Medieval Writing
Aristocratic Seals
The top dogs of the aristocracy, such as the barons, rapidly adopted the use of seals for their charters and important documents. This usage then trickled down through the various ranks of the aristocracy. The usual design in England in the century or so after the Norman Conquest was an imitation of the equestrian design on the royal great seal. Naturally the enthroned figure would not have been the done thing. The king was no doubt very jealous of that design. These aristocratic seals were therefore generally one sided, even though they hung from the bottom of the document on tags. Sometimes they bore a counterseal, or smaller, more personal seal, stamped into the back.
seal of Thomas de St Walery
counterseal of Thomas de St Walery
Seal and counterseal of Thomas de St Walery, from a document of 1192-1198 (Christ Church, Oxford). (From Salter, 1929)
The above is a rather splendid example of the equestrian seal. Counterseals of the type shown here were often impressed with a gemstone carved in intaglio, that is carved in inverse so that the seal stands out in relief, set in a metal surround which bore the inscription. These carved gems were known from Roman antiquity, and some antique examples were utilised for this purpose, while in other cases fancy new medieval gems were carved.
equestrian seal
equestrian seal
12th century equestrian seal of Ralph de Cuningburgh (British Library, add. charter 70691). By permission of the British Library.   12th century seal of William de Braose (Magdalen College, Oxford). (From Salter, 1929)   A French seal of Theobald, count of Blois, from 1143. (From de Boüard 1929)
Some of these 12th century equestrian seals seem rather quaint and crude. Long, skinny knights brandishing huge swords seem to be trailing their spurs in the dirt as they ride short little horses with knobby knees. Among the many seals with rather similar designs, it is the written inscription around the seal which differentiates the owner. There were no heraldic designs or other differentiating designs on the seal. The equestrian seal remained the insignia of the upper echelons of the aristocracy throughout the 12th century.
At left, a seal of Simon de Montfort, with its counterseal below. At right, a seal of Hughes, lord of Houdain, from 1269. (The latter from de Boüard 1929)
The designs diversified. These 13th century seals are of the equestrian type, but show their owners out for a jolly day's hunting rather than wearing armour and riding a battle charger. The one at left shows its owner with a hunting horn and a hound, that on the right shows him carrying his hawk or falcon. The imagery is changing from a fully feudal conception of the lord willing and able to arm himself to fight for king and country, or king anyway, to perhaps a more self conscious awareness of lordship as a position of privilege. Hunting imagery was frequently employed in medieval art to signify aristocratic status. The counterseal below the de Montfort seal could be used to put an impression in the back of the main seal, or as a signet, or more personal seal, for documents of less weighty significance than those that got the full treatment.
For those personages of great note who felt they deserved to flaunt the equestrian seal, the designs became more elaborate and intricate, including heraldic aspects. The seals below show the owner's shield of arms on both shield and horse trappings. The mounted figure wears the helm and crest that was later to become part of heraldic ornament. Note how precisely the two seals below resemble each other in every detail, apart from the coats of arms. There are many exactly similar to these, and I guess you could call them the archetypal aristocratic macho seal of the Hundred Years War era.
seal of Alexander de Baliol At left the seal of Alexander de Balliol of 1292. At right the seal of Philippe de Pacy of 1313. (The latter from de Boüard 1929)
Other conceptions of authenticating insignia appeared in which the actual design on the seal individualised it. The example on the right illustrates a concept which became popular in heraldry, the rebus, or pun on a name. The ferocious fish shown on the seal of Richard de Lucy is a pike, also known as a luce.
seal of Richard de Lucy
Seal of Richard de Lucy on a document of 1153-1154 (British Library, Campbell charters xiv, 24). (From Warner and Ellis, 1903)
Some of the stranger creatures from the bestiary were recruited for seal designs.
On the left, a late 12th century seal of Peter de Capella (Britsh Library, Harleian charter 83 A 51), on the right a mid 12th century seal of William Fossard (British Library, add. charter 20561). (From Warner and Ellis, 1903)
The beastie on the left is a cockatrice, which is a tough and macho creature to have as an insignia as they could turn you to stone at a glance. For the one on the right, I rely on the description by Warner and Ellis, "a gryllus formed by the head and shoulders of a horned man, with sword and shield, set upon a bird's body, with right leg ending in an eagle's claw and left in a horse's hoof". I wouldn't want to meet one of those on a dark night.
Some seals had animal designs which were drawn from the heraldic repertoire.
At left, 12th century seal of Robert de Bachepus (British Library, add charter 21172). (From Warner and Ellis 1903) In the centre, the 14th century seal of Hervé de Léon. At right, seal of Hugo de Plugeney of 1180-1190 (Magdalen College, Oxford). (From Salter, 1929)
The seal on the left displays a lion in the posture known to heraldry as passant, That in the middle is in the rampant posture. The seal on the right, very faint and worn, appears to depict an eagle with outstretched wings. The development of greater complexity in heraldry combined with more intricate carving of seal matrices to produce more elaborate heraldic seals in the later middle ages. The authentication by visual image rather than simply by inscription became ratified by the rules of heraldry.
By the 14th century, many seals bore actual coats of arms, as the rules of heraldry became standardised and enforced, and heraldic devices became a determining signifier of upper class identity. Seal matrices were becoming a very intricate art form in their own right, with minute carved details.
At left, the seal of Jean, Count of Blois, of 1326. Above, in an unfortunately scruffy reproduction, the seals of Richard de Straleigh of 1345 and Sir William Cann of 1361. (The seal at left from de Boüard 1929)
These fourteenth century seals have the shield of arms of the owner with an intricate carved background behind and the legend, or inscription, encircling the design.
While some classes of aristocratic seals seem very stereotyped, there appears to have been some variety of design in the more personal counterseals and small private seals known as signets.
From the left, signet of Louis, son of King Philippe le Bel of 1304;, counterseal of Jean III, Count of Vendôme of 1210; signet of Jean, Count of Armagnac of 1373; counterseal of Philippine, widow of Guillaume Dauphin of 1241. (From de Boüard 1929)
And so we come to the seal of an aristocratic woman, of which more further on.



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