Signs from Shrines

I recently spoke to the very friendly bunch at the Crewe and Nantwich Metal Detecting Society on the theme of Pilgrimage in Medieval England.  From time to time their members come across tiny artefacts with clues about pilgrims and their travels.

These little pewter badges, or signs as they were called in the period, are some of my favourite artefacts from medieval times .  They combine in one small space themes of piety and devotion to Christ and the saints as well as folk belief.  The craftsmanship of these items was often of a very high standard and details were sometimes closely detailed and frequently showed vitality in movement.

These signs were sold at shrines so pilgrims could return home with a memento of their travels, a journey which would often have made an enormous impact on their life, as well as bringing an element of the saint's holiness with them. 

In Cheshire there is evidence of pilgrim souvenirs from the early Christian period, ampullae or holy water flasks brought from the shrine of St Menas in Egypt and dating to the 6th century AD.  These pottery finds have been found across Europe, but rare in Britain, though there are two finds in Cheshire, close to the Mersey, showing the importance of the river as a trade route.  One was found at Meols at the northern end of the Wirral (the artefact is now in the collections of the Grosvenor Museum) and another discovered at Runcorn (now in the collections of Norton Priory).  Though the image is rather worn it depicts St Menas standing betwixt two camels.

Signs became more popular in the later medieval period with the increase in pilgrim travel to the Holy Land.  Some of the earlier souvenirs were simple, such as palm leaves for Jerusalem in memory of Christ's triumphal entry into the city, an emblem which remained popular for centuries and indeed giving rise to the name, (and subsequently the surname), Palmer, which denoted someone who had been to Jerusalem on pilgrimage.  More na├»ve pilgrims to the Holy Land might also be sold some of the clay from which God made Adam, or a bottle containing air which had been breathed by Jesus.

Pilgrims would often want to take away parts of the shrines as souvenirs, breaking off parts of the structure or scraping away at the stone and taking away the dust.  Naturally, the feretrars, those monks in charge of the shrines, did not wish the shrines to be so defaced and a solution developed in producing pilgrim signs which could be sold at official mementoes and thereby protect the shrine as well as satisfying the pilgrim's desire for a souvenir.  These signs could also be blessed and even touched to the shrine in the hope they might absorb some of its sanctity.

In 1492 a plumber in the city of Chester agreed to make a mould depicting an image of St John, presumably for pilgrims attending the nearby church of St John the Baptist.  Maybe his experiences in working with lead gave him the skills necessary to produce a mould for the pewter pilgrim signs.  Pewter, an alloy of lead and tin would give a shiny silver-like appearance.  Lead was very rarely used for these badges, but was commonly used for the ampullae, those holy water flasks, as the pewter's granular structure would crumble if crimped shut, whilst lead could be bent and allow the holy water to be kept inside.

Ampullae in the form of scallop shells, the symbol of St James the Greater, whose shrine was at Compostela in Northern Spain, have been found in a few locations in Cheshire, including the example shown here, discovered near Davenham, and another from a field below the Church of St Mary and All Saints, Great Budworth.  It seems that the pictured example was accidentally lost as one of the loops for hanging this around the pilgrim's neck has snapped.

However in the example below from Nantwich it seems that this has been deliberately deposited, as the loops are still intact but the top of the flask had been snapped off to allow the water to escape.  Ampullae were sometimes deposited in fields to bless the crops, or also to bless or protect a water source.  This particular example was found in a field with three springs.  In a similar fashion, pilgrim signs might also be fastened to barns or stable doors to protect livestock, elements of an ancient folk custom being carried out in parallel with devotions to the established church.
This example was brought back to Cheshire from the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury, one of the most popular in medieval England.  To date it is the only ampulla from St Thomas' shrine discovered in this particular form, though there are dozens of holy water flasks from Canterbury in other forms and this particular design is also well know as a flat badge.  The top of the ampulla would have come to a point as it is Becket's mitre, but had been snapped open to allow the water to escape.

Naturally, as a Cestrian, one of my favourite of all signs has to be that depicting one of the miracles of St Werburgh, patron saint of Chester.  The badge shows the penning in of the wild geese, whereby Werburgh averted a famine.  Later elaboration of the story had Werburgh restoring to life one of these geese which had been killed by a servant of hers. 

Here's the story from a mid-14th century misericord in the quire of the Abbey of St Werburgh (today's Chester Cathedral).

And here it is as a replica of one of the pilgrim signs, this example having been made by Colin Torode of Lionheart Replicas.

The discoveries of original St Werburgh signs show just how far some of the pilgrims had travelled.  Two have been found in Salisbury, Wiltshire, and another on the Thames foreshore in Southwark.  None have so far been found in Cheshire, but we might perhaps expect them more usually to be bought and taken away further from the place of manufacture.  Maybe one day a mould might be found in Chester...

When these pilgrim signs are discovered they cause us to reflect on the piety, devotion and bravery of our ancestors, who set off to places unknown to them, often with no more equipment than a bag and a staff, and certainly without maps or insurance.  I wonder how many of us might be able to do that today?