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The Middle Ages

Emeralds In The Middle Ages

roman empire height map
At its height, the Roman Empire covered a vast amount of land on multiple continents.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, gemological investigation came to a virtual standstill as Europe began its descent into the Dark Ages. The seat of intellectual inquiry passed instead into the hands of Islamic scholars in the East. While these scholars relied heavily on ancient Greek and Roman texts, occasionally new breakthroughs, based on the physical and chemical properties of stones, were achieved. Arab scholars were also the first to separate the medicinal uses of gemstones from their talismanic uses —an indication to some, that gemology was beginning to evolve into a science.

Although the 11th century Persian scholar al-Biruni made significant contributions to gemology and mineralogy, he makes little headway in our understanding of emeralds, which he separated into four varieties:

Akhdar-murr  is lustrous like the beet leaves, its lustre gradually increasing to attain, at first, the colour of the myrtle and later of the fresh and green barley leaf.  The second variety is less lustrous than the akhdar-murr and is called bahri.  Its lustre is like that of the myrtle leaf.  The Chinese and the people of the coastal areas prefer it to all other varieties.  The third kind is very green but has very little lustre. It is called Maghribi, as the people of the west like it.  The fourth kind is less green than the bahri kind. It is called asam, (a hard stone) and it is the cheapest kind.  The best emerald has a pure green colour without any trace of pallor, darkness, dots, grains, signs of abrasion and white veins.  Nor should its ingredients have different hues. It should, besides, have lustre.

biruni manuscript page
A manuscript page from one of Al-Biruni’s works.

Al-Biruni (Book on Mineralogy, translated 1989) should be credited with putting to rest rumors about emerald’s ability to blind serpents:

“All story-tellers are unanimous in their version that serpents lose their eyesight as soon as they see the emerald.  This has been mentioned even in scholarly works, and this belief is held by the commonalty of men…But despite the consensus of the authorities, I found this claim to be wrong.  I performed so many experiments upon this claim that it is impossible to go beyond them.  I had emerald necklaces placed upon the necks of the snakes, made them walk upon emerald floors, and had emerald ropes swung before them.  This I did for nine months, both in summer and winter.  All that was not done was that the emerald was not ground into a collyrium and applied to their eyes.  In the event, I did not see any adverse or harmful effect upon their eyes (through the emerald).”

On the other side of the world, the Mayan, Toltec, Aztec, and Incan civilizations believed that emeralds were sacred. Emeralds played an important role in the celebrations and religious rites of these cultures, and they were also used for personal adornment. The Muisca Indians of Colombia, home to the most significant emerald deposits in the world, believed that an emerald was an ancient ancestor to their tribe.

One of the most important and influential lapidaries of the European Middle Ages was written Bishop Marbodus of Rennes (1035 – 1123).

Codex Aureus emeralds
The cover of a Gospel book called the Codex Aureus is encrusted with emerald and sapphires (c. 870).

The Church played a key role in Medieval Europe and emeralds have a special significance for those who follow Christian doctrine. Emeralds are mentioned several times in the Bible. During the 12th to 14th centuries, members of the Christian clergy became interested in “lithotherapy”—the practice of using gemstones to heal those sick in mind or body. Members of the clergy jealously guarded their secrets and insisted that they alone understood the true power of sacred gemstones. Skeptics were dismissed as heretics, and scholars who did not enthusiastically support tenets of lithotherapy were threatened with excommunication.

The father of the modern botany and zoology, Dominican monk Albertus Magnus (c. 1193-1280), was one of many serious scholars who dabbled in the study of lithotherapy. He firmly believed in emerald’s ability to improve memory and calm restless spirits. He also reiterated the notion that emeralds were associated with chaste love, believing they could shatter if exposed to unbridled passion.

Albertus Magnus
A sketch of the monk Albertus Magnus.

European royalty, like the Christian clergy, were fascinated with gemstones, and emeralds played a significant role in courtly life.  Rings set with precious stones where frequently awarded as tournament prizes. In 1494, King Henry VII of England gave a ruby ring to the winner of a jousting competition, a diamond ring to the man who fought the most stoutly, and an emerald ring to the man who showed the greatest valor.

During the Middle Ages, Western technologies for cutting precious stones lagged far behind those of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The use of a cutting wheel and oil-bound diamond powder had been lost with the decline of the Western Roman Empire, and the stones of this period were usually fashioned into cabochons.

lapidary mill wheel
Depiction of a lapidary at his mill and wheel.

It was not until the 14th century that Western lapidaries began once again to borrow Indian technologies. In 1530, Indian lapidaries succeeded in obtaining symmetrical facets  by cutting crosswise in planes and by 1538, this technique had also spread to Europe.

The sciences of gemology and mineralogy saw few advances during the Middle Ages, particularly in the Western world. The texts and manuscripts from the period offer little new science, reflecting instead the thoughts and opinions of renowned scholars from antiquity. Evidence is often based on superstition and belief rather than deductive reasoning or objective fact. Adams (1938) summarizes the period:

Medieval mineralogy in fact was not a science…not a solid tower of learning…but a fairy castle, the insubstantial fabric of a dream, often quaint and even beautiful, but destined to crumble away because it had no foundation in reality…it was not t be succeeded by a true science of mineralogy built on the basis of close observation and diligent study of the materials of the earth’s crust.

Continuing with the history of the emerald, we next explore Emeralds in Modern History.