The first known instance of a medal being awarded comes from the historian Josephus who, writing long after the event, accounts that in the fourth century BCE the High Priest Jonathan led the Hebrews in aid of Alexander the Great, and that in return for this, Alexander "sent to Jonathan... honorary awards, as a golden button, which it is custom to give the king's kinsmen." The Roman emperors used both military awards of medals, and political gifts of medallions that were like very large coins, usually in gold or silver, and die-struck like coins. Both these and actual gold coins were often set as pieces of jewellery, worn by both sexes.
The bracteate is a type of thin gold medal, usually plain on the reverse, found in Northern Europe from the so-called "Dark Ages" or Migration Period. They often have suspension loops and were clearly intended to be worn on a chain as jewellery. They imitate, at a distance, Roman imperial coins and medallions, but have the heads of gods, animals, or other designs. The Liudhard medalet, produced around 600AD in Anglo-Saxon England, is an isolated example, known from a single copy, of a Christian medal, featuring an inscription naming Liudhard (or "Saint Letard"), the first priest among the Anglo-Saxons, and probably presented to converts. The surviving example is mounted for wearing as jewellery.
In Europe, from the late Middle Ages on became common for sovereigns, nobles and later intellectuals to commission medals to be given simply as gifts to their political allies to either maintain or gain support of an influential person. The medals made be made in a range of metals, such as gold, silver-gilt, silver, bronze and lead, depending on the status of the recipient. They were typically up to about three inches across, and usually featured the head of the donor on the obverse, surrounded by an inscription with their name and title, and their emblem on the reverse, with a learned motto inscribed round the edges. Such medals were not usually intended to be worn, although they might be set as pendants on a chain. From the 16th century medals were made, both by rulers for presentation and private enterprise for sale, to commemorate specific events, including military battles and victories, and from this grew the practice of awarding military medals specifically to combatants, though initially only a few of the officers.
The medieval revival seems to have begun around 1400 with the extravagant French prince Jean, Duc de Berry, who commissioned a number of large classicising medals that were probably produced in very small numbers, or a unique cast. Only casts in bronze from the originals in precious metal survive; at least some medals were also set with jewels, and these may well have been worn on a chain. At the same period the first known medal post-classical medal commemorating a victory was struck for Francesco Carrara (Novello) on the occasion of the capture of Padua in 1390. The Italian artist Pisanello, generally agreed to be the finest medallist of the Renaissance, began in 1438 with a medal celebrating the unprecedented visit of the Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaiologos to Italy. This was presumably a commercial venture, but his later medals were mostly commissioned for distribution as gifts by rulers or nobles; like almost all early Renaissance medals it was cast rather than die-struck. With each successive cast the medal became slightly smaller, and the numbers that could be produced was probably not large. A lead "proof" was probably often used. The association between medals and the classical revival began to take a rather different form, and the exchange of medals became associated with Renaissance Humanism; princes would send humanist writers and scholars medals in recognition of their work, and the humanists began to make their own medals, normally in bronze, to send to their patrons and peers. The fashion remained restricted to Italy until near the end of the 15th century, when it spread to other countries. By the 16th century medals were increasingly produced by rulers or cities for propaganda purposes. In 1550 a die-stamping machine, using steel dies, was introduced in Augsburg, Germany, and soon this process became standard; the artist now cut an intaglio die rather than modelling in relief.
By the 16th century the wearing of smaller medals on a chain was a persistent fashion for both sexes, and a variety of medals were produced commercially for the purpose, commemorating persons or events, or just with non-specific suitable sentiments. German artists had been producing high-quality medals from the beginning of the century; the French and British were slower to produce fine work, but by the late 17th century most parts of Western Europe could produce fine work. Medals were also collected, which continues to the present day. Official medals, from which specialized military awards descended, were increasingly produced, but the real growth in military medals did not come until the 19th century. Devotional medals also became very popular in Catholic countries; during the Reformation there had also been a vigorous tradition of Protestant medals, more polemical than devotional, which continued with the Geuzen medals produced in the Dutch Revolt.
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