Archaeological Journal/Volume 1/Notices of New Publications: Dresses and Decorations of the Middle Ages

Notices of New publications.

Dresses and Decorations of the Middle Ages, from the Seventh to the Seventeenth Centuries. By Henry Shaw, F.S.A. 2 vols, imperial 8vo. London, Pickering, 1844.

This very attractive and superbly embellished publication presents the most instructive series of specimens of the arts, and decorative artistic processes of the middle ages, that has ever been offered to public attention: it comprises ninety-four elaborate plates, the greater number of which are very richly coloured, and a profusion of characteristic woodcuts. The subjects, selected at home and on the continent with much judgment, are represented with the skill and minute accuracy which stamps Mr. Shaw's publications with so high a value, and renders them not merely elegant table- books suitable for the drawing-room, but treasuries of curious and valuable information, to which the antiquary or the artist may constantly have recourse with fresh interest and advantage. In a former production, this talented artist had given a few striking examples of the taste displayed by our forefathers in the utensils or appliances of ordinary life, such as decorated the table or the dwellings of the higher classes of society; in the present work, he has taken a wider range, and brought together, as a chronological series, an interesting selection of objects which are preserved in public and private collections in England and abroad, scattered far apart, and in many cases scarcely accessible to the curious. By representations executed with a degree of care and fidelity hitherto unequalled, Mr. Shaw has now in some measure supplied the deficiency so heavily felt in this country by the student of medieval art and antiquities. England is the only country in Europe which has up to the present time formed no public collection illustrative of national art, and specially destined to receive objects interesting from the historical associations attached to them, personal relics valuable from their connexion with the memory of eminent characters in ancient times, and not less to be prized as supplying characteristic examples of the gradual progress of art and taste from the earliest periods. Mr. Shaw has materially enhanced the value of his work in the eyes of the English antiquary by the judicious selection of numerous interesting memorials connected with the history of the realm. Such are the enamelled ring of Ethelwulf, the jewel which Alfred caused to be made, and which he is supposed to have lost at the eventful period of his career, when he fled before the Danes into the west; the contemporary portraits of several of our monarchs and personages of the blood royal, and the nuptial present of Henry VIII. to Anne Boleyn, the elegant clock which was purchased at Strawberry Hill for Her Majesty the Queen.

It would be difficult to mention any kind of art, or decorative process, practised during the medieval period which is not exhibited and illustrated in these volumes. There is scarcely any branch of antiquarian research upon which they do not throw a new light by some of the varied examples which embellish every page. Mr. Shaw has availed himself of the recent improvements in the process of printing in colours by the use of woodcuts: the effect is most satisfactory, the brilliant initial letters and coloured decorations introduced in the letter-press, render it scarcely less attractive to the eye than the plates themselves.

This work will prove particularly serviceable to those who investigate the details of costume, which are constantly found to be the most valuable key to the chronological arrangement of works of art during the middle ages. The examples of ecclesiastical costume, as also of sacred ornaments and appliances, are of a very interesting character, especially the mitre and vestments of St. Thomas of Canterbury, preserved in the treasury of the cathedral of Sens, where he resided for a time after his flight into France in 1164. The apparel of the Amice, of which a representation is here given, may serve as a specimen of the designs of the embroidery which adorns these curious relics. The colours, which alternate at short intervals, are red, blue, and green; the crosses, the running design on the border, and some other portions, appear to have been wrought with gold, whence embroidery of this kind received the appellation aurifrigum, or an orfrey. The width of the original apparel is 41/2 inches. The most curious object preserved at Sens, as having belonged to Becket, is the mitre, of which Mr. Shaw has given a beautiful representation. It appears to be the mitra auriphrygiata of the Roman Ceremonial, which was formed of tissue of gold and embroidery, without any gems or plates of gold and silver. It is adorned with a remarkable ornament, which was very frequently introduced on the vestments of the Greek Church, and of which several examples occur on sepulchral brasses or other memorials in England: this symbol, originally formed by a combination of the letter gamma four times repeated, was termed Gammadion. The conformity of fashion between this mitre attributed to St. Thomas, and the mitre which appears in the representation of Hedda, bishop of Winchester, executed about the same period, deserves notice. The same form appears in both, the elevation is slight, compared with mitres of a subsequent period, and the apex forms a right angle. This curious subject is taken from the Roll, which presents a series of drawings illustrative of the Life of St. Guthlac, and it exhibits his admission into priest's orders. These designs have been engraved for Nichols' History of Leicestershire, and the original roll, a remarkable specimen of English design during the latter part of the twelfth century, is preserved at the British Museum[1].

