Research before 1800

From the very beginning of the study of seals in Europe, during the sixteenth century, two main trends emerged:

In one, fostered by Antiquarians, seal impressions attached to documents were primarily valued as  historical and genealogical evidence, and carefully recorded in facsimile drawings, the existence of which remains of primary importance for the knowledge of seals that have since disappeared. Significantly, these drawings came to represent seals in isolation, separate from the documents to which they were attached. Thus reified as an independent object of esthetic and antiquarian value, the seal came to be regarded as a collectible, and to be appreciated in juxtaposition to engraved gems, cameos, coins, and medals. Collectors’ cabinets filled with seal-matrices, actual seal impressions detached from documents, and casts copied from either source. This trend resulted in seal studies associated with connoisseurship, numismatics, archeology, social history (genealogical, regional, and national), the symbology of power (emblems, titles, attributes), and art history (styles, types, motifs, and their transmission).

The other approach, pioneered by Jean Mabillon (1632-1707), was concerned with the establishment of a methodology focused on the goal of determining the authenticity of medieval charters. From this point of view, the examination of seals was concerned with understanding them as signs of documentary validation. The authenticity of the seals themselves was to be gauged by empirical and comparative study of their physical features (shape, material, color, iconography, and epigraphy). The significance of seals, thus, was held to be in their position as referential signposts within a typological sequence established by modern scholarship. In Mabillon’s comprehensive taxonomy, seals emerge as medieval legal devices (historical perspective) and as sources providing a scientific rational for the practice of the historical disciplines (epistemological perspective). From this analytical perspective, there emerged the rich body of scholarship associated with the auxiliary sciences, Diplomatics in particular, and with the legal and administrative dimensions of sealing.