Pilgrimage en pilgrim badges

For people in the Middle Ages going on a journey was not a pleasure trip but a perilous business. A good reason for leaving familiar surroundings was to undertake a pilgrimage to the tomb of a saint, or a place where relics of saints were venerated. For instance, a pilgrim might pray at a shrine out of gratitude for miraculous healing. For some, however, the journey itself, with all its difficulties, was a form of purification. As well as voluntary pilgrimages there were also penal pilgrimages that were imposed by the courts or the Church. For example, someone found guilty could be told to make a pilgrimage to Rome and stay away for at least five years, and also to bring back evidence that he had actually been there.

It was generally acknowledged that all pilgrims should receive hospitality everywhere, as long as they were clearly recognizable as pilgrims. A serious, pious pilgrim wore a wide cloak, the ‘pelerine’, and a big hat with a wide, floppy brim. In his hand was a wooden pilgrim’s staff and he carried a scrip, a pilgrim’s flask, and had a rosary with him. The most important signs of a pilgrim, however, were the small pewter pilgrims’ badges he pinned to his hat, scrip, or cloak. Every pilgrimage site had its own pilgrims’ badges that were sold as consecrated souvenirs of the sacred place. Just as now in such places of pilgrimage as Lourdes (France) and Santiago de Compostela (Spain), the late medieval souvenir vendors would have set up their stalls close to the church – and then as now, it involved great numbers and a high turnover.

Rome, Jerusalem, and Santiago de Compostela have long been the best-known places of pilgrimage. In Rome the pilgrim bought badges showing the keys of St. Peter, or the ‘Vera Icon’ - the ‘true features’ of Christ, as printed on the kerchief of Veronica. Pilgrims’ insignias with the Cross of Jerusalem were part of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. There it was possible for the pilgrim to have this in the form of a tattoo. You might lose a badge, but with the Cross of Jerusalem permanently tattooed on your arm you showed yourself to be a good Christian! You could also stay nearer home: pilgrimage sites such as Amersfoort (a miraculous statue of the Virgin), Boxtel (the Miracle of the Holy Blood), or Vrouwenpolder (devotion to a painted image of the Virgin), sold their own pilgrims’ badges. At religious festivals when there was a procession in which statues of saints were displayed a large, popular pilgrimage site could draw up to 100,000 pilgrims.

In the late Middle Ages the saints were shown on the insignias according to fixed rules and were immediately recognizable to everyone. St. Adrian, venerated in Geraardsbergen in Flanders, was depicted as an armored warrior with a sword in his right hand and a hammer and anvil in his left, and, as sign of his bravery, under his feet is the lion he conquered. Adrian was a Roman officer who underwent terrible torture because of his Christian beliefs. First his limbs were laid on an anvil and shattered with a hammer, after which he was beheaded with the sword. The holy martyr was the patron saint of soldiers, jailers, smiths, and butchers. He also offered protection against the plague and unexpected death. The badges of the holy pope, Cornelius, can be recognized by the papal tiara on his head, the crossed staff (crux hastata) in one hand and a horn in the other. Cornelius was venerated chiefly as the patron saint of cattle. The horn is an indication of this, and at the same time makes play on his name: the Latin word ‘cornu’ means horn. Usually a small pilgrim is shown next to Cornelius. The Cornelius’ reliquary could be visited at the Flemish abbey of Ninove, not far from Geraardsbergen.

In the late Middle Ages it was believed that a pilgrim’s badge that had been in contact with ‘the sacred’ was a protection against danger and sickness even after the pilgrim reached home. The insignias were fastened to a specially made plank that was hung in the house, or the house altar was decorated with pilgrims’ badges. In Aachen in the first half of the 15th century a new type of pilgrims’ badge was devised – the mirror badge. Because of the increasingly greater numbers of people who came to the display of relics, while it was possible to see the relics and venerate them at a distance, it was no longer possible to actually come close to them. It was thought that the sacred could be received with the help of mirrors. Commercial interests reacted immediately and tiny mirrors held in a frame by small clamps were sold. Pieces of colored paper, small prints or pieces of leather were used as background in these frames. The ‘mirror badge’ spread to s’-Hertogenbosch. There, since the late 14th century at the St. John’s Cathedral there had been a practice of Marian devotion based on a statue of the Virgin that was responsible for miracles. In a book of miracles 500 wonders are recorded that the Blessed Virgin of s’- Hertogenbosch had wrought.