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.

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.

Research since 1800

The nineteenth century’s strong commitment to positivist history and to archival organization, so well expressed in the creation of state-controlled record offices, fueled a monumental production of inventories designed to make patriotic historical treasures available to all. The cataloguing of seals was very much part of this vast enterprise of publication. Significantly, however, the seals that were catalogued were not the original wax impressions but modern casts taken from them. Seal preservation had been the primary rationale for seal casting. Casting, however, had the effects both of re-enforcing the earlier apparent analogy between the seal and the coin or medal, and of privileging seals that seemed aesthetically impressive or thematically significant. Students of seals were thus provided with catalogues that are incomplete in three ways with respect to the archival holdings they purport to publish.

  • Firstly, these catalogues include only those seals that were still materially extant, ignoring those whose existence was still attested, though only textually.
  • Secondly, such catalogues often excluded seals in poor states of preservation, and those bearing modest iconographic devices.
  • Thirdly, for a given seal type, for instance the great seal of William the Conqueror, only the best impression was recorded, obscuring the uniqueness of each impression (color of wax, method of attachment, nature of document to which it was appended) issued from the royal seal matrix.

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.