Medieval Chic in Metal

Rijksmuseum van Oudheden

Late-medieval belt mounts in the National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden, The Netherlands

All common people wear their belts mounted with silver". This grumbles the 15th-century author of the Mirror of Sins, who comments more on the 'bling' of the people in the street than on the jewelry of the rich. In late-medieval art, many belts and purses are decorated with gold and silver as well. There, they are worn by men, women, children, horses and dogs. Archaeological finds of leather belts, purses and shoes show that 'common people' decorated their accessories quite lavishly indeed. The combination of objects and depictions constructs a new image of medieval fashion, that was much 'shinier' than we often think.
The Dutch National Museum of Antiquities houses the largest collection of belt mounts in Europe, coming from the Drowned Land of Zeeland and from Dordrecht. These kind of objects were found in most cities in the Netherlands, usually in medieval dumps like on the Loeffplein in Bois-le-Duc. The gold and silver coloured nails and mounts are made in cheap sheet copper and pewter alloy. There are remarkably many letters and symbols. Obviously, the metal decoration on belt and purse, which were worn on top of clothing, was a select medium for showing off messages and identities.

A belt is a long narrow leather strip, with a buckle on one end and on the other a reinforced strap end that is pulled through the buckle. The belt has holes for adjustment, which are often reinforced with rings


Metal mounting is meant for strengthening and decoration at the same time. The mounts can be attached over its whole length or only on the part around the buckle, that is most visible on the front of the body.

Most late-medieval belts show a continuous pattern of the same of two alternating mounts.


Belts were cut out of leather by a leather worker and then by someone else provided with a buckle and strap end and mounted with metal. Belt mounters bought the mounts in large numbers from specialists, who punched them out of thin copper sheet or cast them from a lead-tin alloy. For casting they used double, so-called ‘lousening’ moulds, that allow for serial production of flat objects.


Most common as mounting on belts are nails. Sometimes these are heavy 'hard rock' nails, sometimes circular caps with a thin nail through them. At the back of the belt they are hammered flat, often with a rivet in between. Nails are meant essentially to reinforce the belt, but they can form all kinds of decorative patterns.


Belts with nail patterns indicate the importance of the preservation of so much medieval leather, particularly in the west of the Netherlands, due to exceptional preservation circumstances caused by a high groundwater level. Without the belt, all that would rest of such a beautiful pattern is a handful of nails.

The collection of the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities contains over 1500 mounts, all different. They show a great diversity, indicating that there was a lot of choice in belt decoration and that its fashion changed continuously. There are all kinds of geometric shapes, many flowers and leaves, human faces, animal heads, celestial bodies, buildings, utensils, imitation coats of arms and fake coins.


The meaning of not every shape is known, but a small part are religious symbols like crosses, St. James' scallops, 'the true face of Christ' (Vera Icon), the tunic of St. Mary, and the winged dove as representation of the Holy Ghost.


Bags in various shapes and sizes have often been embellished with metal. This mounting is usually part of a range of decoration of the leather, in which patterns, figures and letters can be cut out and stamped as well. Metal mounts often emphasize the lines and parts of the purse and reinforce seams, flaps and fastenings.


Most medieval shoes are made of only leather and most common decorations are incisions or stamps on the top. When metal has been used, it is often part of the construction. For instance, triangular top pieces of pattens (undershoes for outside) were attached to wooden or cork soles using nails and strips. The soles can be mounted too. Besides, both pattens and shoes sometimes have a fastening with a strap pulled through a clasp; then the holes and strap end were reinforced. These straps, that were visible on top of the foot, may carry mounts.


Most common belt mounting in medieval art is horse harness mounted with metal. The straps of bridle, reins, saddle and stirrups have to withstand great force and therefore it is necessary to reinforce this leather. Horse straps are wider (3 to 6 cms) than the belts worn by humans (usually 1 or 1,5 cm wide) and they are more often torn apart and repaired. But also in this case the mounts are not purely constructive, as they decorate your horse at the same time. Horse harness thus mirrors the social status of the horseman.

Lap dogs
In medieval households, small dogs were kept for company. These have often been depicted in the lap or hands of portrayed women and men. There, the dogs, often white ones, are wearing colourful collars with bells, stars and other mounts. Narrow collars with bells have been found, but were often interpreted as ‘cat straps’. Of the bells, usually one half is missing.


In the Netherlands, belt mounts in the shape of letters are much more common than outside them. It seems that there was relatively much need (and knowledge) here to propagate things through accessories.


The mounts contain many letters and letter combinations, with remarkably often the letters A, M and S. Their meaning is not always clear: M for instance can relate to the Virgin Mary, but the Emperor Maximilian or ‘minne’ (love) as well. The combination AM for Ave Maria and IHS as monogram of Christ are general.


A beautifully decorated girdle was a suited gift for a lover and the exchange of belts was a fixed part of medieval marriage rituals. For this reason, many belts, especially expensive ones, show symbols for love, like hearts and appliques with the word AMOR. Hearts with two crossing arrows as a sign of being in love and two joined hands as a sign of marriage can be seen on mounts and strap ends too.


At Dordrecht, this narrow leather strap was excavated with, between two copper-alloy studs, a metal plate with two human heads on it (9 mms wide). The two are shown facing each other; that on the left is a normal face and that on the right a skull. The image refers to the notion of memento mori ('remember that you must die'). Symbols of impermanence such as that on this belt remind the faithful that they should care about their immortal souls.


Are belt mounts something of the past? On 7 July 2012, the Dutch National Museum of Antiqiuities bought leather belts, bags, bracelets, dog collars, cases and even a pair of shoes with mounts in the centre of Leiden. It is still in fashion and the mounts still are golden and silvery. Just as in the Middle Ages, most of the belts have full-length patterns of studding or repetitions of identical mounts; truly figurative mounts are quite rare nowadays. But when they do appear, they often show the same, age-old symbols: crosses, animal heads, skulls. Or just the word LOVE in capitals.

Credits: Story

Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (National Museum of Antiquities), 2012-2016

Based on the exhibition Medieval Chic in the National Museum of Antiquities, on display from 24 November 2012 until 16 March 2014.


A. Willemsen & M. Ernst, Medieval Chic in Metal, published by SPA uitgevers

A. Willemsen, with contributions by J. Luijendijk & M. van Werven, Late medieval bling-bling, A collection of decorated leather and metalbase mounts in the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, in: Hemmy Clevis (ed.), Medieval Material Culture, Studies in honour of Jan Thijssen, Zwolle 2009, 67-93.

A. Willemsen, 'Man is a sack of muck girded with silver': Metal Decoration on Late-medieval Leather Belts and Purses from the Netherlands, Medieval Archaeology 56 (2012) 171-202.

Credits: All media
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