Stephenie McGucken – PhD History of Art
The Balthild ring bezel is a beguiling small (12mm in diameter) gold bezel, found in Norfolk by a metal detector in 1999, dating from the seventh century. Scholars agree that the bezel belonged to Balthlid, Queen of Neustria in the mid-seventh century.
|Figures 1 & 2. The Balthild Ring Bezel, Obverse & Reverse. Images: Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service.|
Balthild was born in Anglo-Saxon England around 626 and was sold into slavery in Neustria after she was captured during a raid. She was purchased by Erchinoald, the mayor of the palace, who later tried to seduce her. She refused, and Erchinoald eventually gave her to Clovis II in marriage. When Clovis II died in 655, Balthild became regent for her eldest son, Chlothar III. As regent, she worked to correct ecclesiastical abuses and encouraged bishops and abbots to follow a monastic rule, all while expanding her influence with both the aristocracy and the church. In 664, Balthild retired to Chelles at the so-called request of the Frankish aristocracy, and was there until she died in 680.
The obverse of the bezel shows a frontal portrait. The lower half of the figure has been interpreted as both stylised drapery and as a body executed on a smaller scale. It is most likely the top of a garment, as the composition makes little sense as a body (with a fifth appendage).
Anna Gannon has identified the portrait as Christ, and Leslie Webster has agreed (pers. comm. July 2014). The cross shaft merges with the figure’s nose, and could be a way of identifying the figure as Christ. However, it can also be seen as the queen herself. The connection between and conflation of Christ and the queen is an intentional one: the ring stylises Balthild as Christ’s chosen queen, whose duty to her earthly King, Clovis, are second only to her duties to the heavenly king.
|Figure 3. Drawing of the Balthild Ring Bezel. Image: Courtesy of the Norwich Museums Service.|
The reverse image shows two figures facing each other; they stand under the sign of a cross. Both figures’ eyes are wide and their mouths are open, with their heads tilted back. The Norwich Castle Museum presents the reverse as a ‘stylised image of a man and woman making love.’ Webster and Gannon argue for a different reading: rather than a couple making love, they see it as a couple holding hands in the tradition of Byzantine betrothal rings. While the ring does draw on this tradition, it does not show them holding hands. Rather, the “hands” between the lower part of the figures represents outer walls of the labia extended to take in the penis.
|Figure 4. Byzantine Betrothal Ring. Image: Christie’s.|
The cross on the reverse serves as a substitute for Christ on the Byzantine ring. It represents divine approval of the marriage, and ultimately the rule – an idea that was gaining momentum in this period.
Another object type that should be considered is the Swedish and Danish guldgubbers, small gold-foil figures dating between 500 and 800 AD (Fouracre 2004). In a particular type, a couple is shown clearly embracing and kissing. While not overtly sexual in nature, this type of guldgubbers has been shown to reference marriage rites (Ratke 2006). As queen and wife, Balthild’s marriage would have implied a sexual union with the king to produce his heirs, arguably the queen’s most important role. The physical embraces represented social contract and partnership in similar, yet subtly different ways.
|Figure 5. Guldgubber. Image: Sharon Ratke.|
For Anglo-Saxon comparanda we have to look slightly forward to the mid-tenth century. In the representation of the story of Lot in the Old English Hexateuch, we are given two illustrations of Lot having sex with his daughters who have gotten him drunk in order to try to conceive so that mankind does not die out.
|Figure 6. Old English Hexateuch. British Library Claudius B IV, fol. 33v. Image: British Library.|
This image, unlike the ring, serves a narrative purpose, rather than a symbolic one. Bede, in his commentary on Genesis, explains this symbolism. He excuses Lot’s daughters because they did not commit incest out of lust, but as a way to ensure the human race’s survival. Bede goes on to say ‘the daughters of the blessed Lot represent the carnal thoughts of even the noblest men’ and ultimately ‘the fact that we are saved from dangers is certainly owing to God’s illuminating grace.’
In terms of the Balthild bezel, such a scene might introduce a negative light to the sexual reading, but that negativity is negated by the sign of the cross above the couple. Rather than committing a sin, they are upholding their duty to their kingdom and, ultimately, Christ.
In her book Visual and Other Pleasures, Laura Mulvey argues that the female is defined by the male’s view of her, and that she is consistently ‘tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning.’ Mulvey’s assertion that the ruling ideology that ‘the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification’ is demonstrated and overturned in the bezel.
I believe that the bezel, and its now-lost ring, was given to Balthild by Clovis around the time of their official betrothal. At the moment of giving, it presented a meaning established by the king. However, upon Balthild’s acceptance of the ring and her place, the power of the gaze is inverted. No longer is the ring a sexual image of the king and queen given to the queen to remind her of her duties. The ring upon giving is transformed, as it shifts from the possession of the male gaze to the female gaze, becoming a female conception of sex and queenly responsibility (to bear the king’s heirs, an idea implied by the sex). The Balthild bezel, then, represents an Early Medieval image of power through sexuality.
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Originally posted: Friday, 21 November 2014