strap line


Writing in the Sunshine. Writing in the Shadows.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Medieval Seals

Writers collect all sorts of information, on the basis that it might be useful one day - at least, this one does. Which is how I came to be at the Glamorgan Archive a few weeks ago for a talk on Medieval seals - that's seals as in wax, not sea water. It was a fascinating afternoon. At the moment I'm not working on anything remotely historical but expert information is always worth collecting.

Dr Elizabeth New took us on a beginners' tour, and I think everyone was surprised how much information can be read from a tiny piece of indented wax - and they are often tiny, about the size of a shilling. The chance, after the talk, to see some of the examples held by the Archive, was a bonus. The matrix - the implement for making the impression, and usually made of metal -  is also small and carried in a pack, pocket, or on a belt loop, is therefore easy to lose. Which is why metal detection enthusiasts have rich pickings on what would have been Medieval grass verges. Dr New pointed out that these were very personal, even intimate items, reflecting the owner's identity and representing them on legal documents.

I tend to think of seals as connected with secrecy. Documents fastened with a seal, in order to preserve the contents intact and private.  (This is what writing romantic suspense does for you.)  Victorian love letters and that sort of thing. In fact the most common historical use was for validation  - documents were not considered official unless they were sealed. The fixings for the seals were also often complex and small works of art in their own right - tags and bindings that were cut out or braided. Sometimes a thumb print is still visible on the back of the wax, even after 700 or 800 years!  The impressions could be quite sophisticated - figures, religious images, plants and animals, even puns and word play on names - part of a visual culture before reading was common. Apparently experts can discover a considerable amount of information on things like shipping from the images depicted. Fascinating from something not much bigger than a thumb nail, although corporate seals for towns and cities or royalty might be bigger.

Thanks to Dr New's enthusiasm it was an absorbing afternoon. Will what I learned surface in a book one day? It's gone into the melting pot in my subconscious, so who knows? All sorts of things work their way to the surface, over the passage of time.

You can find out more about the project Dr New is currently engaged on here:


  1. Hi Evonne! Amy here from CHRWA. Thanks for sharing this bit on seals. My 15th century character just sealed a letter the other day ;-)

    1. Hi Amy - Thanks for dropping in. I hope the 15th century letter gets to where it was supposed to go!

  2. Very interesting post, Evonne. I'm always interested in those little historical 'details' that give life and color to our books. I don't think I've ever seen a post on medieval seals before. Thanks for the inspiration to go and do my own further research. I'll be watching Dr. New's project.

    1. Hi thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. Dr New's project relates to Wales, but I believe there may be something in the wind for Scotland too. I know you have an interest there :)