Medieval London

Lute Pendant

lute pendant.jpg

Fig. 1 - A small pewter pendant made in the shape of a lute. In the Museum of London.

This pendant measures in at 48 millimeters long, 23 millimeters wide, and has a depth of 12 millimeters, and weighs 6.9 grams. The material used is pewter, an alloy composed of a mixture of tin and lead. The pendant is cast from this metal into the shape of a three-dimensional lute. A precursor to the modern guitar, the instrument is shaped with an oval ‘body’ or sound board, and a short and fairly broad ‘neck’ protruding from its top. The neck of the pendant is lined with seven raised vertical ridges, made to represent strings. These strings meet roughly in the body’s center, where they pass over the lute’s soundhole. This hole is circular in shape, and is decorated in the style of a ‘rose’ lattice. The body itself is not a solid piece of metal, but is actually partially hollow, much like an actual lute would be. At the junction of the body and neck is a loop from which the pendant could be suspended by either a chain or length of fabric.

lute pendant 2.jpg

Fig. 2 - The reverse side of the lute pendant in the Museum of London.

The pendant was discovered on the foreshore of the river Thames in London, likely at low tide when this area of shore is made accessible. Despite its age, the pendant remains in relatively good condition, retaining much of its original form and detail. This is likely due to the oxygen-deprived environment in which it was found, preserving it from elements of exposure. 

This item is believed to be unique, lacking evidentiary examples in visual art or literature. In the absence of other discoveries like it, it can be assumed that this piece of jewelry was not mass produced. Possibly made for order by the man or woman who wore it, the pendant’s shape suggests the owner may have been a musician. In this event, that would increase the likelihood of the owner having been a man; surviving depictions of lute players show them as predominantly male. 


Fig. 3 - An image from the Kutná Hora Illumination of a group of ore smelters and laborers processing silver ore in the town of Kuttenberg. Illumination likely from a choral book from one the churches in the town (1471). Now in the Gallery of the Central Bohemian Region. 

The pendant’s material is notable for a few reasons. Because pewter was an alloy in which small amounts of copper, lead, antimony, bismuth, or sometimes silver were mixed with a tin base, it was cheaper to produce than pure silver or gold. While not possessing the same prestige as a pure precious metal, pewter served as a relatively affordable alternative for the less affluent. 

Londoners especially were known for their utilitarian application of pewter [1]. Household objects like drinking vessels were often made from the alloy. The frequency of these items found in London can be at least partially attributed to the city’s preeminence in the tin trade [2]. Despite not being a precious metal, tin remained a sought after commodity due to its ability to create alloys like pewter. England’s relative abundance of the metal led to an influx in port towns like London, driving the price down for domestic consumption.


Fig. 4 - Manuscript illumination from the Hours of Charles the Noble, King of Navarre of a man playing a lute with a plectrum, c. 1404, Cleveland Museum of Art i64.40, fol. 322v.

It can be assumed that the low cost and availability of pewter would have further diminished the perceived aesthetic quality of jewellery made from the material. For a pendant like this one to be made from pewter suggests a purpose that may have exceeded the purely decorative. Intricately made as it is, the effort spent fashioning it into this specific lute shape may be a clue into the identity of its owner.  Worn around the neck, this pendant may have been used to visually signal the wearer as a lute player. 

Musicians in medieval London were divided into two broad categories: secular, and ecclesiastic. Lute players would have belonged in the former category, and were known by different names depending on their professional capacity. Freelance musicians were known generally as minstrels, and were a common sight in medieval London. They provided entertainment at a variety of events, including feasts, processions, and even funerals [3]. Minstrels were sometimes hired for barge rides on the Thames river, providing a possible explanation for why this pendant was found on its shore. 


Fig. 5 - The coat of arms of The Worshipful Company of Musicians.

Individual minstrels were known to practice more than one instrument, and were expected to play each according to the event. A pendant like this may have signified that the minstrel wearing it  specialized in playing the lute. If this is the case, that training might have come from London’s Worshipful Company of Musicians. One of the many Livery Companies of the city, this guild was founded to protect the interests of the minstrelsy [4]. One of its responsibilities was to uphold the standards of the practice of musical instruments. While no other examples of pendants like this have been found, it is possible that it may have been commissioned for a member of this guild to acknowledge his skill with the lute. 

--Avery Flamand-Browne


[1] Hinton, Gold and Gilt, Pots and Pins: Possessions and People in Medieval Britain. pp. 198 - 199

[2] Hatcher and Barker, A History of British Pewter, pp. 43 - 44 

[3] Baillie, "A London Gild of Musicians, 1460-1530," pp. 15-16.

[4] Crewdson, Apollo's Swan and Lyre: Five Hundred Years of the Musicians' Company p. 13.

Works Cited

Baillie, Hugh. "A London Gild of Musicians, 1460-1530." Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association 83 (1956): 15-28. doi:

Crewdson, Richard. Apollo's Swan and Lyre: Five Hundred Years of the Musicians' Company. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2000.

Hatcher, John, and Theodore Cardwell Barker. A History of British Pewter. London: Longman, 1974. 

Hinton, David Alban. Gold and Gilt, Pots and Pins: Possessions and People in Medieval Britain. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011. 

"Lute Pendant." Museum of London Collections Online. Retrieved September 26, 2020, from

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