Recent approaches

Since the last quarter of the twentieth century, scholarship has challenged this segregation of seals from their original historical formats, their spheres of discourse and practice. In seeking to restore seals to their status as agents within the cultures that produced and used them, modern researchers have been greatly empowered by the concurrent availability of computerized techniques for the creation of electronic databases and for the retrieval of information. As they moved from the examination of casts to the observation of sealed documents, scholars were able to address the diffusion of seal usage from the eleventh century onward along the axes of geography, politics, ethnicity, and gender, highlighting the role of seals in acculturating lay society to literate practices, and drawing attention to seals and sealers who had previously received less, indeed barely any attention: towns, women, Jews, craftsmen, and other non-elites individuals.

This sociology of seal usage has affected research on seals and  seal iconography,  raising new questions about the mechanisms -material, prescriptive, ritual, semiotic-, by which medieval seals operated as signs of identity, as representatives and representations of those who used and owned them. That sealing was central to the medieval understanding of processes of signification is evidenced by the large number of texts (literary, theological, legal, scientific) in which the seal, in the medieval west as in other cultures, served as a conceptual tool. The role of medieval seal metaphors in buttressing scholarly arguments particularly emphasized the imprinting process as an explanatory model for the mechanism by which a sign can retain traces of the presence of its object.

This intellectual attitude vis-à-vis seals has it counterpart in the world of religious sensibility. For example in focusing on late medieval personal seals bearing Christological designs and legends, recent scholarship has suggested that the formulation of medieval identity could and did intersect with expression of Christocentric devotion.