Pilgrim Badges from Santiago de Compostela
A Medieval Network
Although pilgrim badges might look insignificant in comparison to other works of art, they are a valuable source of information for medieval iconography. You could say that these emblems were the souvenirs of the Middle Ages. Even though exchange of culture was limited during this historic period, pilgrim badges did end up all over Europe. From the south of Italy to the northern parts of Scandinavia and from the United Kingdom to Eastern Europe. Despite seeming irrelevant objects these small badges were great carriers of the visual arts. Apart from being object of visual information, they even functioned as means of propaganda. From the twelfth until the fifteenth century the badges took on a role that would later be taken on by books and pamphlets. In my research paper I looked at the different functions the badges fulfilled and via what routes they ended up all across Europe. I focussed on pilgrim badges taken from Santiago de Compostela, as this pilgrimage is often thought to be the most popular of the Middle Ages.
All were small, most cheap as could be.
Pilgrim badges were produced, purchased and dispersed in substantial numbers. They were often small and not very expensive. The miniature images were sold to pilgrims when they arrived at their destination, holy places like Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. Most pilgrims wore the badges on clothing, predominantly their hats or cloaks. Both rich and poor, the sick and healthy, were owners of these small artefacts. The most important function of a badge was to protect its carrier from dangers on their return journey.
The legend of James the Greater - How Santiago de Compostela came to exist
Unfortunately not a lot is known of the life of James the Greater. According to popular believe in the Middle Ages, the body of St. James the Greater, the apostle martyred in 42 AD, was miraculously transported from Jerusalem to Galicia, a region in Spain. In the first couple of centuries his shrine at Santiago de Compostela was just a local sanctuary, but in the 11th century it gained widespread fame throughout Europe. In the 12th century it was established as the third most important pilgrimage in Christianity, after Jerusalem and Rome. Santiago de Compostela quickly became popular because of its relative short distance from countries like France and the Netherlands, especially when compared to Jerusalem. Furthermore, a lot of pilgrims felt that a large Christian presence in the region was needed, as it had only just been taken back from the Moors.
Pilgrim badges from Santiago de Compostela
Example of a simple, 15th century pilgrim badge from Santiago de Compostela, found in Reimerswaal (The Netherlands), 65 x 71 mm. Source: H.J.E. Van Beuningen, e.a., Heilig en profaan - laatmiddeleeuwse insignes uit openbare en particuliere collecties, Cothen, 1993.
Miniature images from Northern Spain stand out from other badges in having the shape of a Pecten Jacobaes (also known as the St James scallop). This is the most important attribute of James the Greater; it later became part of the visual language of all pilgrimages. As all Medieval badges, the miniature images from Santiago are small, mass produced and simple in their iconic depiction. The sort of material differed from those used at other holy destinations, notably scallops and jet, a black mineral much present in the surroundings of Santiago.
Routes to and from Santiago
By the thirteenth century, the pilgrims from England, Ireland, northern Germany and Scandinavia mostly took ships to the coast of Galicia (northern Spain). A majority of pilgrims from other destinations travelled over land. According to the ‘Liber Sancti Jacobi’ four main routes can be distinguished: Paris/Tours, Vézelay, Le Puy and Arles. The routes crossed the Pyrenees and converged into one road across northern Spain that went from Puente la Reina to Santiago de Compostela. In addition there were many alternative routes from all over western and eastern Europe. Indeed the main cities around these different routes formed a cross-European network where knowledge was dispersed and a visual tradition shared. Recovered pilgrim badges show us just how interconnected Medieval Europe was. Pilgrim badges are of more historic value than their mere decorative context; they also provide us with knowledge about shared iconography across Europe.
- Ashley, K., and M. Deegan, Being a pilgrim: Art and Ritual on the Medieval Routes to Santiago, Farnham, 2009.
- Beuningen, H.J.E. van, “Heilig en Profaan”, Rotterdam Papers (part I-III), Cothen, 1993.
- Kay Davidson, L. en M. Dunn-Wood, Pilgrimage in the Middle Ages: A Research Guide, New York, 1993.
- Kroon, M., “Medieval Pilgrim Badges and their Iconographic Aspects”, Art and Architecture of Late Medieval Pilgrimage in Northern Europe and the British Isles, Boston, 2005.
- Spencer, B. Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges, London, 2010.