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Ex Votos

(2,547 words)

Author(s): Sarah Blick
Votive objects were a ubiquitous part of medieval pilgrimage. As part of the "economy of salvation," votives represented a gift-exchange with the sacred. The essence of pilgrimage vows was a transaction between saint and supplicant. Vows were made to a specific saint and a specific place where relics resided, and miracle stories made it clear that the saint's help was contingent on actions promised and performed by the supplicant. This created a relationship between the saint and the supplicant …

Reliquaries of Thomas Becket

(876 words)

Author(s): Sarah Blick
The cult of St Thomas Becket, martyred in 1170, spread rapidly throughout Europe and, as legends of his sanctity grew so too did demand for his relics: pieces of his garments, vials of his blood (diluted with water), and more. And because many churches acquired these relics, the reliquaries made to celebrate them became a common sight. The cult was particularly popular in England and western France reflecting the unified English-French Plantagenet rule. This spurred artisans in Limoges, a center…

Watching Chambers

(640 words)

Author(s): Sarah Blick
The gleam of gold and jewels that adorned precious shrines and reliquaries were sometimes too great a temptation for visiting pilgrims. To counteract such thieving and sacrilegious tendencies, major churches implemented tight security; feretory shrines were often placed on shrine bases measuring eight feet in height and enclosed with iron fencing or stone screens. Once the pilgrims gained access to the restricted space, the riches seen therein were closely guarded, sometimes by clergy gazing dow…

Iconography of Pilgrim Badges

(851 words)

Author(s): Sarah Blick
Secular issues and images were intertwined with medieval religion and religious art. From literature (Chaucer's Canterbury Tales) to everyday life (The Castle Inn, London catered to pilgrim travelers by night and acted as a licensed brothel during the day) the lines between these areas were linked. This linkage is perhaps most evident in obscene badges that mock pilgrims and pilgrimages made in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. The imagery of these badges was not isolated. Explicit images of genitalia can be found throughout medieval art on the e…


(744 words)

Author(s): Sarah Blick
Chains were popular votive gifts from pilgrims, symbolic of the freeing of prisoners. (See also Freeing of Prisoners). Such chains were sometimes brought to shrines by former prisoners who found they had been miraculously broken through a saint's intercession. They were also sometimes imposed judicially or taken on voluntarily during a penitential pilgrimage. In this example of penitential practices, the pilgrimages of the penitent were intended to be continuous until the chains fell off, a repr…

Pilgrim Badges

(2,531 words)

Author(s): Sarah Blick
Pilgrim Souvenirs Anything picked up by pilgrims on their journey could theoretically be called a pilgrim souvenir and many early pilgrims did just that, taking home pieces from various sites in the Holy Land. However, many pilgrims, in their quest to obtain the holy, took not only stones or dirt from a particular site, but also chipped off portions of shrines, snatched small statues, and everything else not carefully watched. In an attempt to prevent the piecemeal dismantling of shrines by such o…


(2,900 words)

Author(s): Sarah Blick
Votives Votive objects were a ubiquitous part of medieval pilgrimage. As part of the 'economy of salvation,' votives represented a gift-exchange with the sacred (see also Gift-giving and Charity). The essence of the vow is a transaction, "Help me and I will do this for you." Almost always the vow was made to a specific saint and a specific place where their relics resided, and recorded medieval miracles made it clear that the saint's help was contingent on a vow given by the supplicant. This crea…


(699 words)

Author(s): Sarah Blick
The ubiquitous presence of candles at pilgrimage shrines emerged by the seventh century. As church altars grew from small and austere into larger, more elaborate forms, so too did the number of candles that adorned them. New regulations called for certain numbers of candles to be burning at canonical hours in relation to the Mass. Such rules suggested that tallow or wooden candles (stocks) were to be avoided in favour of beeswax candles that did not smell as bad. This preference, combined with t…


(1,287 words)

Author(s): Sarah Blick
Souvenirs were avidly collected by pilgrims on their journeys. They became coveted objects. Although usually made of inexpensive base materials such as lead, tin, and paper, popular belief elevated them from the mundane to the magical. (See also Ex votos). Their close link to the sacred place where powerful relics were held led to associative miracle stories where they too were credited with curing illness, ensuring one's salvation, and warding off evil. The power credited to pilgrim souvenirs was a result of their connections, spacial or otherwise, to shrines and r…

Canterbury Cathedral

(1,053 words)

Author(s): Sarah Blick
The magnificent sight of Canterbury Cathedral lingered in the memories of pilgrims such as Erasmus who wrote of "the majesty with which the church rises into the sky, so as to strike awe even at a distant approach; the vast towers, saluting from far the advancing traveler; the sound of bells, sounding far and wide through the surrounding country." Approaching the entrance, visitors saw a sculpture above the door of the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket slain by four knights near an altar. Entering the nave, the pilgrims gathered as some went directly to see…

Bent Coins

(737 words)

Author(s): Sarah Blick
Before setting forth on their journey, some pilgrims took coins and bent them. When an inanimate object such as a coin was damaged or "killed" in this way, it was symbolic of the coin's transfer from a physical to a spiritual plane. By destroying its normal use, the bender rendered the coin functional only for supernatural purposes. Once bent, the coin was intended for the saintly personage to whom it was promised, and no one else. The presentation of that particular coin to the shrine fulfilled the pilgrim's vows. Vows of pilgrimage undertaken through or accompanying the bending of…