How did people declare their love during the Middle Ages? Kimberley-Joy Knight explains more…


The secret admirer

“Kiss me” is the playful exhortation on this piece of cattle bone from medieval Scandinavia

This seemingly insignificant scrap of cattle bone has been inscribed with runes, a letterform used in Scandinavia during the Middle Ages. It was found during an archaeological dig in Oslo, and reads “kiss me”. Small pieces of bone or wood could easily be carved using a knife and delivered covertly, making them the ideal medium for secret love messages or the communication of deepest desires.

We cannot be sure of the situations in which these types of objects were given and received, but it seems likely that this object would have prompted a response from the subject of the rune-carver’s affections.


Crowning glory

Two lovers take centre stage on an ivory comb

This Parisian ivory comb, crafted in c1320, is a perfectly preserved celebration of the ritual of aristocratic courtship in the Middle Ages. The smooth, pure white surface of the ivory was valued for its beauty and was often likened to the skin of an idealised woman.

More like this

The comb is decorated with three scenes of lovers in a garden. The blossoming of new love is demonstrated by the gestures and postures of the figures, but it was the act of using this object to comb the hair that was considered the most seductive. The process of beautification only occurred in private moments, and the sexually charged performance of the comb caressing the long hair of a maiden was often described in Arthurian romances featuring Gawain, Lancelot and Guinevere.

Considering their ubiquity, a surprisingly small number of ivory combs from the 14th century survive today. That makes this example, in which not a single tooth is broken, all the more remarkable.


For lovers, not fighters

This decorative saddle was perhaps presented by a maiden to her knight in shining armour

Traditional love tokens given by women to men were often small linens such as handkerchiefs, and no records survive of such grand items as this saddle being offered. Even so, the decoration and inscription may provide some clues as to the relationship between owner and giver. It is adorned with images of two ladies – one with a falcon, the other holding a scroll standing next to a bearded young man. These courtly figures are joined by an inscription in German: “I hope for dear summertime; wait – be willing in favour of me; smile, love, smile.”

Only a few medieval saddles have survived intact, making this particular example, from Tratzberg in Austria, of outstanding interest. The piece is made from a wooden frame, covered with rawhide and plates of engraved bone. This means that it was too delicate for use in battle, and so is more likely to have been designed for ceremonial purposes, perhaps during victory parades.


When a man loves a woman

A tool of a trade turned into a declaration of love

Spindles were a common sight across Europe in the Middle Ages. Thousands of medieval women would have used wooden objects like the one pictured above – dating to the c12th century and found in Oslo – in order to spin yarn.

Yet there’s one detail that makes this particular example stand out, and that’s the inscription carved upon it. “Nikulás loves well the woman called Gýrídr, step-daughter of Pitas-Ragna,” it declares.

Spindles might have been mundane household items, but to Nikulás and his beloved Gýridr, this one may have been deeply cherished.


A cry of pain

This once valueless stick was transformed into a poignant symbol of a broken heart

Excavated from the wharf in Bergen in Norway, this wooden stick has a poetic and moving runic inscription: “I love that man’s wife so much that fire seems cold to me. And I am

that woman’s friend.” Lamenting an impossible love, the words conjure an image of a forlorn man sitting by the fire, whittling his feelings into the stick.

This lowly yet lovingly crafted piece reveals one way in which thoughts about love and desire were given life in medieval Scandinavia. This otherwise valueless piece of wood was transformed into an emotionally charged object and attests to the sorrows of a broken heart.


Chansons d’amour

A compendium of great love songs,commissioned by a French bishop

This striking medieval manuscript, known as le chansonnier cordiforme, is shaped like a heart when closed but, when opened, instead resembles two hearts joined together.

The rare manuscript form, in this instance commissioned by French bishop Jean de Montchenu in the 15th century, is only known in a handful of other cases. This example contains 43 French and Italian love songs written by some of the greatest composers of the age.

On the manuscript’s third folio, a lady wearing a black dress is shown in the arms of a richly dressed young man. Could this, perhaps, provide a clue as to why Bishop Jean had the manuscript made?


Erotic encounters

This rare painted casket shows scenes of courtly love – and racy liaisons

As the heroes of one of the most popular of all medieval romances, the story of Tristan and the princess Isolde would have adorned many love tokens in the Middle Ages. But few would have been as beautifully crafted as this wooden casket, adorned with scenes of courtly love, erotic encounters and heroism.

Decorated caskets were common gifts inthe Middle Ages, but only a wealthy aristocrat could have afforded such a luxury item as this example. Made between c1350–70, possibly in the Netherlands, it may have been a lover’s gift to mark a betrothal. It is possible that a prospective husband commissioned it with scenes of courtly wooing to capture the heart of someone to whom he had already given small tokens of his affection.

The recipient is likely to have used it to store smaller precious items such as jewellery, combs or other love tokens.

The two lions on either side of the lock might be understood as guardians of its prized contents.

Dr Kimberley-Joy Knight is a postdoctoral research fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, University of Sydney


This article was first published in the February 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine