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Fibulae

By Rebecca Mir
Detail, Byzantine Crossbow Brooch (Fibula), c. 430, made in Rome or Constantinople, gold, 11.9 x 5.5 x 4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Detail, Byzantine Crossbow Brooch (Fibula), c. 430, made in Rome or Constantinople, gold, 11.9 x 5.5 x 4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Medieval jewelry

Fibulae (singular: fibula) are brooches that were made popular by Roman soldiers, who wore them to hold a cloak or cape in place. Bow fibulae all consist of a body, a pin, and a catch—like safety pins. As a historian of the medieval period writes,
"A German archaeologist, Herbert Kuhn, first called the bow fibula an early medieval artifact par excellence. Textbooks and art history studies use it to illustrate sections dedicated to the Dark Ages. There are probably thousands and hundreds of thousands of bow fibulae in European museum collections. A still greater number of specimens come out of archaeological excavations and their incredible diversity defies any attempts to establish unequivocal typologies." [1]
Attendants wearing fibulae, Emperor Justinian Mosaic (detail), San Vitale, Ravenna (Byzantine), c. 546–56 C.E. (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Attendants wearing fibulae, Emperor Justinian Mosaic (detail), San Vitale, Ravenna (Byzantine), c. 546–56 C.E. (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Ornate fibulae became all the rage in the early middle ages (c. 500–800 C.E.), and are one of the most commonly found objects in barbarian grave sites. The word “barbarian” comes from the Greek word barbaros, meaning “foreign," so it is often used as a blanket term for the non-Roman groups who migrated into western Europe in the early middle ages (such as the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Franks, and Lombards). This was the time when Europe was becoming Christianized and the Roman Empire split apart. The Roman Empire ceased to exist in the west, but continued in the east as the Byzantine Empire, with its capital at Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).
This period is also sometimes referred to as the Migration Period. Sparse written documentation of these people survives, so grave goods like fibulae provide the most concrete cultural information available.
Three views of a Crossbow Brooch, c. 430, made in Rome or Constantinople, gold, 11.9 x 5.5 x 4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Three views of a Crossbow Brooch, c. 430, made in Rome or Constantinople, gold, 11.9 x 5.5 x 4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Byzantine fibula

This gold fibula was made in Rome or Constantinople in the 5th century and is called a crossbow fibula because of its resemblance to the weapon. Unscrewing the left knob at the end of this “crossbow” would release the pin. This intricate object is typical of the Byzantine/Roman fibulae style. The detailed incising on the body is called pierced openwork.
Crossbow Brooch (detail with floral motif emerging from what may be acanthus leaves), c. 430, made in Rome or Constantinople, gold, 11.9 x 5.5 x 4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Crossbow Brooch (detail with floral motif emerging from what may be acanthus leaves), c. 430, made in Rome or Constantinople, gold, 11.9 x 5.5 x 4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
At the top we see a cross, and below that, on either side, floral scrolls that appear to grow out of acanthus leaves and may symbolize paradise and the promise of salvation. In addition, the circular form around the cross is a victory wreath, which, in the Christian tradition, symbolizes victory over death (resurrection). One art historian has remarked that the brooch "evokes one of the most interesting epochs in antiquity, a period marked by the subtle, often elusive transition from Late Roman to Early Byzantine art."[2]
Lombard silver bow fibula, gilded, with inlaid niello and engraved decoration, mid 6th century C.E., found in Kranj, 11.3 cm. long (National Museum, Slovenia)
Lombard silver bow fibula, gilded, with inlaid niello and engraved decoration, mid 6th century C.E., found in Kranj, 11.3 cm. long (National Museum, Slovenia)

Lombardic Fibula

This Lombardic fibula found in Kranj (modern day Slovenia) provides a good comparison, because it is a stylized variation of the crossbow fibula. It features at one end a semi-circle from which radiate nine rectangular incised forms topped with spheres (this type of fibula is called "radiate-headed" or "digitated"). It is gilded and inlaid with niello, a black metal alloy. The incisions are hatched lines—a popular decoration technique in Lombardic fibulae.
The Lombards (or Langobards, from the Latin Langobardi) are thought to be of Germanic origin, although their background is still contested. They established their kingdom in Italy in 558 and were defeated  by Charlemagne, king of the Franks, in 774. Over the centuries the Lombards assimilated into Roman culture, adopting Christianity, and left their own administrative legal procedures behind. This piece shows the adoption of the crossbow fibula style, but with a small Lombardic “twist.” According to one historian, "everything points to the conclusion that 'Slavic' bow fibulae were not simply symbols of social status or gender, but badges of power. This was the power of those able to establish long-distance relations and thus to yield influence." [3]
Merovingian (Frankish) Looped Fibulae, mid-6th century, silver gilt worked in filigree with inlaid garnet and other stones (Musée des Antiquities Nationales, Saint-Germain-en-Laye)
Merovingian (Frankish) Looped Fibulae, mid-6th century, silver gilt worked in filigree with inlaid garnet and other stones (Musée des Antiquities Nationales, Saint-Germain-en-Laye)

