Erotic badges

There are a number of drawings, prints and paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries in which pilgrims are depicted with pilgrims’ badges sewn or pinned onto their hood or cloak, as can be seen in the drawing of a pilgrim by Peter Breughel the Elder. Unfortunately, research into paintings or drawings in which medieval persons are shown with erotic insignias on their hat or collar has been without result. There are scarcely any written sources that give any explanation for such things, nor is it known where such erotic badges were produced. Nevertheless, they are found, also in the Netherlands, with a frequency equal to that of the religious insignias, and with an endless variety of subjects, sometimes depicted in, what to us seems, a bizarre manner.

There are erotic pins that show couples making love, men and women with their legs raised to display their sexual organs, or holding them like a flag. More explicitly sexual are depictions of male and female genitalia in all possible human or animals forms, and which seem to function as independent beings. The imagination of medieval people was inexhaustible: phalluses with wings, with legs and feet, or claws, phalluses with crowns, with a bell tied round them, bearing a wheelbarrow pushed by a figure, or dancing round a phallus tree. Three phalluses project out of the side pocket of a purse, and a formidable penis sticking out from a pair trousers is brought to an erection by two charming ladies. On other badges women play vedels while sitting on a wandering phallus beast.

The female sexual organ, the vulva, is also depicted regularly, again as an independent living creature, and often together with a phallus: a crowned vulva is born on a litter by phallus beasts, and on another pin we find a vulva with above her a winged phallus beast ‘caressing her tenderly’. Sometimes a crowned vulva is on horseback, handling phalluses, arrows and/or a bow, or we see the very telling representation of a phallus on the top rung of a ladder being pursued by a vulva.

The group of insignias with depictions of a vulva clad as a pilgrim, complete with hat, staff and rosary, seem to be a parody of both the pilgrims and the badges that were sold to them as souvenirs at pilgrim sites. On a number of these, the vulva pilgrim has pinned a phallus insignia on each ‘shoulder’ – the ultimate satire!

We know that pilgrims badges were sold as souvenirs at pilgrimage sites and at Church feasts; we can assume that these sexual badges were sold in the same commercial fashion by itinerant peddlers and storytellers, at annual markets and fairs, in fact everywhere large groups of people gathered.? Considering the archeological evidence, the group of erotic insignias must be dated in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century.