In his brilliant denunciation of late medieval pilgrimage culture, A Pilgrimage for Religion’s Sake, the Dutch humanist Erasmus (1466-1536) mocked the imaginary pilgrim Ogygius. Ogygius, Erasmus wrote, returned from Santiago and Walsingham ‘choked with tin and leaden images on every side.’ Erasmus was referring here to the widespread custom of buying souvenir pilgrim badges, usually made of cheap tin-lead alloy, alongside other souvenirs like prayer-cards, terracotta tokens, and length of ribbon. Pilgrim badges could be purchased cheaply, and worn on the journey back home, an amuletic sign that one had reached the shrine and garnered its spiritual benefits. Each shrine had different kinds of badges, usually showing the patron saint: St George slaying the dragon, the Virgin enthroned, St Thomas Becket in his bishop’s mitre. Others were secular, including the famous phallus badges found in the Low Countries, possibly used as folk-medicine charms, love tokens, gendered satires, or celebrations of life:
However, the most common kinds of pilgrim badge were simple coin-like tokens; from Santiago these showed the scallop shell, and from Canterbury they showed the head of St Thomas, as in this example from the Metropolitan Museum in New York:
What did a pilgrim do with their souvenir badges once they got home? An intriguing answer to this question can be found in several late medieval prayer books and books of hours, into which pilgrims have sewn or pasted their pilgrim badges. Examples of such books are rare, but the British Library has recently acquired one in the 2013 sale of The Law Society’s Mendham Collection, formerly housed at the University of Kent.
This book of hours (now London, British Library Egerton MS 3883) was made in the Low Countries, probably Bruges, in the fifteenth century for the English market. In at least three places, the pilgrim – probably an English woman, who had some prayers added later in the fifteenth century – placed pilgrim badges into the book. The badges themselves have been lost, but they have left imprints – known as ‘off-sets’ – on the page, as can be seen below. Here, a prayer to St Thomas of Canterbury has been erased (as required by the royal decree of 1538, which sought to wipe out the cult of St Thomas); beneath the erasure a circular mark is clearly visible where the badge was once placed. This would have been a memento, for the pilgrim, of the precious trip to Canterbury, linking the prayer to St Thomas with the moment at which the pilgrim visited his shrine:
Similar marks appear elsewhere in the book: on folios 124v, 133r and 159v, all of which feature prayers to the Virgin Mary – perhaps reflecting pilgrim badges bought on visits to Walsingham in Norfolk, the major English shrine to the Virgin. The book is also notable for some Middle English religious poetry by the fifteenth-century Chaucerian and monk John Lydgate, unfairly famous for writing more lines of poetry in English than anyone else, before or since.
These marks left by pilgrim badges offer me an intriguing category of evidence in my study of pilgrims’ books and reading. Might many other books contain similar marks, hitherto unnoticed? Were the pages of a manuscript book a common place in which to stow one’s pilgrim badges? The English pilgrim who owned Egerton 3883 may have picked up the custom on the Continent, as several similar examples from the Low Countries survive. In the Soane Hours (London, Sir John Soane’s Museum MS 4), a Flemish book of hours, pilgrim badges have been added to the image of St Sebastian. A more impressive example is from one page of a fifteenth-century manuscript in the Dutch Royal Library, which features no fewer than 23 pilgrim badges from around France and the Low Countries. Here, the medieval book became a kind of souvenir album for the dedicated pilgrim, carrying the record of past journeys and promising future spiritual rewards:
The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek MS 77 L 60, breviary with pilgrim badges. Via www.kb.nl
Ostkamp, Sebastiaan, ‘The world upside down: secular badges and the iconography of the late medieval period‘, Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 1-2 (2009).
Spencer, Brian, Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges, Medieval Finds in Excavations from London 7 (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 1998).
Stockhorst, Stefanie, ‘Passionate Pilgrims: Secular Lead Badges as Precursors for Emblemata Amatoria‘, Profane Imagery in the Marginal Arts of the Middle Ages, ed. Elaine C. Block and Malcolm Jones (Turnhout: Brepols, 2009), 157-81