McEwan (2020 Congress)

John McEwan
(Saint Louis University)

“Antiquity Revisited:  Ancient Gems in Medieval English Seals”

Abstract of Paper
Intended To be presented at the 55th International Congress on Medieval Studies [CANCELLED]
(Kalamazoo, 2020)

Rescheduled for the 56th International Congress on Medieval Studies
(Kalamazoo, 2021)

Session I of II on
“Seal the Real:  Documentary Records, Seals, and Authentications”
Part I:  “Signed & Sealed”

Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organized by Mildred Budny
2020 Congress Program
2021 Congress Program Planning

[Published on 10 March 2020, with an Update on 17 March 2020 reporting the Cancellation of the Congress as a whole,
and with an Update on 19 November reporting the Rescheduling for the 2021 Congress



One of the most remarkable features of what C.H. Haskins has described as the ‘12th century Renaissance’, with its interest in the art and literature of the ancient world, was the use of ancient gems in seals.  From the twelfth century, people in England incorporated carved precious or semi-precious stones from Rome and the classical world into their seal matrices.  Hundreds of examples survive and their images are startlingly varied, including busts of emperors, representations of gods and heroes, monsters, fish and birds.  John Cherry, in a paper with the evocative title ‘Antiquity Misunderstood’, has argued that contemporaries often show little sign they appreciated the age or origins of the stones and that it was relatively rare for contemporaries to impose a Christian interpretation on them.  Martin Henig has argued for a more sympathetic understanding of medieval readings of the iconography in engraved stones, and linked their use to the broader twelfth century interest in the ancient world.  However, Henig and Cherry, in a recently published article that they co-wrote, note that significant numbers of medieval impressions of seals with ancient gems survive, but they are unable to offer a firm estimate of the total number.

The contention of this paper is that we need to understand who was using ancient gems in their seals.  This paper draws on recent surveys of seals (including my own work on Medieval London) to re-evaluate both the chronology and the social composition of the group who used ancient gems as seals.  A fascination with these relics of the classical past was not restricted to the most privileged members of society, and this fascination endured well into the thirteenth century.



John organizes the following 3-day event for December 2020, open to all:

The Saint Louis University Center for Digital Humanities, in association with Linked Past 6, is hosting a symposium on Seals and Linked Open Data (December 2,3 and 8, 2020). We will consider the future of sigillography by investigating the applications of new technologies, such as machine learning and 3D visualization, and by exploring the ongoing development of large sigillographic datasets for Medieval Europe. Please register here for our synchronous events.
Panel 1: Repositories, Scholars and Seals
December 2nd, 15:00-16:45 (Central European Time)
Panel 2: Linking Datasets
December 3rd, 15:00-16:45  (Central European Time)
Panel 3: Le potentiel des grands ensembles de données pour la sigillographie / The potential of large datasets for sigillography
December 8rd, 15:00-16:45  (Central European Time)