Medieval cloaks typically closed at the neckline. The cloak brooch, pin, or sometimes a tasseled cord, held a cloak closed but also simply held it on! These closures ranged from simple iron or bone to jewel-encrusted brooches. The cloak brooch best known today is the Lorien brooch from Lord of the Rings. Celtic and Viking cloak brooches from fantasy dramas and festivals are also well known.
Lord of the Rings Leaf or Lorien Brooch
In the Lord of the Rings, the Lorien brooch is handcrafted by the Elves and gifted to each member of the Fellowship along with a cloak. These brooches hold on the cloaks, as well as signal that Elven magic is protecting the travelers. In the story, Pippin leaves behind his Lorien brooch when he is captured by the orcs! Pippin does this to let the Fellowship know he’s been captured and needs their help.
Ancient Cloak Brooches
Ancient cloaks were probably similar to blankets and held together with a deer bone pin. The cloaks were used for both protection from the weather and as well as for bedding. Some of them were probably animal skins. While no pins or cloaks have survived from ancient times, tools have been found that might have been used to make a deer bone pin.
Celtic and Viking Cloak Brooches
Celtic cloak brooches of the Early Irish and British Medieval period featured a long pin attached to a ring. These brooches were large and strong because Celts wore thick woolen cloaks. In the most popular cloak brooch style, the pin moves around a ring, which is open. This way no permanent hole is left in the cloak or garment. In case you are wondering, the pin pointed up. Gold brooches were the most prestigious and worn by kings and the wealthy people. Silver was also popular among nobility. Bronze and other metals were used for everyone else.
Viking cloak brooches are also large and heavy like Celtic jewelry but the similarities end there. Viking jewelry is instead known for its simplicity and absence of decoration. I think this simplicity makes them look modern today. The thistle design seen above was popular with the Vikings and continues to be produced today.
Frankly, the topic of cloak brooches and the history of styles and technology fare more complicated than I expected. Please consult jewelry historians or Wikipedia, if you wish to learn more.
Here a few other famous brooches:
Tara Brooch Sets Off a Celtic Revival
The Tara Brooch is a magnificent Celtic cloak brooch created in the very early Medieval period, 650 to 750 AD. A woman found it in Ireland in 1850 and its said to have set off the Celtic Revival of the mid-19th Century. It was purchased by a jeweler who named it the Tara Brooch, despite the fact it was found near Bettystown not Tara. At the time, the jeweler was already making, selling and exhibiting brooches. The Tara brooch became the centerpiece of his exhibit and no doubt he selected the name Tara to add to its romanticism.
The Tara brooch now resides in the National Museum of Ireland, where it is described thus: “…[T]he Tara Brooch can be considered to represent the pinnacle of early medieval Irish metalworkers’ achievement. Each individual element of decoration is executed perfectly and the range of technique represented on such a small object is astounding.”
The cloak brooch is decorated on both side and created out of cast and gilt silver. It has a diameter of 8.7 cm and the pin has a length of 32 cm. On the front, fine gold filigree panels depict animal themes punctuated with studs of glass, enamel and amber. The back panel consists of scrolls and triple spirals. The brooch also has a swivel attachment that I do not understand. Perhaps it’d be clear if I held it in my hand or saw it in person. The swivel attachment is made with plaited silver wire chain. Animal heads frame two small cast glass human heads on the swivel.
The Roscrea Brooch merges Celtic and Viking Design
Historians describe The Roscrea brooch as a perfect merger between the designs, material and techniques of the Vikings and the Celts. It was crafted in the 9th century, when the Irish grew accustomed to the Viking presence in Ireland. Initially, Vikings were considered invaders which they were indeed! Over time, the Irish saw they had no choice, or agreed to the Viking presence in Ireland, and social, cultural, technological collaborations commenced.
As with the Tara brooch, Celtic brooches are typically ornate. For example, this cloak brooch merges the filigree, gold and amber embellishments of a Celtic design with the comparative simplicity and elegance of a Viking design. The three decorative panels including the triangular one at the top and the half-circle at the bottom which are bordered by semi-circles and inlayed with gold filigree. Note that the rest of the ring and the pin itself are made of plain silver. As we saw with the Tara brooch, the pin emerges from the bottom where there is an abstract animal head, perhaps a ram’s head. Speculation is that it was crafted by skilled monks from St. Cronan’s because it was found with a pocket gospel book made at Roscrea Abbey.