In this article we will examine some of these status symbols, particularly focusing on ways they can be used to enhance (subtly, or less so) your storytelling.
Status symbols and their value
We define “status symbol” as any sort of property that can be used as an avatar of one’s personal or familial worth, both financial and cultural. Thus, status symbols are social cues, much like the plumage of a bird of paradise or the tail of a peacock, to display public identity and financial affluence. In fact, status symbols are most frequently demonstrated by those who can afford to spend financial resources to acquire (and if necessary maintain) the item or service in question. In many cases, these symbols are exclusively decorative, or are displayed aesthetically rather than used for their primary function; essentially, the owner declares himself so affluent that he can “waste” money on frivolous display.
In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the ultimate extravagance and display of wealth was… a pineapple! Pineapples were exotic in Europe, and considered aesthetically beautiful; as non-native fruit, they had to be imported from colonies in the tropics, often South America and the Caribbean. In fact, they were so precious as status symbols that they usually didn’t get eaten – commonly, they would sit on the family dinner table as a centrepiece, even as they slowly rotted away. A single pineapple would cost thousands of pounds, but those who couldn’t afford their own could rent one out for a night to impress the neighbours. Let’s see the Joneses keep up with that…
Say it with a picture…
There is nothing more prestigious than hiring a heraldic artist to immortalise the values and beliefs of your family in a heraldic crest. Noble or royal families spent as much as they could afford on their crests, illuminating them onto their Heraldry books and weaving them into tapestries. Another common display of Heraldic crests was casting them on shields and armour, and embroidering them onto jerkins, cloaks and banners.
Heraldry was not just aesthetically pleasing – it spoke volumes about your family’s lands, values, history, allegiances and even patron saints (or deities). Being allowed to don the crest of your family was a great honour, and a way to elevate yourself by association, and the ultimate status symbol which declared exactly who you were associated with. If a picture speaks a thousand words, then a heraldic crest may at least say “Sure, I’m only a minor lord, but I’m second cousin to the Duke of York, who’s the king’s brother, and he’s going to kick your ass.” Or the medieval equivalent…
Swords were primarily weapons, and it was important for a nobleman to have one, and to know how to use it. Swords were especially associated with nobility because, unlike axes, hatchets, pikes and the like, they did not have a secondary, agricultural use. They were tools of war. But beyond that, swords also grew to have ornamental value; some were fashioned as art pieces, commissioned by nobles as part of their ceremonial dress. At some occasions, swords were also presented to nobles by the king, to show gratitude for military service, sacrifice or success. They were also presented to visiting kings and nobles from other lands as tokens of good relations and allegiance.
Most ornamental swords were valued highly, not only because of the precious metals and stones used in their creation, but because of the reputation and fame of the craftsmen who made them. Only the most wealthy, with the best taste and knowledge, could know who to hire and afford the price of these exclusive status symbols.
All the tapestries! All the paintings!
Huge wall-to-wall tapestries could take decades to complete (the famous Bayeux Tapestry took about ten years, and even that is technically embroidery, which takes less time). Tapestries required the most expensive dyes, bought from all over the world, in order to brightly colour the yarn for the most vivid result. Paintings, created by masters of the time, immortalised the deeds and the faces of the owners and their families.
People had no idea how they looked before the invention of the silvered-glass mirror in 1835. Other kinds of mirrors existed earlier, made of obsidian, pools of still, dark water, or reflective metal, but most created blurry approximations of one’s face. Having a painting of yourself, particularly of your youth preserved against your old age, not only flattered your vanity but was, in a way, a route to hysterophimia – fame which outlived your mortal flesh.
In many cases, tapestries took so long to complete that the process of their creation was, in fact, as ostentatious as the final tapestries themselves. For both paintings and tapestries, the dyes used were as significant as the craftsmanship of the artist. It was common for the patrons to dictate which colours were to be used, to intentionally increase the final expense (and therefore ‘worth’) of the work.
Squeaky-clean clothes, cuffs and collars…
During the 16th and 17th century, pearly-white cuffs and collars showed that you were able to afford changing clothes (and underwear) regularly, proving that you could sustain a significant wardrobe.
Cleaning clothes, and keeping them clean, was a tedious process that damaged clothes, meaning that they had to be replaced regularly.
