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 design known best today is the Lorian brooch in Lord of the Rings as well as Celtic and Viking designs found in fantasy dramas and festivals.

Lord of the Rings Leaf or Lorian Brooch

Lorain Cloak Brooch
Aragon in Lord of the Rings wearing the Lorian Brooch

In the Lord of the Rings, the Lorian brooch is handcrafted by the Elves and gifted to each member of the Fellowship along with a cloak. They serve to hold on the cloaks as well as a signal that the travelers are under the protection of the Elves. In the story, Pippin leaves behind his Lorian brooch when he is captured by the orcs. Pippin leaves the cloak brooch for the Fellowship to find so they know he’s alive and to please rescue him.

Cloak Brooch, Cloak Pin

Ancient Cloak Brooches

Ancient cloaks were probably like blankets held together with a deer bone pin and used for both protection from the weather and as bedding. Some of them were probably animal skins. While no pins or cloaks remain from most ancient times, tools have been found that could have been used to make a deer bone pin. The single piece of fabric made it an easy garment to make, unlike coats of today.

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 were wondering, the pin pointed up. Men wore it at the shoulder and women on the shoulder. Gold brooches were the most prestigious, worn by kings and the wealthiest. Silver was also popular among nobility. Bronze and other metals were used for everyone else.

Viking Brooches
10th Century Viking Brooches including thistle designs | photo British Museum, London

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 below was popular with the Vikings and continues to be produced today.

Frankly, the topic of cloak brooches and the history of styles and technology over time is 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. The jeweler was already making, selling and exhibiting brooches. The Tara brooch because the center of his exhibit and no doubt he selected the name Tara to add to its romanticism.

Tara Brooch
Full view of front of brooch, pin to front.

The 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.”[1]

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 pattern 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.

Roscrea Brooch
Roscrea Cloak Brooch

As seen with the Tara brooch, Celtic brooches are typically ornate. This cloak brooch uses the filigree, gold and amber embellishments of a Celtic design but comparative simplicity and elegance of a Viking design and technique. The three decorative panels including the triangular one at the top and the half-circle at the bottom are bordered by semi-circles and inlayed with gold filigree. The rest of the ring and the pin itself are plain silver. Similar to 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.


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