In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Seals

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Seals in the Medieval Cultures of the West

Medieval Studies Seals
Brigitte Miriam Bedos-Rezak
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0135


A medieval seal is a dual object: a metallic seal-matrix (or die) engraved intaglio, and the imprints or impressions issued from the application of that seal-matrix upon a plastic substance—wax, lead, or gold. Two terms refer to the study of seals, sigillography and sphragistics. The connoisseurship that 16th-century humanists and antiquarians lavished on medieval seals was methodologically advanced by the French Benedictine Dom Jean Mabillon (1632–1707), who constructed a taxonomy of verifiable seal features as part of his project to establish the discipline of history firmly on the basis of undisputed documentary proof. Mabillon’s method has remained a constitutive feature of sigillographic studies, which, during the 19th and most of the 20th century, came to be structured by four major principles: the idea that seals had been in continuous use since their origin in Mesopotamia circa 6000 BCE; the notion that the practice of sealing answered such human needs as securing closure, asserting identity, marking property, and guaranteeing commitment; the view that seal usage was an invariant characteristic of medieval European and Byzantine cultures, largely insensitive to specific time periods or locations; and the widespread method of reproducing medieval seals and thereafter studying them as modern after-casts rather than in their original materials (lead, wax, brass, ivory, or gold) or their actual formats (as seal-impressions or seal-matrices), or with careful attention to their historical circumstances (affixed to documents, attached to relics, stamped on goods, given as gifts, worn for apotropaic purposes, or deposited in tombs). Such epistemological strategies have privileged transcultural continuity and decontextualization and reinforced the foundational axiomatic assumption that seals generically served the functions of closure, identification, and authentication. Thus, traditional sigillography has treated seals as sources, extracting from their images and the names and titles of their inscriptions (legends) valuable information about their users, art historical trends, heraldic developments, and material culture in general. This useful dimension of sigillography as an auxiliary science has, in recent years, been complemented by a programmatic scholarly approach that seeks to restore to medieval seals their historicity (see General Overviews and Seals in the Medieval Cultures of the West). Analytical interest has thus extended to the dynamics of sealing practice, its situation within particular regions and social groups, and its interaction with other contemporary modes of representation and media of communication. Further fields of research have considered the role seals had in fostering and directing personal devotion; discourses on seals in legal, historiographical, theological, natural philosophic, and spiritual texts; and the extent to which seals operated as conceptual tools. This latter capacity in particular rendered seals fundamental to formulations of sign and image theory in the central Middle Ages. Although the main focus of this essay is on Western Europe, a separate section highlights the significance and particularities of Byzantine seals and sealing practices.

General Overviews

Several important surveys of medieval seals, such as Kittel 1970 and Collon 1997, are located in books devoted to the general history of seals, with chronologies spanning 7,000 years and geographical frameworks that range from the Ancient Near East to Greece and Rome, India, the lands of Islam, China, and modern Europe. The particular history of medieval seals benefits from such comparative perspective but receives more detailed treatment in manuals specifically focused on the Middle Ages. Pastoureau 1981 treats this subject in a European context, emphasizing the role of medieval sigillography as an auxiliary science and describing the type of evidence seals contribute to the study of administration, literacy, onomastics, kinship, heraldry, art and material culture. The accent in Harvey and McGuinness 1996 is on the history, typology, and sociology of British and Scottish seals, exemplifying a tendency in sigillographic historiography for the organization of manuals primarily with reference to national boundaries. Thus Bascapè 1969–1984 considers Italian seals, Menendez-Pidal 1993 Spanish seals, and Gomes 2008 Portuguese seals. Diederich 2012 brings considerable expertise in Rhenish and German seals to propose a manual of sigillography that addresses questions often left out of traditional manuals. Diederich urges that new perspectives for sigillographic research ought to rest upon the establishment of a typology of seal iconography that, based on the notion that seals signify their owners, should take into consideration the symbiotic interaction between seal images and seal owners’ self-images, intentions, and patronage.

  • Bascapè, Giacomo C. Sigilografia: Il sigillo nella diplomatica, nel diritto, nella storia, nell’arte. 3 vols. Milan: Antonino Giuffrè, 1969–1984.

    In the two first volumes, the author gives an excellent survey of sigillography in general and a detailed discussion of Italian seals, devoting Volume 2 to ecclesiastical seals. Volume 3, by Mariano Welber, is currently the most comprehensive treatment of seals in medieval civil and canon law.

  • Collon, Dominique, ed. 7000 Years of Seals. London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1997.

    Twelve contributors provide a comprehensive study of seals and sealing practices in the Ancient Near East, Ancient Egypt, the Indus Valley, Minoan and Mycenaean cultures, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, Medieval Europe, Modern England, India before Islam, Islam, and China.

  • Diederich, Toni. Siegelkunde: Beiträge zu ihrer Vertiefung und Weiterführung. Cologne: Böhlau, 2012.

    DOI: 10.7788/boehlau.9783412215415

    Synthesis of, and new methods for, the study of seals in ten chapters. All material aspects of seals, including their images, legends, and sizes, are interpreted as conveying retrievable intentional meanings. Good exploration of the iconographic features shared by seals and tombstones. Innovative contribution on seal forgery and methods for its detection.

  • Gomes, Saul A. Introdução à sigilografia portuguesa: Guia de estudo. Coimbra, Portugal: Universidade Faculdade de Letras, 2008.

    This excellent introduction to Portuguese seals, illustrated with thirty-six pages of plates, advocates that sigillography be taught in graduate programs in history and presents an understanding of seals that goes beyond material and technical considerations to offer new investigational perspectives.

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

    Illustrated with some 120 reproductions, each accompanied by a detailed caption, this guide offers insightful discussions of the history, use, and design of British seals, based upon archival research and in-depth command of recent scholarship. Provides further bibliography and an invaluable index of seal mottoes and inscriptions.

  • Kittel, Erich. Siegel. Bibliothek für Kunst- und Antiquitätenfreunde 11. Braunschweig, Germany: Klinkhardt and Biermann, 1970.

    In his pithy monograph, lavishly illustrated with eight color plates and over 400 reproductions, Kittel considers seals from the ancient Near East to 16th-century Europe, with a predominant focus on Germanic lands when discussing seals of emperors, nobles, women, cities and burghers, and churchmen and ecclesiastical institutions.

  • Menéndez-Pidal de Navascués, Faustino. Apuntes de sigilografía española. Guadalajara, Spain: Aache, 1993.

    An excellent introduction to Spanish seals, and a pioneering analysis, sensitive to the multiple meanings and functions that attached to seals over the medieval millennium of their use. Good illustrations of characteristics specific to Iberian sigillography.

  • Pastoureau, Michel. Les sceaux. Typologie des Sources du Moyen Age Occidental 36. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1981.

    Very general overview of medieval seals, lucidly written; no illustrations.

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