Perspective of research on seals and sealing practices in pre-modern Western Europe (Brigitte Miriam Bedos-Rezak, New York University)

In English, the term ‘seal’ designates a die, or matrix engraved intaglio, and also the imprints, seal impressions, issued from it. A seal, thus, is a dual object, the seal-matrix and the seal impression, linked by a process through which images and letters are transferred from one medium, usually made of hard material (stone, bone, metal) to a plastic substance (clay, wax, lead), and from one format (engraved as a negative) to another format (a positive relief).

This multilayered definition of the seal is not specific to the English language. In the many cultures where sealing practices have been or still are in use, the terminology conflates the sealing process and the various media which materially enable and result from this process. Despite such linguistic homogeneity, however, the actual production, use, and fate of seal-matrices and of seal-impressions are quite different.

The study of seals, termed sigillography or sphragistics, covers a broad territory, as is revealed by a consideration of the scholarship devoted to the seals and sealing practices of pre-modern Western Europe (500-1500 CE). Informing the diversity of this wide-ranging scholarship is the standpoint from which researchers have approached seals. For more information on the development before 1800, since 1800 and recent approaches since the 1970s please click the appropriate sub-pages.