Portable blessings - medieval pilgrims' ampullae

You're under the weather, your crops are failing, you need a break. You take a trip to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, buy a small lead flask of holy water, take it home, break the seal, place it in the ground with a prayer - and await a miracle...


Here we take a look at late-medieval ampullae, one of a variety of types of pilgrim souvenirs bought and sold as part of the medieval cult of saints.

Digitally created crop with medieval pilgrim ampulla

Saintly cults

England joins the cult

Blessing the fields

Let's focus - on individual ampullae

References & further information

Shop for ampullae for sale at time of posting

 

Saintly cults


From late antiquity to the late middle ages, both local and Europe-wide cults of saints and relics were an important part of Christian religious practice, and religion was integral to everyday life.


Pilgrimage to holy sites took place across Europe and the Holy Land, in the hopes of salvation, miracles, protection and perhaps for adventure, as still happens today. And as today with our fridge magnets, tea towels and array of tourist souvenirs, pilgrims wanted something to take home, subsequently boosting the local economy and church wealth with mass-produced trinkets.

Between the 12th and the 16th centuries [phials and badges] were sold in their thousands at famous destinations including Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, Rome and Canterbury, as well more locally known locations including Willesden, now subsumed by London, and Wilsnac in the Low Countries. The cult of saints affected everyone in medieval Europe and a voracious souvenir market was one of its consequences.

Amy Jeffs, Tourist Trinkets: the Medieval Pilgrim Badge, History Today Aug 2017

Late-Medieval England pilgrim badge of Virgin and Christ

An example of a late-medieval pilgrim badge depicting the standing figure of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Christ from late-medieval England.


Shrines to the Virgin Mary were common all over the Christian World, and this is a typical pose on a pilgrim badge, holding the baby Jesus. It is made of pewter, has a fastening pin on the back and is about 5.5 cms long.




As the author of one of the greatest poems of the English Middle Ages describes:

... they met someone dressed in the weird garb of a pilgrim ... on his hat were perched a hundred tiny phials, as well as tokens of shells from Galicia ... All these emblems were designed to inform the world at large of all the pilgrim-shrines he had visited.

William Langland, Piers Plowman (circa 1380), translated by AVC Schmidt, Oxford Uni Press 1992 p.59-60

 

England joins the cult


Pilgrim souvenirs kicked off in England with the murder of Thomas Becket at Canterbury in 1170, and the subsequent cult.

Thomas’ relics were dispersed to elites across Europe in ornate reliquary caskets (châsses), but less wealthy individuals also sought relics to take back to their parishes. Metalworkers in Canterbury responded by using moulds to make portable containers — ampullae — in the form of flasks, bottles and châsses, decorated with elaborate images and inscriptions.

William Anderson, Blessing the fields? A study of late-medieval ampullae from England and Wales, Medieval Archaeology 54, 184-206., 2010


These flasks, phials or ampullae were produced at Canterbury and other shrines across England in the 12th and 13th centuries. In the 14th century, badges became more popular, but later in the century, there was a revival of ampullae, small enough to wear, more uniform and simple, made from malleable metal such as lead, mass-produced and affordable. They were designed to collect substances from the holy site, such as water or dust, as a material or physical link to the saint, much as relics were for those who could access or afford them.

 

Blessing the fields


As William Anderson's paper suggests, it is probable that ampullae were used, at least in England, ritualistically by rural communities **. They are mostly found in ploughed fields, although of course, this is also where most metal-detecting takes place. They may have been 'intentionally' destroyed, as they are often broken open or damaged allowing the contents to escape, and so we can speculate that they were used to bring luck for the growing of crops.

 

Let's focus - on individual ampullae


There is a wide variety of symbols, motifs and letters on late-medieval ampullae found in England.


The scallop

Pilgrim flask with shell late-medieval
Late-medieval pilgrim lead alloy ampulla with scallop shell design - found Kent, England. 4.8 cm.

This item is for sale at time of posting. Shop now.


The scallop shell has long been a Christian symbol, and came to be associated with pilgrimage, particularly the Camino de Santiago. It is still widely used today as a symbol of Christian pilgrimage.

Free stock image of Camino de Santiago shell symbol

The shell symbol is still used to guide pilgrims today.







 

The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham

In the year 1061, in the reign of St Edward the Confessor a widow of the Lord of the Manor of Walsingham Parva, called Richeldis, had a vision of the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary appeared to Richeldis and took her in spirit to Nazareth and showed her the place where the Angel Gabriel had appeared to her. Richeldis was told to take note of the measurements of the Holy House and to build a reproduction of it in Walsingham (hence the name given to Walsingham: England’s Nazareth). Richeldis saw the vision three times.

The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham educational resource: Experience England's Nazareth - the history of pilgrimage to Walsingham https://www.walsinghamanglican.org.uk/


Probably the largest pilgrimage centre in late-medieval England, and a place of manufacture for ampullae, the shrine at Walsingham was destroyed in 1538 under Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries. It was revived as a shrine however in the early 20th century, and is now, once again, a popular place of pilgrimage.


It is usually assumed that the letter W, not uncommon on English ampullae represents Walsingham, but it could also be a double V for the Virgin, or W for another saint. * The W is sometimes topped by a crown, which could be a symbol for the Virgin, Queen of Heaven. Ampullae at Walsingham would have been filled with holy water from the well, a source for healing and miracles.

Late-medieval lead alloy ampulla with W and crown - found Kent, England. 5.4 cm.

This item is for sale at time of posting. Shop now.

 

Shield motif


Shield motifs also commonly appear on ampullae, with a variety of designs, the meaning of which isn't clear. Their use was possibly pseudo-heraldic.

... the juxtaposition of sacred and secular would not be unusual, as heraldry was common in later medieval churches and religious manuscripts.

William Anderson, Blessing the fields? A study of late-medieval ampullae from England and Wales, Medieval Archaeology 54, 184-206., 2010

Medieval pilgrim ampulla with shield motif
Late-medieval ampulla with shield motif - found Kent, England. Lead alloy - 4.8 cm

This items is for sale at time of posting. Shop now.

 

Floral motif


This example shows a compass-drawn floral motif, possibly of a segmented flower, which could be interpreted as a representation of a tudor rose.

Medieval pilgrim flask with floral motif
Late-medieval ampulla with floral motif - found Kent, England. Lead alloy; 6.2 cms

This item is for sale at time of posting. Shop now.

 

References & further information


** Anderson, William, Blessing the fields? A study of late-medieval ampullae from England and Wales, Medieval Archaeology 54, 184-206., 2010


Jeffs, Amy, Tourist Trinkets: the Medieval Pilgrim Badge, History Today Aug 2017


Langland, William, Piers Plowman (circa 1380), translated by AVC Schmidt, Oxford Uni Press 1992 p.59-60


Mitchener, Michael, Medieval Pilgrim and Secular Badges, Hawkins Publications 1986


* Spencer, B, Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges. Salisbury Museum Medieval Catalogue Part 2, 1990


The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham educational resource: Experience England's Nazareth - the history of pilgrimage to Walsingham https://www.walsinghamanglican.org.uk/


https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ampulla_(FindID_72907).jpg


The Portable Antiquities Scheme https://finds.org.uk/

 

#pilgrimampulla #antiquities #medievalpilgrim #pilgrimflask #latemedieval #ancientartifact



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