Recently, news broke that British metal detectorists discovered a miniature 15th-century “Bible.” The one-and-a-half centimeter, five-gram, gold bead’s exterior is cast in the form of an open book, and the interior is carefully engraved with images of St. Leonard and St. Margaret. But beyond that, as Luke Skywalker said, almost everything currently published about the newly discovered bead is wrong. Historical facts about late medieval England tell a much different story about this find. Hiding behind these mistakes lurks the myth of the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages as poor, dark, and ignorant, which easily lets contemporary culture off the hook by inventing a false sense of cultural “progress.”
We can probably blame the Daily Mail for muffing the story. We expect that. More surprising were the casual own-goals by the BBC, in theory a bastion of careful reporting, and one that has handled medieval finds better in the past. In this piece, Hyperallergic will correct the mistakes of these legacy platforms.
Claim: It is a Bible.
The fact that readers generally have a sense of what “the Bible” is provides no excuse to use the term without cause. There’s no evidence at all that this bead is intended to represent a Bible. English goldsmiths engraved a lot of words into jewelry this size, and would have engraved In principio (the famous “in the beginning” from the Gospel of John), or other well-known scriptural text onto the volume if they had wanted it to be identified as a Bible.
Top view of the bead discovered in Yorkshire, England
Importantly, saints like Leonard and Margaret don’t appear in the Bible. They do appear in prayerbooks like books of hours, the most popular books of the Middle Ages, that included shorter versions of the daily prayer ritual sung by monks. Books of hours were often lavishly illustrated and customized with a range of prayers to saints. If you prayed to them, saints might pray to God on your behalf, and some saints specialized in specific troubles. Counterintuitively, known for bursting out of a dragon’s stomach, Margaret became a patron saint of childbirth. Leonard, shown on the bead holding the manacles of his imprisonment, was also a saint associated with pregnancy and childbirth. Margaret turns up in books of hours frequently, though Leonard is more rarely painted. It seems likely that, however it was worn or carried, the bead offers an example, like birth girdles, of the common practice of praying to specific saints for intercession to survive pregnancy and delivery.
In short, a book of hours is a much more likely visual reference for this bead than the Bible.
Claim: It may be related to the Middleham Jewel, and even share an artist.
The new find offers a unique example of a favorite style of jewelry in late medieval England: iconographic engraving. Iconographic rings, rings engraved with images of saints, were the costume jewelry of their day. These rings were made of bronze, silver, or gold, and engraved with popular saints. You might wear your favorite sports team’s jersey, and medieval people wore their favorite saints, who they believed might intercede with God on their behalf. Some rings feature Margaret, just like the bead. There are many dozens, possibly hundreds, of iconographic rings remaining from 15th-century England in museum and private collections today. This style of engraving is common to all of them. The Middleham Jewel is refined in comparison, but it’s also larger, giving goldsmiths more room to work. The bead is pierced, and it may have been intended to be strung onto a set of engraved prayer beads like the Langdale Rosary.
Gold iconographic ring (ca. 1400, England) (image courtesy of the British Museum)
Claiming the bead and the Middleham Jewel share an artist is like name checking someone famous you saw on the subway as though you knew the person.
Claim: It was likely made for a noble or royal, possibly someone connected to Richard III.
Everyone owned iconographic rings in the 15th century, from the wealthy to men identifying themselves as husbandmen, the working class. Nobles gave these rings out as cheap party favors at New Years. The discovery contains about twice as much gold as a thin ring, and so the bead was out of the reach of the poorest, certainly, but on its own, the bead was absolutely within range of more middle-class people.
And how likely is this bead to have been owned by Richard III’s queen? Only slightly more likely than it is to have been Martha Washington’s bead. George Washington slept here, indeed.
Claim: It’s gold and shiny.
Ok, the bead is gold, and it is shiny, but small engraved jewelry like this was usually enameled in white, red, green, and blue, clear enamel to offer protection for the ring, and even black, to enhance the contrast. We might imagine Margaret and Leonard wearing red, for example, and the dragon enameled in green. The Middle Ages was bright with color, not monochrome with dirt.
Back view of the Yorkshire bead
Claim: A blacksmith made it.
By the 15th century, goldsmiths had won the exclusive right to work gold in England. The London guild was charged with ensuring guild practices were followed, and the gold standard kept, nationwide.
The false stories run by the BBC and tabloids reinforce myths about a drab, bookless, ignorant Middle Ages. Instead, the bead highlights how common books were by the later Middle Ages, and how wealthy were the middle classes, who spent liberally to adorn themselves with colors and gold. The bead also traces how actively medieval people faced the dangers of their times, applying prayer and saints freely, though they lacked modern medical solutions. In a time of seemingly innumerable calamities, one news story about the discovery of a single bead certainly feels small, and making the past look worse than our dark present may be comforting. Yet, confronting the brightness of the distant past might give us even greater hope.