Medieval London

Ampulla

During the twelfth through fourteenth centuries, pilgrims were likely to purchase an ampulla, a type of container filled with holy water or oil. These could be purchased outside the shrines of a revered saint. In doing so, they hoped that some degree of the saint’s sanctity would be imparted to them. In fact, it was thought that the figurative gap between humans and the divine could be closed by placing the ampulla against the shrine in order to initiate the transmission of saintly powers. The lure of the ampulla as an object capable of bestowing holy miracles gave it the same appeal as a relic. Thus, when pilgrims were not wearing their ampulla around their necks, they were using the contents within them to try to administer cures. 

Ampullae, the plural form of ampulla in Latin, are often found in England and Wales. The range of designs they feature and the multitude of locations at which they have been discovered suggest that there were a number of places where they were manufactured. They were typically made from metals like lead and lead-tin alloy, since these materials were pliable and not of a particularly high quality. In other words, the “low melting point” at which these metals broke down rendered them easy to work with, and therefore ideal for items like the ampulla being manufactured in large quantities. These melted metals would have been cast in two different moulds, usually made of limestone or some other sedimentary rock. In terms of their durability, the moulds have rarely been found intact. Ampullae, while often found intact, are usually in poor condition. 

The condition in which ampullae are often found might suggest something about how they were used. While age and construction techniques certainly played a role, many ampullae appear to have been purposely damaged, perhaps because they were ritually destroyed as a way of blessing the farmland or the souls of the dead, as they have often been discovered in fields and graves. Ampullae are also sometimes found in river banks. It is thought that they may have been deliberately cast away in order to express the end of their owners' “vow of pilgrimage.” 

The demand for souvenirs by less wealthy visitors to cathedrals led to the creation of the ampulla, as it was the first type of pilgrim sign to be sold in England. Its cheap construction made it affordable, and its elaborate detail and supposed divine properties made it intensely attractive. As such, the ampulla grew in popularity particularly between the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, in large part because of its accessibility. Pilgrims were not made to feel as though they needed to be rich in order to gain access to this object of holy significance. Indeed, access to medieval shrines was not limited in any measurable way to people of lower social classes. According to Jennie Stopford, the pilgrims’ activities at the shrine were not regulated or forced upon them by any governmental body. They were customary behaviors practiced by all believers regardless of whether a person was royal or a mere peasant. The essence of a person’s belief in the saint and the power of his or her relics crossed social boundaries. 

Despite the fact that the Bible did not mandate visits to holy sites, Christian pilgrimage became increasingly prevalent in the Middle Ages. In fact, hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims flocked to cathedrals of their choice in the hope that placing their ampulla against a shrine would help them in some way. As such, ampullae were more than simple souvenirs. A person in possession of one signified an individual who had undergone a transformative life-changing journey. Indeed, ampullae may have actually served as symbols of status. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that people bearing signs of pilgrimage in the late medieval period were frequently given gifts for having completed their journey. 

The ampulla pictured above was associated with Canterbury Cathedral, which is located in the southeastern English county of Kent, and its shrine of St. Thomas Becket, who was an extremely important figure to the people of medieval London. “Thomas of London,” as he was known, received a high level of praise and adoration from fellow Londoners upon his 'martyrdom' (he was assassinated during a political quarrel with the king), so much so that they were led to believe that even in death he continued to look after them. This belief grew into the idea that he was capable of healing them, particularly after Londoners discovered that monks at Canterbury preserved the saint’s blood after he was killed. Despite the fact that they mixed the blood with water to make it last, the monks claimed that this liquid within their ampullae had the capability to heal. Visitors to Canterbury Cathedral, many from London, would have first visited the place of Becket’s murder. They would have then been led to his empty tomb, and finally to the main shrine in back of the altar where their ritual activities would ensue. 

Constructed from a lead alloy, likely by a metalworker at Canterbury, this ampulla is relatively dull and metallic looking in color, but that certainly does not detract from the quality of its aesthetic. Standing just 69mm tall, with an identical 69mm width (and 7mm diameter), the piece is undeniably slight in stature, but rich in detail. Indeed, the rectangular structure that the ampulla is set in not only served a functional purpose in making the relic easier to hold and wear as a pendant, but it also allowed for more fine craftsmanship. In addition to the fleurs-de-lys that decorate its edges, this particular ampulla features Becket’s likeness on both sides. The front depicts a scene with angels flying over him, while the back shows him being attacked by the knights who killed him. This is indicative of the fact that his presence was central to the item’s worth, function and overall appeal. The level of detail lends credence to the idea that ampullae were carefully crafted to ensure that they became special objects of devotion for their owners, in spite of their actual worth.

-Nick DeBellis

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