Click to donate today!
1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
See Seals (disambiguation) for articles sharing the titleThe idea of testifying the personal presence or the agency of an individual on some particular occasion, by affixing the impression of his seal (Lat. sigillum, O. Fr. scel) to the record or object connected with the transaction of the moment, can be traced back among the nations of the old world when advanced only a comparatively short way on the path of civilization. In the East the custom which has prevailed for centuries, and which is a practice at the present day, of using the seal as a stamp wherewith to print its device in ink or pigment in authentication of a document is parallel to our western habit of inscribing a signature for the same purpose. In the West, too, the impression of the seal has, at certain periods, had the same value as the signature; and at all times the connexion between the signature and the seal has been intimate in European practice (see Autographs and Diplomatic). But the western method of obtaining the impression has differed from the eastern method. With us, the notion of a seal is an impression in relief, obtained from an incised design, either on a soft material such as wax or clay, ,or on a harder material such as lead, gold or silver. By common usage the word " seal " is employed as a term to describe both the implement for making the impression, and the impression itself; but properly it should be confined to the latter, the graven implement being technically called the matrix.
The earliest. examples of seals, both matrices and impressions, are found among the antiquities of Egypt, Babylonia and Assyria. On the clay stoppers of wine jars of the remote age which goes by the name of the pre-dynastic period, and which preceded the historic period of the first Pharaohs, there are seal impressions which must have been produced from matrices, like those of Babylonia and Assyria, of the cylinder type, the impress of the design having been repeated as the cylinder was rolled along the surface of the moist clay. Two such engraved cylinders of this archaic period are in the British Museum collections. The cylinder, however, seems to have been generally superseded in Egypt by the engraved scarab, or beetle-shaped object, which, it may be assumed, was used at an early time, as it certainly was in later Egyptian history, for sealing purposes, although its proper function was that of an amulet. Still, the fashion for cylinders appears to have revived at intervals, for they are found in the 6th, the 12th and the 18th dynasties. Even in the 1st dynasty, about 4300 B.C., the Egyptian Pharaohs had their official sealers, or, to use a modern expression, keepers of the Royal Seal. Egyptian signetrings, which were used for sealing, date back to the 12th dynasty.
As already stated, the matrices of ancient Babylonian and Assyrian seals, usually cut on precious stones, are in cylinder form.
The fine collection in the British Museum presents us with Babylonian specimens of even archaic times, Assyrian followed by an historical series, the earliest of which is of nearly 4500 years B.C. The Assyrian series is not so full. The engraved subjects are chiefly mythological. Impressions are to be found on many of the cuneiform clay tablets. Early in the 7th century B.C. the cylinder seal gave place to the cone, the impression being henceforth obtained after the fashion followed to the present day.
The Phoenicians, as was only to be expected of those traders and artisans of the ancient world, appear to have adopted both the cylinder of Assyria and the scarab of Egypt as have survived the numerous engraved stones or g pebbles, technically called gems, which served as matrices and in most instances were undoubtedly mounted as finger-rings or were furnished with swivels. At first being used in their natural forms, these pebbles or gems have been grouped as lenticular or bean-shaped, and glandular or of the sling-bolt pattern; later, from the 6th to the 4th century B.C., they were fashioned as scaraboids, that is, in the general form of the Egyptian scarab, but without the sculptured details of the beetle's body. To these, by a natural process, succeeded the matrix formed of only a thin slice of stone, which was more conveniently adapted for the bezel of the ring; and in this shape the engraved matrix passed on from the Greeks to the Romans. Signet-rings also with fixed metal bezels were in common use among the Greeks from about 600 B.C.
But while the scarab met with little favour in Greece, where, as just stated, the scaraboid was preferred, among the Etruscans its adoption was complete, and with them it became the commonest form of the seal-matrix, dating from the latter part of the 6th century B.C., engraved chiefly with subjects derived from Greek art.
Impressions of late Greek'or Roman gems in clay have survived in a few instances. A series of impressions from Greek seals was found at Selinus in Sicily, dating before 249 B.C.; a small collection of sealed Greek documents on papyrus of the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C. has been discovered at Elephantine in Egypt. An interesting and very rare example of a Roman law deed sealed with gem impressions in clay is in the British Museum, recording the sale of a slave boy in A.D. 166.
It is not the object of this article to deal further with the history of antique seals (see Numismatics; also Gems, Jewelry and Ring), but to give some account of European seals of the middle ages, when the revival of their use for the authentication of documents resulted in their universal employment among all classes of society. Hence it is that we are in possession of the vast number of impressions still to be found in public museums and archives, and in private muniment rooms and antiquarian collections, either attached to the original charters or other deeds which they authenticated, or as independent specimens. Hence, too, have survived a fairly large number of matrices.
