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Musee National du Moyen Age Exhibition: Trésors de la Peste noire (Treasures of the Black Death)

Impressions of the life of Jews in medieval Europe often circulate around thoughts of persecution, or expulsion, or worse: it was a community under pressure. And on one level, an exhibition at the Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris reflects that. It contains items buried in the ancient quarter of Erfurt, in what is now Germany, and also Colmar, south of Strasbourg, in the 14th-century, when the arrival of the Black Death led to a wave of persecution.

But these are items of wealth, of an established community – Jewish communities are visible in the historical record in Alsace and Thuringe from the 12th century, where they were already known for their commercial activities, at the core of urban economies.

There is a small but spectacular collection of wedding rings, amaxingly intricate masterpieces of the jeweller’s art in the shape of domed building suggestive of the Temple of Jerusalem, and previous metal, or metal-decorated fine belts, a traditional love gift. Judging by a couple of handy statues of the Virgin of the period they were worn high; just under the breasts.

Perhaps surprising – this is not what you think of from towns of this period – there are many signs of the love culture more commonly associated with noble courts: items are decorated with the bows of Cupid. miniature keys to love, and many scenes featuring abbreviations of the Germanic word for love (lieb, lib, liep, lip).

The power of the trading ties is evident in other jewellry here; there is no shortage of precious stones — sapphires, rubies and pearls are often in evidence. Many of the rings are very simple presentations of these – showing a real sense of taste.

An idea of where all the funding for this came lies in the collection of simple silver ingots from both of these centres – there was money in making, well the money, the coins of the day, and in other gold and silver-smithing, and trading. But, in the days before any real sense of the rule of law, there was also danger. You can’t but think of what happened to many of the owners of these precious items, since the fact they survive today is only due to their being unable to return to collect them.

The exhibition continues until September 3. Entry to it is covered in the general entry charge.

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Jul 19 2007 / 10:01 pm
Museums and galleries