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Inscribing brooches: women and runes in fifth to seventh century Britain – Jasmin Higgs

Early medieval women from before the mid-seventh century could be dressed, at any given point, in many layers of clothing which required fasteners in the forms of pins and brooches. Brooches from the fifth to seventh centuries in Britain are a fascinating resource for women’s history; not only can they tell us about the way in which women got dressed, but also about how they controlled their own social relationships using parts of clothing. There is a very small number of women’s brooches which are unique because they feature runic inscriptions. This blog post will discuss one of these inscribed brooches, known as the Harford Farm brooch, with the aim of showing the function of runic script in women’s intimate social spheres in the fifth-seventh centuries.

An inscribed brooch was found in grave 11 at the Harford Farm archaeology site in the late 1990s. The brooch is a composite disc brooch, likely produced in Kent, and was found in a woman’s grave alongside keys, rings, a toilet set, and a knife, amongst other items. The brooch was found positioned near the chest or shoulders of the deceased, with the face of the brooch positioned into the ground. On the back of the brooch are two runic inscriptions. The face of the brooch has a noticeable repair; one of the inscriptions refers back to that repair, stating ‘Luda repaired the brooch’, whilst there is also a second, much less deeply inscribed inscription on the head of the pin mechanism, reading ‘æ(.)p’, with no discernable interpretation.

The longer text makes a clear reference to part of the brooch’s life- the need for a repair to the face, likely completed by a metalsmith named Luda; thus this text commemorates the act of repair. The second, non-lexical text, is less clear. Its meaning cannot be worked out through understanding what is written. This begs the question, why write on the back of a brooch if the text does not make linguistic sense, especially if there is already a discernable inscription? It could be suggested that the visual presence of runic inscriptions somehow signified prestige to those that saw the text, associating runes and the presence of writing, whether lexical or not, as symbols of prestige and power. After all, surviving runic-inscribed brooches are very rare, and the brooches are high-value items, intricately made from expensive materials, thus all being relatively wealthy women’s brooches. However, this cannot be the answer to the Harford Farm question: the secondary inscription is very shallow, difficult to see without being close and with good lighting. So, perhaps we have to ask different questions when it comes to trying to discern what the function of runic script is on the back of brooches, especially thinking of women’s dress.

Despite brooches being part of everyday dress and worn regularly, the text being placed on the back-plate means it cannot easily be seen due to the back-plate facing the clothing of the wearer. However, brooches are not static items: they are handled every day when getting dressed, being pinned and re-pinned to adjust clothing, add layers, or change items. The brooch-owner likely handled her brooches every day; there is no suggestion that women had a vast array of brooches to pick from, and thus these would have been very well-worn items. This could be the case with the brooch-owner and her servant or slave when getting dressed, making the viewing of the text an intimate but possibly daily encounter. Alternatively, the owner’s knowledge of the text on the back-plate could invite them to take off the brooch to show to viewers; such an act could stimulate conversation around the brooch, even inviting secondary inscriptions, like the ‘æ(.)p’ on the pin head of the Harford Farm brooch. Therefore, though we must consider that the text has very limited viewability when the brooches performs its primary function as a dress accessory, this does not mean that the text is always not viewable, nor, however, that the text was intended to be seen by a wide range of people either.

What does this suggest, then, about the functions of runic texts on women’s brooches? Women had a great deal of control over the time and place in which the runic inscription could be seen. Therefore, these inscriptions were not public displays of runic literacy, but were intended to be shown in an intimate social setting. It was likely that the presence of these inscriptions was partly driven by the women’s close social circle which hinged upon the viewing of the back of the brooch; Luda’s desire to highlight the repair and therefore advertise his metalsmith work through the inscription ‘Luda repaired the brooch’ would be reliant on the brooch-owner showing the back-plate to others. The second, shallower inscription, would have also only been seen by people close to the brooch, even more so than the first inscription, and was likely only done to further personalize the brooch, despite the lack of knowledge of runes by the inscriber.

Image: The Harford Farm Brooch, from wikicommons

Jasmin Higgs is an AHRC-funded PhD candidate in the School of English at the University of Nottingham, UK. She is an early medievalist and runologist; her research focuses on how to determine the functions of runic script in Britain c.400-650CE. Jasmin is interested in how methodological approaches from historical pragmatics can inform the study of the functions of text, especially non-lexical and fragmentary linguistic data. Alongside her PhD, Jasmin is a Research Associate for the Institute for Name-Studies and the postgraduate co-ordinator for the outreach programme ‘Vikings for Schools’.