The connecting link between the general use of the signet, which was required by the Roman law for legal purposes, but which had died out by the 7th century, and the revival of seals in the middle ages is to be found in the chanceries Early of the Merovingian and Carolingian sovereigns, where s m $d seval the practice of affixing the royal seal to diplomas appears to have been generally maintained (see Diplomatic). Naturally, surviving examples of such seals are rare, but they are sufficient in number to indicate the style adopted at different periods. The seal-ring of Childeric II. (d. 673) was found in his tomb, bearing a full-face bust and his name; and impressions of seals of later monarchs of the Merovingian line, engraved with their busts and names, have survived. Pippin the Short and the early Carolings made use of intaglios, both actual antiques and copies from them; their successors had seals of ordinary types usually showing their busts. One of the oldest matrices is an intaglio in rock crystal, now preserved at Aix-la-Chapelle, bearing a portrait head of Lothair II., king of Lorraine (A.D. 855-869), and the legend " Xpe [Christe] Adivva Hlotharium Reg." As time advanced there was a growing tendency to enlarge the royal seal. Under Hugh Capet there was (A.D. 989) a further development, the king being represented half-length with the royal insignia; and at last under Henry I. (A.D. 1031-1060) the royal seal of France was complete as the seal of majesty, bearing the full effigy of the king enthroned. In Germany, however, this full type had already been attained somewhat earlier in the seal of the emperor Henry II. (A.D. 1002-1024); and it had been used even earlier by Arnulf, count of Flanders, in 942. The royal seal thus developed as a seal of majesty became the type for subsequent seals of dignity of the monarchs of the middle ages and later, the inscription or legend giving the name and titles of the sovereign concerned.
All the early royal seals which have been referred to were affixed to the face of the documents, that is, en placard; but in the 11th century the practice of appending the seal from thongs or cords came into vogue; by the 12th century it was universal.
p atterns for their seals. Examples indeed are rare, p but that these people were acquainted with both forms is certain. Phoenician names are found cut both on cylinder matrices and on scarabs by the Phoenician engravers employed in Assyria and Egypt; and, when the cone-shaped matrix superseded the cylinder in Western Asia, the Phoenicians conformed to the change.
In Europe, the use of seals among the early Greeks is well known. Of the Mycenaean period numerous seal-impressions in clay have been found. Also from ancient times Naturally, the introduction of the pendant seal invited an impression on the back as well as on the face of the disk of wax or other material employed. Hence arose the use of the counterseal, which might be an impression from a matrix actually so called (contrasigillum), or that of a signet or private seal (secretum), such countersealing implying a personal corroboration of the sealing. The earliest seal of a sovereign of France to which a counterseal was added was that of Louis VII. (A.D. 1141), an equestrian effigy of the king as duke of Aquitaine being impressed on the reverse. When, in 1154, Aquitaine passed to the English crown, this counterseal disappeared, and eventually in subsequent reigns a fleur-de-lis or the shield of arms of France took its place. In the German royal seals the imperial eagle or the imperial shield of arms was the ordinary counterseal.
To turn to England: it appears that the kings of the AngloSaxon race, or at least some of them, imitated their Frankish Anglo- neighbours in using signets or other seals. There are Saxon still extant an impression of the seal of Offa of Mercia royal (A.D. 790) bearing a portrait head; and one of the seal of seals. Edgar (A.D.960), an intaglio gem. The first royal seal of England which ranks as a " great seal " is that of Edward the Confessor, impressions of which are extant. This seal was furnished with a counterseal, the design being nearly Conqueror, as duke of Normandy, used an equestrian seal, representing him mounted and armed for battle. After the conquest of England, he added a seal of majesty, copied from the seal of Henry I. of France, as a counterseal. In subsequent reigns the order of the two seals was reversed, the seal of majesty becoming the obverse, and the reverse being the equestrian seal: a pattern which has been followed, almost uniformly, down to the present day.
Besides the two royal seals of Anglo-Saxon kings noticed above there are extant a few other seals, and there is documentary evidence of yet others, which were Anglo- used in England before the Norman Conquest; but Saxon the rarity of such examples is an indication that the private employment of seals could not have been very seals. common among our Anglo-Saxon forefathers. Berhtwald the thane, in 788, and lEthelwulf of Mercia, in 857, affixed their seals to certain documents. In the British Museum are the bronze matrices of seals of ZEthilwald, bishop of Dunwich, about Boo; of lElfric, alderman of Hampshire, about 985; and the finely carved ivory double matrix of Godwin the thane (on the obverse) and of the nun Godcythe (on the reverse), of the beginning of the 11th century. In the Chapter Library of Durham there is the matrix of the monastic seal of about the year 970; and in the British Museum, appended to a later charter (Harl. 45 A. 36), is the impression of the seal of Wilton Abbey of about 974.
