Pilgrim Badges

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Pilgrim Badge
Source: London Museum

Pilgrim badge from the shrine of St James in Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain. This badge is in the shape of a scallop shell. In the centre of the shell is a standing figure of St James dressed as a pilgrim with a cloak, a satchel and holding a staff. He has a large nimbus (halo) around his head. The edge of badge is beaded.Speaking of souvenirs, medieval pilgrims used to bring home tin badges from pilgrimage sites. As the British Museum puts it: “Pilgrims’ badges were a symbol of the relationship between the saint and the pilgrim who had undertaken the journey to the relic.”

There are even records of pilgrims holding up mirrors within sight of the relics, to reflect and contain rays of light from the relic. Johannes Gutenberg — yes, that Gutenberg — reportedly made pilgrim mirrors for sale before turning to inventing the printing press. The mirror, having once held a true image of the saint became a sacred relic as well. It also reminds me of all the modern day pilgrims holding up their camera phones to do the same — record the image in light coming from the relic; we figured out how to hold the image permanently in 1839.

Pilgrim badge from the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. This badge depicts the mitred head-shaped reliquary bust that held the remains of Becket’s skull. This type of badge, which depicts the head reliquary as a silhouette without any frame, is the most common of all Canterbury pilgrim souvenirs. Along the base is an inscription: ‘THOMAS’. The badge has snapped in two at the neck, which was the weakest point on this type badge. Sometimes such badges were deliberately folded at the neck, which made them liable to breaking.The badges, whether with mirrors or images associated with the saint, were stitched to pilgrim’s cloaks and hat brims. They were sold by the thousands and hundreds have survived, but given the number of badges found in the Thames, there may also have been a tradition of throwing the badges brought from Canterbury (the shrine of Thomas a Becket, murdered by order of King Henry the 8th), into the river once the pilgrim was home in London again.

The British Museum Digital Pilgrim Project recently made available 3D scans of some of these badges, so you can turn around and examine Thomas’ face from any angle on your computer screen. Here he is:

Medieval badge - 14c


My current “home” icon is a medieval badge as well…

A rare medieval pewter badge, dating to 1300 – 1500 AD. The badge depicts a young king, but I think he looks a bit like me ;-). Source: Brian Spencer’s Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges.

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