During the Middle Ages (roughly 400 to 1400-1500 CE), the Catholic Church was the only Christian faith practiced in Europe and became a leading cultural force. The Church encouraged the faithful to visit sacred places, and millions did, especially if the site had a relic, an object associated with a religious figure. Pilgrims believed that even being near a relic might endow them with greater grace, cure an illness, or be a conduit through which to receive God’s forgiveness.
The most popular shrine in England was the tomb of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. In 1170, King Henry II of England, having had quarreled with Becket long enough, apparently uttered, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Inspired by the king’s outrage, four knights stabbed Becket to death on the cathedral’s altar. After witnesses sopped up his blood in cloths, rumors soon spread that touching them cured people of illness. Within a few days of his murder, pilgrims began to flock to Becket’s tomb, where the monks at Canterbury Cathedral sold small glass bottles of Becket’s blood to visiting pilgrims. In the late 1300s, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, twenty-four stories in the form of a story-telling contest played among a group of pilgrims as they traveled from London to visit the Becket’s shrine.
Boxley Abbey in Kent, England was located on a road called Pilgrim’s Way (see image above). The abbey became a favorite stopping point for pilgrims on their way to Canterbury.
This badge (Philadelphia Museum of Art) represents the Rood of Grace at Boxley Abbey, a carved image of Christ on the cross that was supposedly imbued with the miraculous gift of speech and movement. In 1570, a local historian in Boxley wrote the only source detailing the Rood’s origins – that the Rood was made by an English carpenter. While traveling with the Rood attached to his horse’s back, the carpenter’s horse bolted and galloped to Boxley Abbey, where it refused to move until the Rood had been unloaded and positioned in the ground on the spot where its shrine subsequently stood. Left with no other choice, the carpenter sold the image to the monks, who attached it to a wooden post in the church.
Visitors to holy shrines often paid money to look at holy relics and to buy souvenirs, such as metal badges stamped with the symbol of the shrine. This badge, which is only about three inches long, depicts the crucifixion of Christ on the cross. At the top, a slanting plaque above Christ’s head (now broken off) displayed the initials INRI (‘Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum’, means ‘Jesus of Nazareth, The King of the Jews’ in Latin). Trefoils (three overlapping rings or circles) sprout from the edges of the cross as if the wood is bursting into leaf. The horizontal limb of the cross is almost imperceptibly decorated with wavy lines to resemble the grain of the wood.
Pilgrim badges were cheaply mass-produced from metal, bones, and limestone and were very affordable. The most popular shrines sold over 100,000 badges a year, making pilgrim badges the first mass-produced tourist souvenir. Those made in Britain usually had a pin and clasp on the reverse side so they could be attached to clothing or hats. Other options included wearing it as a necklace, or buying one made to fix on top of a pilgrim staff. The quality of badges varied from very rudimentary to innovative and complex.
To construct lead alloy badges, makers created a eutectic alloy (has a very low melting point) with a specific ratio of lead to tin so it could be cast thin enough to make the most of the cheapest metal. Freshly cast, this badge, made from a lead-tin alloy, would have been shiny and bright, but tarnished rapidly.
In the late Middle Ages, badges made from precious metals were designed to be sewn into books:
Pilgrimages in England came to an end with King Henry VIII. In 1534, he declared himself to be the Supreme Head of the Church of England with the power to ‘visit, repress …amend all … heresies, abuses…’ within the Catholic Church and banned pilgrimages. Thus, in 1538, upon the orders of Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, examination of the Rood at Boxley led to the discovery of a system of levers and pulleys in the wooden post that operated the mechanism, of which the monks denied any prior knowledge. It was taken to London, publicly cut to pieces, and then burned along with numerous other statues of Roman Catholic saints.
Miraculous or just a rude rood?