Lists of Luxury: Ivory Objects in the Household Inventories of Late Medieval French Nobility

Fig. 1. Paris, Musée du Louvre. OA 122. Perceval casket. Paris, France, c.1310–30. Source: © Réunion des musées nationaux

by Katherine Sedovic

In late medieval France, luxurious objets d’art served as tangible records of wealth and social status. Objects that could be considered utilitarian, such as mirror cases, combs, and trinket-sized boxes (erroneously known as caskets), became lavish exemplars of their owners’ power, wealth, and social prestige when rendered in the sought-after and costly medium of elephant ivory. The aristocracy and nobility were the likely owners of carved ivories because of their expense; however, it is difficult to determine the specific fourteenth-century collections to which such ivories belonged. One of the few ways by which these objects can be paired with their original patrons and owners is through the examination of medieval household inventories, which, as detailed lists and records of material wealth, provide an organized glimpse into the daily life and luxury of aristocrats and nobles in late medieval France. Medieval inventories were lengthy records of a person’s or household’s possessions. Sometimes consisting of multiple volumes or hundreds of pages, each object in an inventory was provided with a brief description, which detailed its appearance, price, and production, information that is essential when attempting to match extant carved ivories with their original owners, a pursuit that can best be described as detective work.

Unlike medieval manuscripts, which sometimes contain inscriptions speaking to their production or ownership, fourteenth-century ivory caskets include no written or carved clues about the identity of their creators or owners.[1] This makes it especially difficult not only to attribute a casket to a specific workshop, but also to trace its provenance. For example, the provenance of an ivory casket (Fig. 1) depicting the twelfth-century French Arthurian legend of Perceval (Chrétien de Troyes’ Le Conte du Graal) can only be traced as far back as the eighteenth century.[2] Similarly, the seventeenth-century provenance of an ivory casket decorated with scenes from medieval romances derives from the unique, and by no means medieval, label on the inside of the casket’s lid, which states that it was owned by Francis Annesley, First Viscount Valentia (1595–1660), and Lord Deputy of Ireland and Lord Privy Seal to King James I. Meanwhile, another casket with romance scenes (Fig. 2), now in Krakow Cathedral Treasury, is believed to have been owned by Queen Jadwiga of Poland (b. 1371, d. 1399), former princess of Hungary, although no known written documents attest to her ownership. Rather, Queen Jadwiga was connected to the casket due to her great interest in luxury French goods and the presence of such objects at her court. The casket was later deposited as a reliquary in a chapel of Krakow Cathedral, where, according to Raymond Koechlin, it was not rediscovered until 1881.[3]

Fig. 2. Krakow, Krakow Cathedral Treasury. Casket of Queen Jadgwiga of Poland, Composite Romance Casket, rear panel. Paris, France, c.1300–50.
Source: Muzea Malopolska,

Thus, it is difficult, if not impossible, to assign carved ivories to specific medieval owners without using textual resources such as household inventories, which provide detailed descriptions of objets d’art, including ivories, allowing for the hypothesised placement of unique ivories within individual collections. As noted previously, when lacking the evidence of inventories, we must instead rely on more general assertions as to the type of person who may have commissioned or owned such a luxury object, considering factors such as wealth and social status. The caskets’ creation from a rare and highly prized material, paired with their high relief, finely executed carvings, would suggest that they were only available to those with large disposable incomes. By examining the caskets, we can extrapolate that they were the purview solely of the wealthy and nobility, as evidenced by Queen Jadwiga’s supposed possession of the Krakow composite casket. The hypothesised ownership of carved ivories by the aristocracy is further supported by the detailed, two-volume, fifteenth-century inventory of the Duc de Berry’s luxury possessions, in which two entries refer to ivory caskets:

1014. Item, VII coffers d’yvoire à VI pans, à ymaiges eslevez, marquetez, fermans chascun à un clef.’[4]

1015. Item, de deux autres petis coffrez d’yvoire, fermans comme le precedens.’[5]

As arguably the greatest patron of the arts in fifteenth-century France, the Duc de Berry’s inventory also includes references to other carved ivory objects, including several religious diptychs and triptychs, as well as an ivory cross.[6] Similarly, the ninety-nine page inventory of Clémence of Hungary, Queen of France (b. 1293, d. 1328, ruled 1315–16) includes several ivory objects: an ivory box with images, a comb and mirror set, and a chess set, as well as statuettes of saints.[7] In addition, the household inventories of Mahaut, Countess of Artois (b. circa 1270, d. 1329, ruled 1302–29) prove that the countess owned at least one carved ivory object.[8] The inventories reference Mahaut’s patronage of an artisan named Jean le Scelleur, who worked for her on several occasions. One task was the ‘illumination’ of an ivory mirror, among other small ivory objects:

A Jehan Le Seeleur de Paris, pour II piegnes d’yvoere achetés en la presence madame, XVIs. Audit Jehan, pour II foureaus pour lesdiz piegnes, et pour une broche, et pour le mireor madame, enluminer, IXs. VId.[9]

Mahaut’s familial history and connections illustrate her lofty social position, which brought her great wealth as well as social and political influence, enabling her to play an active role as an aristocratic patron of Parisian ivories.[10]

