art history · history

Tis the Season for Gift Giving! (Part 1)

Now that Thanksgiving has finished it is time to begin the crazy ritual of shopping for that perfect gift. Rushing out early on Black Friday and grabbing that last Xbox on sale! It can be crazy, but you can bet I was out there and, as a result, came back with my gift list completely finished. These are some of our gift giving customs of today, but during the medieval era there was a lot more that went into it.

The ritual of gift giving has always been a part of society and many of these gifts have become pieces of artwork that we know today. During the middle ages, among the upper classes, there was a strict ritual surrounding gift giving. “To give, to receive, to reciprocate,” to quote from Buettner’s article, was the formula. Gifts were used to create social bonds, to keep the economic flow of wealth in check, and as a political tool to create alliances. They were present in the ceremonies of funerals, weddings (brides always came with a dowry), and many were given to the church to receive the favor of the God. Gifts were also a way to show one’s social status to the public or at least the court.

The Valois Court in the 15th century is a great example of these practices. They had an annual New Years celebration where gift giving was at its center. This was an annual event that was an opportunity for the nobles to gain more wealth. The majority of these gifts were very grand and carried a high monetary value. Since they held this much value the nobles could reuse them as gifts or sell them in a pinch. These occasion also brought visibility to the wealth of these upper classes and it was very important that everyone saw this by the gifts you brought to give. What better way is there to impress another than by showing how much you could spend on one gift? Duke Philip the Bold would spend about 6.5% of his annual budget on the New Years gifts. Louis, the Duke of Orleans spent 19,000 livres on a variety of gilded gifts in 1404.

There were rules on what to give as well. For example, illuminated manuscripts were not suitable for gifts between those of the same social standing and often were gifted from someone of lower standing to one of upper or if their profession involved writing. For example, Christine de Pizan (a very famous female writer of the age who I plan to write about soon) presented a beautiful manuscript to Queen Isabeau.

The upper classes were interested in the decorative arts. It needed to be something beautiful, created with valuables and had to be something one could actually use/wear so it would be able to be shown in public. Often this was jewelry or dishware which included necklaces, flasks, drinking vessels, and  saltcellars. Saltcellars were some of the most sought after gifts. These were the dishes which held salt. Salt was an important part of the medieval table and a key ingredient in many of their meals. Salt also held religious significance as they symbolized the alliance between God and his people. Saltcellars were viewed as a sacred object, hence the great importance of this gift. Since it was a sacred object they must be intricately decorated and it was favored to have animal iconography. Overall gifts were valued for the wealth that they exuded and the cleverness in design.

Saltcellar in the Louvre
Cellini Saltcellar, now located in Vienna

There was also a gender distinction in the gift giving ritual. Women, for the most part, gifted to other women (though this is not in all cases) and gave gifts of lesser value. The highest priced gifts were reserved for the male relations. This is due to the fact that most noble women were dependent on their husbands for their financial needs as many did not have an income of their own. Often times women became more of the gift receiver than the giver.

As stated before reciprocation was key in the ritual of gift giving. There were many disagreements that arose after the delay of a return gift which led to appeals to the ruler’s financial officer (who could make some cash of his own in this exchange) in order to make the gift materialize or provide cash. Often times this was a case of over promising and under delivering.

Goldene Rossl, gold and silver figures covered in enamel. Gift from Queen Isabeau to her husband King Charles VI.

Gift giving was an extremely important ritual for the nobles of the medieval era. It represented status and could be used for a variety of occasions. They were even a way to run an economy! Many of these gifts have been lost, but the ones that are remaining are just beautiful and impressive with the rich materials they are made in.

Look for part 2 to follow the journey of a gift once held by Eleanor of Aquitaine!

Which gift would you have liked to receive?

Why was the ritual of gift giving so important and how did it affect society?

What rituals do you have when it comes to the holidays or gift giving?


Past Presents: New Years Gifts at the Valois Court by Brigitte Buettner

Hilsdale, Cecily J. “GIFT.” Studies in Iconography 33 (2012): 171-82.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s