Cataloguing the Museum’s collection of medieval pilgrim badges for Collections Online has been a great opportunity for me to look really closely at our objects and sometimes to find out that items are not at all what they appear to be. A great example recently has been a tiny little badge in the shape of a comb.
This little badge (no. 8737) was catalogued in 1908 as a pilgrim badge of St Blaise with the following entry: ‘Blaise, Saint; a comb, with double row of teeth, divided by a foliated bar in the centre; 13th-14th century’. It was found at Dowgate Hill near the River Thames in the City of London.
These comb badges were thought to relate to St Blaise as he had been martyred in the 4th century by being pulled apart by iron combs (before being beheaded). Some of the relics of St Blaise were kept at Canterbury Cathedral in a shrine by the high altar so it was thought that comb badges may have been brought by pilgrims visiting Canterbury.
While I was cataloguing this badge I double-checked its old record card, which had a better picture than the one in the 1908 catalogue. I noticed something rather odd about the decoration in the centre. What had been described as a ‘foliated bar’ (i.e. a band of foliage such as leaves) seemed to be a line of four phalluses joined by a wavy line. This was very intriguing. As I wasn’t sure whether to trust the photograph I went to the store to look at the object itself. When I peered at the object I realised the photo was correct – there were no leaves on the object, just phalluses.
So what did this mean? Clearly this badge could not have been a saintly souvenir. I knew that we had a couple of so-called ‘sexual’ or ‘erotic’ badges in our collection (one depicting a penis inside a purse for example). Many bawdy badges have been found on the Continent in places like the Netherlands and France showing all kinds of ‘sexual’ imagery but this type of thing is rare in London. In a catalogue of medieval Dutch badges I discovered a comb badge decorated with a copulating couple so obviously the link between combs and sex was not unknown in the medieval period. It was exciting to think that I had re-identified a badge from our collections.
I consulted with a colleague to see what he thought of the discovery. He suggested that it would be worth investigating whether the word for ‘comb’ in the medieval period had a naughty double-meaning. He thought that it might work as a pun in medieval French. Luckily I have a contact who is an expert on medieval French and passed the idea by him. He confirmed that the word ‘penil’ in Anglo-Norman (the type of medieval French introduced into England by the Normans in 1066) meant both ‘little comb’ and ‘penis’, ‘pubes’ or ‘groin’. There is an Anglo-Norman dictionary online where you can check this. He thought it very likely that the pun would still have been in use in medieval London in the 14th and 15th century. However, we don’t know for sure that our comb badge represents this double meaning – at the moment it is just an interesting possibility.
So why would someone wear a badge like this? It may be a smutty version of the beautiful ivory combs given as love tokens in aristocratic circles – perhaps the badge is satirising courtly love. There’s also a theory that badges with bawdy or lewd symbols were worn to distract the Evil Eye away from their wearers and could therefore have protected people against the Black Death. Other scholars have suggested that these badges might have been worn by sex workers to advertise their availability or by young men as a sign of their virility.
There’s still a lot of work to do on this and I’m only at the beginning of my research. However, it looks like the comb badges of ‘St Blaise’ are certainly sexual in nature and not connected to the saint or a holy shrine. I look forward to finding out more in the future.