For centuries, tourism was a pursuit largely reserved for nobility. By the Middle Ages though, the rise of Christianity and success of the crusades saw a surge in pilgrimages across all classes, for religious salvation, to pray for relatives or simply to escape the misery of medieval life. This was the first time people were travelling en masse for reasons other than war, trade or industry – and was the beginning of tourism proper.
Pilgrims and backpackers
Tourists weren’t much different in the 14th century: they brought wonder and ready cash, and local businesses sold them cheap souvenirs. Pilgrim badges were mass-produced (the most popular shrines sold over 100,000 badges a year), and sold at sites of major Christian pilgrimage for pilgrims to show where they’d stopped off. They sound a lot like those sew-on flags backpackers buy to document their visits to Thailand and Mexico. Pilgrims were like backpackers in many ways – frugal, long-term travellers who flock the same places seeking enlightenment.
Fall from grace
Much like the modern-day itinerant tourist, they were wary of being ripped off. This badge is thought to come from Boxley Abbey, a common pilgrim check-in en route to Canterbury, where there was a life-sized figure of Christ on the cross named Rood of Grace. It was famous for occasionally shedding tears, making facial expressions and even foaming at the mouth (which doesn’t sound very dignified, let along divine). In 1538 the Bishop of Rochester (loyal to Henry VIII) discovered it to be a mechanical fraud and publicly destroyed it as proof of Catholicism’s illegitimacy.
This brooch is from further afield – the shrine at Mont-Saint-Michel in France, near Normandy. According to Google Maps nowadays this would take 58 hours to walk non-stop (using the ferry crossing at Portsmouth). You can imagine that on 12th century roads the trip would’ve taken considerably longer.
Part of the popularity of pilgrim badges was due to the ritual of touching them against local relics, in order to soak up some of their saintly power for use back home. This ampulla is an example of another vessel used for transporting blessings – it could scoop up a little holy water, and then be attached to string by the lug holes either for wear while travelling, or to hang on the wall at home. Very convenient.
Heart on sleeve
Not all trinkets were religious though – this one is a simple love token that (but for the spelling of ‘herte be trew’) wouldn’t seem all that out-of-place in a market half a millennium later. Over 50 medieval pewter heart badges have been found in London, most of these on the Thames foreshore.
The Museum of London has over 700 pilgrim badges in its collection, some of which you can see in the Thames Highway gallery at the Museum of London Docklands. You can also browse through our medieval pilgrim souvenirs online here.