Medieval Seals

A Collection of Facsimiles at the Medieval Institute

An online catalogue constructed by Renée R. Trilling, under the direction of
Dr. Marina Smyth, Librarian of the Medieval Institute, with assistance from
Benjamin Panciera and Professor Jonathan Boulton.

Introduction || The Collection


In the Middle Ages, one of the most common ways to proclaim the authenticity of a document was to attach a seal to it. Seals were images carved into a matrix which, when pressed into a substance like warm wax, left behind an inverse of the picture on the seal. The image, and often a legend written around it, identified the author of the document and was meant to prevent people from forging or tampering with official correspondence. More importantly, in an age when even illiterate people needed to transact business, seals allowed individuals to declare their consent to an agreement even if they couldn't sign their names.
Seal of the Abbey of Royaumont
Seal of the Abbey of Royaumont
Archives Nationales (Paris) D8362

Seal of Clémence of Hungary
Seal of Clémence of Hungary,
second wife of Louis le Hutin
Archives Nationales (Paris) D158

Seals are an important tool for research in the history of the Middle Ages. They (along with coins, their close formal relative) long functioned as the most important locus for official portraits of rulers, and the style and associations of such portraits and the insignia and attributes associated with the effigies are often our most important source of knowledge for how these rulers wanted to be seen by their subjects, and by their neighbors and rivals. Ecclesiastical seals are a useful source for the ways in which prelates and religious corporations saw their relationship to their head and their heavenly patron or patrons, who were often represented on it in increasingly complex arrangements. The seals of other types of corporations (including town, universities, and guilds) reveal what their governing bodies saw as most important in their function or situation, and the changes of general design-type tell us interesting things about their relationship to the culture in which they functioned.

For much of the early Middle Ages the use of seals was restricted to kings and popes. Many of these seals featured a head-portrait, often in a style emulating Imperial Roman and Byzantine seals and coinage. These evolved around 1000 A.D. into portraits featuring a seated monarch bearing indicators of his power (swords, scepters, orbs). In the tenth century the use of seals spread to princes and, later, to bishops, with other ecclesiastical officials adopting seals in the twelfth century, with each rank adapting its own form of dignity-portrait.

Seal of the Faculty of Catholic Law,
University of Paris, reverse
Archives Nationales (Paris) D8021bis

Seal of the Fishmongers of Bruges
Archives Nationales (Paris) F4757

Many towns and monastic houses adopted the hagiological type of seal-design, featuring the patron saint in a full-length portrait. Two other kinds of seal-design that emerged in this period were the topographical type (featuring building portraits) and the cartographical type (featuring the plan of the town). These two types were frequently used by corporate entities such as monastic houses and towns. Two final kinds of seals frequently employed in the High and Late Middle Ages are the equestrian type (which may be civilian or military) and armorial seals, generally used only by the secular nobility.

The Medieval Institute is proud to own a collection of over 200 medieval seals in facsimile. These images, mostly French, display the wide range of styles, sizes, and types of seals and seal owners in the Middle Ages. The seals in this exhibit are organized in three ways: according to their user, according to their geographic origin, and according to the insignia displayed on the seal.

Guide to the Collection

University Seals || Monastic Seals || Ecclesiastical Seals || Municipal Seals || Seals of Secular Individuals || Guild Seals

French Seals || German Seals || Italian Seals || Scandinavian Seals || Seals from the Low Countries

Hagiographical Seals || Portrait Seals || Equestrian Seals || Topographical Seals

Seals Featuring other Insignia:

Our Friend the Seal

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