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The world upside down. Secular badges and the iconography of the Late Medieval Period: ordinary pins with multiple meanings

The world upside down. Secular badges and the iconography of the Late Medieval Period: ordinary pins with multiple meanings

By Sebastiaan Ostkamp

Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries, Vol.1:2 (2009)

Abstract: Thanks to the use of metal detectors vast numbers of Late Medieval pilgrim and secular badges have been found in the Netherlands. The secular badges give us a glimpse into the worldview of Late Medieval ordinary people. The decorative motifs on the badges and on simple knife handles, ceramic plates and other examples of Late Medieval material culture reveal a picture which can also be found in miniatures in (sometimes famous) Books of Hours. They show that both the elite and the common man availed themselves of a comparable iconography. Besides the amulet function of the badges another meaning is found in the co-existence of comparable religious examples.

An obvious explanation can be found in the popular Late Medieval theme of the inversion of the world and its natural order: the world upside down. This was commonly expressed in the representation depicted with or as an anti-image. By contrasting the most holy with the most profane, Late Medieval people emphasized the negative aspects of sins. Both positive and negative symbols set an example for a lifestyle of chastity. Contemporary standards and values were principally based on the omnipresent Catholic belief system. The secular badges often represent sinners, who in pursuing brief earthly pleasures were seen as serving the devil instead of focussing on an eternal life by the side of Christ and his saints.

In this respect we may even doubt our interpretation of these badges as items of secular meaning. That the images are almost blasphemous indicates the absolute sway of religion in the medieval world, where even striking secular images served a religious function. The provenance of these finds are urban and rural domestic contexts as well as monasteries and castles. This reveals the importance of chastity to all ranks in Late Medieval society. It is clear that this phenomenon is not typically urban, as sometimes suggested by written sources.

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