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The successive variations in the form of the mitre, or other similar details, serve to the practised eye as indications of date; it is on this account interesting to compare the simple embroidered mitre of the twelfth century with the superb, but less elegant work of the fifteenth, the splendidly jewelled mitra pretiosa, wrought by Thomas O'Carty for Cornelius O'Deagh, bishop of Limerick, about the year 1408, which has supplied Mr. Shaw with the subject of one of his most beautiful plates. This valuable relic of Irish workmanship in the precious metals had previously been represented in the Archæologia, vol. xvii., accompanied by a dissertation from the pen of the late learned Dr. Milner, but a very erroneous notion of its real form is there conveyed, inasmuch as the plate exhibits the design of one moiety of the mitre, as if it were developed, or as a flat object, instead of shewing it in the true perspective. This defect has been properly corrected in Mr. Shaw's plate.

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The student of military antiquities and costume will find in these volumes a profusion of well-chosen examples, some of which, like the splendidly emblazoned monumental effigy of William Longuespée, at Salisbury, are of the highest interest as specimens of ancient English art. This beautiful early work of sculpture is formed of the grey marble which formerly was quarried in great abundance at Corfe, and various places on the Dorsetshire coast. The figure is in great part highly polished, but was richly painted and gilded throughout, as a lively portraiture of the warrior in his complete equipment. Mr. Shaw has bestowed much care and pains in the endeavour to give, from indications which are still to be found on certain parts of the statue, a restoration of the original effect. It should be observed, that all monumental effigies, of what material soever, of stone or wood, of marble or alabaster, were, from the earliest periods down to the seventeenth century, invariably painted and gilded, in accordance with the proper colouring of the original costume. An interesting exhibition of the military accoutrement of a later period is afforded by the delineation which is copied from the Life of Richard Beauchamp, preserved in the British Museum. It represents a single combat with axes, which took place at Verona between that doughty earl of Warwick and Sir Pandulf Malacet (? Malatesta). In the porter's lodge at Warwick castle may be seen a specimen of the singular long-handled axe, such as is represented in the drawing in question; possibly it may be the identical weapon which was used by Earl Richard at that memorable feat of arms, but it has been fitted with a short handle, as if intended for single-handed use, like a battle-axe. Besides the numerous subjects illustrative of armour and arms, much information is to be gained in regard to the details of ancient warfare. The curious military engines, which were used with dire effect previously to the invention of gunpowder, are exhibited in active operation, as in the annexed representation, taken from a drawing executed about the close of the fourteenth century, which shews the machines used for projecting huge stones. It is said that these powerful machines, which were called pierriéres, calabres, mangonels, &c., were introduced during the reign of Henry III. by the second Simon de Montfort. It is singular that the only specimens which have been noticed of the large stone balls or pellets, with which the walls of a fortress were battered by means of such artillery, were found a few years since in the soil, on the site of the extensive lake which formerly washed the walls of Kenilworth castle, granted by Henry III. to the same De Montfort, earl of Leicester. Possibly these might have been some of the ponderous projectiles which had been employed during the obstinate siege maintained against Henry by the partizans of the rebel baron, under his younger son, after the battle of Evesham. The fashion of the stately pavilion, which served to shelter the warrior in the field, of the galley in which he crossed the seas, with its lofty quarter-deck, and contrivances suited for warfare with the sling and the cross-bow, as well as many other curious details, are to be studied in the delineations faithfully copied by Mr. Shaw. It is surprising, that in a country which makes its boast of the dominion of the seas, no antiquary should hitherto have taken up a subject of research so fraught with curious interest as the history of ancient shipping; we may, however, anticipate that ere long this deficiency in national archæology will be supplied from the pen of Sir Samuel Meyrick, by whose assiduous research another most obscure and intricate subject has already been elucidated, and whose valuable collection at Goodrich Court, laid open with the utmost liberality to the student and the curious, affords the most instructive chronological series of armour and arms which exists in Europe.

