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Earning Your Badge: Mementos of Pilgrimage in the Middle Ages

By Danièle Cybulskie

One of the brilliant things about humankind is our desire to continuously strive to accomplish difficult things: epic journeys, great feats, tough challenges. We do this to learn more about ourselves, to test ourselves, or sometimes to set ourselves on a spiritual journey. One of our most enduring and common impulses is to share our triumphs with the world. While the majority of people who climb Mount Everest today doubtless do it for personal reasons, rare indeed is the person who climbs the mountain and never tells anyone.

Although massive numbers of medieval people were continuously on the move visiting pilgrimage sites, the journeys were often long and difficult, requiring mental and physical stamina (usually in addition to a fair amount of wealth). The route to Jerusalem was notoriously dangerous for pilgrims, despite its spiritual allure. In fact, the Knights Templar were formed for the express purpose of getting pilgrims safely to the city and back again.

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When pilgrims arrived at their destinations, then, it was an accomplishment. At the shrine, they could buy themselves a reminder of successfully completing their journey in the form of a pilgrim’s badge, relic, or souvenir such as a vial of holy water from a blessed fountain. While relics and souvenirs could be worn close to the body, and so could be kept humbly from sight as objects of personal devotion, many pilgrims’ badges were worn on outer clothing, especially on hats.

Pilgrim Badges: Medieval Status Symbols

The interesting thing about wearing your pilgrim’s badge on your hat is that you can’t see it yourself: it won’t be a visual reminder for you of your spiritual journey, but it will be a visual reminder for everyone else. For someone in England or northern France, a pilgrim’s badge from Canterbury Cathedral would endow the wearer with a certain amount of status, but a badge from Santiago de Compostela or Jerusalem would be the medieval equivalent of a wearing a souvenir from Everest, or Antarctica, on the outside of your clothes. It’s no wonder, then, that pilgrims’ badges sold like hotcakes: one Swiss abbey sold 130,000 in two weeks. Pilgrims that made it to another church in Regensburg and found that the badges were all sold out “wept and had to return home empty-handed.” And no wonder – without a badge or other souvenir, there was no visible proof of their having been there.

For the keepers of the shrines, selling pilgrims’ badges helped them both to raise the money necessary to make repairs, and to keep the shrines in good condition by keeping pilgrims from slowly taking them apart stone by stone. As Cornelia Oefelein explains,

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The practice of manufacturing and selling devotional souvenirs and other commemorative merchandise was common in the Holy Land from as early as the sixth century, mainly to circumvent the quarrying of souvenirs from the sacred shrines.

The money raised from selling pilgrims’ badges could also be used for renovation. The church of Saint-Denis outside of Paris required expansion, for example, because it was so mobbed with visitors that the monks occasionally “escaped with the relics through the windows.” Pilgrims wearing badges were also walking billboards and information kiosks, able to answer people’s questions and build the reputation of the shrines and the relics kept within. This brought more visitors, and more money to the shrines, but also more visitors to experience miracles and express their devotion.

At Santiago de Compostela, pilgrims’ badges took the form of the scallop shells found locally, but most badges were cast in metal and depicted a significant moment in the Christian story, or an architectural feature of the shrine. Casting allowed them to be made quickly and cheaply to meet demand. As an added benefit, these thin metal badges were a light weight to carry on the long journey home, and easy to sew on. Even several badges wouldn’t weight your hat down too much.

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All cynicism aside, pilgrimages were difficult journeys that tested the body, and the spirit. While it’s true that some must’ve been undertaken with prestige in mind, most people were sincere in their wishes to see, venerate, and receive blessings, from the sites and the relics they visited. As we still collect mementos of our trips, accomplishments, and achievements, so did people collect pilgrims’ badges: to remember, to feel inspired, and to use as an aid in meditation or devotion.

Further Reading: Cornelia Oefelein, “The Signs—and Bells—of Mass Pilgrimage,” in Mobs: An Interdisciplinary Inquiry, edited by Nancy van Deusen and Leonard Michael Koff (Brill, 2011)

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

Click here to read more articles from the Five-Minute Medievalist

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Top Image: Pilgrim’s Badge, 14th–16th century – image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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