Somewhat arbitrarily, I made one of the characters in my current work in progress a goldsmith. Edmund Attgate is pursued by various women for his wealth and his good looks, to the annoyance of his wife. Once I had decided that he was going to be a goldsmith, however, I had to do some reading to make sure that the life he lived would have been recognisable to a real goldsmith from the fourteenth century. This also entailed looking at some glorious photographs of work produced by medieval goldsmiths, including the one of the Dunstable Swan above. It is made of gold covered in white enamel, and stands a mere 3.2 cm high.
Precious metals and jewels were used so much in cathedrals and monasteries that, up until the thirteenth century, some monks were goldsmiths, working to produce works of art for their churches. The church said that displays of beautiful gold and silver praised God, and encouraged their use in the production and decoration of objects used or displayed in churches. Gold and silver, as ‘pure’ metals, were symbols of the divine and they were used to make chalices, bowls, reliquaries, censers, covers for gospels, croziers, shrines, candlesticks and crucifixes. It was this kind of display of its enormous wealth that had led to the church being attacked since the beginning of the thirteenth century.
Since their clients were mainly bishops, kings, dukes and wealthy nobles, goldsmiths were far more likely to be found in places like London, Paris and Avignon than in provincial towns, but there was also work for them outside the capitals. Provincial goldsmiths were often situated near cathedrals and monasteries, or in towns with large merchant populations. In Paris and Florence the goldsmiths were clustered together on the bridges which were the main routes in and out of the towns, in order to catch the passing trade. In London they were situated around Cheapside.
St Dunstan and St Elegius (Eloi in French) were the patron saints of goldsmiths. St Dunstan had been a silversmith making church plate and St Elegius had been a goldsmith. Both rose to become bishops, with St Dunstan becoming Archbishop of Canterbury. Since St Dunstan was English and St Elegius was French, it is no surprise that the English goldsmiths adopted St Dunstan.
Aside from the needs of kings and bishops, goldsmiths also catered to more everyday demands by making belts, buckles, chains, rings, brooches, necklaces and bracelets. Although some of them worked with jewels or did enamelwork, many did not. Most carried out repair work.
Goldsmiths were not just skilled craftsmen; some of them were also required to be artists. Gold objects with decorative details usually had to be cast and the method most commonly used was the ‘lost wax’ process. The goldsmith modelled the object in wax and sculpted the details onto it. The wax model was covered in soft clay. This was heated so that the wax ran out of a hole left at the top. The molten metal was then poured into the space left by the wax. When it had cooled the clay was broken off, leaving the gold object behind. A rabbit’s foot was used to smooth, polish and wipe the gold.
A goldsmith’s wife would sometimes be part of the business, burnishing the finished objects and looking after the shop in her husband’s absence.
Goldsmiths also cut seals, although these were not usually made from precious metals. Each one was unique so that, when it was pressed into hot wax, it identified the signatory of a document.
A touchstone, a piece of fine-grained, black rock, was used to assess the purity of gold. When a piece of gold was rubbed on the surface of the stone, it left behind a smear, which could be assessed for purity.
It will not be a surprise to learn that goldsmiths could be as dishonest as other tradesmen. Some would pass off hollow rings and buckles as solid. Some set glass stones instead of jewels and some set real stones in a non-precious metal made to resemble gold or silver.