The cult of saints affected everyone in medieval Europe, and a voracious souvenir market was one of its consequences. This is again, an area not widely prospected amongst collectors as it deserves to be. Pilgrim badges provide an opportunity to acquire an attractive series of medieval works of art in lead or pewter that have a fascinating story to tell.
Pilgrim badges are decorations worn by some people who undertake a Christian pilgrimage to a place considered holy by the Church. They became very popular among Catholics in the later medieval period. The badges were typically made of lead alloy and were sold as souvenirs at sites of Christian pilgrimage. Often the badges would bear the image relating to the saint venerated there. The production of pilgrim badges flourished in the Middle Ages in Europe, particularly in the 1300's and 1400's, but declined after the Protestant Reformation of the mid 1500's. Tens of thousands have been found since the mid 1800's, predominantly in rivers. Together they form the largest corpus of medieval art objects that survive today.
The medieval society was religious to an extent that is difficult to imagine today. The saints was seen as God’s representative on earth and to visit a shrine yielded many benefits, like hope to recover from an illness or forgiveness of sins. The shrine and buildings were thought to also contain some power from the saints, so pilgrims started to take small pieces away with them. When the church saw how their buildings were being slowly destroyed, the idea was born to produce souvenirs to satisfy the pilgrims’ “hunger”. Pilgrim badges were sold in the medieval period as souvenirs of pilgrimage.
Nowadays, the overwhelming majority of pilgrim souvenirs and secular badges are dark grey and fragmentary, but this was not originally the case. They were, in fact, sparkling, even colourful, objects, carefully designed to appeal to the pilgrim and advertise the shrine.
The use of lead alloy was important; though cheap, it lends itself to thin casting and detailed low-relief imagery, allowing for the production of delicate, objects bearing legible pictures. Additionally, it is silver-bright when fresh from the mould. Lead alloy pilgrim souvenirs were affordable for the majority of medieval people, who often collected a range of pilgrim souvenirs over a lifetime. The production of pilgrim badges flourished in the Middle Ages in Europe, particularly in the 1300's and 1400's, but declined after the Protestant Reformation of the mid 1500's. Tens of thousands have been found since the mid-1800's, predominantly in rivers. Together they form the largest corpus of medieval art objects to survive to us today.
Pilgrimage sites housed a saint's relics: sometimes the whole body, sometimes a body part or significant object owned or touched by the saint. For example, St Thomas Becket was martyred at Canterbury Cathedral in Britain in 1170 and his body remained there, becoming the epicentre of an enormously popular cult. In 1220 it was translated into a costly shrine. The pilgrim souvenirs associated with his cult have a particularly diverse array of imagery, including that of his shrine, his head reliquary and scenes from his life.
Pilgrim souvenirs were intended to be attractive from a distance and recognisable close up. Their buyers could adorn their hats or bags with a distinctive icon or logo and proceed home, advertising where they had been and their status as a pilgrim, which, it was hoped, would bring them safe passage. Most major pilgrimage sites had at least one, easily recognisable image that could be reproduced on the surface of a lead alloy badge. Santiago de Compostela had a shell; Amiens had John the Baptist's head on a plate; St Albans had an image of the saint's martyrdom (after which the executioner's eyes fell out). Badges from the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury, for example, often showed an image of his bust, the form of the jewel-encrusted reliquary that housed a holy fragment of his skull (the body part sheered off by a sword during his martyrdom). The reliquary bust is a very common subject for Canterbury pilgrim souvenirs, but more unusual examples can also be found. One is the quirky ‘Becket-on-a-Peacock’ souvenir, designed to be fixed to the pilgrim’s customary staff and suspend a small bell. It shows the archbishop standing on the back of a peacock. As the owner walked, the souvenir would have jingled merrily and shone, the protective eyes of the saint and the peacock’s tail facing the long road home.
This badge represents the ornate head of St Thomas Becket
and was probably sold near his shrine in Canterbury, UK
Other major sites that produced badges were Santiago de Compostela Cologne, Our Lady of Rocamadour and Jerusalem. Their badges bore images that were iconic and easily recognisable, such as the scallop shell, the Adoration of the Magi , the St Peter or the Jerusalem Cross. Shrines to the Virgin were common all over Christendom, as are badges associable with her. They often show her holding the Infant Christ, or represent the first letter of her name.
Badges were made in the Middle Ages for purposes beyond pilgrim souvenirs; livery badges were presented to employees and allies by great figures, and became highly controversial in the decades leading to the Wars of the Roses. Some political badges have survived, including a fine one for the Black Prince. Other badges, with motifs such as lovers' tokens and mini brooches, were perhaps a form of cheap jewellery Erotic badges showing winged phalluses or vulvas dressed as pilgrims are prolific, although their cultural significance is still debated.Gazing at a collection of pilgrim souvenirs and medieval badges is to gain an insight into the visual world of medieval Christendom.
In Britain the tradition of making and wearing pilgrim badges died out in the early 1500's as pilgrimage initially declined in popularity and was then banned completely as the country became Anglican during the British Reformation. These badges became regarded as a superstition and idolatrous, but this halt on the practice was only temporary, as the practice of Christian pilgrimage once again became popular among Anglicans. The tradition continued in Catholic Europe, in some cases to the present day. Those of other branches of Christianity, such as Lutherans and the Reformed, also continue the practice of Christian pilgrimage, going to places such as the Holy Land, Iona Abbey and Taizé.
Over the centuries, pilgrims returned home with these objects and enjoyed or forgot them until they were, it seems, eventually consigned to rubbish heaps, old sewers and waterways. Since the mid 1800's, they have been actively unearthed in their thousands, often many miles from their site of origin. They reveal the international journeys undertaken by medieval pilgrims and the great age of our impulse to commemorate experience with tangible souvenirs. While most public collections are in storage, digital technologies are allowing us to simulate the ways in which medieval owners must have turned and scrutinised their badges. In so doing, we can imagine their lost sparkle and the human journeys in which they played a part.
The practice is continued by some today, for example, knights and dames of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre receive a pilgrim badge when they travel to the Holy Land.