Jewels and precious stones have held a fascination for people of all ages, but the stone symbolism that emerges in the Middle Ages goes beyond mere fascination. Stones had magical qualities, could protect against harm, and could even heal diseases. The symbolism of precious stones, like that of the other natural symbols--animals and plants--has a history which stretches back into classical and early Babylonian times. Even in early Old Testament times stones were significant and symbolic as seen in the twelve stones (representing the twelve tribes of Israel) which adorned the breastplate of the high priest.
In fact the tradition of the medieval lapidary--the book of stones--is a complicated one because it developed in several directions and with at least three different kinds of lapidaries: 1. the scientific lapidary 2. the magical or astrological lapidary and 3. the Christian symbolic lapidary. Instinctively we might say that the Christian symbolic lapidary is the significant one for our purposes, but to do so is to limit ourselves since the other kinds of lapidaries contributed greatly to its content.
The story really begins with the Babylonians who took the legends and beliefs associated for centuries with stones and incorporated them into their scientific knowledge. Because the Babylonians were very much attuned to the movement and influence of the stars and planets, the early stone lore reflects this astrological concern. In fact, a talisman was a very popular magical stone because it was believed to have special or magical powers derived from the heavens. The path of development that lapidaries took from their earliest Babylonian incarnation to the classical tradition is not entirely clear, but we do find early works on stones by Theophrastus, Dioscorides (5th book of Materia medica), and Pliny. Most of these early legends associated with stones were medical, including details on how the stones could be ground to powder and administered to a sick person.
Because the Christian Church condemned magic in all of its forms, it selected carefully the material it inherited from the classical period. It tried to ban the magical talisman, but it encouraged the medical associations of stone by copying and expanding them. Isidore of Seville faithfully preserves this classical material in the seventh century, and it is not until the 11th century in the writings of Marbode, the Bishop of Rennes, that we encounter the truly medieval lapidary. In addition to his great work, De lapidibus, Marbode also wrote three smaller lapidaries, one in verse and two in prose. The verse lapidary is a 99 line poem of thanksgiving for the twelve stones which constitute the foundation for the New Jerusalem. The stones are given symbolic significance. The Christian prose lapidary discusses the same stones but adds new material, and the medical lapidary focuses on the healing qualities of the stones.
It is the great lapidary of Marbode, however, which became the lapidary par excellence in the Middle Ages. Not only was this work extensive, covering 60 stones, but the descriptions are full, giving amazing accounts of the powers of gems to frighten off demons and create enchantments.
Sometime in the 13th century Christian thinkers seem to have considered the pagan nature of much of this material and set about to compose their own symbolic lapidaries based on the exegesis by early Church Fathers of stones in the Bible. The result of this endeavor is a whole tradition of lapidaries which focus on the twelve stones of Aaron's breastplate or on the twelve foundation stones of the New Jerusalem in the Apocalypse.
But the Church writers did not stop there. Lapidaries also exist which link the various orders of angels to particular gem stones and even one which assigns a stone to each of the apostles. Our modern tradition of birthstones has its antecedents in these apostolic stones as well as in the earlier tradition of the astrological influence of the stars. Stones were also associated with the Virgin Mary, and some stones were believed to have additional significance or power when they were inscribed by the names of saints or other religious scripts.
Because of the different nature of these lapidaries--ranging from medicinal qualities to correlations with the qualities of the apostles, there is often quite a range of meaning for these stones. From Marbode we learn that the sapphire (this may or may not be the stone we currently call sapphire.) protects the carrier from fraud and overcomes both envy and terror. Additionally, it allows one to escape from prison, reconciles a man to God, and stops perspiration. When ground with milk, it heals sores, cleans the eyes, and cures headaches. From the apostolic lapidary of Andreas, Bishop of Caesura, we discover that the sapphire is compared to the color of the heavens: "I conceive it to mean St. Paul, since he was caught up to the third heaven, where his souls was firmly fixed." And from a description of the twelve apocalyptic gems by Hrabanus Maurus (9th century), we learn that the sapphire represents celestial hope.
