Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Medieval Seals and the Growth of Sigillography

By Laura Whatley

Medieval seals were material and visual statements of identity, power, agency, and legitimacy. The seal (both the unique matrix and its multiple impressions in lead or wax) represented the sealer—indeed, it signified the real presence of the sealer, whether an individual or corporate officer. The seal therefore played a significant role in the formulation and expression of medieval identity. As historian Brigitte Bedos-Rezak has noted, “Seal users came to develop a new awareness of themselves in relation to an object, the seal, whose operational principles were categorization, replication, and verification” (Bedos-Rezak 2000: 1491). The seal also had to evoke belief and persuade others of the authenticity of the sealed document and the authority of the seal owner or holder, through a juxtaposition of text and image. Seals comprise two key features: a pictorial symbol, which could be personalized or highly conventional, and an inscription around it, which identified the author or authorial body of the document to which the seal was attached. The inscription or legend usually included the sealer’s personal name, which enabled one to sign his or her name in an accepted format without knowledge or proficiency in writing (Clanchy 1993: 308). By the close of the twelfth century, seals “had become the usual means of legally committing oneself and had spread quickly through all strata of medieval society” (Bedos-Rezak 1998: 317).

In sixteenth-century England, seals were objects of particular interest to antiquarians and collectors, alongside medals and coins. This is due, no doubt, to the fact that seals were increasingly important artifacts for the study of medieval English heraldry, pedigree, and genealogy. This is not to suggest that seals did not inspire documentation and commentary before the sixteenth century. For example, Matthew Paris’s (d. 1259) detailed drawings and descriptions of seals and sealed writ in the Chronica Majora suggest an early—in this case, medieval—impulse to record seal imagery and authority for posterity. However, the sixteenth century marks the early development of the systematic antiquarian study of seals called sigillography or sphragistics. In the 1580s, for instance, John Guillim compiled a collection of nearly 600 drawings of seals under the title “Book of Seals” (TNA DL 42/149). A number of the recorded seals were from the collection of Joseph Holland, a lawyer and member of the Society of Antiquaries, who personally annotated 43 of Guillim’s drawings. Even before the turn of the sixteenth century, the Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries collectively were concerned with sigillography. In his commonplace book, Francis Tate, secretary to the Society, collected notes and quotations for two Society lectures on seals: “Of the Antiquity of seales &c” and “Of thoriginal of seling here in England with armes or otherwise,” the latter of which was delivered on June 23, 1591 (BL Stowe MS 1045; Harvey and McGuinness 1996: 22). Furthermore, Sir Robert Cotton, a leading antiquary and early member of the Society of Antiquaries, compiled a large collection of charters and seals, which were drawn by fellow antiquary Sir Edward Dering c. 1629 (BL Additional MS 5481; Harris 2013: 97).

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed an uptick in antiquarian interest in documenting and cataloging medieval seals. In 1638, Sir Christopher Hatton began work on a facsimile volume of 529 medieval charters, many with seals, known as the “Book of Seals,” and in 1656 one of Hatton’s collaborators, Sir William Dugdale, published his own brief tract on the history of seals in The Antiquities of Warwickshire, in which he was critical of drawings of seals that were “not imitated to the life directly, the circumscripcion neyther being in the same letter nor in other pointes exactly parallel’d” (Hamper 1827: 158). In 1708, the Anglo-Saxonist Humphrey Wanley authored a proposal to revive the Society of Antiquaries, which had been disbanded by James I in 1614, and proposed a comprehensive seal catalogue as part of its publication program (Evans 1956: 42). The earliest published monograph on English seals finally appeared in 1740 with John Lewis’s A Dissertation on the Antiquity and Use of Seals in England. Such important works certainly laid the foundation for all further documentation and study of medieval seals. Indeed, these volumes, filled with careful drawings of seals and transcriptions of seal legends, provide invaluable evidence for seals that may have been lost or damaged over time.

Finally, in the nineteenth century seal collections also began to include seal casts—antiquarian plaster casts taken from an original matrix or seal impression. Notably, the Society of Antiquaries of London holds one of the largest collections of seal casts in Britain and has donated a generous number of casts to other institutions, including the British Museum. Seal casts, arguably more so than drawings or engravings, provide a historical record of the precise appearance of medieval seals, many of which have been compromised or no longer exist. A cast conveys both the sculptural dimensionality and physical quality of a medieval seal impression and thus enhances the verism of the copy. In his monumental six-volume Catalogue of Seals in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum, Walter de Gray Birch included illustrations of both original seals and plaster casts.

Works Cited

Bedos-Rezak, Brigitte Miriam. 2000. "Medieval Identity: A Sign and a Concept." The American Historical Review 105: 5. 1488-1533.

Bedos-Rezak, Brigitte Miriam. 1998. "Medieval Seals and the Structure of Chivalric Society." The Study of Chivalry: Resources and Approaches, edited by Howell Chickering and Thomas H. Seiler, pp. 313-72. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute.

Birch, William de Gray. 1887–1900. Catalogue of Seals in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum. 6 volumes. London.

Clanchy, Michael T. 1993. From Memory to Written Record, England 1066-1307. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Evans, Joan. 1956. History of the Society of Antiquaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hamper, William, ed. 1827. The Life, Diary, and Correspondence of Sir William Dugdale. London: Harding, Lepard & Co.

Harris, Oliver. 2013. "Lines of Descent: Appropriations of Ancestry in Stone and Parchment." In The Arts of Remembrance in Early Modern England: Memorial Cultures of the Post Reformation, edited by Andrew Gordon and Thomas Rist, pp. 85-102. Abingdon: Routledge.

Harvey, P.D.A. and Andrew McGuinness. 1996. A Guide to British Medieval Seals. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.