Frankish fibulae

This pair of
Merovingian
fibulae is a good example of cloisonné, a technique that was popular in barbarian art. This technique is characterized by inlaid semi-precious stones. The word cloisonné literally means “partitioned” in French. The artisan would
solder
wires onto a metal base and fill the areas created with polished stones (this is different from cloisonné enamel, which has colored enamel baked within these partitions).
This example also shows a popular motif in barbarian art of the middle ages—eagles. The eagle was a symbol of the Roman empire and was adopted at this time because it still carried connotations of status and power. The top end of these fibulae are in the shape of eagle heads and a series of similarly stylized eagle heads can be seen creating the loops on the opposite end of each pin and on the sides. A small fish decorates the main body of each of the brooches. Garnets were used for the eyes of the eagles, and a wide range of gems were used in the rest of the fibulae. These stunning objects demonstrate the remarkable skill of barbarian metal workers during the early middle ages.
Visigothic Eagle Fibulae, found at Tierra de Barros (Badajoz, southwest Spain),  6th century, sheet gold over bronze inlaid with garnets, amythysts, and colored glass, 14.2 x 7.1 x 3.2 cm (The Walters Art Museum)
Visigothic Eagle Fibulae, found at Tierra de Barros (Badajoz, southwest Spain),  6th century, sheet gold over bronze inlaid with garnets, amythysts, and colored glass, 14.2 x 7.1 x 3.2 cm (The Walters Art Museum)

Visigothic fibulae

This pair of Visigothic fibulae in the form of eagles provide another good example of barbarian metalwork and cloisonné. They are decorated with garnets, amethyst, and colored glass and were found at a Visigothic grave site in Spain. They likely would have fastened a cloak at the shoulders and pendants may have hung from the loops at the bottom.
Notes:
[1] Florin Curta, The Making of the Slavs: History and Archaeology of the Lower Danube Region, c. 500–700 (Cambridge University Press, reissue edition, 2007), p. 247.
[2] Barbara Deppert-Lippitz, “A Late Antique Crossbow Fibula in The Metropolitan Museum of Art,” Metropolitan Museum Journal, vol. 35, p. 41.
[3] Florin Curta, The Making of the Slavs: History and Archaeology of the Lower Danube Region, c. 500–700 (Cambridge University Press, reissue edition, 2007), p. 274.

Additional resources:

Essay by Rebecca Mir

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  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user emmabuckthal
    How would people wear their fibulae? Are there any artworks showing that?
    (20 votes)
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    • female robot grace style avatar for user Inger Hohler
      There are surprisingly few portraits or statues from Roman classical times showing crossbow fibulae, which have been found almost everywhere where the Romans went. However, there are statues and busts and engravings of more elaborate brooches. http://world4.eu/paludamentum-septimus-severus/
      The above link shows how the brooch was generally used by Romans.
      Roman military cloaks were normally worn pinned together on one shoulder, and it seems the crossbow fibulae, which were often well suited to bunching up heavy fabrics, were popular. Quite likely the same type of brooch was worn by less affluent Romans. Both male and females could wear cloaks pinned on the shoulder.
      In Northern Europe there is archeological evidence from graves for pairs of fibulae used on female clothing in the viking age, but there are very few images or statues surviving. I believe the person on the left in this picture from the Oseberg hoard is wearing two brooches, one beneath the other. This is in fact very much the way brooches were worn on traditional costumes in the 18th century in Norway to close the shirt.
      http://sciencenordic.com/what-vikings-really-looked
      How fibulae were worn by viking women is still controversial. Grave finds have often been disturbed. The typical image from viking books has the woman wearing fibulae on her chest, perhaps with a string of beads between them. Most reconstructions place the fibulae much higher than this one: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/02/080227-viking-picture.html
      I think the only thing to be gleaned from this is that fibula fashion, both in how to wear them, and how they looked, changed between cultures and ages.
      (25 votes)
  • leaf grey style avatar for user paulrenzetti
    How large were they? They don't look big, but there is nothing in the photographs that gives a sense of scale.
    (12 votes)
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    • female robot grace style avatar for user Inger Hohler
      If you follow the link to the Metropolitan Museum of Art you will see that the gold brooch is 5 cm long. Smaller brooches existed, but the middle range seems to be at around 10 cm and the large ones could be over 20 cm in length. I have not found measurements for the second fibula, but I've seen fibulae of the same shape that were around 10 cm tall. The third picture is also of a fibula that I have not been able to find the dimensions for.
      (10 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Laurel Turner
    There are four fibulae described but only three pictured?
    (11 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user P A
    If the Romans wore fibulae, does the fibula like show off their social status or something? I've learned that silk being expensive in that period was worn on their togas to show that they were wealthy and a high class.
    (6 votes)
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    • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Sophie
      Material wealth was not necessarily completely proportionate to social status, but I think it can definitely be said that patricians would be wearing these whereas plebians would not. Different decorations may symbolize various family groups or tribes, which would be more indicative of social statues than the fibula itself, but the main significance of a person wearing this would probably be their wealth rather than their position within the upper stretches of the social hierarchy.
      (3 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Todd Elliott
    How did the craftsperson weld the wire to the backing and how did the stones stay in place?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Carol Kranz
    The article references Visigoth and Frankish fibulae, yet there is only one photo--the Frankish fibulae.
    (3 votes)
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  • purple pi purple style avatar for user Claudette Delphis
    Thank you so much for this exquisite tour of "THE FIBULAE" {~.~}
    (2 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user (*_*)
    What were they used for and why?
    (1 vote)
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  • leafers tree style avatar for user Abby
    are the larger ones especially heavy to wear?
    (2 votes)
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  • male robot johnny style avatar for user whitfiel.b1
    fibula are brooches that were made popular by Roman military campaigns they all consist of a body, a pin and a catch.
    (1 vote)
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