Pilgrimage to specific religious sites is a custom that dates back to the times of the ancient Greeks. Pilgrim badges also date back to this period as well, proof of which can be seen at the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia at Sparta where excavations unearthed pilgrim souvenirs that date back to the seventh century B.C.E. Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land was not something unheard of prior to the medieval era, but traveling to the Holy Land was not a common occurrence because of its distance from Western Europe and the ongoing wars in the region. The few who made the long journey to the Holy Land often brought back items from the locus sanctus, souvenirs, as varied as palm leaves, rocks, and water from the Jordan River.
The expansion of the European population, as well as an expansion of the European economy, between the tenth and fourteenth centuries fostered an environment in which mass pilgrimage flourished in Europe. These factors contributed to a shift in pilgrimage trends. Once pilgrimage had been an activity exclusive to the wealthy and powerful, but now was something the common man or woman could do. Mass pilgrimage to the Holy Land and other religious sites peaked in the eleventh century, with individuals going on pilgrimage for reasons of health, spiritual concerns, adventure, or social prestige. Going on pilgrimage, however, was a potentially dangerous activity and, if pilgrims attempted to take pieces of relics or other items of spiritual significance with them back home, they could come under attack for their precious cargo. As a response to the dangers of having their holy objects pilfered, churches commissioned and sold pilgrim badges at pilgrimage sites.
Unlike other artisans, craftspeople who made pilgrim badges never seemed to have formed their own guilds. These artisans often worked in their homes or in separate shops, but some shrines had their own workshops for production of badges. Indeed, most of the badges were produced and sold near shrines, along with other religious objects, between the late eleventh and sixteenth centuries.
The pilgrim badges typically depicted a shrine or a relic associated with the holy site. Most pilgrim badges were made of low cost materials, and in England they were typically made of pewter, tin or lead, mostly because these materials were relatively inexpensive and readily available. Pewter badges were most popular during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as pewter’s lower melting point allowed for them to be quickly manufactured and sold widely at low cost. Badges made of precious metals embellished with gemstones were also available for purchase, but were produced in lower quantities for wealthy pilgrims.
While very little documentation exists explaining the production methods used for pilgrim badges, archaeological finds such as casting molds made of limestone, iron and clay molds, and impressions of wood grain on pilgrim badges (suggesting the use of wooden casts), are highly indicative that these metal badges were formed in molds in a two-part process. The artisan chiseled a design into one part of the mold, and in some cases the other part of the mold functioned as a “counter” mold, in which the artisan carved an outline of the badge in relief, resulting in a thicker, ridged badge. Pilgrim badge production eventually shifted to using vellum (calf skin), cloth, and paper rather than metal or metal alloys. These materials allowed for more intricate designs, detail, and color, and were often costlier than metal badges. This shift may be partly explained by the desire to sew badges into manuscripts and personal prayer books toward the end of the late medieval period.
Pilgrim badges had different purposes for each individual, and they may have had multiple meanings for each person as well. They had a religious and spiritual significance that can be linked to individual expressions of personal piety. The badges served as evidence of the wearer’s personal sacrifice, as it signified their journey to a site, which was often far away from their home, to pray and pay homage to the relics of a saint. On occasion, the more ornate badges, served as symbols of the owner’s wealth. Pilgrim badges were also a sign of devotion to a specific saint or their cult of worship. Most importantly these pilgrim badges were “secondary” relics. Since relics were often believed to have certain powers that could result in miracles like the healing of the sick, the pilgrim badge functioned in a similar manner as a “secondary” relic, which was brushed against the relic or reliquary in order to “absorb” the essence of the saint into the badge. Most of the pilgrim badges recovered have been found in the Thames, thrown in the river for possibly religious or superstitious reasons.
This small pilgrim badge, 33mm (1.30in) in height and 15mm (0.59in) in width, is made of lead alloy and dates to the late medieval period. It is a depiction of Saint Barbara holding a tower and a palm frond, the former representing her imprisoned life and the latter representing her status as a virgin martyr. She is a saint associated with protection against sudden death, and is considered one of the fourteen Holy Helpers. This badge may have been used as a spiritual totem used to ward off fevers and or prevent sudden death, fears that were rampant during the period of the Black Death in London. This badge has a loop on the back, which means it was most likely sewn onto its owner’s coat and worn that way. It is possible that the owner would have gazed upon the image of Saint Barbara daily, as one would do with an image of Saint Christopher, in order to be spared from sudden death.
- Jonathan Milohnić