Sunday, March 23, 2014

Mastery of Design: The John Monson Locket, 1597

Locket of gold and other stuff
Inscribed for John Monson, 1597
The Victoria & Albert Museum

It’s a pretty locket.  It really is.  So, I don’t want to be icked out by it, but, I can’t help it.  You see,  according to the tradition of the family for whom this necklace was originally made, this locket contains part of the caul (the membrane enclosing the fetus before birth) that John Monson was born with in 1597. This was considered to be lucky, especially as a protection against drowning.  Why?  I couldn’t tell you.

At this point in our human history, there was a strong belief in the medicinal or magical properties of various natural substances , especially in Renaissance England. For instance, unicorn horn (actually part of the horn of the narwhal, an arctic whale) or bezoar stone, which was found in the stomach of a goat, were thought to be powerful antidotes against poison. Yucky things such as these were often set in pieces of jewelry.  Human stuff, too, it seems was assigned magical and medicinal properties.  Hence this baby-gunk locket.

When this was made, around 1579, men and women alike would have worn such a necklace, but only if they were part of the aristocracy.  You see, good ol’ Henry VIII (ruled 1509-1547) had made various attempts in the form of sumptuary laws to restrict jewelry wearing to the upper classes.  Many agreed with this idea.  For example, in 1585 the Puritan Philip Stubbes complained that it was impossible to tell “who is noble, who is worshipful, who is a gentleman and who is not” because jewels were worn by anybody who could afford them, whatever their rank.

So, we can assume that this was part of the jewels of a wealthy family.  Most likely,  this locket was made as a christening gift. Most babies in Elizabethan England were baptized within a few days of their birth, but aristocratic families often postponed this in order to allow for social arrangements.  Baptism gifts were often made of precious metals and were meant to be kept by the recipient well into adulthood.  John Munson, it is thought, wore this necklace for many years.

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