top of page

In the 20th century, badges were easy and cheap to produce on a mass scale. Designs reacted quickly to the smallest societal shifts and cultural events. Once something became ubiquitous, it was ripe for subversion. The escalation of the CND protest badge into the ‘Gay Whales Against the Bomb’ parody, for example.

I thought this was a modern phenomenon due to the speed that changing fashions are consumed. However, when I found a subset of traditional Medieval pilgrim badges that showcased sexually explicit imagery, I began to think otherwise.

Selection of Lionheart Replica Bawdy Badges

Pilgrim badges are the earliest example of mass-produced pins. In the 13th and 14th centuries, pewter designs were sewn onto the robes of Christians, showing off the holy sites they’d seen. Thousands of pilgrims flocked to religious sites each year. They were expected to forego the pleasures of this life, wear the clothes of the poor and eat plain food on difficult journeys which could take months to complete. They would spend hours in prayer and fasting - it wasn’t for the faint of heart.

The badges were nice earners for the church and a collectable charm for the pilgrim to show off their sacrificial journeys. They were multi-functional; offering the wearer divine protection, exhibiting their devoutness, and preventing holy sites from being destroyed (prior to the badges it was custom to take parts of the building home with you.)

These badges are the largest collection of objects to survive from the medieval period. Tens of thousands have been recovered and - the mudlarks amongst you will be pleased to know - more continue to be found. Most commonly they show graphics of saints riding horses and slaying dragons. However, a smaller subset is explicitly raunchy: ‘penis on roasting spit over a vulva grease trap'; ‘couple having sex while a man and a dog watch’; 'pussy royale'; ‘pussy goes a’ hunting’ to name a few. Their 'shocking modernity and radical otherness' arrest the viewer confronting us with the peculiarities of medieval Christain society.

Pilgrims wearing badges, Medieval Woodcut

In the 20th Century, prudish academics ignored the graphic imagery of these badges. When displayed in museum collections they would be captioned as ‘Heathen’ or ‘Roman’ badges, a euphemism that ignored the giant phallus staring them in the face. 'Pussy Goes a Hunting' was even renamed 'Louise' by a modern pewter manufacturer so as not to embarrass anyone who had to speak its name.

More recently, serious inquiries have been made into the badges and yet there is still no consensus on why they were made or what they mean. Interpretations range from warning the wearers against sexual promiscuity, scatological humour, apotropaic protection against the plague, and fertility beliefs.

Often, our changing interpretations of historical objects tell us more about our own culture than that of the past. So, after delving into some medieval history, I spoke to some contemporaries: Artist Ben Edge, and Colin Torode, metalworker and owner of Lionheart Replicas, a family business that makes medieval trinkets, (including bawdy badges) to see what their take was.

Ben Edge is a figurative artist interested in folklore. He is also a modern-day pilgrim - travelling extensively up and down the British Isles to engage in seasonal folklore events. Out of this research came ‘Ritual Britain,’ an exhibition at The Crypt in London, where I spotted Ben’s heavily badged waistcoat. I noticed a few bawdy badge replicas on there and was intrigued to know his thoughts on them. Ben’s initial inspiration for making a waistcoat was piqued when he started going to visit folk traditions and festivals, he was drawn to the waistcoats worn by the Morris dancers:

“They all wore a collective uniform but their individual personalities were reflected by the badge collections that they had pinned to their waistcoats. It was like a self-portrait in a way.”

Ben's Folk Waistcoat

Ben furthers that the waistcoats worn by people at folk festivals are very much in the tradition of pilgrim badges, they communicate to people where you’ve been, how many times you’ve been there, and a little bit about who you are and what you’re interested in as an individual. I asked Ben what his theory was when it came to the possible meaning of the bawdy badges:

“When looked at with contemporary eyes, they celebrate the masculine and feminine, but if I was to put myself in the mindset of a god-fearing medieval Christian, I could imagine that they were some kind of warning against the pleasures of the flesh and reminder of the damnation that would be waiting for you if you were to engage in the sinful temptations of the earth. They are also said to have been a way of diverting the ‘evil eye’, that at the time it was believed was the main culprit of the spreading of the plague.”

Ben's Folk Waistcoat

Ben’s theory is a credible one, bawdy badges are often believed to have functioned as apotropaic, or protective devices meant to safeguard their owners from the threat of the devil's evil eye. It also could have been thought to protect against outbreaks of the Black Plague, which killed 25 million Europeans. Pilgrims believed that transmission was possible through being on the receiving end of a sick person's gaze, and the bawdy badges may have been worn in hope of fending off these infectious glances. It's a stretch, but having lived through our own plague, it's more plausible than the 'drinking bleach' debacle.

Colin seemed like the next logical step in my investigation. His family business makes medieval replicas for museums, reenactments and enthusiasts - including the bawdy badges on Ben’s waistcoat.

Original Pilgrim Badges, The British Museum

Colin says that humour and bewilderment are the usual reactions to his badges and when asked about the possible meaning behind the badges he had a similar theory to Ben:

“I used to think that these things were intended to ward off evil spirits (as was the case with the Roman use of the phallus), but I’ve turned against that and now prefer to think that they were mainly poking fun at people who were deemed worthy of ridicule; people such as pilgrims who went on pilgrimage for the wrong reasons for instance."

