The Medieval Purse Bar

23rd February 2015 — 15 Comments

FindsPouchA recent survey I read, probably in one of Mrs John’s magazines, was that more than 50% of men carry a ‘man bag’. Already I can hear the ‘macho’ detectorists sneering. And I’d be joining you. What’s wrong with having lots of pockets and occasionally asking your partner to put stuff in her handbag? That’s what I do. Anyway, I challenge you to turn up at the next detecting dig carrying a handbag like to one carried by David Beckham. I’d be the first in offering to buy you a Babycham! Whoops. Showing my age now!

Dispense with the frivolity John. Men have been using and carrying bags for thousands of years! Pockets as we know them today were not in use in the 14th century, so people needed a way of carrying their everyday items like money, prayer beads, wax tablet, stylus and mobile phone. I made the last one up! We can also see evidence in the art of the time.

The Luttrell Psalter, a celebrated manuscript commissioned by a wealthy landowner in the first half of the 14th century, is painted in rich colours and shows everyday scenes like the one I show below showing an act of kindness when a man opens his purse to give alms to a physically disfigured child in a wheelbarrow. It shows – perhaps – that it wasn’t uncommon to give alms to needy people on the street at that time.


Luttrell Psalter, circa late 1330s or early 1340s, London, British Library – Click to enlarge

As you may observe, the purse was suspended from the belt and must have been an easy target for any thief with a sharp knife! The UKDFD describes the purse bar thus;

“Designed to be slung from the belt by the suspension loop the purse bar had two metal arms from which the purse bag hung. In most cases the cloth or leather purses would be sewn to the frame through the drilled attachment holes. Metal purse frames were fashionable towards the end of the Medieval period making their first appearance around 1460. By 1550 they were no longer fashionable and except for a few illustrated examples from the latter part of the 16th century, purses progressed to being much simpler in design being made almost entirely of cloth or leather.”

Purse bars discovered by detectorists are sometimes fragmented, not recognisable and often languish in the trash bin. When a near complete example is found [without purse, of course] it can be quite remarkable, like this example from the Database.

Purse Bar UKDFD

© UKDFD – click to enlarge

“A late Medieval to early Tudor period type B1* purse bar complete with swivelling suspension loop. The bar has a central sub-rectangular boss with short circular-section side bars and globular terminals. One side bar retains a large section of the undecorated pendant frame through which two holes have been drilled for attachment to the bag or purse. The opposing side bar retains a small fragment of the pendant frame.

Both faces of the central boss are decorated, one side with four diagonally set grooves that terminate at the foot of the boss, the other side decorated with a crude design, possibly a shield with a seemingly random pattern at its centre. The suspension loop is large, ovoid in shape and has three collars just below the loop.”

The late Jim Halliday, in a small magazine article from 1999, describes a fine example of a near complete purse bar unearthed by Paul Mower in Shropshire. The illustration was done by Anne Hodgson.

Purse Bar

© TS and JW – 147 mm long x 54 mm to top of loop

Description: a copper alloy, one-piece, flat section 15th or 16th century purse bar and central pendant loop. One of the sideboard terminals and a small portable bar is broken. The sidebars with four suspension loops have a Latin inscription both sides, which is inlaid with niello. The standard religious quotations of the period appeared for at least 300 years on other types of artefact.

Jim made reference to the fact that, in the archaeological world, there were no approved words available to describe artefacts as wonderful, beautiful or fantastic and he risked disapproval by using all three to describe what you see above. If he was writing that today he may also have included awesome, an Americanism that now seems to be taking over on some English detecting forums. He says:

“I believe that in the Bible it is written as one of the ten commandments: Thou shall not covet thy neighbours goods artefacts [artefacts]. I fear that this is yet another one I have broken because I wish I’d found it!”



Jimmy's Purse Bar

© UKDFD 39224 – Size 70mm x 50mm – Click to enlarge

I’m very pleased to add Jimmy’s rather unusual copper alloy purse bar to my blog and I thank him for sharing. Jimmy [aka digging for treasure on the BMD forum ] found it with his XP Deus. The UKDFD description is by Rod Blunt:

An early to mid 16th century purse bar, complete with swivelling flared suspension loop. The bar has a central shield-shaped boss with plain circular-section side bars and bi-conical terminals.



Thanks to The Searcher magazine, Paul Mower, the UKDFD, British Library, Mr Google, Mrs John’s unknown magazine, the Late Jim Halliday and Anne Hodgson for all the help

Bum Bag

Does this resemble the one YOU [used to] wear?


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15 responses to The Medieval Purse Bar

  1. John, I learn more from you than anyone else right now. Please keep it coming. Artie

  2. Another good un John, only ever found partifacts myself

  3. John, I, like you have never even found a part of a purse bar. Thanks for another, very interesting article.

  4. If and when any of you find one of theses purse bars don’t forget to check around for its contents.

    On one occasion some years back my son and I had just this experience and the contents made it datable.

    Another good post John, Thanks.Jerry.

  5. Thanks John for another interesting article.
    Over the years I have seen a few of these Purse Bars found and the only bits I have found is a couple of the suspension loops and at first I thought they were off scissor handles.

  6. Memories of times past when quality detecting land was easily acquired and finds tended to be more significant in nature. I remember so well that feeling of excitement when the purse bar was revealed from where it had been lying under the soil for hundreds of years on an abbey grange site. The purse bar of the Tudor period was a revelation in security design!

  7. Good article as usual John. Like others, I have only found a couple of fragments but did see a cracking complete one found on a rally in the 80’s. Like you, I just sit on the sidelines and let the young’uns do the digging!

  8. Interesting read John.i use a wallet myself

  9. Another good one! Thanks again John! I’ll stick with my sporran… nemo me impune lacessit, etc…

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