Jennifer Lee

title.none: Blick, ed., Beyond Pilgrim Souvenirs (Jennifer Lee)

identifier.other: baj9928.0803.011 08.03.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jennifer Lee, Herron School of Art and Design-IUPUI,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Blick, Sarah, ed. Beyond Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges: Essays in Honour of Brian Spencer. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2007. Pp. xvi, 200. $80 $80 978-1-84217-235-3. ISBN: 978-1-84217-235-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.03.11

Blick, Sarah, ed. Beyond Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges: Essays in Honour of Brian Spencer. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2007. Pp. xvi, 200. $80 $80 978-1-84217-235-3. ISBN: 978-1-84217-235-3.

Reviewed by:

Jennifer Lee
Herron School of Art and Design-IUPUI

Beneath a bridge across London's Thames, someone has scrawled, "Brian Spencer Rules O.K." Rare is the professional scholar who has name recognition, let alone admiration, among urban graffitists. Beyond Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges, a self-proclaimed liber amicorum, is a personal and professional tribute to Brian Spencer (1928-2003), former Keeper of the Museum of London, who not only brought into being the modern study of medieval pilgrim souvenirs and secular badges, but also encouraged nearly everyone else currently working in the field. This volume's editor, Sarah Blick, was a disciple of Spencer, and her 1994 Art History dissertation was among the first studies to bring pilgrims' badges to an audience beyond archaeologists. [1] This collection of essays broadens the audience further by offering not only a tribute to Brian Spencer, but also a demonstration of the ways the field has branched out in recent decades.

I find this book to have two parts. These are not designated as such, but are clearly discernable by their content. The first part contains personal tributes to Brian Spencer as a man and scholar. In the second part we see his academic legacy beginning to take shape. The first part, as this reviewer perceives it, consists of the Preface, a bibliography of Spencer's publications by Geoff Egan, an obituary, and the first three essays. These first entries are quite personal, and at times conversational in tone with grammatical quirks and fond anecdotes. The writers convey genuine warmth, from which emerges a portrait of an unfailingly generous scholar. In the latter part, more scholarly essays advance the discussion into new territory. Pilgrimage and secular badges are relevant to many aspects of late medieval culture (and modern), and in this collection are studies that investigate Spencer's subjects in broader contexts, and that begin to tap the potential for using badges and ampullae as sources for other types of investigation. Since the topics of the essays range so widely, I shall briefly describe each.

Sarah Blick's obituary, reprinted from Peregrinations, describes Spencer's career highlights, of which I can mention only a few. Spencer was hired by the Museum of London in 1952, where he played a prominent role until (and beyond) his retirement in 1988. He promoted interest in all types of artifacts from medieval popular culture, and became internationally known as an expert on pilgrimage souvenirs. Not only did he publish field-defining articles and books on the subject that taught us all what these medieval objects were, he also contributed to the body of known examples. Many pilgrim badges and other small metal objects are discovered not through professional excavations, but by amateurs with metal detectors. Before Spencer's interventions, these metal detectorists ("mudlarks") were disparaged by many professionals, so the artifacts they discovered stayed in their own keeping or went directly to the open market. Spencer, however, worked with the mudlarks, shared their enthusiasm, and exchanged his expertise for the opportunity to study and photograph the items they discovered. This is followed by a brief and eloquent section by Spencer's son Richard Spencer, who describes the temperament that drove his father's professional achievements.

The late Brian North Lee is best known for his study of historical bookplates. He was also an important collector of English pilgrim souvenirs, and as such befriended and admired Spencer. His essay is predominantly anecdotal, though it does offer some new tidbits about specific badges and ampullae. The tone of this essay is quite telling. Sometimes while reading about pilgrims' badges, one suspects that the author considers medieval pilgrims to be quaint and not very discerning. I have personally sensed undertones of this in Spencer's writing. In Lee's essay, it is overt. Near the end of his essay, he jokes about "mediaeval gullibility," (15) and after relating the story of the sixteenth century visitor who was shown two skulls of St. John the Baptist, one as a child and another from his adult years, Lee writes, "One wonders they did not also display a dish and Salome's dancing gear. Oh yes, we needed a Reformation not long afterwards" (16). Historiographically, it is important to acknowledge this attitude, which may have imposed limits on interpretation, as we proceed with serious consideration of the subject.

H. J. E. Van Beuningen's essay is transitional between the personal memorials and the new contributions to knowledge presented in the later chapters. The chapter is composed primarily from letters between Spencer and the author, including early professional correspondence and private communications from the end of Spencer's life. These letters not only create a character sketch, but provide the historiographic backstory to the emerging field of pilgrim badge studies. The chapter also offers some previously unpublished examples and ideas that should not be overlooked.

Brian Spencer brought wide-ranging sources to the study of pilgrims' signs to determine their iconography, provenance, and to some extent their use. His many years of publications, catalogued by Geoff Egan, culminating in Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges, provides a foundation for all subsequent study of these objects. The lines of questioning begun by Spencer continue. Questions of iconography and provenance are at issue in several of the essays in this volume. Simply identifying all of the known medieval badges will keep researchers occupied for many years. Some of the following essays read more as first steps than as final statements on their subjects, while others are more conclusive. Taken together, they demonstrate the state of the study of pilgrims' badges and related small objects, and indicate directions for future projects.

