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Comb case and lid

  • Place of origin:

    Italy (made)

  • Date:

    1400-1500 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Moulded leather, tooled, carved and stamped

  • Museum number:

    15-1891

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 10a, The Françoise and Georges Selz Gallery, case 2 []

The high value of personal possessions encouraged the use of protective cases of all shapes and sizes. These were moulded and stitched in leather, and were close-fitting and light-weight. They are exceptionally durable, and have often outlasted the contents. Integral loops allowed the lids to be secured with a cord or thong, by which smaller cases could be carried on a belt for convenience. They could be intricately decorated with fashionable ornament, personalised inscriptions and colour.

This case was probably made for an ivory comb. With the lid removed, the comb could have been easily grasped along its handle, by virtue of the cutaway area at the mouth of the case. The inscription DE BOEN AMORE (With good love), and floral imagery make explicit the nature of the gift. A comb was considered an appropriate love gift from the lover to his beloved at a betrothal.

In his De Amore, written in the 1180s, Capellanus wrote that ‘A lover may freely accept from her beloved these things: a handkerchief, a hair band, a circlet of gold or silver, a brooch for the breast, a mirror, a belt, a purse, a lace for clothes, a comb, a keepsake of the lover, and, to speak more generally, a lady can accept from her love whatever small gift may be useful in the care of her person, or may look charming, or may remind her of her lover, providing, however, that in accepting the gift it is clear that she is acting quite without avarice.’

Physical description

Rectangular case and lid, consisting of a liner of two thicknessess of leather, stitched, and an outer also of two layers of stitched leather; and a lid also of stitched leather. With two loops on the body corresponding to two on the lid for a thong (missing).

The lid worked with the inscription DE BOEN [on one side] AMORE [on the other], and a foliate design on the upper surface of the lid. The body of the case with a rectangular panel on each side with foliage branching from a central sunburst on a granular ground, and a lattice design under the base. On the outside pale areas possibly of a pigment, but probably indicative of wear.

With a pasted, printed label on the inner part of the body (usually covered by the lid) '11'.

Place of Origin

Italy (made)

Date

1400-1500 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Moulded leather, tooled, carved and stamped

Marks and inscriptions

DE BOEN/ AMORE
with good love (Italian)
inscribed on opposite sides of the case

Dimensions

Height: 12 cm, Width: 12 cm, Depth: 3 cm

Object history note

Bought from Stefano Bardini with other objects (9 to 45-1891) for £2450 1s 11.
Listed on the Bardini papers (Dec.1890), 'Objects suggested for purchase from Signor Bardini' by A.B. Skinner, as an amendment in pencil 'Stores No. 11 Leather knife case 'De Boen amore' ? in lieu of no.16 Bardini=no [16 was 'Leather case, red, with Visconti arms, 1500 lire]

The early suggestion that this case was made for an ivory comb seems convincing, given the usual dimensions of 15th century combs, and the cutaway area at the neck, useful for grasping the comb handle, whichever way round it had been inserted. The inscription, floral imagery (and sunburst, like the warmth of a lover's gaze?) reinforce the idea of it being for a love gift, and it is clear that combs were especially appropriate in this regard (see Camille, below).

Historical context note

The early suggestion that this case was made for a comb seems convincing, given the typical dimensions of ivory combs in the 15th century. With the lid removed, the comb could have been easily grasped along its handle, by virtue of the cutaway area at the mouth of the case. Valuable property such as an ivory comb would have required a protective case, convenient at home, as well as when travelling. As combs were appropriate love gifts (see Camille, below), the inscription, along with floral and sunburst imagery reinforces the comb thesis.

Michael Camille, The Medieval Art of Love – objects and subjects of desire (London 1998), Chapter 2 -
Capellanus, (De Amore, 1180s) wrote that ‘A lover may freely accept from her beloved these things: a handkerchief, a hair band, a circlet of gold or silver, a brooch for the breast, a mirror, a belt, a purse, a lace for clothes, a comb, a keepsake of the lover, and, to speak more generally, a lady can accept from her love whatever small gift may be useful in the care of her person, or may look charming, or may remind her of her lover, providing, however, that in accepting the gift it is clear that she is acting quite without avarice.’
Nothing was handed over free from the implications of reciprocity and contract. Gifts were given and repaid under obligation. Ceremonial exchange knitted communities together but also bonded persons so that, both in matrimony and as a prelude to it, gifts were fundamental to the courtship process.” The beautiful fantasy objects discussed … are constructed in part in order to obscure or cover over the real, crude contingencies of the medieval marriage market. P53
Combs were obviously associated with the woman's hair, like the symbolic gift of a chaplet pp.55ff. As a married woman’s hair (looseness, style and covering) was one of the things that distinguished her from an unmarried one, a gift that encouraged beautification but also control may be significant. Camille also notes too the leather cases with lovers, hearts and monsters – for circular mirror and comb, plus slot for gravoir, a long thin (ivory) hairpin or parter for hair. P56-7

Michael Camille, The Medieval Art of Love – objects and subjects of desire (London 1998), Chapter 2 Love’s Gifts
Capellanus, De Amore, 1180s,
‘A lover may freely accept from her beloved these things: a handkerchief, a hair band, a circlet of gold or silver, a brooch for the breast, a mirror, a belt, a purse, a lace for clothes, a comb, a keepsake of the lover, and, to speak more generally, a lady can accept from her love whatever small gift may be useful in the care of her person, or may look charming, or may remind her of her lover, providing, however, that in accepting the gift it is clear that she is acting quite without avarice.’

