One of the readers of this blog asked us a question about medieval Ribe town seals.
In the Middle Ages documents were sealed with an seal imprint in warm sealing wax to make them valid in law.
In the early Middle Ages only kings and popes used seals. Later it spread down the social scale to first princes and bishops and then rich citizens, monks and others. Seals were usually made from bronze or lead. Seals were either institutional or personal.
All the personal seals found in Ribe were found in the ground but the 2 medieval town seals known in Ribe were never in the ground, they have been kept by Ribe town Council ever since The Middle Ages and are 2 of the best preserved town seals in Denmark. Both can be seen in the museum of the Old Town Hall in Ribe.
These 2 are the only known town seals from Ribe and they were used for centuries, probably already from the 13th century when the first known town privileges were granted Ribe by the Danish kings and Ribe made its own law (1269), but the first known imprints are from 1311.
As most seals belonged to one person they were a very personal object and often placed in its owner’s grave when he died. Often the seal of important people was broken before it was placed in the grave so that nobody could misuse it if they took it.
A Ribe town seal was stolen by a former town mayor
The town council’s decisions were written on parchment and afterwards marked with the town’s official seal in wax. It was important that the town’s seals didn’t fall in the wrong hands, but that was actually what happened in Ribe in 1377 when a former town mayor, Jacob Jensen, stole one of the town’s 2 seals and also the town’s keys and let armed people in the town and in the cathedral’s big tower that was the town’s treasury. He also tried to kill a prominent man in the Cathedral and he wrote false letters that he sealed with the towns seal. The history doesn’t tell us how the seal and the keys came back to the town or how he was driven out of Ribe, but we know that he was because the town demanded that he should be punished no matter where he was caught. We don’t know if he was ever caught.
Seals found in Ribe town
Until 2010 19 medieval seals have been found in Ribe town (only Roskilde has found more). The last 2 from the 13th-14th century were found in the Ribe excavation south of Ribe Cathedral 2008/2009.(Read the article: “Denmark’s probably first Christian burials are found”). These 19 are the real seals found, but more different seals are known from imprints. From the 19 found Ribe seals are only known imprints from the 2 town seals.
The 2 Ribe town seals
The big Ribe town seal (8,9cm diameter) is known from imprints from 1311 – 1543. Maybe it has been used longer. The seal is made from gilded silver and had a picture of Ribe Cathedral and 3 leopards, showing that Ribe was one of the king’s towns. Ribe town arms used the same picture. The inscription is: + SIGILLUM : CIVITATIS : RIPENSIS which means: Ribe town seal
The small Ribe town seal (5,5cm.) is known from imprints from 1377 – 1539. Maybe it has been used longer. The seal is made from bronze. The picture shows the Virgin Mary with the child. In the bottom of the seal is a leopard (lion), also showing that Ribe was one of the king’s towns. The inscription is: SECRETUM BURGENSIUM DE RIPEN which means: Ribe citizen’s seal
Where to see the seals
For those who visit Ribe and want to see the town’s seals and learn more about medieval law and order in Ribe the right place to go is Ribe’s Old Town Hall with a display of the town hall collection which gives an impression of the town, the council and the lives of the citizens. The collection is shown in the originally debtors’ prison for the more noble law-breakers. The normal prison for the common law-breakers was in the cellar. The collection contains part of the town archives going back to the Middle Ages. Many items of interest associated with the town are from this period.
Seglstamper fra middelalderens Ribe af Michael Andersen. By, Marsk og Geest nr 18, s. 75-86
Det gamle Raadhus & Raadhussamlingen i Ribe af Per Kristian Madsen. Sparekassen Sydjylland. 1984
And thank you to Claus Feveile and Morten Søvsø, Den antikvariske Samling (Ribe’s Museums -Sydvestjyske Museer) for helping me.