Brigitte Miriam Bedos-Rezak

in Medieval Studies

ISBN: 9780195396584
Published online February 2014 | | DOI:

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  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)
  • Literary Studies (Early and Medieval)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy
  • Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400)
  • Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology


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A medieval seal is a dual object: a metallic seal-matrix (or die) engraved intaglio, and the imprints or impressions issued from the application of that seal-matrix upon a plastic substance—wax, lead, or gold. Two terms refer to the study of seals, sigillography and sphragistics. The connoisseurship that 16th-century humanists and antiquarians lavished on medieval seals was methodologically advanced by the French Benedictine Dom Jean Mabillon (1632–1707), who constructed a taxonomy of verifiable seal features as part of his project to establish the discipline of history firmly on the basis of undisputed documentary proof. Mabillon’s method has remained a constitutive feature of sigillographic studies, which, during the 19th and most of the 20th century, came to be structured by four major principles: the idea that seals had been in continuous use since their origin in Mesopotamia circa 6000 bce; the notion that the practice of sealing answered such human needs as securing closure, asserting identity, marking property, and guaranteeing commitment; the view that seal usage was an invariant characteristic of medieval European and Byzantine cultures, largely insensitive to specific time periods or locations; and the widespread method of reproducing medieval seals and thereafter studying them as modern after-casts rather than in their original materials (lead, wax, brass, ivory, or gold) or their actual formats (as seal-impressions or seal-matrices), or with careful attention to their historical circumstances (affixed to documents, attached to relics, stamped on goods, given as gifts, worn for apotropaic purposes, or deposited in tombs). Such epistemological strategies have privileged transcultural continuity and decontextualization and reinforced the foundational axiomatic assumption that seals generically served the functions of closure, identification, and authentication. Thus, traditional sigillography has treated seals as sources, extracting from their images and the names and titles of their inscriptions (legends) valuable information about their users, art historical trends, heraldic developments, and material culture in general. This useful dimension of sigillography as an auxiliary science has, in recent years, been complemented by a programmatic scholarly approach that seeks to restore to medieval seals their historicity (see General Overviews and Seals in the Medieval Cultures of the West). Analytical interest has thus extended to the dynamics of sealing practice, its situation within particular regions and social groups, and its interaction with other contemporary modes of representation and media of communication. Further fields of research have considered the role seals had in fostering and directing personal devotion; discourses on seals in legal, historiographical, theological, natural philosophic, and spiritual texts; and the extent to which seals operated as conceptual tools. This latter capacity in particular rendered seals fundamental to formulations of sign and image theory in the central Middle Ages. Although the main focus of this essay is on Western Europe, a separate section highlights the significance and particularities of Byzantine seals and sealing practices.

Article.  12423 words. 

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500) ; Literary Studies (Early and Medieval) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy ; Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400) ; Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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