Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
22.04.15 van Asperen, Silver Saints

22.04.15 van Asperen, Silver Saints

Hanneke van Asperen’s book, Silver Saints: Prayers and Badges in Late Medieval Books, is a welcome contribution to both late medieval manuscript studies and to the study of medieval badges. It is published as volume XXVI of Nijmeegse Kunsthistorische Studies and appears to be only the second of the series to be written in English. Van Asperen’s book concerns two intersecting late medieval practices, that of sewing or gluing metal badges to the pages of books and that of decorating the framing elements of illuminated book pages with painted images of badges. Both of these practices are familiar, having been brought to widespread attention initially by Kurt Köster in 1965 [1], and subsequently investigated by both codicologists and badge scholars. Van Asperen’s study advances from the extant scholarship both in scope and method. This work is presented in two parts, the first an analytical discussion and the second a catalog of manuscripts that not only documents van Asperen’s analyses but also provides a reference platform for future scholarship.

The foundational premise that sets van Asperen’s work apart from previous studies is her recognition that while obviously related, the painted badges and the metal badges are two distinct phenomena. Obviously, they are of different materials with different modes of production. Furthermore, their relationships to the texts differed, and importantly, their placement in the books was executed by different people at different times relative to the books’ production, and for different reasons. Silver Saints analyzes the two practices separately, with methods suited to each individually, yielding significant new understandings of each.

Part I focuses on the original badges. The corpus of manuscripts under consideration includes both those that retain actual metal badges and those with traces of badges now lost or deliberately removed, such as sewing holes, residue of adhesive, the discolored traces left behind by the metal or its oxidation, or the impressions in the vellum caused by the contours of the badges. The study considers 112 manuscripts which are cataloged in Appendix 3. The analysis presents several important conclusions. The badges affixed to book pages are the embossed or stamped badges that were popular on the continent made of thin metal that fit comfortably between pages. The bulkier, cast metal badges with integral pins that were more common in England were unsuited to this purpose. These saints’ badges are not necessarily pilgrims’ badges, for they could be purchased in contexts other than pilgrimage, and some of the saints commemorated by the metal tokens were not associated with established pilgrimage sites. In fact, one might ask whether “badge” is even the best term, since they could, and perhaps were intended to, adorn objects other than the bodies and garments of people. These objects appear to have been added to the books by their owners during the use-life of the books, but not in uniform ways. Some owners appear to have collected the badges over time and then arranged them in the books on a single occasion, often on the flyleaves. This practice is indicated when the badges appear to be organized, for instance by shape, and sewn in as a coherent group, with a single type of thread. In other cases, the badges seem to have been placed individually, over time. In these examples, the practice seems to have been a way to augment the text rather than to preserve a collection of treasures. Badges might be affixed to the margins to mark frequently consulted pages, or sometimes to amplify the meaning of specific prayers or passages. In van Asperen’s analysis, the badges in manuscripts primarily provide archaeological evidence of the personal devotions of the owners of the books, and secondarily of the movements of badges over a regional devotional landscape.

Part II of Silver Saints concerns the painted badges in books of hours. Here, van Asperen’s methods of analysis shift. While the actual badges in books indicate the book owners’ devotional practices, the painted borders reveal much more about the practices of book illuminators. The conflation of these distinct practices had hindered much previous research. As this study convincingly demonstrates, the border decorations that include illusionistic images of metal badges have more in common with other painted borders than with the actual badges stitched into books. They seem to belong primarily to the repertoire of book illuminators with only occasional personalization for the books’ patrons. Van Asperen is able to verify the work of several specific illuminators at work in the southern Netherlands as well as some networks of idea-sharing. The badges painted in borders, she concludes, were most often painted from model sheets, and painters frequently adjusted the dimensions and materials--invariably gold and silver--in service to the composition of the page.

If actual badges were also called upon as references, it was an exception to the rule. Nevertheless, van Asperen’s study of the painted badges does fill some gaps in our collective knowledge of archaeological badges. Some badges recur in painted borders for which no known metal examples have been found. Similarly, some pilgrimage sites that have been attested by known examples of cast badges, can, on the basis of the painted borders, be shown to have issued stamped badges as well.

Van Asperen’s discussion also considers other devotional objects that appear in borders, such as rosaries, shells of St. James, and prints of the Veronica. Of these, only the last could actually be attached to the page of a book. The painted badge borders, therefore, bridge the categories of purely illusionistic painted frames and those items actually found within books, but with closer affinity with the former.

The appendices make up roughly half of the volume. In Appendix I, each of the 112 books with real or traces of real badges receives nearly a full page of explanation, including the evidence for badges and the location of same, as well as information on the contents and provenance of the book itself and bibliography concerning the book’s badges. The 32 books with painted badges are described in Appendix II. Each entry describes the book, its illuminators to the extent known, and identifications of each badge depicted. Diagrams of each page with numbered badges listed in adjacent tables allow the tracking of individual badge motifs. Bibliography is provided for each. These diagrams and discussions of each depicted badge individually secure the overall study to van Asperen’s deep interest in the badges as objects. Even though her conclusions in the early chapters speak more about the choices of painters, her approach in Appendix II allows further consideration of these paintings as depictions of objects that did exist in the late medieval context. A short Appendix III transcribes the texts of five prayers from pages in Appendix I. A helpful concordance follows, which correlates the popular names of books used in the text with their collections and shelfmarks used in the appendices.

The book is illustrated with 90 photographs, the vast majority of which are in full color. This includes not only the images of sumptuous manuscript pages but also photographs of pewter badges which, because of their dull color, have frequently been represented only in black and white. Equally laudable is the choice to include full-page color photographs of superficially unimpressive manuscript pages, such as figure 29 (53), which depicts a nearly blank page of vellum with faint impressions of lost badges, sewing holes, and a few scraps of thread. Photographs like this one teach us what to look for.

By disentangling the two related practices of sewing and painting badges into books, van Asperen advances the study of both. Her work opens new questions, answers many existing ones, and paves the way for others to tackle new lines of research. The extensive appendices will serve as authoritative references for many future studies. It is not possible for a book of this sort to provide an exhaustive catalog, and no doubt more relevant manuscripts will be identified now that van Asperen has opened more eyes to the significance of the evidence, especially for books with traces of badges. For this reviewer,Silver Saints brings clarity to two areas of study that have long seemed intriguing but confusing. Without knowing it, I have been awaiting this book for a long time. This book should be required reading for anyone interested in badges, pilgrimages, or late medieval books in the devotional lives of their owners.



1. Kurt Köster, “Religiöse Medaillen und Wallfahrts-Devotionalien in der flämischen Buchmalerei des 15. und frühen 16. Jhs: Zur Kenntnis gemalter und wirklicher Kollektionen in spät-mittelalterlichen Gebetbüchern,” in Buch und Welt: Gustav Hofmann zum 65. Geburtstag dargebracht, ed. Hans Striedl and Joachim Wieder (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1965), 459-504.