Pilgrim Souvenirs

Pilgrim Badge of the Holy Rood of Boxley.
© Neish Collection, Harvard House and the Museum of British Pewter
Origin/Date: Boxley, England || 15th Century

Theoretically anything picked up by pilgrims on their journey or at their destination could be termed a pilgrim souvenir. Indeed, many early pilgrims did just that, finding their own souvenirs. However, many pilgrims, in their quest to obtain that which was holy were not content to simply take home stones or dirt from a particular site. Instead, they actively chipped off portions of shrines, absconded with small statues, and anything else not carefully watched over. In an attempt to prevent the piecemeal dismantling of shrines by over-zealous pilgrims, churches commissioned artisans to produce pilgrim souvenirs in the form of pewter badges and tin ampullae (vials). Such pilgrim souvenirs exist from the early Christian period. In Western Europe, souvenirs produced and sold near shrines from the late eleventh century to the sixteenth century, became visible symbols of the pilgrim and a completed pilgrimage. Pilgrims wore the ampullae on strings around their necks and pinned or sewed badges to their broad-brimmed hats or traveling cloaks.

Imagery of Pilgrim Souvenirs

The earliest and most famous pilgrim badge was the scallop shell associated with the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. Pilgrims either walked to the sea-shore to pick up the shells themselves or they purchased the shells at stalls near the church. Very soon the artisans at these stalls began to produce pewter and jet souvenirs in scallop shell form.

Compostela pilgrim badge depicting St James.
© Museum of London, 85.79/3.
Origin/Date: Santiago de Compostela

Realizing the popularity of the scallop shell, the ecclesiastical authorities at the site sought to maintain their monopoly. However, the scallop shell became the emblem not only of St James, but of pilgrimage itself. Other shrines including Mont-Saint-Michel, Rocamadour, Canterbury, and Cologne adopted the motif as well. Other pilgrim badges depicted images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and saints identifiable by the attributes they carried. Like modern-day souvenirs, some badges depicted the famous sites (shrines or reliquaries) the pilgrims had visited and wished to remember.

Forms and materials of Pilgrim Souvenirs

Mass-produced from limestone moulds using a pewter or tin mixture with a very low melting temperature, pilgrim souvenirs were sold in homes, shops, and churches. They varied in shape from solid geometric plaques to intricate, irregular openwork designs, and ranged in size from tiny pin heads to some as big as one's hand. The same design of badge was often sold in a range of sizes. Many badges were painted, embellished with elaborate borders, or backed with coloured paper or cloth.

Wealthier pilgrims purchased souvenirs made of precious metals and adorned with gems. This was not merely for added distinction, but because certain precious materials were believed to wield intrinsic power to heal and protect. For example, a sapphire such as that seen on the personal fifteenth-century reliquary called the Middleham Jewel now in the Yorkshire Museum was thought to neutralize poison and protect one's eyesight.

A pilgrim badge of Thomas Becket.
© The Beaney Museum, Canterbury
Origin/Date: Kent, England || 12th - 15th century

In the fifteenth century, pilgrim badges made of very thin sheets of brass (called bracteate) provided an inexpensive sheen for those without means to buy gold badges. Other popular media used to create pilgrim souvenirs included papier-mâché, pipe clay, wax, paper, and vellum. Pilgrims also purchased souvenirs that folded, spun, and made noises, including horns, bells, whistles, and rattles whose loud noise was valued in order to ward off evil and lightning.

Sale of Pilgrim Souvenirs

The market for pilgrim souvenirs and related items was highly profitable and this encouraged some churches to become directly involved in their sale. Some shrine caretakers controlled the sale of badges by renting out the moulds and receiving a percentage of every sale, while others allowed an open market, welcoming any artisan who wished to participate. Some shrines which maintained monopolies normally, opened their 'market' during particularly busy periods such as Holy Week or during a Jubilee year when their own contracted labour could not keep up with the demand of tens of thousands of pilgrims who crowded into their shrine precincts.

Level of Production of Pilgrim Souvenirs

The numbers of pilgrim souvenirs produced, especially during the later Middle Ages was astonishing. For instance, in 1519 the first year of the pilgrimage to Regensburg, the church was short of thousands of badges when 50,000 pilgrims descended on the site. Those who received nothing went home resentful and complaining; the following year, better prepared, the church sold more than 120,000 badges. The potential for substantial profits led to bitter disputes, sometimes lasting generations, over the privilege of pilgrim badge production.

Qualities attributed to Pilgrim Souvenirs

Church officials tried to control the illegal souvenir trade by restricting which badges were allowed to touch the reliquary or shrine, turning away pilgrims who purchased the 'wrong' type of badge. Naturally, this diminished the value of the souvenir for pilgrims, for many believed that the power of the saint was transferred to the souvenir when it came into contact with the shrine or reliquary containing the saint's relics. More often than not, people who collected pilgrim souvenirs did so in hopes of curing illness, ensuring salvation, and warding off evil.

