In the Wonders of the Peak Gallery at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, there are three medieval keys on display which date from the thirteenth century to the fifteenth century. The keys found at Wormhill, Derbyshire, can be associated with the significant development of locks and keys that occurred during the later Middle Ages. Using the framework of ‘consumerism’, the increased development and variety of key types has been linked to a greater diversity of possessions (e.g chests and caskets) in England, following the Black Death. In considering keys to be markers of greater consumption, the motivation of people to acquire keys and how they were used has been largely overlooked. Indeed, keys allowed objects to be protected from market exchange, which counters the notion that people were quickly buying, selling and exchanging their possessions in late medieval England.

A selection of keys in the Wonders of the Peak, Buxton Museum and Art Gallery (Accession Numbers: DERSB : 9672 DERSB : 9681, DERSB : 9682)

Following the Black Death, the cult of St Zita (d.1278), the servant-saint of Lucca, was relocated to England and her iconography frequently depicted her with keys. Yet with St Zita’s veneration in England, and her remaining as Sitha or Sithe, she became the patron saint of lost keys as opposed to just domestic servants. The new English characteristic of St Sitha helping individuals find lost keys and the objects associated with them, therefore, highlights that the saint encapsulated an emerging concern over missing keys in post-Black Death England.

While St Sitha was venerated by both genders, the saint particularly resonated with women and their daily domestic lives. For example, as female servants’ work was typically limited to the home in late medieval England, and as St Sitha was a domestic servant in Italy, the saint could be seen as embodying female servants’ experiences. Additionally, as St Sitha was lifelong domestic servant for the Faitinelli family in Lucca, whereas young people undertook service in their teenage years in England, her service role was likely to have been reinterpreted to reflect the lives of married women. Indeed, image depictions of the saint in older women’s clothing would have resonated with the pious middling married woman.

St Sitha on Barton Turf rood screen in Norfolk © Flickr

For the bourgeois wife, the wife of a merchant or urban craftsman in control of his business, St Sitha’s keys also had both a literal and symbolic importance. Due to their role as household managers and due to the close links between female sexuality and status in late medieval discourse. The bourgeois wife’s attentive control of the household through keyholding, implied the careful control that she exercised over her own body, especially as her household keys were typically tied to her belt on her waist.

Why did St Sitha and her role as keyholder appeal to bourgeois women after the Black Death? Over the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a specifically urban set of values developed. These values stemmed from the bourgeois living arrangement of multiroom urban homes that required the rearrangement of rooms for eating, work and leisure. Bourgeois women had to showcase their effective household management in order to prove and maintain their family’s good reputation to urban society. In particular, keys allowed bourgeois women to control and manage the household from harm. The popularity of St Sitha with bourgeois women in England following the Black Death suggests that the saint represented the shifting prioritisation of keys to bourgeois families, specifically the saint showed how spaces could be managed and differentiated through keyholding.

St Sitha at St Edmund’s church at Emneth in Norfolk © Norfolk Churches

With the bourgeois home being both a living and working space, it could function as a place to receive guests in order to curate social and business networks. As the household had limited space, keys could be used by the bourgeois wife to conceal certain items into chests away from guests and household members. Dining equipment, for instance, could be stored away to prevent it from becoming broken, when important guests were residing in the household. In hiding objects away with keys, individuals could reveal what was important to them at given moments in time. Potentially when issues such as friendship and social status could be damaged by poor household management, the bourgeois wife had to know how to use keys correctly.

. Four pilgrim badges of St Sitha recovered from the Thames © PAS

Bourgeois women also needed help from St Sitha for keys that they had lost, which suggests that there was a significant shift in the way that keys were used by women in post-Black Death England. Women travelled for miles to visit shrines and altars of St Sitha, perhaps passing through Buxton, in hopes that the saint could quicken the recovery of their missing keys. It is interesting that following the Black Death, bourgeois women no longer let their items be freely disposed of following their decease. Instead, as testators, bourgeois women made complex demands to prevent their goods from being sold. Perhaps the psychological impact of the Black Death, led to individuals using objects to preserve their own and family memory.

The cult of St Sitha in England before the Reformation © GenMap UK

It is likely that bourgeois women seeking their keys from St Sitha, were motivated by the concern that their missing keys could lead to their valuables such as jewellery contained by these keys escaping their ownership. The bourgeois wife could use keys to prevent items that she wanted to use for the memorialisation of her identity, and social status, in the later Middle Ages from becoming lost, stolen or resold.

A variety of keys in various forms, Buxton Museum and Art Gallery (Accession Number DERSR : 1979.D.168)

What did St Sitha and her keyholding mean to late medieval bourgeois women? The answer to this question, put simply, is that keys were not simply bought for possession’s sake. St Sitha encapsulated the importance of the bourgeois wife’s keys to herself and her life, as keys allowed bourgeois women to mark their place in the household and in post-Black Death urban society.

The collection of medieval keys are on display in the Wonders of the Peak gallery at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. We are open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm (last admission at 4pm).