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Seals in Medieval Wales

1 September 2009 saw the launch of Seals in Medieval Wales is a major project of the Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies at Aberystwyth – Bangor Universities, based within the Department of History and Welsh History at Aberystwyth University. Funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council grant of over £490,000, Seals in Medieval Wales is by far the largest and best-funded project of its kind ever undertaken in Britain.

The project team (Principal Investigator Professor Phillipp Schofield (Aberystwyth), Co-Investigator Dr Sue Johns (Bangor), Senior Researcher Dr Elizabeth New and Researcher Dr John McEwan) will be spending three years investigating the seals used by individuals and institutions across Wales and the Welsh Marches from the late eleventh to mid-sixteenth centuries, and through them exploring a wide range of issues relating to medieval society.

Seals have been used by societies across the world for over seven thousand years, and indeed form some of the earliest historical records. In a British context, medieval seals are particularly important because they were usually the choice of their owner, and as such provide a unique insight into the personal concerns of women and men across the social spectrum, including those for whom little other evidence survives. While personal seals offer glimpses into the lives of individuals, official seals provide information about institutions and people in positions of power, and their images and words were frequently used as a vehicle of propaganda. In addition, seals which are still attached to the documents that they validated are closely dateable, vital information frequently lacking from other material sources, and this offers potential for iconographical and stylistic chronology.

Despite the range of images and words found on seals, and the wealth of information this represents, seals are still an under-exploited source for historical research. The first stage of the Seals in Medieval Wales project is to record approximately 5,000 seals. The team will then start by asking some basic questions such as who used the seals and what images and words appear on them. This will lead into explorations of, among other things, the ways in which this material can inform our understanding of identities (both personal and communal), political cultures, socio-economic and familial networks, devotional affinities and the development of legal and administrative structures in medieval Wales.

While the focus is Wales and its border, the scale of Seals in Medieval Wales will enable this project to inform future studies of the use of seals in the UK and beyond in terms of methodology and interpretative work.

Seals in Medieval Wales will produce the following outputs:

  • A major book co-authored by the project team.

  • Selected high-quality images of c.350seals, with bilingual interpretative commentary and learning support materials, to be made available on-line through the National Library of Wales.

  • A public exhibition at the National Library of Wales (April-June 2012), followed by a small travelling exhibition.

  • Learning materials based on the exhibition and wider project research, as a teaching resource for schools.

  • Outreach activities, including workshops for heritage professionals, history and local interest groups and schools.

  • A conference on medieval seals (April 2012).

  • A series of peer-reviewed articles.

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