Hanneke van Asperen
A Virgin Cast in Lead:
Production and Reproduction of Pilgrims’ Badges in the Middle Ages
In 1174 Guernes de Pont-Sainte-Maxence completed his Life of Thomas Becket, in which he writes that people brought back ‘a palm from Jerusalem | and from Rocamadour a Virgin cast in lead | from Santiago a shell fashioned from lead | now God has given Saint Thomas this ampulla | which is cherished and honoured by all.’1 The ampullas of Thomas Becket, which at the time Guernes wrote his verse biography of the saint were a recent phenomenon – after all, Becket was murdered in 1170 and canonised in 1174 – were part of a long tradition of lead badges, of which those from Rocamadour (fig. 1) and Santiago de Compostella were among the better-known examples, at least in the eyes of the scribe from Pont-Sainte-Maxence. From that time, more and more pilgrims’ badges were sold to increasing numbers of pilgrims at a growing number of holy sites. In contemporary sources, these pilgrims’ badges are referred to simply as ‘signs’ or signa signa in Latin, a word that is also found on the badges themselves: “Behold the sign” [ecce signum] begins the inscription on the badge from Amiens in which the head of John the Baptist is displayed to the people.
The badges – cheap and instantly recognisable – were aimed at a mass public. All those who undertook a pilgrimage wanted a souvenir of their journey and large quantities of these objects have been found in archaeological digs or as chance finds, especially in Zeeland, where the composition of the soil has ensured their survival. The ability to produce the badges in large numbers was the secret of their success and also their weak point. Made from an inexpensive alloy of tin and lead with a low melting point, the badges were quick and easy to manufacture, which meant they could also easily be imitated. In practice, it was difficult for the church factories to keep control of the production of these badges, though they certainly attempted to.
In a papal bull issue by Innocent III in 1200, the authority to cast lead badges [signis plumbeis] depicting Saint Peter and Saint Paul and the profits from their sale were accorded exclusively to the canons of the papal basilicas where these apostles were buried and venerated (fig. 2).2 Those who produced lead badges of Saint Peter and Saint Paul without the permission of the Vatican risked excommunication. In order to underline the importance of controlling the production, the letter stated explicitly that pilgrims should purchase the lead badges as proof that they had been to Rome. The need to threaten excommunication suggests that there had been problems with unauthorised production and sale of the badges by outsiders.
The more popular the pilgrimage destination, the greater was the revenue from the sale of badges and the greater the chance of forger. This was the case in Wilsnack, which became the best-known site for the cult of Eucharistic adoration in northern Europe after 1383 following a miracle with three hosts. As the English mystic Margery Kempe wrote around 1430 in her account of her own pilgrimages, crowds flocked to this city in Brandenburg, ‘[…] the whech three oostys and precyows blood ben ther onto this day had in gret worschip and reverens and sowt fro many a cuntré’.3 Lead souvenirs of the three hosts, one below and two above with crosses (fig. 3) have been found in large numbers not only in Germany but also in Sweden, Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium and England. [Kunera] The image of the three hosts became iconic: it was so readily associated with Wilsnack that it was unnecessary to add the name or coat of arms of the city to the badges. The three hosts belonged to Wilsnack and nowhere else.
In 1396, only thirteen years after the emergence of the cult, the Bishop of Havelberg condemned those pilgrims who sold on their Wilsnack badges for profit.4 Apparently there were people elsewhere who were willing to pay a high price for the relatively inexpensive badges from the popular cult town. Lead badges could not only be acquired cheaply (and sold at a profit) but they were also easy to imitate. One example of a Wilsnack badge (fig. 3: front and back) has an eyelet with a pin through it on the rear, which could not have been used for affixing the badge because the pin was cast together with the badge and is therefore stuck to the object. This is clearly a copy of a badge that was recast in its entirety. The copy has an eyelet at the top, allowing it to be sewn onto clothing or hung rather than pinned. Copies such as this one may have been commissioned by the factory at Sankt Nicolai in Wilsnack but it is not inconceivable that they were made by forgers hoping to profit from the sale of souvenirs from Wilsnack.
Badges from popular pilgrimage destinations were not only copied but were also adapted for use in other holy sites. Some church factories designed badges with imagery borrowed from pilgrims’ badges from other locations, usually an influential pilgrimage site whose cult object had already demonstrated its beneficial effects, such as the aforementioned Rocamadour (fig. 1). The almond-shaped souvenirs from the town in the Auvergne were so well known throughout Europe [Kunera: browse Insignes & Ampullen > Maria > Maria, Rocamadour] that they became the prototype for badges commemorating the Virgin in various other places, including Vauvert and Le Puy in France and as far afield as Riga.
Church factories from new pilgrimage sites that were still building a reputation and whose badges did not yet have a fixed form were more likely to model their badges on those of other religious sites. The form of the earliest souvenirs from Den Bosch - a circular frame surrounding a tripartite arcade with the Virgin flanked by two figures – was based on that of the badges from Aachen (compare figs. 4 and 5).
The two towers above the framework also bear comparison with souvenirs from Aachen (fig. 6), and Den Bosch also manufactured mirrored badges, which were very likely inspired by examples from Aachen.
That Aachen, like Den Bosch, venerated the Virgin, had witnessed numerous miracles and had attracted pilgrims for many years must all have played a role in Den Bosch’s decision to model its badges on the German city’s examples. Den Bosch wanted to project the image that it could rank alongside Aachen and also hoped that it could ride the success of the imperial city.
In short, pilgrims’ badges united several contradictory phenomena: they were inexpensive yet emotionally charged and highly desirable and thus also valuable; they were souvenirs of a pilgrimage, but the owner need not have travelled to the pilgrimage site in order to acquire one; they were associated with their place of origin but could be made or imitated elsewhere. The unauthorised reproduction of badges was forbidden because it diminished the revenue of the church, but it was impossible to police. As a pilgrimage site grew in popularity, so too did the risk of forgery. Despite their strong connection with their place of origin, because the badges were so easy to produce and reproduce they were no proof that someone had undertaken a pilgrimage, even if this is what they were intended to signify. People in the Middle Ages were aware of these nuances, but they probably did not perceive them as paradoxical in a world in which everything was connected, everything good had an evil counterpart and the earthly was a reflection of the heavenly. Although inexpensive and mass produced, through their imagery they were inextricably bound up with cult objects and, by extension, with the divinity that such cult objects manifested. They were signs of the divine within everyone’s reach.
Guernes de Pont-Sainte-Maxence, La vie de saint Thomas le martyr, archevêque de Canterbury, translated by Gerard Forde. ↩
Collectio Bullarum, breviorum aliorumque diplomatum Sacrosanctae Basilicae Vaticanae, 3 vols, Rome 1747-1752, I, p. 82. L. Schiaparelli, ‘Le carte antiche dell’archivio capitolare di San Pietro in Vaticano’, Archivio della Reale Società Romana di Storia Patria, no. 24-25 (1901-02), pp. 393-496 and pp. 273-354. ↩
Lynn Staley (ed.), The Book of Margery Kempe, University of Rochester 1996. ↩
Peter Browe, Die eucharistischen Wunder des Mittelalters, Breslau 1938, p. 157. ↩