The ambiguity of stone symbolism poses some interesting questions when a gem assumes a symbolic role in a painting or piece of literature. As in the case of any symbol, context must be the key. In the second fitt of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as Gawain prepares to leave Arthur's court to search for the Green Knight, we are given an elaborate account of the dressing and arming of Gawain. Gawain believes his task will be a fierce physical battle against an opponent who has appeared earlier in the work to be magical and perhaps demonic. Among the other items that Gawain wears is a diamond. A quick look into the lapidaries helps to explain why he might wear a diamond rather than a stone that would correspond to his symbolic colors of gold and red. A diamond, we are told, protects the wearer from any foe and gives the wearer superior strength and courage--surely qualities Gawain would wish to have as he went to face the Green Knight. We also learn that the diamond could drive away spirits of the darkness and could repel difficult enemies. From Hildegard of Bingen we learn one other detail: the diamond possessed the power to ward off the devil himself.
In light of the awesome and ambiguous description of the Green Knight in the opening fitt as a monstrous fay and in the 4th fitt as a demonic creature in the wilds, grinding his horrid axe, Gawain's wearing the diamond makes perfect sense, since Gawain surely felt he was going out to meet his death at the hands of some demonic monster.
Albertus Magnus. Book of Minerals. Trans. Dorothy Wyckoff. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.
In addition to the translation, this work contains an index for the stones discussed. There is also an appendix which lists and describes the main medieval lapidaries.
English Medieval Lapidaries. Ed. Joan Evans and Mary S. Serjeantson. Early English Text Society, no. 190. London: Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, 1933.
This work contains the texts of seven different lapidaries. To help the reader it also includes a list of the stones in the various manuscripts in the order in which they appear. There is also an index of the stones in Latin and a table of the stones, showing which manuscripts cover which stones.
Kunz, George Frederick. The Curious Lore of Precious Stones. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1913. 553.8 K964c
Although this work is not a dictionary of meanings per se, it does include a great deal of information about symbolic meanings. It is organized around different categories of stones (talisman, engraved stones, etc) but includes a good index to help locate information on particular stones. He has also documented his sources. It may take a little longer to locate the whole range of meanings for a stone, but this source contains good information.
Marbode of Rennes' De Lapidibus. Trans. C. W. King and John M. Riddle. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag GMBH, 1977.
This very scholarly work combines text, translation, and commentary throughout. In addition to the great lapidary, it also includes the three minor works. Good notes and bibliography. Entries are thorough.
Right, Ruth V. and Robert L Chadbourne. Gems and Minerals of the Bible. New York: Harper and Row, 1970. 220.8549 W735g
This book covers 62 gems, collecting its material from a variety of sources. It should be used with care since the symbolic meanings are not all medieval, but it has some helpful information.
Theophrastus. De lapidibus. Ed. and trans. D. E. Eichholz. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965.
Although this work contains the lapidary of Theophrastus, students may find this work less helpful because it focuses more on the natural qualities of the stones rather than the magical qualities.
Theophrastus. On Stones. Trans. Earle R. Caley and John C. Richards. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1956.
This work contains a commentary as well as the lapidary. As with the work above, it contains natural qualities and some medicinal applications, but not the symbolism of the later lapidaries.
Audsley, W. and G. Handbook of Christian Symbolism.
Cirlot, J. E. A Dictionary of Symbols.
Cooper, J. C. Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols.
Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art.
Forstner, Dorothea. Die Welt der Symbole.
Metford, J. C. J. Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend.
Reau, Louis. Iconographie de L'Art Chretien.
Vries, Ad de. Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery.
Selected Secondary Sources
Evans, Joan. Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance Particularly in England. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1976.
Holler, William M. "Unusual Stone Lore in the 13th Century Lapidary of Sidrac." Romance Notes 20 (1979):135-42.