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Treasures of the Black Death Exhibition

Dark Side of Black
Part 2 of 2
London’s Wallace Collection is currently displaying until mid-May one of the most moving and touching exhibitions of 14th century jewelry and other treasures. If you are lucky enough to live near London or are planning to visit soon, this exhibition is worth a visit to see what medieval fashion jewelry was like and the skill of the craftsmen of the time. But much more than that, to also appreciate a different perspective of the medieval period.

These artifacts were from the time of the Black Death, when mankind's deadliest pandemic killed an estimated 75 million people worldwide. About 50% of Europe`s population, some 25-50 million people, perished.

Bubonic plague terrified medieval populations. The bacterium Yersinia pestis was transmitted via flea bites. The fleas were in turn spread by rats. Populations who lived closer together were naturally at greater risk. The disease is an infection of the lymphatic system resulting in gland swellings called buboes which could lead to septicemia (blood poisoning) if the buboes hemorrhaged and pneumonic plague if it spread to the lungs. Half the victims were dead in 4-7 days. It was an agonising way to die.

With no knowledge of what actually caused the disease nor access to modern antibiotics, people desperately sought scapegoats and solutions. Minorities such as Jews, foreigners and the unfortunate dregs of society like lepers and beggars were all targeted. Some solutions were bizarre. For example, a recent archaelogical dig in Italy (a fascinating read if you're not squeamish) revealed the remains of a 16th century female plague victim buried with a brick stuck in her mouth to prevent her from becoming a vampire or "shroud-eater".

The treasures from the Wallace collection were found in two separate hoards, one in Colmar, France and the other in Erfurt, Germany, near the 11th century synagogue, the oldest in Europe (below).



Some of the highlights of the exhibition are the most personal of items like the exquisitely crafted gold Jewish wedding ring (below) engraved with the words mazel tov or good fortune. The house design symbolised both the marital home and the Temple of Jerusalem. It is one of the earliest Jewish wedding rings ever found.

Some time in early 1349, the unknown owner of this ring buried her precious jewelry and valuables. The Black Death had became a doubly perilous time for Jews because they were collectively accused of poisoning wells. On March 2 that same year, this woman and her family were amongst the 1000 innocent Jews killed in Erfurt by ignorant mobs. Such hoards were thus never recovered by their owners.


This beautiful Colmar brooch was adorned with sapphires, rubies, garnets and pearls :



This is a toilet set complete with bottle and cosmetic accessories:



Images By Kind permission of the Trustees of the Wallace Collection.

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Original Post by THE BEADING GEM
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3 comments:

  1. A brick in her mouth?? My gosh those people were serious, weren't they??! Sheesh!

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  2. Wow! That ring looks like it was made for my finger, except with my luck...I'm probably more like the gal with the brick in her mouth--what an unusual custom. What an interesting article!

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  3. What incredible skill shown here.

    And what a terrible time for those people. I'm with capitolagirl - I'd be the one with the brick in my mouth too....

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