Losing his head: John Schorn – an unofficial saint

By meriel jeater on 9 Jan 2013
Head from scorn badge

Head fragment from a John Schorn Badge

Over the last year I have been cataloguing the Museum of London’s amazing collection of over 700 pilgrim badges and souvenirs (that’s just the badges in the museum’s reserve collection – we have even more in our Archaeological Archive!). This has been a labour of love for me as they are my favourite objects in the Museum’s collection. I’m just going to reveal the story behind one of the pilgrim badges from the Museum’s collection but if you want to find out more about the badges, who wore them and why they were made, visit Collections Online. Of all the badges of saints I have examined over the last few months, I am particularly fond of those depicting John Schorn, an unofficial saint from Buckinghamshire.

John Schorn was the miracle-working rector of North Marston from around 1282 until his death in 1315. He was most famous as an exorcist who trapped the Devil in a boot. Schorn was never an official saint but his shrine was a popular pilgrimage destination in the 15th and early 16th centuries.

Badges of John Schorn often show him holding a long boot with a little bat-like Devil’s head sticking out of the top, in reference to his miracle. The Museum of London has 14 John Schorn badges, bought by pilgrims visiting his shrine. Whilst cataloguing, a particular fragment of a badge caught my eye. It was a saint’s head, shown by the halo around it, connected to something that looked a little bit like holly. The badge had been added to the computer catalogue in 1981 with the description ‘head of saint and foliage? With pin’. When I inspected the badge a bit closer, I realised that the so-called ‘foliage’ was actually a winged Devil’s head that had been bent upwards. It could only mean it was part of a John Schorn badge. After a moment of excitement, I started to wonder what might have happened to John Schorn’s body.

I knew we had several Schorn badges in the collection without heads so decided to do some digging. Whilst investigating one of the headless badges a bit further I discovered that when it was catalogued by the Guildhall Museum in 1908 it actually had a head. What had happened to it?

Headless scorn badge

Headless John Schorn badge

Schorn badge Guildhall

John Schorn badge depicted in the Guildhall catalogue, 1908

I went down to the store and looked at the head fragment and the headless badge and, just for the hell of it, held them together to see if they fitted …and they did! Obviously at some point between 1908 and 1981 the head had snapped off the badge and the two parts had been separated. After doing a little ‘dance of joy’ I took the pieces to our Archaeological Conservation Department to ask if the pieces could be fixed back together.

Schorn badge under microscope

Back of the devil’s head fragment seen through a microscope

My conservation colleague Carmen Vida worked painstakingly to reunite the delicate pieces. Here’s what she said about her work:

‘When I started work on this badge, my objective was to reunite the pieces. This was a challenge, given the small size of the badge. It meant I had to work under the microscope to focus on very small areas, stick tiny surfaces together and introduce reinforcements. Whilst looking at the pieces under the microscope, I noticed two bits of lead folded over onto the back of the devil’s head and wing (see image above). The 1908 photograph of this badge showed the devil had one surviving horn, which seemed to have been lost over the years, but… was I looking at the other horn? I got so excited as I started the delicate operation of unfolding the tiny bits back, and even more so when I saw they indeed were one of the devil’s horns and part of the wing!  Putting the badge back together was an incredible improvement to the object but, for me, finding the horn and a bit of the wing was what really gave it back its character, as the devil looks much more like one now. It’s another way in which conservation contributes to the history of an object, and it was very rewarding seeing the object coming back to life in that way.’

Complete Scorn badge

Complete John Schorn badge

And here is the badge, complete again after years of separation. I’m so delighted that John Schorn has got his head back. You can see the record for the badge on Collections Online.

4 thoughts on “Losing his head: John Schorn – an unofficial saint

  1. Douglas Colyer says:

    Reading Karen Maitland’s ‘Company of Liars’ I noted that Sir John Shorn(e) was part of the story, so I checked on the Internet and found your interesting article.

    1. Meriel Jeater says:

      Thanks Douglas – I’m glad you found the article interesting.

  2. Chris brown says:

    Congratulations on reuniting Johns head and body. Is there any understanding regarding whether these badges were sold at north marston or at Windsor?

    1. Meriel Jeater says:

      Hi Chris,
      Thanks for your question. Badges that depict John Schorn as an un-framed standing figure are likely to have been made at Windsor. Badges depicting Schorn in a pulpit surrounded by an architectural canopy are probably made at North Marston (a badge mould of this type has been found near North Marston). For more information and discussion, see Spencer, B (1998, reprinted 2010): Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges, particularly pg. 9 and pg. 192-195.

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