Sacred power such as this was also found in association with the magical names and holy images presented on pilgrim souvenirs. The names of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Magi, and other saints enjoyed a reputation of protecting against illness and the threat of sudden death. People dipped pilgrim badges in water or wine which was to be drunk as medicine, or daubed on afflicted body parts. Badges (often dozens of them) were cast into the form of church bells, chalices, baptismal fonts, and tankards to ward off evil spirits and harsh weather. Souvenirs were credited with dousing fires, lifting horses out of deep holes, and finding lost items.

Pilgrims used the souvenirs like amulets or magic charms. They buried them in the foundations of houses, pinned them to cattle troughs, and placed them in the fields to guard against vermin infestations. Some of the wealthier pilgrims sewed them into the margins of manuscripts or commissioned manuscripts with painted images of pilgrim badges from sites they had travelled to or wished to travel to. Ultimately, most pilgrim souvenirs were tossed into rivers, rather like modern-day wishing wells, their owners hoping for even greater rewards.

Sarah Blick


In origin a Germanic word meaning a chest or reliquary, this term describes something which contains a sacred object. It can thus be applied to an elaborate tomb around the body of a saint, a cabinet containing a relic or to the whole architectural complex where such a body or relic rests.


A Holy Year, first instituted in 1300 by Pope Boniface VIII who offered an indulgence to all who went to Rome in that year. At Canterbury they were on 50 year anniversaries of Becket’s martyrdom, notably in 1370 and 1420.


In the New Testament this applied to all Christians. Later used of those who were martyred or showed exceptional holiness and whose status was confirmed by the church. The practice of venerating the saints and their relics and asking for their intercessions (prayers) can be observed from the second and third centuries onward and played a central role in popular medieval religion.

Virgin Mary

Mother of Jesus and wife of Saint Joseph. She is believed to have conceived Jesus through the agency of the Holy Spirit alone, thus remaining a virgin. The Council of Ephesus (431) confirmed upon her the title of ‘theotokos’ meaning 'godbearer'. The account of Mary's life in the New Testament was amplified by apocryphal documents and doctrines concerning her person and role developed in succeeding centuries. The belief that she did not die but was taken up bodily into heaven was celebrated in the Feast of the Assumption. Faith in Mary's powers as intercessor on behalf of sinful men and women was given fresh impetus by St Bernard (1090-1153) and she was popularly regarded as the Queen of Heaven.

Santiago de Compostela

From the ninth century the church at Compostela has been the resting place of what is believed to be the body of St James the Apostle (Sant Iago - St James). Compostela was an important focus of long-distance pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. 


City in Germany which houses the relics of the Magi and St Ursula.


Receptacle for relics of a saint.


From Greek ‘Christos’ a translation of the Hebrew for 'Messiah’: the anointed one of Jewish prophecy. Title (eventually used as name) given to Jesus. as fulfilling this prophecy.


City in the south east of England; the seat of England's senior archbishop, who is also bishop of the diocese of Canterbury. It was here that St Augustine of Canterbury (d.609), who had been sent by Pope Gregory the Great to convert the English in 597, established his ecclesiastical headquarters. In the Anglo-Saxon period Canterbury's monasteries were places of learning and artistry. After the Norman Conquest the cathedral was magnificently rebuilt by Archbishop Lanfranc and embellished by Archbishop Anselm. The martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170 added to the cathedral's prominence as a place of pilgrimage and the east end of the church was dramatically remodelled in the Gothic style.


Ampullae (pl.) Vials used to hold sacred water, oil, or blood obtained from pilgrimage shrines and wells. Usually hung on a cord around the wearer's neck.

Scallop Shell

The distinctive scallop or cockle shell was associated with St James the Great. Those who had made the pilgrimage to Santiago of Compostela were entitled to wear it as a badge.  

James the Great, St

(1st Century AD) Apostle. Son of Zebedee and brother of St John the Evangelist. Witnessed Transfiguration of Christ. First of the Twelve to be martyred (AD 44). Seventh-century tradition claimed he visited Spain. His shrine at Compostela was a major medieval pilgrimage centre.


Characteristic symbol of a saint or other significant Christian figure by which they can be recognised. These may include items which are held, clothing worn, or an instrument of martyrdom such as St Catherine's wheel.


The teaching that God became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ and offered himself to die on the cross in order to save men and women from their sins. There were a variety of interpretations of the doctrine of the Atonement (that is, the reconciliation of mankind to God through the death of Christ). Origen (c.185-254) viewed Christ's death as a ransom paid to Satan. who had acquired rights over man through the Fall of Humankind; but this interpretation was later largely superseded by that of St Anselm (c.1033-1109), who taught that Christ died to take the punishment due to human sin, thus paying the debt owed to God and appeasing his righteous anger.  


The 'wise men from the East' (Matthew 2: 1) who brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus. The New Testament account says nothing of their rank, number or names. It was Tertullian (c.160-c.225) who described them as kings and Origen (b. c.185) who gave their number as three. A sixth-century work names them as Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. From Greek ‘magoi’ meaning 'wise men'.


A receptacle for water, used for baptism.