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medievalbeadwork
Circlets

Circlet of Perles - approx. 1480 Southern France/ Northern Italy

By Jonalee A. Crabb known in the SCA as Roxelana Bramante

Floral circlets abound in the history of headgear and most of the ones Ive found in paintings, descriptions, and remaining artifacts are not made of natural materials. Artificial flowers, prior to 1500, were fairly popular. Before hot houses, green houses, and the idea that bulbs could be forced, natural flowers could only be had for the short time they were actually in season. Jeweled flowers, and those of gold and other precious metals, have survived the ravages of time and are well represented in paintings. Silk flowers from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries still survive and, while quite rare, there are some surviving flowers made from beads, small and in the simplest of forms. I have no reason to believe far more beaded flowers of a more complicated construction were destroyed because they were of a fragile nature and could not stand the test of time. Dried flowers were also popular but they certainly didnt hold up well to daily use. Circlets, along with garlands, wreaths, and coronals, were incredibly popular from the twelfth century through the seventeenth century in some areas. In Germany, more so than anywhere else, floral ornaments and designs seemed to have been preferred over everything else.

The privileged could afford the very best. In Sicily there was recorded a silk cayula, a sort of coif, "with its little coronal of gold and little leaves."1 The 1380 inventory of Charles V of France lists a less costly coif "composed of a network of 409 gold wires, set with 100 red stones and 141 clusters of pearls, each cluster set on a pair of poppies."2 The same can be seen in sixteenth century German woodcuts. Womens headdresses are floral in appearance, and the few surviving examples resembling those of the woodcuts are covered in beads and contain floral motifs.3 In 1474 we find Gabrielle, Comtette de Montpensier had two coifs "one of plain gold wire and the other of gold wire shaped to make roses."4

The bridal pair is still in many places treated, for the occasion, as royal persons. In the Byzantine Church both participants are crowned with wreaths, which are blessed, as are the rings, and the ceremony is called the Matrimonial Coronation. This usage seems to have existed formerly in the Western Church, at least among the Anglo-Saxons, and as late as the sixteenth century one finds an advertisement for fyne gay and straunge garlands, for Bryde and Brydegrome, some of which garlands were doubtless made of what Sir Thomas Browne calls Clinquant. There is comparatively little mention of particular flowers of other materials used, but roses are occasionally noted. Pliny reports garlands of artificial flowers, made of very thin sheets of horn, and colored. Later, silk was used, and even thin gold and silver leaf. The Virgins crown may be a very elaborate goldsmiths work, with jewels in it, or a wreath, or a halo that Christ is apparently causing to shine forth for the first time.5

We do have a fifteenth century Italian, Umbrian portrait, again from the upper classes, showing a young woman with a coif of pearled flowers that appear to be on wire and of a three-dimensional nature. The same flowers can be seen on the very elaborate large wired collars and head pieces Queen Elizabeth wore right around 1600. Late period Spanish women are also seen in paintings, almost all of them shown with highly bejeweled floral headdresses, with flowers that do not look to be natural, combined with pearls and feathers. Some paintings clearly show beaded flowers though they are probably constructed of precious stone beads rather than glass.

Heres the dilemma then. Paintings and inventories generally focus on the upper classes. Beaded flowers were an item of the middle and lower classes. The upper classes would have richer materials and more expensive designs. Beaded items usually fall into the category of Folk Art and are not well documented. Natacha Wolters says "In the town of Venice in the 16th century, middle class and poor women modeled flowers made with beads [perles] strung on wire [fil métallique] to adorn churches during religious feasts, as well as the banquet tables and parade floats [les barques dapparat.]"6  It is not known how the beads were acquired for these flowers or if it was just the bead stringers who were creating them. It is possible that, because middle class women were involved, beads were purchased and strung with the express purpose of creating the flowers for decoration. The practice became so wide spread, a French traveler in the mid-seventeenth century described the streets of Venice as "crowded with women of all social backgrounds engaged in stringing and making decorations with small bugles."7

It was the French though who were making chaplets, most for statues of the divine. The nuns spent a great deal of energy dressing little statues of the Christ child for devotional exercises and some of these contain simple flowers.

This chaplet is created using possibly the oldest method of beading flowers, the French method. The French method is characterized by the wire only going through each bead once and is therefor the only method which would work with exceptionally small-holed beads. Other methods are the Continental method, which uses the ladder stitch and can be seen in many period pictures of jewelry (it is a very common, easy and well known stitch) and the English method which uses thread and is woven (many exist from the 17th century).

Each petal was created separately until I had approximately 70 enough to give coverage all the way around. Then I created enough flowers to spread them about an inch apart. The circlet itself is a base of 12 gauge iron wire (very available throughout the middle ages) wrapped around my head 2 1/4 times leaving about a half inch of space. The reason for this is two wires lightly twisted will keep the whole garland from rotating and makes it more steady. The reason for the extra room is because of the extra wires that will get woven in (the final fit is very good). Each leaf has a tail of four wires and all of these wires were then woven or braided around the wire base. After all the parts were in place, I wrapped the wires in floral tape though the period method would have been ribbon or silk thread I opted for floral tape because I could get better coverage that would hold up longer and to more constant wear (plus it is water and sweat proof so the wire wont rust) and it is out of view so doesnt distract. The beads are all glass and of a size and type available in Italy throughout the later Middle Ages. Colors available then were quite varied and included everything that stained glass came in and a wide variety of opaque colors. Glass use to come in colors that can no longer be duplicated as the recipes were kept secret and glass workers were in great demand.

Endnotes:

  1. Lightbown, Ronald W. Mediaeval European Jewellery The Victoria & Albert Museum, London 1992. Page 131.
  2. Lightbown, Ronald W. Mediaeval European Jewellery The Victoria & Albert Museum, London 1992. Page 365.
  3. Jargstorf, Sibylle Glass Beads From Europe Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Pennsylvania 1991 various pages.
  4. Lightbown, Ronald W. Mediaeval European Jewellery The Victoria & Albert Museum, London 1992. Page 365.
  5. Wilkins, Eithne The Rose Garden Game: The Symbolic Background to the European Prayer-Beads Victor Gollancz Ltd., London 1969. Page 153.
  6. Wolters, Natacha Les Perles Syros, Paris France 1996. Page 45.
  7. Ibid., page 54. Quoted from Poullet, le Sieur Nouvelles relations du Levant Paris 1668 chez Louis Billaine. Bugles are beads that are long and narrow, generally the same size as standard seed beads only cut to be longer.

Bibliography:

Cunnington, Phillis and Lucas, Catherine Costume for Births, Marriages, and Deaths Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. New York 1972

Davenport, Millia The Book of Costume, Volume 1 Crown Publishers, New York 1948

Egan, Geoff and Pritchard, Frances Dress Accessories c1150 - c1450 Medieval Finds From Excavations in London:3 HMSO Publications, London 1991

Francis, Peter Jr. Beads of the World Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Pennsylvania 1994

Goody, Jack The Culture of Flowers Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1993

Jargstorf, Sibylle Glass Beads From Europe Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Pennsylvania 1995

Lightbown, Ronald W. Mediaeval European Jewellery The Victoria & Albert Museum, London 1992

Weiss, Gustav The Book of Glass translated by Janet Seligman, Praeger, New York 1971

Wilcox, R. Turner The Mode in Hats and Headdress Charles Scribners Sons, New York and London 1945, 1959

Wilkins, Eithne The Rose Garden Game: The Symbolic Background to the European Prayer-Beads Victor Gollancz Ltd., London 1969

Wolters, Natacha Les Perles Syros, Paris, France 1996