The essays by John Cherry, Katja Boertjes, and Jos Koldeweij take up the challenges of iconography and provenance. Cherry surveys the depictions of St. James, the premier pilgrimage saint, on seals, especially as the saint came to be increasingly depicted in pilgrim's garb. Cherry himself declares the study to be preliminary. The discussion opens several interesting lines for further explanation, and should prove valuable for further studies of badges, seals, and the iconography of St. James.

Boertjes makes a strong contribution with her study of the ampullae from the shrine of St. William of York. Using both textual and visual evidence, she makes a convincing argument that examples of ampullae from York Minster were likely to have held the miraculous oil reported to seep from St. William's tomb, and that the form of these ampullae was influenced by the ampullae from Canterbury. Boertjes' entirely logical suggestion that an ampulla showing St. William wearing his bishop's miter with both points visible dates to the second quarter of the thirteenth century, after the appearance of the oil in 1223, may have implications for the dating of a number of Canterbury ampullae that show the miter worn in the same fashion. Spencer had used this orientation of the miter to indicate dates before 1200. [2]

Koldeweij's essay discusses a set of pilgrimage souvenirs with heraldic motifs that he identifies as those of the Dukes of Burgundy. He argues that they come from the Chartreuse of Champmol, where pilgrims came to pray before a relic of the Bleeding Host as well as at the tombs of the dukes. His proposal that the ampullae may have been filled with water from the Well of Moses adds an intriguing dimension to the study of this partially preserved structure by Claus Sluter. Koldeweij has presented this argument before, but its publication here in English makes it accessible to a wider audience--appropriate since it concerns Sluter's Well, which is canonized in so many art history survey textbooks.

The latter essays move in interesting new directions. Mark A. Hall's discussion of a Holy Rood Reliquary from the River Tay examines a pilgrim's object in the contexts of the wider cult of the Rood, and in the geographic context of Scottish pilgrimage, using the object to forge a link between the local and the international. Peter Murray Jones makes connections between pilgrims' souvenirs, amulets, and medieval medicine. His contribution is important for understanding the popularity of pilgrims' objects among medieval people. The essay by Graham Jones is the only one to reach beyond the Middle Ages. His description of the Catalan pilgrimage to Sant Magí describes physical, temporal, and hagiographical aspects of a cult, and is part of a larger, ongoing database study of European pilgrimages.

A discussion of tablesmen (game pieces) by Malcolm J. Watkins hypothesizes that their imagery may parallel some examples of Romanesque church sculpture. Their iconography may fall into moralizing dichotomies and thus may link sacred and secular contexts. Watkins' topic demonstrates the many uncertainties encountered in interpreting popular imagery. Malcolm Jones' essay on the iconography of cats, including the double-tailed examples found on badges, similarly addresses the shifting meanings of images. There is also a wealth of information about cats in medieval art, law, and folklore. Anyone who runs up against a medieval cat will find something useful here.

Badges of Thomas of Lancaster and Isabella, Queen of Edward II, are the subject of James Robinson's contribution. These, he argues, are political as much as religious. His proposal that some of the satirical badges convey political critique of Isabella connects two categories of badges that have long challenged interpreters. Political context also drives editor Sarah Blick's own study of a large badge of Our Lady Undercroft at Canterbury. Her comprehensive analysis of the unlikely pairing of Thomas Becket and Edward the Confessor is an able demonstration of the complexity of badge imagery, which has sometimes been dismissed as simple merely because it was popular.

The book itself is quite usable. Notes follow each essay and illustrations are placed near to where they are discussed in the text. Photographs of small metal objects are clearly legible, or replaced by hand-drawn illustrations where that is more revealing. There are a number of small typos, but only one could cause any real confusion. Koldeweij's name in the table of contents is misspelled "Koldweij", which might inhibit some search engines (for a writer whose publications are already listed under Jos, Jas and A.M. and Koldewey as well as Koldeweij). One desirable addition would be notes on the contributors. The book brings together work by museum professionals, geographers, archaeologists, and university professors in Art History, Archaeology, and English Language and Linguistics. The range itself is interesting, and shows the cross-disciplinary potential for future studies in this area.

This volume comes at an important time. Not only does it commemorate Brian Spencer's seminal work in bringing pilgrims' souvenirs and other similar small objects to serious scholarly attention, but it also signifies a next step in the study of these items. Many researchers are now dealing with pilgrimage souvenirs and secular badges, but mostly with the sense that the field has been in its infancy. This book demonstrates that there is now a critical mass of interest in these objects, so that as medievalists we may collectively move beyond perpetually introducing the topic to fully exploring the many avenues that Spencer's work enabled.


1. Sarah Blick, "A Canterbury Keepsake: English Medieval Pilgrim Souvenirs and Popular Culture," (PhD., University of Kansas, 1994).

2. Brian Spencer, Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges (London: The Stationery Office, 1998), 41.