to change in Italy at the start of the Renaissance. The popularity of Gothic styling endures and continues to resurface in fashion and architecture even today. Slowly the continent emerged from the shadow of plague as the Renaissance, the rebirth, took place. Much of the metalsmithing techniques we use today are adaptations of Ancient Greek, and Middle Eastern design. The plague was not so ravenous in the Medieval Middle East, or Grecian lands, and there, the arts survived. In many ways, craftsman guilds replaced the apprenticeship programs that existed previously in Europe. Post-plague, a master craftsman would take on a group of apprentices, or students, and work with them to produce numerous art pieces all bearing the teacher’s name.

Gothic Founder's Jewel. A gold crowned M adorned with rubies, emeralds, pearls, enamelling and gothic details in the archs that serve as shrine spaces for the Angel of Annunciation and the Virgin Mary.
Gothic Founder’s Jewel, housed in the collection at New College Oxford.

The practice of commissioned art survived the medieval period and continued into the Renaissance. Indeed nobles commissioned the majority of surviving medieval art. During the Renaissance, artist guilds produced most of the art including jewelry. Only occasionally was a jewelry item commissioned and crafted as a one-of-a-kind piece. More often as the Renaissance flourished a class of 12 or more apprentices made identical items under the tutelage of a watchful craftsman, thus batch production was born. At the close of the medieval period, literacy rates were climbing, but the majority of laymen (and almost all women) were unable to read. The shift in education from one-to-one, to one-to-many, helped safeguard against the loss of knowledge including fine jewelry-making techniques, in a mostly illiterate society.

If the plague never ravaged the Western world, the gaps in fine jewelry production might not exist. The growth trajectory of pre-medieval society might have continued uninterrupted until today, but it is more likely that some other cataclysmic event would have caused a dip in growth at some point along the way. The idea-sharing that took place just before the Renaissance, the new development of one-to-many education, batch production, and creation of more affordable jewelry and art, would not have occurred in the place and time that it did if it were not for the Plague and its devastating effects.

Click on the images to learn more about those pieces and jewelry under the influence of the Plague.

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2 thoughts on “What does the Plague have to do with Jewelry?

  1. The last large scale pandemic of bubonic plague, The Black Death (1346 – 1353), may have originated in southern China, and helped to hasten the end of the Mongol (Yuan) Dynasty there. In Europe, there were areas where 25 per cent of the population was killed. In other areas, the death rate may have approached 50 per cent. Europe was devastated.

    Horse drawn carts went down the narrow streets and alleys where one could hear the cries of “Bring out your dead.” Corpses were buried in mass graves on the outskirts of the towns.


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