The Symbolism of Jewels and Flowers in Medieval Society

Symbolism was a powerful part of medieval life. It seems everything was invested with deep symbolic value, as opposed to our more modern tendency to view things on a more surface level.

As we toured Stirling Castle in May of 2008, we viewed the incredible set of Unicorn Tapestries. These really deserve--and probably will eventually get--a topic to themselves. Suffice it to say for now, what struck me was our tour guide's comment that what is merely a pretty, crowded picture to a modern viewer was an entire story to a medieval viewer.

While we see simply men hunting a unicorn, they saw a secular story of "the search and capture of the lover bridegroom" (quote from the Metropolitan Museum's site, linked above), or a Christian allegory of Christ's persecution and suffering. We see a garden like any other; the red and white roses tell the medieval viewer of Mary's charity and virginity.

My real foray into the world of medieval symbolism came when I started researching the wedding of Niall and Allene. Today, brides adorn themselves with flowers and jewels-- whatever looks nice, whatever might have sentimental family value, whatever might go well with the chosen wedding colors. A medieval bride, however, told the world of her hopes and beliefs, of her values, who she herself was, by the flowers and gems she wore.

Among stones, white jasper stood for gentleness, red jasper for love, and green jasper for faith. The amethyst, emerald, and sapphire, three of our modern birthstones, symbolized respectively in those days Christ's martyrdom, Christian hope, and 'heaven-bound.' A thorough discussion of the medieval view of stones can be found here for the interested reader. It goes quite a bit beyond the scope of symbolism, but explains the roots of this symbolism.

Going back to symbolism as it relates to the medieval bride, she might also typically wear a crown of orange blossoms, woven with various flowers, or weave flowers into her hair. Including a small bouquet of herbs-- especially rosemary for remembrance, sage for wisdom, thyme, and basil, or, according to other sources, wheat-- symbolized luck and fertility. Some sources specify that medieval brides carried bouquets of only herbs, no flowers, while others state that orange blossoms represented happiness and fertility, lilies stood for purity, and ivy for fidelity.


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