Medieval Silver

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Viking Silver Thistle Brooch; Reverse of the Ball Terminals Incised with Rosette - Early 10th Century
© Trustees of the British Museum.

With the downfall of the Roman supply lines gold became a rarity in Europe. As a consequence silver became the foremost metal used for jewelry. Germanic jewelry consisted mainly of functional items such as fibulae, disc brooches, penannular brooches and buckles, often made of silver and sometimes gilded or inlaid with precious stones with garnets being the most popular choice by far.

From around 800AD on, Viking conquest along the northwest European coast caused enormous amounts of silver to be carted to Scandinavia where silversmiths flourished and silver jewelry became a tradition. The discovery of the Swedish silver deposits somewhere around the turn of the first millennium certainly fueled the custom of wearing silver.

Niello's popularity with the Romans had been transferred to the Germanic tribes, the black-white color combination being used to give optimal contrast to the typical Germanic engraving patterns.

The Fuller Brooch

Fuller Brooch.jpg

The Fuller Brooch - Late 9th Century
© Trustees of the British Museum.

Description by the British Museum:

Circular brooch of hammered sheet-metal, slightly convex in section. It is extensively inlaid with niello and has an open-work outer zone encircling a central roundel which is framed and divided by broad milled borders, into a central lozenge shape surrounded by four subsidiary lentoid fields. These are punctuated at the four points of intersection by bosses, with a fifth at the centre; three of these conceal rivets attaching the (lost) pin mechanism behind.

The decorative scheme consists of personifications of the Five Senses in the central roundel, surrounded by the openwork zone of smaller roundels containing alternating geometric animal and human motifs symbolising the different aspects of Creation in a not-quite-symmetrical arrangement. The large central field is occupied by a three-quarter length personification of Sight, with large oval eyes. In each hand he holds a drooping foliate spray with double nicked details; above his head is a three-staged leaf, and on either side of it a triquetra. The points of the lozenge, each with a domed rivet, touch the border of the circular field, creating four lenticular panels, each with a full-length human figure depicting one of the other Senses. They wear short jackets and belted tunics. Any background space remaining is filled with an assortment of foliate scrolls or interlace. In the upper left panel is Taste, with one hand in his mouth, the other holding a foliate stem, while profiled Smell, in the top right, is flanked by two plants, and has his hands behind his back. Touch, in the bottom right panel, places his hands together, and Hearing, in the bottom left, appears to be running, and cupping his hand to his ear. Everything is set upon a nielloed ground. The back is plain and the pin mechanism is now missing. Two small holes at the top may have been for suspension.[1]

As society developed and trade routes to the east were re-established gold retook its old position of being the most popular metal for fine jewelry again. Nevertheless, it was this same trade that allowed a large middle class to develop whose members started to adorn themselves in a way that was previously only reserved for the wealthy rulers. Those on a budget would opt for silver jewelry as it was more affordable.

The versatility of jewelry increased, moving away from mainly functional items towards purely decorative and, to a large extent, symbolic items. Finger rings, bangles, pendants etc all returned to the jewelry stage and were executed in silver.

By the end of the Middle Ages silver jewelry and silverware became submissive to hallmarking. See Silver Assaying & Hallmarking


  1. © Trustees of the British Museum