Fig. 3. London, Victoria & Albert Museum. 1617–1855. Mirror Case. Paris, France, c.1325–50.
Source: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The inventories and records of the Duc de Berry, Clémence of Hungary, Mahaut d’Artois, and Queen Jadwiga thus shed some light on the type of person who would have owned such ivory caskets, but raise questions about how they may have been regarded and used. For example, as cherished objects, would the caskets have been kept in a private household area, such as the bedchamber? Or would they have been displayed to guests, thereby inhabiting a more public area? The Duc de Berry, Clémence of Hungary, and Mahaut d’Artois owned carved ivories in addition to impressive collections of high quality manuscripts, including popular medieval romances, such as the Arthurian legends. For example, in addition to her ivory mirror, Mahaut is also recorded as purchasing a copy of Chrétien de Troyes’ Le Conte du Graal in 1308.[11] Mahaut paid 7 livres 10 sous for ‘deux romans achetés à Arras par ma main, l’un del histoire de Troyes et l’autre de Perceval Le Galoys.’[12] Mahaut’s ownership of these materially different objects of Arthurian romance suggests that she had an overarching interest in the romance genre, regardless of the artistic medium in which it was presented. This lends credence to the theory that ivory caskets could have been ‘read’ in a fashion similar to that employed for the viewing of illuminated romance manuscripts, at least by viewers accustomed to seeing both kinds of material. It seems possible, therefore, that the caskets may have functioned in a manner similar to a lavishly illuminated manuscript displayed open on a lectern, serving as a visual exemplar of its owner’s monetary wealth and cultural sophistication. In this way, the caskets would have functioned within the medieval culture of display, serving as objects to be both used and admired. The caskets likely served in part as symbols of status, to be admired and commented upon by visitors. The relatively large size of the composite caskets (for example, an ivory casket at the Victoria & Albert Museum which is almost identical to that in the Krakow Cathedral Treasury measures 246 x 103 x 126 mm and weighs 1600 g) speaks to their monetary cost and value: the sheer amount of ivory, a precious, rare material, required for the caskets’ production, paired with the skill required for carving ivory, renders the caskets unique and costly objects that would have been visually appreciated both for their artistic worth and as symbols of their owners’ wealth and social sophistication. The fact that such objects were so carefully recorded within their owner’s household inventories provides further evidence of their cultural, social, and financial import, and renders the medieval inventory itself a valued object, which not only fills in the missing pieces of provenance records, but also speaks to how and by whom such luxury items were produced, owned and valued.

[1] Joseph Natanson, Gothic Ivories of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries (London: A. Tiranti, 1951), 7.

[2] Margaret H. Longhurst, Catalogue of Carvings in Ivory, Victoria and Albert Museum (London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 1927–9), 53; W. D. Wixom, Treasures from Medieval France (Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1967), 208; Richard H. Randall Jr., Medieval Ivories (Baltimore: The Walters Art Gallery, 1969), 18; Sudsan L. Smith, The Power of Women: A Topos in Medieval Art and Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), 169; ‘Gothic Ivories Project.’ The Courtauld Institute of Art, London,, accessed 6 November, 2014.

[3] Raymond Koechlin, Les ivoires gothiques français (Paris: Picard, 1924), 34, 409.

[4] ‘1014. Item, Seven ivory caskets composed of six panels, with carved images and patterns, each one closing with a key’; Jules Guiffrey, ed. Inventories de Jean Duc de Berry (1401–1416) (Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1894), 273.

[5] ‘1015. Item, two other small ivory caskets, as in the previous statement’; Ibid, 273.

[6] Ibid, 11, 24–5.

[7] L. Douët-d’Arcq, ed, “Inventaire et vente après décès des biens de la reine Clémence de Hongrie, veuve de Louis le Hutin, 1328”, in Nouveau recueil de comptes de l’argenterie des rois de France (Paris: Librairie Renouard, 1874): 37–112.

[8] Elizabeth M. Hallam, Capetian France, 987–1328 (New York: Taylor and Francis, 1980), 357.

[9] ‘To Jehan Le Seeleur of Paris, for two ivory combs purchased in the presence of Madame, 14 sous. For two cases for the combs, and for a brooch, and for Madame’s decorated mirror, 9 sous, 6 deniers’; Archives de Pas-de-Calais, A.329, cited in: Jules-Marie Richard, Une petite-nièce de saint Louis: Mahaut comtesse d’Artois et de Bourgogne (1302–1329) (Paris: H. Champion, 1887), 321–22.

[10] Mahaut was the daughter of Robert II, Count of Artois, the wife of Otto IV, Count Palatine of Burgundy, and the mother of two queens of France, Jeanne I of Burgundy (circa 1291–1330), and Blanche of Burgundy (1296–1326).

[11] Sarah Groag Bell, ‘Medieval Women Book Owners: Arbiters of Lay Piety and Ambassadors of Culture,’ in Women and Power in the Middle Ages, ed. by Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski (Athens, 1988), 154.

[12] ‘Two romances bought in Arras by my hand, one The History of Troy, and the other Perceval the Welsh’; Ctd. in ibid, 154.

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