8 December 2010

Penannular brooch - Traditional Berber clasp

Figure 1:  A penannular brooch (traditional Berber clasp)

Above is a brooch/clasp which is very much associated with the traditional Berber community in Tunisia.  It is made from silver and can be found in a triangular or a crescent shape which swivels freely and has a pin to fix the brooch on to the garment.  It is a utilitarian piece of jewellery and is used by Berber women to fasten clothes.  It is normally worn one above each breast with the pin pointing upwards. 

According to the Dorling Kindersley (DK) Eyewitness Travel Guide to Tunisia this brooch/clasp is known as 'hela' in Tunisian Arabic.  However I could not find a description of this brooch on the internet under that name.  It was only when I described the piece myself and carried out a search that I came across similar images of brooches but I was surprised to see that it was also known as a Celtic brooch or penannular brooch.  The DK guide book also says that "the hela combines practicality with decorative even protective roles.  Made of silver, it is often covered with designs that are believed to ensure fertility, guard against the 'evil eye' and bestow beauty on the wearer."

This was the website where I came across similar images of brooches http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celtic_brooch and the following extracts describe not only the Celtic brooch but its use amongst Berber women in the Mahgreb.  "Penannular brooches are part of traditional dress to the present day among Berber women in the Mahgreb, usually worn in pairs and apparently pinning straps of a dress to the bodice, with the pins pointing straight up. They are usually large, fairly plain, brooches, not unlike some Viking examples, though another style has a very elaborately decorated head to the pin, which can dwarf the ring.  A heavy necklace often hangs between the two brooches, sometimes attached to a ring hanging from the head of the pin. Most of the women are identified as Berber. Local names for the brooches apparently include melia, melehfa, bzima, kitfiyya, and khellala in Arabic, and tabzimt, tizerzay, and tazersit in Berber. Such styles are believed to have been in use since pre-Islamic times."

The Celtic brooch, more properly called the penannular brooch, and its closely related type, the pseudo-penannular brooch, are types of brooch clothes fasteners, often rather large. They are especially associated with the beginning of the Early Medieval period in the British Isles, although they are found in other times and places—for example, forming part of traditional female dress in areas in modern North Africa.

Beginning as utilitarian fasteners in the Iron Age and Roman period, they are especially associated with the highly ornate brooches produced in precious metal for the elites of Ireland and Scotland from about 700 to 900, which are popularly known as Celtic brooches or similar terms. They are the most significant objects in high-quality secular metalwork from Early Medieval Celtic art, or Insular art, as art historians prefer to call it. The type continued in simpler forms such as the thistle brooch into the 11th century, during what is often known as the Viking Age in Ireland and Scotland.

Both penannular and pseudo-penannular brooches feature a long pin attached by its head to a ring; the pin can move freely around the ring as far as the terminals, which are close together. In the true penannular type, the ring is not closed; there is a gap between the terminals wide enough for the pin to pass through. In the pseudo-penannular type, the ring is closed, but there are still two separately defined terminals, which are joined by a further element. The penannular type is a simple and efficient way of fastening loosely woven cloth (where the pin will not leave a permanent hole), but the pseudo-penannular type is notably less efficient.

The brooches were worn by both men and women, usually singly at the shoulder by men and on the breast by women, and with the pin pointing up; an Irish law code says that in the event of injury from a pin to another person, the wearer is not at fault if the pin did not project too far and the brooch was worn in these ways by the sexes. The most elaborate examples were clearly significant expressions of status at the top of society, which were also worn by clergy, at least in Ireland, though probably to fasten copes and other vestments rather than as everyday wear. The Senchas Mhor, an early Irish law tract, specified that the sons of major kings, when being fostered, should have "brooches of gold having crystal inserted in them", while the sons of minor kings need wear only silver brooches." 

 Figure 2:  Here is the penannular brooch (traditional Berber clasp) in use.

Figure 3:  This is a penannular brooch (traditional Berber clasp) which is framed, note that the pin cannot move along the ring.

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