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23.02.08 Rasmussen, Medieval Badges

23.02.08 Rasmussen, Medieval Badges

Anne Marie Rasmussen’s Medieval Badges: Their Wearers and Their Worlds is an authoritative general introduction to the design, imagery, production, functions, and many uses of religious and secular badges during the Middle Ages, especially in northwestern Europe during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Tens of millions of badges were produced across the medieval west in this period. Most were cast from pewter and other lead-tin alloys between the late twelfth century and early decades of the sixteenth century, waning during the Reformation. Bright and silvery when new, pewter badges were meant to be seen by other people and communicate to them something about the wearers, such as the Christian piety and devotion of pilgrims or a sense of “political belonging.” For this reason, wearers usually affixed them to their hats, cloaks, and packs to be easily seen. Smaller numbers of badges were made using precious metals, cloth, parchment, and paper. The largest number were for use by pilgrims, who acquired them at religious shrines and pilgrimage sites, such as Santiago de Compostela (St. James the Great), Canterbury Cathedral (St. Thomas Becket), Cologne Cathedral (Three Kings), and Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Rasmussen surveys badges for pilgrimage and devotion (chapter 5); chivalric uses, such as heraldry and courtly love (chapter 6); and urban uses, including confraternities and corporations (chapter 7). Very interesting and unexpected are badges depicting demons, wild men and women, genitalia, sex acts, brothel scenes, and other profane matters related to what Rasmussen terms the “heightened performativity of carnival festivities” (chapter 8). Most badges were inexpensive to produce and purchase, making them expendable after the life of an owner. Many badges were melted down to reuse the metal alloy, and large numbers have been found in riverbeds or excavated in recent decades by detectorists using inexpensive metal detectors. More than twenty thousand medieval badges have been collected since the nineteenth century and are preserved in private collections and archeological museums.

Rasmussen begins with a discussion of her methodology, noting in chapter 1 that she “treats all badges as a single object category that shared modes of manufacture, purpose, and function in order to explore the argument that medieval badges, whether secular or religious (or both), operated as a kind of pan-European, symbolic mode of communication” (15). Rasmussen devotes pages 19-22 to discussing her experimental method of “Informed Imagination.” Her “fictional scenarios and scholarship” are employed to imagine badges as they might have been used by particular people. The goal is to fill gaps in documentation and make the subject “accessible and interesting” to non-specialists. Each of the book’s eight chapters and the section of concluding remarks is prefaced with a fictional sketch of three to seven pages, incorporating imagined details about invented people, events, environments, conversations, and personal thoughts in different places during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Four sketches are set in Ypres, two relate to Mont Saint Michel, and the remainder are in German and Swedish locales. Rasmussen hopes that these fictionalized sketches will serve as an “animated background” for her scholarly discussions and help readers understand otherwise undocumented aspects of the social history and popular culture of badges, whose fabricators and users are usually unknown. She also hopes that “fictionalized scenarios will encourage readers to similarly deploy informed imagination when they encounter objects and stories from the past” (19). These sketches and the related discussion of methodology account for nearly a fifth of the book’s narrative text (46 of 239 pages). Non-specialists may find Rasmussen’s approach a useful aid to understanding badges, which survive with limited archeological context or provenance information. However, most specialists and other academic readers will be able to understand and appreciate Rasmussen’s text as sufficient to contextualize medieval badges and may even find the method of “informed imagination” unnecessary and even off-putting.

The multiple uses of badges over several centuries require engaging many other subject areas. Rasmussen generally navigates these well, but there are occasional problems. For example, Rasmussen consistently uses the terms “mass production” and “mass produced” in reference to badges. However, economic historians properly reserve these terms for modern, continuous assembly-line production in mechanized factories and assembly plants, especially since the early twentieth century. When dealing with medieval workshop production, centuries before the Industrial Revolution, the proper term is “batch production.” Local producers worked in small, specialized workshops, often attached to their homes, and used simple tools and methods to cast batches of badges. Production was decentralized and relied on the complementary effort of individual producers. The result was significant production in aggregate. Comparable efforts include other late medieval craftsmen producing sizable quantities of objects made of metal, paper, and other materials to meet anticipated demand. Candlemakers used cylindrical tin candle molds to produce votive candles to meet predictable demand at churches and other religious sites. Early printers worked “on speculation” to churn out pressruns of hundreds or even thousands of woodcuts, metal cuts, and broadsides on paper for use as devotional prints, textual amulets, and indulgences. In later centuries, workers in Central Europe cast sizable numbers of pewter plague crosses popular in folk magic. Clearly, batch production was an important part of pre-modern economic history. In addition, Rasmussen discusses possible connections of badges and ampullae with magical or apotropaic objects, as “interactions with the supernatural” (91–97). She writes that “religious and secular badges could objects that sought to converse with invisible forces, that is to say, as amulets and talismans” (93), terms that Rasmussen does not clearly define or delineate. Pilgrims no doubt sought the intercession of the Virgin Mary and saints for divine aid and protection. But amulets and talismans for protection were not displayed openly like badges for all to see. They were generally worn around the neck, concealed beneath garments, in pouches, sacks, and other containers, covering the heart as pathway to the soul. Individuals sometimes added devotional objects like rosaries or holy relics to such containers and could have added pilgrimage badges as good-luck charms. Amulets and talismans were magical objects, which users believed to be infused with the supernatural power of divine names, selected scriptural quotations, Christian symbols, Solomonic seals, and other apotropaic elements to ward off demons and bring comprehensive protection. Unfortunately, Rasmussen’s discussion, focusing on imagery, relies too heavily on Ruth Mellinkoff’s Averting Demons: The Protective Power of Medieval Theme and Motifs (Los Angeles: Ruth Mellinkoff Publications, 2004), and she ignores a substantial body of research on the history of medieval amulets and talismans.

These issues notwithstanding, Rasmussen has produced a welcome, readable introduction to medieval badges, which are a fascinating window into religion, social life, and popular imagery. She makes effective use of museum collections and online documentation, particularly Kunera--Database for Late Medieval Badges and Ampullae, a project of Radboud University, Nijmegen, which is a source for many of the book’s 115 color and black-and-white illustrations of badges. Plates also illustrate molds, production methods, medieval paintings showing people wearing badges, and Books of Hours that include trompe-l’oeil images of badges or actual badges sewn onto blank leaves.