Camille notes that nothing was handed over free from the implications of reciprocity and contract. Gifts were given and repaid under obligation. Ceremonial exchange knitted communities together but also bonded persons so that, both in matrimony and as a prelude to it, gifts were fundamental to the courtship process. The beautiful fantasy objects discussed … are constructed in part in order to obscure or cover over the real, crude contingencies of the medieval marriage market. P53
Combs obviously associated with hair, like the chaplet pp.55ff. As a married woman’s hair (looseness, style and covering) was one of the things that distinguished her from an unmarried one, a gift that encouraged beautification but also control may be significant. Camille notes too the leather cases with lovers, hearts and monsters – for circular mirror and comb, plus slot for gravoir, a long thin (ivory) hairpin or parter for hair. P56-7
A French royal account of 1316 describes four items bought for the royal family from Jean le Scelleur for 74 shillings: "1 mirror, 1 comb, 1 gravoir [for parting the hair], and 1 leather case"

Notes on the manufacture of medieval leather containers:

Waterer (and following him, Cherry) summarise the medieval techniques for making leather containers for dry-goods:

Stitching is the most common technique, with holes made in leather by awls. Thread is made from flax or hemp yarn rolled with beeswax. The other principal assembly technique is sticking to a wooden structure. The traditional adhesive for box covering is hot animal glue, which was often created as a by-product of the fleshings taken by the tanner from the skins or hides.

Leather objects can also be created by moulding. The traditional medieval term was cuir bouilli, though Waterer suggests that boiling could not have been used. The technique is quite simple, and consists of soaking the (vegetable-tanned) leather in cold water until it is thoroughly saturated. The leather is then very plastic and can be modelled over formers in moulds of plaster, wood or metal. If the surface is to be ornamented by tooling, stamping or punching, this must be done while the leather is damp.The leather is then dried gradually (to avoid brittleness), supported by its mould or filling which can be removed later.

The most common processes of decorating smooth-surfaced leather are:

Incising with blunt or sharp tools
Punching to give a texture to the background of incised designs, using a variety of small iron or bronze punches (also used in book binding).
Modelling, to leave important features in low relief
Embossing, performed with a ball tool from the flesh side of leather that has been previously dampened.
Carving, which is done from the grain side with a special knife that can be inserted more orless horizontally and partially raises up a thin layer until the form appears to lie on the surface

Finally the object is decorated with coloured dyes, usually with some paint (tempera). Red seems a common colour (little work on medieval dyes). Some leather was gilded using glaire (white of an egg) or gold size to attach gold leaf which adhered under the heat and pressure of book-binding tools.

However, Davies argues that the multiple techniques of cuir bouilli have never actually been very clearly established. Cuir bouilli differs from other supported leathers in that after treatment it is rigid (without a support) and water resistant, indicating that the structure of the leather has been altered through a chemical reaction. Otherwise leather would remain flexible unless coated with a stiffening medium or mounted on a backing material. She suggests that all true cuir bouilli was made by taking vegetable-tanned leather and saturating it with water, then heating it to a temperature just before it starts to shrink, removing it from the hot water and moulding it immediately, and if necessary stitching it while wet. In this way the molecular bonding of the leather is weakened but not fully released allowing limited realignment of its molecular structure to take place in a more controlled manner. Alternatively, if the heat source application is limited to only the surface of the wet leather then it is possible that the shrinkage solely occurs in the outer layer of the leather, producing a surface hardening effect and reinforcing the structure. She speculates that by impregnating oils, resins and waxes, it may be possible to mould the structure of the leather when hot, and to produce more detailed surface decoration because otherwise this decoration would be distorted by shrinkage after tooling.

Bibliography
English medieval Industries (ed John Blair and Nigel Ramsay, London) 'Leather' chapter 12 by John Cherry, pp. 295-318
Conservation of Leather and related materials (ed. Marion Kite and Roy Thomson, 2006), 'Cuir Bouilli' chapter 10 by Laura Davies, pp. 94-102
Oxford Companion to the Decorative Arts, ed. Harold Osborne (Oxford, rev.ed. 1985) 'Leathercraft' entry by John W. Waterer

Descriptive line

Comb case and lid

Materials

Leather

Categories

Containers; Personal accessories; Woodwork; Medieval and renaissance; Leather

Collection

Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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