MEDIAEVAL BELTS AND GIRDLES

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THE girdle of elaborate workmanship formed no inconsiderable part of the jewelry of the wealthy in the Middle Ages. Though actual examples are extremely rare, there is scarcely an effigy or picture from the thirteenth century to the beginning of the sixteenth which does not supply us with some varied form of this indispensable article, while the wills and inventories of the period often contain descriptions of girdles of extraordinary richness.

By the poor, too, the girdle was habitually worn, but with them it frequently dwindled down to a few metal knobs sewn on to leather or on to coarse cloth. In addition to the upper girdle for fastening round the waist, a lower girdle was worn, both as an ornament and as a belt for the sword. It was a broad and sometimes stiff band which loosely encircled the body about the hips, and in the case of male attire was sometimes attached to the lower border of the tunic, with which it converged.

Of the narrower and more pliable species of girdle, the portions reserved for special enrichment were the ends, one of which terminated in the buckle, and the other in the pendant or mordant. Always a favorite field in former times for the display of the jeweler’s art, it was likewise richly adorned by the goldsmiths of the later Middle Ages.

At the other end of the girdle was a metal attachment which gave it consistency where it was most required. This girdle end, which hung down and was known as the tag or pendant, was decorated with various designs frequently of an architectural character and sometimes set with precious stones; but whenever such decorations projected beyond the sides of the strap the buckle was made wider in like manner, and if tassels and other ornaments were added they were always of such size that they could pass easily through the buckle.

The metal shape thus covering the end of the belt was also called the mordant, especially if in the absence of a buckle it was so constructed as to hook on to a clasp to facilitate securing the belt round the person. The mordant often forms with the buckle-plate a single design, its decorated front being either as large as the plate, or of such a shape as to form with it a regular figure.

From the twelfth century, when from sepulchral monuments we obtain our first information respecting the girdle, until the seventeenth, we nearly always find that the end, when passed through the buckle, was twisted round the waist-strap and hung down in front, in the case of men about twelve inches and with women almost to the ground. But when, instead of a buckle, a clasp formed of a central stud or rosette was employed, either the end of the girdle itself hung down, or an additional chain was attached at the point of junction.

To this was sometimes suspended a pomander-box, tablets, or a pendent reliquary. This mode, however, of suspending such objects did not come generally into vogue till the time of the Renaissance.

The girdle itself was usually about two yards in length, and consisted of a strap of stamped leather, or a band of material with a firm foundation, upon which were set button-shaped decorations at regular intervals. This was known as the studded girdle.

Among the wealthy the studs were composed of the precious metals, against which the laws both at home and abroad (of little effect it would seem) contained special prohibitions. The studs upon the girdles of the poor were generally of the alloy of brass and tin called latten or laton, and the term ” pearled with latoun” is mentioned in the Canterbury Tales.

Bars of metal were attached vertically at intervals to the belt or girdle to maintain the rigidity of the material. The word bar was subsequently applied to all such attachments, which were sometimes perforated to allow the tongue of the buckle to pass through them.

Another species of girdle was called the baldrick —derived from the French baudrier ; the bmidroier being the currier who prepared skins for the purpose. The term baldric or baudric, sometimes applied to the military belt worn round the waist, was generally employed for a belt worn over one shoulder, across the breast, and under the opposite arm.’ It was often of a rich description and set with precious stones, and in early times was occasionally hung with little bells.” Among the girdles in the possession of Henry IV* one is garnished with heads of stags and small pearls, and another with ostrich plumes and little golden bells. Others, mostly of stuff, are garnished with various flowers, mostly roses, or with ivy leaves, and the majority are hung with little bells.

In addition to such enrichments, which included also coats of arms, girdles bore inscriptions, engraved on the buckle-plate, or formed of letters sewn upon the band. These latter were often of an amatory or of a superstitious character; for, like other articles of medieval jewelry, the girdle, on account of the stones, etc., set upon it, was frequently considered endowed with talismanic properties.

Chaucer in his adaptation of the older ” Roman de la Rose” describes the rich jeweled girdle, worn by one of the characters in the Garden of Love. It was set with stones evidently valued for their mystic properties.

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Author: fairydew1

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