Medieval Selfies from the Bottom of the Harbour
24.12.2014 | By Angelika Franz
Translated for Google+ Readers
In the Middle Ages there were no Selfies – but they did have pilgrim badges. The little badges attached to cloaks were both proof of their faith as well as souvenirs. Recently, researchers found a large amount of these badges in the harbour of Stade in Germany. How did they get there?
The bottom of harbour is quite a collection pit. This is where everything that fell (or was tossed) overboard lands for centuries: coins, old bottles, broken smoking pipes and sometimes a glass marble or a doll leg. But in Stade’s harbour they have numerous artefacts of the most unusual kind. In the mud of the Hanseatic League harbour, which hasn’t been changed or dredged since 1300, they found numerous small picture artefacts made of a tin-lead alloy. They are pilgrim badges: Souvenirs from completed pilgrimages – the largest collection of such badges ever to be found in Northern Germany and quite possibly Northern Europe. But, of all places, at the bottom of a medieval Hanseatic League harbour?
"Basically, there are four possibilities", explained city archaeologist Andreas Schaefer and takes a closer look of an image of the three consecrated hosts on his plate. "Either they fell out of people’s pockets or they were tossed into the harbour as rubbish."They could have been brought to Stade by travelling pilgrims. Or they brought them to Stade before embarking on their pilgrimage and threw them overboard when they returned home.”
Pilgrimage badge sales were Big Business back in the Middle Ages. The pilgrims bought such badges when they reached the destination of their pilgrimage – not just for souvenirs, but also to prove they actually travelled to the pilgrimage destination. "Today we would do that by making a Selfie of ourselves. Fortunately, medieval Pilgrims couldn’t do this", said Schaefer.
Remembrances from the Pilgrimage Hall of Fame
For the trip back home, pilgrims sewed the badges to their clothing. That way, everyone could see where the traveller came from and recognize that the person was a pious believer, who it was safe to offer lodging and a warm meal. Pilgrimage badges became very fashionable around the 12th century - and they stayed popular until about 1530, until the Reformation put an end to the Catholic Church’s business with indulgences and pilgrimages.
In Stade’s harbour they found pilgrimage badges from all the leading pilgrimage destinations of the Middle Ages: Everything from Rome to Santiago de Compostela is included. "There were a total of nearly 200 badges, with more than ten from Bad Wilsnack. Others were from Cologne, Königslutter, Aachen, Thann in France, Görlitz, Werben in Saxony-Anhalt, Stromberg or Creuzberg in Thuringia", Schaefer said.
Almost every week new badges turn up, because Stade’s harbour mud still hasn’t been completely examined. Volunteers of Stade‘s Archaeology AG keep pouring bucket for bucket of harbour mud through the sieves – inspiration for this wet, dirty work is success in treasure hunting. Just recently they found a new pilgrim badge from Einsiedeln, Switzerland.
Every holy place sold a one-of-a-kind special badge to its pilgrims. The most recognizable one is the scallop-form from Santiago de Compostela. Those who went on pilgrimage to Rome were allowed to sew a badge with Saint Peter and Saint Paul on their clothes. The Three Wise Men were for pilgrimages to Cologne, and those who went to Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) had Saint Mary sitting on a throne. Even a badge with a shepherd on it is special: "That represents the three consecrated sacraments from Bad Wilsnack. Here, on this one, you can see the crucifixion", Schaefer says and points to the left upper circle. "The upper right host symbolizes the resurrection and the lower host represents Jesus at the pillar."
Bad Wilsnack used to be the "Santiago of the North" back in the Middle Ages – it even rose in fame to become the fifth most popular destination in the occidental World. Located half-way between Berlin and Hamburg, and accessible over the Elbe River, this town attracted pilgrims not only from northern Germany, but also from Scandinavia, France and England.
This pilgrimage town owes its fame to an outrage act of violence: Sir Heinrich von Bülow burned down the Church of St. Nicholas on August 16, 1383. When Father Johannes Cabbuz returned to the church the next day, he found a miracle in the smoking rubble: three sacred hosts, which survived the flames unscathed. These three miracle hosts became the symbols of the pilgrimage destination - and eventually became the pilgrimage badge. "When the church was rebuilt in 1396, pilgrimage badges began to be cast in the nearby town of Havelberg to sell to the pilgrims", said Schaefer.
But, how did the pilgrim badges wind up at the bottom of the harbour? "It appears that this became a custom; to throw them into the water", says Schaefer. Afterall, this harbor was the first station when the pilgrims returned home after their pilgrimage. This is where their journey started, and this is where it came full circle and ended. "Maybe they tore the badges off their clothes and threw them overboard as far as they could", the archaeologist suggested. "Kind of like saying: I did it!" #middleageseurope #pilgrimages #archaeology #europe #germany #stade