From saintly to saucy: the medieval badge that wasn’t as innocent as it seemed

By meriel jeater on 25 Jan 2013

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.

11 thoughts on “From saintly to saucy: the medieval badge that wasn’t as innocent as it seemed

  1. Dom Ramos says:

    It is surely a design punning on the word ‘cockscomb/coxcomb’. See:

    http://www.synonym.com/definition/coxcomb/
    The noun coxcomb has 3 senses? (no senses from tagged texts)
    1. coxcomb, cockscomb

    (a conceited dandy who is overly impressed by his own accomplishments)
    2. cockscomb, coxcomb

    (a cap worn by court jesters; adorned with a strip of red)
    3. comb, cockscomb, coxcomb

    (the fleshy red crest on the head of the domestic fowl and other gallinaceous birds)

    There was a comic play called ‘The Coxcomb’ by the Jacobean playwrights Beaumont and Fletcher.

  2. Peter Dale says:

    They do look a bit floppy- not much of a sign of virility – they did better in Pompei!

  3. Dermot McCabe says:

    Fascinating. I can imagine it being a discreet way of showing you were a sex worker.

  4. Beth Mitchell says:

    Considering how the penises are all flaccid, they may not be an indication of virility specifically. This does not rule out simple puerile humor, however. That would be my guess. Cleverly hidden naughty bits are always funny.

  5. Susan in Las Vegas says:

    You are aware that St Blaise was martyred with WOOL combs – not HAIR combs? They’re totally different.

  6. Chris says:

    An interesting story!

    Why must it be either connected with a saint’s cult or sexual? Why can’t it be both?

  7. Meriel Jeater says:

    Hi everyone,
    Thanks very much for your comments and suggestions.
    Susan in Las Vegas: yes – I did know that he was martyred with wool combs, which, as you point out, makes it even more unlikely that this badge is a comb of St Blaise. There is a St Blaise badge on the Kunera website http://www.kunera.nl/ (search for ‘blaise’) showing a bishop holding a much more suitable long-handled wool comb.
    Dom Ramos: I shall look into the origin of the word coxcomb. I have a feeling it is post-medieval but I may be wrong.
    Thanks again,
    Meriel

  8. Meriel Jeater says:

    Just a little update for Don Ramos: I have looked up the combination of cock and comb in a Middle English Dictionary from 1100-1500 and there are examples of it in texts from the time. There is a 15th century poem/song called ‘I have a gentil cok’ (which has a great double-meaning in the last line) so this line of enquiry about the meaning of this badge looks promising – thank you for the suggestion!
    Meriel

  9. Chris says:

    I’ve also heard the theory that the “sexy” badges may have been worn as a deliberate satire on the religious ones — a more or less discreet way of mocking religious practices.

    I’m a historical reenactor and I find it amusing to wear, very occasionally, one of these badges with a double meaning. People who see me wearing it always do a double-take, especially since apparently I don’t strike them as the sort of person who would do that. ;)

  10. Dave Rayner says:

    Although you mention that Anglo-Norman French penil = comb/pubes you failed to pick up on the origin of that term – the word pene, which refers to very long knapped wool cloth or long fur and hence pubic hair. The link between wool combing and pubes is clear.

    Although Anglo-Norman French was used in some official documents up to the 15th century, it is doubtful that it would have been widely understood by the general population, particularly in regard to bawdy plays on words, after about the end of the 13th century; Middle English would have been the language of the streets.

    Both male and female genitals appear on late medieval pilgrim badges, mainly from continental Europe, and these may have a religious connection that has been lost, as so much of medieval symbolism has been lost. I believe it would be incorrect to view these with an entirely modern sense of decorum and propriety, since the people who made and used them had entirely different world views. The overtly erotic shela-na-gig figures seen among the decoration on many medieval British churches testify to this.

  11. Meriel Jeater says:

    Dear Dave Rayner,
    Thanks very much for your comment on the origin of the word penil – very useful. I agree with you that the meaning behind these seemingly ‘erotic’ symbols is far from straightforward, which is what makes them so fascinating. Thanks again for your thoughts.
    Meriel

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