Rich nobles of the Tudor era would never allow their portraits to lack collars or cuffs, so as to immortalise their cleanliness. In addition to their grand wardrobe, these clean clothes hinted at something more – a clean shirt ‘serves to keep the body clean’, wrote one commentator in 1626. To have a clean body, and thus a virtuous mind, was another boast of worth, both moral and spiritual. Education and moral superiority were more ways to advertise one’s social status – not just richer, but more virtuous and closer to Godliness, as cleanliness has long been rumoured to be.
The Crackowe (or poulaine, the name of the pointed tip) was a long, pointed shoe popular in the late Middle Ages. The tip was anywhere from six to twenty-four inches in length. As is the case with so many status symbols, these absurd shoes showed that the wearer was wealthy simply because of their impracticality – it was impossible to work in them, so those who wore them must be affluent. King Edward III of England even restricted shoe length to six inches for commoners, fifteen inches for gentlemen, and longer tips for the nobility. As status symbols, they were obviously in no way phallic. Obviously. Nope.
Gimme some sugar…
“Subtleties” or “sotiltees” were excessive displays of sugar, often sculptures which came in all sorts of curious forms – castles, ships, famous philosophers, or scenes from fables. These might be coloured with exotic ingredients like saffron for yellow, or sandalwood for red. The tradition came to Europe from Africa and the Middle East during the middle ages. The showy centre-pieces served as a symbol of power and wealth. Due to their vast expense, they were initially only feasible for kings and queens, and were used to solidify the power of the monarch over his peers, nobles and courtiers.
Tulips, as well as other rare and exotic flowers, were imported as bulbs from afar, and put on display or planted in large gardens. They were a way to show that someone had either the buying power to procure them or, in many cases, that he or his ancestors had travelled to these exotic lands. During a fad in Holland, when tulips first became available (imported from the Indies), a single bulb of the flower sold for the equivalent of ten craftsmen’s annual salary.
In England, arboretums of trees collected during the travels of nobles also became a very powerful status symbol. These beautiful and rare collections were assembled from all over the world, in order to immortalise the travels of the person who brought them back to the family estate. Arboretums were often added to over the generations, and plants were sometimes exchanged as gifts.
The hermit at the bottom of the garden…
In the late 18th century, noble estates in England and Germany were considered incomplete without a proper hermitage. Nobles would build a hermitage and then hire a hermit to live in it. Rather than men of religious conviction, as many medieval hermits were (as per the Rule of St Benedict), the ‘ornamental’ hermit would be paid, and given a skull, a book and an hourglass. Some of these ornamental hermits did not talk to the servants, but simply repeated a phrase in Latin. Most grew beards and did not cut their nails to complete the façade.
This really gives the idea of Gnomes at the bottom of the garden a completely different twist
Nobles would also commonly build copies of ancient ruins and other ornamental buildings, also know as follies, with no use in mind other than to decorate their gardens and forested areas and arboretums.
Retinue and slaves
Retinues exist even in present day culture – consider the hip-hop singers, fashion designers and other “personalities” who travel with retinues of security, personal cooks, strategists, assistants and the like – all serving their needs, and acting as an extension of their occupying space. In the medieval era, the size of a knight’s or noble’s retinue had a lot to say about their status and means.
When at war or travelling, a knight was never alone. Knights-in-training, page boys, men-at-arms, chamber maids, armourers and all sorts of people would travel with them, whether to war or tournament. The quality of their arms and their attire, and their retinue’s skills, reflected on the knights, and the were commonly used as status symbols. Similarly, noble women were never left unattended, not even at night, but were always surrounded by ladies-in-waiting and maids; the quality of these, and their appearance, reflected directly on the nobility and status of the noblewoman in question.
Great story hooks…
Status symbols are possessed and displayed by the wealthiest and most powerful of men, and this is, in part, what makes them a great treasure. Those who are not wealthy aspire to them, and those who are wealthy will always try to keep one step ahead of their peers. Thus, these status items can be incorporated into your stories as a seemingly worthless treasure, or the item of a quest that the heroes of your stories might be sent to acquire. They may also be things which your group already possesses, which cause the local nobles to view them in higher regard. This also raises the value of ‘local knowledge’, social perception and similar traits – the character who notices that all the buildings are shaped like pineapples might realise, when confronted with one in a chest, that they are valuable here beyond their face value.
