The use of wax seals can be traced all the way back to the world’s first civilizations, and have been found from Mesopotamia to the Indus Valley. These first seals were made with clay that was impressed with engraved cylinders or rings.
The use of wax seals
, however, did not begin until the Middle Ages. At first they were the exclusive purview of monarchs, bishops, and royal courts for use in issuing official decrees and authenticating documents. The use of wax seals
then gradually became more democratized, spreading from aristocrats, to monasteries and guilds (for example, butchers would sign agreements with a seal bearing the image of a hog or cow), and eventually to ordinary freemen by the 13th century. Each individual had their own seal, and in a time when many were illiterate, they were used in place of a signature to authenticate agreements, contracts, wills, letters which conferred rights or privileges – any act executed in someone’s name.
Utilized in this official capacity, seals were sometimes placed directly on the document but were most often attached in the “pendent style.” The seal was applied to a cord, ribbon, or strip of parchment and hung loose after being threaded through a hole or slot at the lower edge of the document.
The wax itself was made with 2/3 beeswax and 1/3 resin, a ratio that shifted almost entirely to the latter in the post-medieval period. The Pope would seal his documents with a bulla – a lump of lead, which eventually gave these documents their name – papal bulls.
Red (colored with the mineral cinnabar) and black (made with the soot from burning pure resin) were the most common colors, but a variety of hues existed from gold (yellow mica) to blue (powdered cobalt glass). Some royal courts used different colors to distinguish various administrative functions.
The wax was pressed with a handheld seal or with a signet ring. The latter, which can be traced all the way back to ancient Egypt, was a symbol of authority and power and used by the higher ups both in the aristocracy and the Church. Thus the signet ring of a dignitary was frequently kissed by a diplomat or visitor as a sign of allegiance or submission.
Seals of either kind bore a graphic emblem in the center, and featured a heraldic motif, an image of the bearer himself, or in the case of ecclesiastical uses, a saint. Circling the emblem was the seal’s “legend” – often simply “The seal of [the name of the owner]” in Latin or vernacular — or sometimes the owner’s motto.
Because seals were symbols of power and were used to authenticate a person’s wishes, they were typically destroyed after the owner died to prevent posthumous forgeries. For example, when a Pope dies (and after writing this last week, I should now add “or abdicates!”), the Camerlengo’s first duty is to ceremonially destroy his “Ring of the Fisherman” in front of his fellow cardinals. This signet ring was used by the Holy Father from at least the 13th century until 1842 to first seal private correspondence and then papal briefs. Post-1842 the seal was replaced by a red ink stamp, but a new Fisherman ring is still cast in gold for each incoming Pope.
The fate of the Pope’s Fisherman’s seal would be shared by most other seals used in an official capacity. Except for occasional ceremonial use, modern governments have almost entirely replaced wax seals with the rubber stamp and ink variety.