Bawdy badges and the Black Death : late medieval apotropaic devices against the spread of the plague

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Bawdy badges and the Black Death : late medieval apotropaic devices against the spread of the plague

Lena Mackenzie Gimbel

Master of Arts, Department of History, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky, May (2012)

Abstract

This thesis examines a large corpus of enigmatic pilgrimage badges dating from roughly 1350-1500 CE. The badges were brought to light during archaeological excavations of water sites throughout the Schelde Estuary in the Netherlands, the riverbanks of the Seine in France, and the Thames in England. A small selection of the iconography of the corpus includes: ambulant vulvas on stilts, winged and crowned pudenda pilgrims complete with pilgrims’ staffs and rosaries, couples having sex, and ambulant winged phalli. The few scholars who have attempted their study have labeled the badges as erotic, obscene, rude, naughty, and pornographic. The advanced study of the tokens provides a contrasting interpretation. Ultimately, this thesis argues that the bawdy badges functioned as apotropaic, or protective devices, meant to safeguard their owners from the threat of the evil eye, which during the worst outbreaks of the Bubonic Plague, was thought capable of transmitting the disease.




Archaeological excavations of water sites during the previous two centuries throughout the Schelde Estuary in the Netherlands, and along the riverbanks of the Seine in France and the Thames in England, have brought to light a large corpus of enigmatic leaden pilgrimage badges dating from the mid-fourteenth to the early-sixteenth centuries. I A small selection o f the iconography o f the curious corpus includes: ambulant vulvas on stilts, winged and crowned vulva pilgrims complete with pilgrims’ staffs and rosaries, couples having sex, and ambulant winged phalli. The few scholars who have attempted their study have variously labeled the badges as erotic, obscene, rude, naughty, and pornographic. The advanced study of the tokens provides a “unique, and still largely untapped, perspective on late medieval devotional practice, the border between the sacred and profane, [and] the social as well as apotropaic function of ornament.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Louisville

Sharan Newman