The official practice of the Frankish kings, which, as we have seen, was the means of handing down the Roman tradition of the use of the signet, was gradually imitated by high officers of state. In the 8th century the mayors of the palace are found affixing their personal seals to royal diplomas; and, once the idea was started, the multiplication of seals naturally followed. From the end of the 10th century there was a growing tendency to their general use. From the 12th to the 15th century inclusive, sealing was the ordinary process of authenticating legal documents; and during that period an infinite variety of seals was in existence. The royal seals of dignity or great seals we have already noticed. The sovereign also had his personal seals: his privy seal, his signet. The provinces, the public departments, the royal and public officers, the courts of law: all had their special seals. The numerous class of ecclesiastical seals comprised episcopal seals of all kinds, official and personal; seals of cathedrals and chapters; of courts and officials, &c. The monastic series is one of the largest, and, from an artistic point of view, one of the most important.
The topographical or local series comprises the seals of cities„ of towns and boroughs and of corporate bodies. Then come the vast collections of personal seals. Equestrian seals of barons and knights; the seals of ladies of rank; the armorial seals of the gentry; and the endless examples, chiefly of private seals, with devices of all kinds, sacred and profane, ranging from the finely engraved work of art down to the roughly cut merchant's mark of the trader and the simple initial letfer of the yeoman, typical of the time when everybody had his seal.
The ordinary shape of the medieval seal is round; but there are certain exceptions. Ladies' seals and some classes of ecclesiastical and monastic seals are of pointed oval form, which is Shapes. best adapted to receive the standing figure of lady, bishop, abbot or saint: the common types in such classes. Fancifully shaped seals also occur, but they are comparatively rare.
In the middle ages the metal chiefly employed in the manufacture of matrices was bronze. Among the wealthy, silver was not uncommon; among the poor, lead was in general use. Matrices. Matrices of steel and iron were made at a later time in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the 11th century a fairly large number of matrices were cut in ivory. The use of engraved gems in the early middle ages has already been noticed; but the taste for antique intaglios was not confined to any one period. In the later centuries also, particularly in the 14th century, they were set in seal matrices and finger rings. A fine Graeco-Roman gem, bearing a female head, full face and set in a medieval setting, does duty for the head of Mary Magdalen, as seen in the accompanying cut (fig. 2).
The ordinary matrix of the middle ages was proFIG. 2. - Antique vided with a ridge on the back (or, in some ingem used as a stances, with a vertical handle), by which it could p rivate seal. be held while being used for sealing, and which might be pierced for suspension. Sockets for the insertion of handles are of comparatively late make. The matrix was in most instances simple, the design giving a direct impression once and for all. But there are examples of elaborate matrices composed of several pieces, from the impressions of which the seal was built up in an ingenious fashion, both obverse and reverse being carved in hollow work, through which figures and subjects impressed on an inner layer of wax are to be seen. Such examples are the seal matrix of the Benedictine priory of St Mary and St Blaise of Boxgrave in Sussex, of the 13th century, now in the British Museum (fig. 3); and the matrix of Southwick Priory in Hampshire, of the same period (Archaeologia, xxiii. 374). The matrix of one of the seals of Canterbury Cathedral was also constructed in the same manner.
It has usually been the custom to break up or deface the matrices of official seals when they have ceased to be valid, as, for example, at the commencement of a new reign. The seals of deceased bishops or abbots were solemnly broken in presence of the chapter or before the altar. But the legal maxim that corporations never die is well illustrated by the survival of the fine series, not complete, indeed, but very full, of the matrices of English corporations, beginning with the close of the 12th century. A fine example is the corporate seal of Rochester, of the 13th century, showing the keep and battlements of the castle (fig. FIG. 3. - Seal of Boxgrave 4) in high relief. Priory: obverse. The common material for re ceiving the impressions from the matrices was beeswax, generally strengthened and hardened by admixture with other substances, such as resin, pitch and even hemp and hair. The employment of chalk as an ingredient in many seals Waxen im= of the 12th century has caused them to become ex- pressions. tremely friable. It was a common practice to apply to such seals a coating of brown varnish. Besides the transparent yellowishbrown of the wax when used in its natural state, as it very frequently was used in the earlier middle ages, many other colours, FIG. I. - Seal of Edward the Confessor.