Material and Meaning in Lead Pilgrims’ Signs

Material and Meaning in Lead Pilgrims’ Signs

Lee, Jennifer (Indiana University – Purdue University of Indianapolis)

Peregrinations, Vol.2, Issue 3 (2009)


Thanks to the increase in medieval archaeology over the last half century, pilgrims‘ badges, ampullae, and other wearable tokens of devotion, most often called ―signs‖ in medieval documents, are now more numerous than any other type of surviving medieval image. Pilgrims acquired these at medieval shrines at souvenirs from pilgrimages accomplished. The vast majority of these small items are cast from lead. Lead is cheap, soft, and melts at a low temperature. It made the pilgrims’ signs inexpensive and easy to produce. Lead also had signifying properties that made it ideal for pilgrims’ signs. This essay discusses the contribution of the material to the meaning of pilgrims’ signs in their medieval context. Various meanings attributed to lead in the Middle Ages are directly relevant to their use in pilgrims‘ signs. In short, lead had little value of its own, it received value from what it touched, and it was used to do exactly that in other contexts, such as in sealing documents.

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