The admirer of the quaint and elaborate works of the middle-age goldsmiths and enamellers will find in Mr. Shaw's attractive plates many objects of more than ordinary interest. One of the most elegant is the gold coronation spoon, which is used for receiving the sacred oil from the ampulla, at the anointing of the sovereign; it is probable that this is the sole relic of the ancient regalia which has been preserved to the present time. Its date is about the twelfth century. A rich display of chalices, crosses, crosiers, reliquaries, and other sacred ornaments, is given, as also of elegant works destined for ordinary or personal use, jewellery, arms, the beautiful parcel-gilt covered cups, which served to garnish the court cupboard of the sixteenth century, and amongst them that unique specimen of German niello, which is now preserved in the print-room at the British Museum. The elegant little reliquary, of which a representation is here offered to our readers, is a work of the fifteenth century; the original exists at Paris.

It would not be possible to advert in detail to all the artistic processes, of which specimens are here brought together. Painted glass, illuminated MSS., tapestry and embroideries, decorative pavements, the sepulchral brass and the incised slab, as well as works of a higher class of art, such as the remarkable portraits of Richard II., at Wilton, Margaret, queen of Scotland, at Hampton Court, and Francis I., attributed to the pencil of Janet, all are presented to view in rich variety. The portrait of King Richard may be regarded as the most curious painting in the earl of Pembroke's collection, and is known by the etching executed by Hollar, which gives but an imperfect idea of the original. This picture has been cited as a specimen of painting in oil, the date assigned to it being 1377, thirty-three years previous to the supposed invention of the art by John ab Eyck. Mr. Shaw, however, considers it to be painted in distemper, and supposes the resemblance to oil-painting to be occasioned only by the varnish.

The scattered objects which are preserved in the mansions of the aristocracy in Great Britain, and must be regarded with special interest on account of historical associations which are connected with them, are very numerous. Of an interesting little relic of this description, which has now been brought to light by Mr. Shaw, a representation is here submitted to our readers. It is the penner, which, as tradition affirms, was left at Waddington Hall by Henry VI., during his wanderings in Yorkshire, after the fatal battle of Towton. At Bolton Hall, the previous place of his concealment, he had parted with his boots, his knife, fork, and spoon. The case for pens and ink, destined to be appended to the girdle, is formed of leather, neatly ornamented with patterns in relief. The process of impressing designs on leather softened by heat, and termed cuir-bouilli, was anciently carried to singular perfection, and rendered available for a variety of purposes. Defences formed of this material supplied the place of the more cumbersome armour of iron plate, and greaves or "jambeux of coorbuly," which are mentioned by Chaucer, as part of the equipment of Sir Thopas, may be noticed on the monumental effigies of the period. It is recorded that the figure of Henry V., which was exposed to public view during his obsequies, was formed of cuir-bouilli. The remarkable durability of ornamental work impressed upon leather by such means, is shewn by the very curious specimens which have been discovered in Moorfields, in positions where they had been much exposed to damp: they consist of shoes, belts, and pouches, and are preserved in the interesting collection which has been formed by Mr. Charles Roach Smith, consisting almost exclusively of antiquities, of every period, which have been brought to light in the city of London and its environs.

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  1. Harl. Charter, V. 6.