The symbol itself might change, but the idea behind them remains the same – they are items to display how wealthy and renowned their owner is, and they do that by being close to unattainable. In the same way that pineapples or tulips were exotic to Europe, blackcurrants would have been impossible to find in the Indies or the new World (until recently they were illegal in the USA). Status symbols can be used to understand the affluence of a noble, a king or an estate, not just saying “look at all my gold”, but by displaying fashion, taste and sophistication – all ways to prove ‘worth’.
Do you know of any other weird and wacky status symbols we missed? How have you used status symbols in your stories and campaigns?
Please share your thoughts with us and if you like our posts do share it with your friends we will love you forever!
Medieval Social Stratification series: Part 3 & Part 4
The Illustrated Book of Heraldry: An International History of Heraldry and Its Contemporary Uses
Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain, 850-1520 (New Economic History of Britain) (The New Economic History of Britain Series)
Sweetness and Power: The place of sugar in Modern history
Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain, 850-1520 (New Economic History of Britain) (The New Economic History of Britain Series), Yale University Press (13 Feb. 2009)
Harold Kerbo, Social Stratification and Inequality: Class Conflict in the United States, (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1983)
Louis Kriesberg, Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution, 2nd edition, (Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2003)
Pat Patfoort, Uprooting Violence, Building Nonviolence: From Nonviolent Upbringing to a Nonviolent Society, (Freeport, Maine: Cobblesmith, 1995)
Campbell, G., The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome, Oxford University Press, 2013
Love it! Absolutely love it! Beautifully presented and well researched! Having your garden not be complete with a creepy old hermit living on it is just about the strangest thing I have ever heard. That’s tremendously fascinating to me. I always thought the idea of grass lawns was ridiculous, but that’s ridiculous on a different level.
One thing I would like to point out, is the more literal understanding of what “Status Symbol” means. Beyond the silly and frivolous shows of wealth, without newspapers with pictures and without any real systems of communication, Status Symbols were a necessity in medieval and renaissance society. A Sword was a knight’s ID card, a horse was his credentials. Without the flashy shows of color and immaculate, frilly clothing, it’d be hard to tell at a glance the difference between a lowly hedge knight and a nobleman of great esteem. This Monty Python bit demonstrates that pretty concisely: https://youtu.be/grbSQ6O6kbs?t=103
As you laid out above, these displays of identification and status were absolutely subject to emulation and escalation.
As a funny side note about Pineapples, since it’s always considered rude to kick out your guests, ceremonially taking the pineapple off the table or shelf and moving it somewhere else was the polite way of saying “the fun’s over, goodnight”.
Anyway, what a pleasure to read!
It should be noted that collars are not only a status symbol because they are clean – they are also a damn bother to maintain. You see, the collar is usually not held up with wire or other stiff material, they were starched. The process entails putting some starch water on the fabric and then sticking a heated iron rod into the “flutes” – if the iron is too hot, it will scorch the fabric and the thing is ruined. Clothes are similarly a sign of status – the embroidery and the cut make the production labour intensive to say nothing of the amount of fabric necessary. It should be noted that collars are not only a status symbol because they are clean – they are also a damn bother to maintain. You see, the collar is usually not held up with wire or other stiff material, they were starched. The process entails putting some starch water on the fabric and then sticking a heated iron rod into the “flutes” – if the iron is too hot, it will scorch the fabric and the thing is ruined. Clothes are similarly a sign of status – the embroidery and the cut make the production labour intensive to say nothing of the amount of fabric necessary.
The animals, why nobody mentions the animals?
To have an exotic animal on display, like a cheetah, or a parrot, or a monkey, was a sign of status.
Mind that we’re not talking about a stuffed one, that was a cheap thing, we’re talking about live ones.
Cheetahs (or lions or tigers) were usually kept with a black-skinned handler, which added to the exotic (and wealthy) feeling.
Parrots, and other many-colored birds) were kept in large aviaries in the main gardens, or in some smaller aviaries in the palace’s cloisters.
There have even been some nobles who kept hippopotami in large ponds, to impress their visitors…
Very very good point Valerio, that’s why we asked for people to contribute. Thank you so much – it’s a very good point.
Happy to serve the cause!
I’ve used exotic animals as quest objectives in RPGs many times.
One party was actually centered on it, they were “The Suppliers”. All PCs were trained on capturing and taming animals, and each one of them specialized in one type of animal, while having general knowledge on all.
They pulled off an amazing stunt, once, when they provided a full shipload of giant scorpions, and nobody got hurt in the process…