Enclosing the Secrets of the Past: The Byzantine Lead Seals at Dumbarton Oaks

By Tyler Dobbs ’16

If you’re a normal person, mention of a seal probably makes you think of this:

Seal 1

If you’re an aesthete or antiquarian, this might come to mind:

Seals 2

But only the strangest and most singular of scholars—the Byzantinist—will picture this:

Having just finished an undergraduate degree in classical literature, I dare not claim the distinction of being a Byzantine historian. Nevertheless, I have spent the last three weeks cataloguing a few hundred of Dumbarton Oaks’ 17,000 Byzantine seals, so Byzantine sigillographer seems like a fair job description.

Unlike their waxy red counterparts, which proliferated in the medieval West, the extant Byzantine seals were usually struck from lead or another metal. Moreover, they were always double-sided. Despite its distinctive, coin-like appearance, a Byzantine seal served the same function as any letter seal: it enclosed the document and signified its author.

Few extant Byzantine seals—and none in the Dumbarton Oaks collection—remain affixed to the letters they certified. A rare exception, below, gives us a sense of how the seals were used.

Seals 5

This document, the bull Laetentur coeli, briefly reunited the Greek Church with the papacy at the Council of Florence in the mid-fifteenth century. On the left are the signature and seal of Pope Eugene IV; on the right, those of Emperor John VIII. (Unique among Western Europeans, the pope continued to use a late antique lead seal, suggesting the antiquity of his office.) As you can see, a cord ran through the middle of the seal. To open the document, the recipient cut the cord, allowing the seal to hang down from the bottom.

While the elite could afford seals inscribed with name and office, custom-made designs were beyond the reach of the everyman in Byzantium. Hence, many extant seals are anonymous, inscribed with such messages as Οὗ σραγίς εἰμι τὴν γραφὴν βλέπων νόει (Know whose seal I am by looking at the letter). I’ve personally catalogued more than a dozen seals with that inscription.

Such anonymous inscriptions are far more interesting than initially appear, for each one is a little poem. The line consists of twelve syllables, with a word-break after either the fifth or seventh syllable. (Syllable length does not make a difference here, in contrast to classical Greek verse.)

These inscriptions also tell us about Byzantine popular piety. Both personalized and anonymous seals often often bore the image of a saint, such as the Virgin Mary:

The Greek reads Ἥν ἐλπίδα τίθημι ταύτην σφραγίζω (She in whom I place my trust is depicted on my seal.). While the religiosity of medieval Byzantium is well known, it is striking how closely the Byzantines identified with the saints. The seal, like the signature, was an extension of the self. By sealing his letter with a saint’s image, the writer is claiming the saint as his representative.

The same phenomenon can be seen on this seal, decorated with a now faint depiction of St. Michael. The inscription says Κλίσην φέρω σὴν (καὶ) θέλ(ω) (καὶ) σὴν σκέπην (I bear your name, and I desire your protection, as well). Though we know nothing else about the seal’s owner—where he was from, what position he held was—from the seal we learn that his name was Michael, and he marked his correspondence with an image of his heavenly namesake.

Though the seals are small in size—all 17,000 at Dumbarton Oaks fit comfortably in a refrigerator-sized cabinet—they tell us a great deal about the Byzantine Empire. The literary sources, focused on the deeds of emperors and patriarchs, are largely silent about middling bureaucrats and provincial ecclesiastics. Personalized seals often provide the only evidence of people who were important enough to send extensive correspondence, but not so important as to feature in the imperial annals. Anonymous seals, too, are a boon to modern historians, for they show how the average literate Byzantine, who could not afford a personalized design, portrayed himself.

As it grows ever more complete, Dumbarton Oaks’ online catalogue of seals (including my own modest contributions) will help scholars reconstruct the lives and concerns of the people ignored by Byzantine writers.

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