Pilgrimages for the ‘wrong reasons’ are best exemplified in raunchier extracts of The Canterbury Tales such as the Wife of Bath's promiscuity. Whilst a proper pilgrimage was concerned with abstinence and devotion, many pilgrims indulged in earthly pleasures. Much like cheap holidays to the Costa Del Sol, pilgrimages became excuses for people to flee their family responsibilities, drink gallons of beer and indulge in the pleasures of the flesh.

Historically, bawdy badges have also been classed as ‘brothel’ or ‘fair’ badges, perhaps connecting them to the raucous traditions of medieval carnivals. The church promoted carnival as a way of visualising sin: 'a world turned upside down when people disguised as devils and wild men would run amok through the city.’ It was an occasion for eating and drinking to excess, and a period of sexual licentiousness. Lent came quickly after, a time to repent and go without pleasure. Many of the bawdy badges date from around the time leading up to the Reformation, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see the hedonism of some pilgrims being satirised through badges and their perverse similarity to the carnival.

Perhaps it's the unknowable nature and mystery that makes the Bawdy Badges appealing to the modern viewer. The binary confines of male vs female in the medieval period are long behind us. Perhaps a celebratory reading of the badge's presence reflects our own changing attitudes to gender and sexuality - nakedness and pleasure can be an empowering force, not something to make us giggle. However, maybe we can't take a straightforward joke. One of Colin's most recent recreations can only be seen as a medieval sausage joke – a phallus in a frying pan.

Article first published in Nieuwe Vide's Journal of Humanity no. 8 'Counter Culture Now'.

‘Wearing Badges Is Not Enough, in Times Like These'

Billy Bragg

The majority of my pin badge collection is of 20th Century post-war origin. The previous owners include:

· Young British radicals who studded their practical protest attire of naval sweaters and duffel coats with CND and anti-apartheid pins;

· Dressed to distress punks of the 1970s with large tin Ramones, X-Ray-Spex, and Sex Pistols badges dubbed ‘bin lids’ hanging from the threads of ripped shirts;

· Long-haired metalheads with gnarly pewter Motörhead pins sat alongside heavy metal music patches on sleeveless, beer-soaked battle jackets;

· Thatcher-era art students with striking anti-Nazi league or sexual liberation badges attached to mohair jumpers.

Badges infiltrated all subcultures, forming allegiances through aesthetics. In the post-war era, political, sexual, and cultural identities were worn on the sleeve…or lapel.

Paradoxically, badges were also popular in mainstream society as a source of free advertising and mass consumerism, creating an uncomfortable overlap between counterculture and social order.

The lyrics from the Billy Bragg song that title this article were written at the height of the British Thatcher government pinpoint this contradiction. They express the singer’s frustration at liberals with a small ‘L’ who shouted at the television and wore pin badges without making an effort to implement a change of the social or political status quo. It begs the question – can pin badges promote change, or are they simply a hip extension of consumerism?

Looking back further than the 20th-century explosion of badge culture can help shed light on this question. Badges have in fact have been mass-produced since the 12th century when they were worn as souvenirs by pilgrims.

Pilgrim badges were worn in the later medieval period by Roman Catholic travellers. Usually made of lead alloy, they were sold at sites of Christian Pilgrimage and bear imagery relating to the saint venerated there. Tens of thousands have been found since the mid-19th century and form the largest body of medieval art objects remaining today. The ubiquitous nature of the badge makes it clear that to express a belief on your person and be seen as part of a larger social group has had an enduring mass appeal.

The badges we are familiar with today are usually button-shaped with a metal pin-back and 25mm in diameter, a style dating from the end of the nineteenth century. The patent was taken out in 1894 in New Jersey. A protective celluloid covering made the simple badge design durable, ideal for mass production and circulation. In 1897, Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee and badges hit the mass market as a fun and cheap souvenir.

Whilst it is easy to see the commercial appeal of badges, it would be short-sighted to ignore their wider significance. Badges allow people to subvert and reclaim negative marks that have been forced upon them. Historically, a badge of shame or a stigma is a distinctive symbol required to be worn by a specific group or an individual for the purpose of public humiliation or persecution. A prominent example is the pink upside-down triangle that many gay men were made to wear in Nazi Germany. They have now been adopted as a sign of gay liberation, featuring on slogans that celebrate the LGBT community. The graphic has been powerfully subverted and transformed, often using badges to communicate this visual message.

Badges have also helped to heighten the profile of other political causes, including trade unions, the environment, and AIDS campaigns. By making taboo subjects visual, they raise awareness and encourage dialogue. The instantly recognisable AIDS ribbon, symbolising both blood and love with the striking red design owes much to badges for its universal commonality.

Additionally, the popular anti-Nazi League badges helped to establish a recognisable brand for the Left in the 1980s. The colourful Soviet Constructivist-inspired graphics designed by David King were a useful political tool. They helped to create solidarity and a strong, consistent style for a party infamous for ideological differences and fractures.

The relationship between wearing a pin badge and consumption becomes more complex when looking at subculture. Jolly MacFie was the creator of Better Badges in London, the first company to make and sell cheap badges promoting bands and politics. Between 1977-1984 it became the leading publisher and merchandiser of punk badges. His first stall was at the Ramones and the Flamin’ Groovies show at The Roundhouse, London. Better Badges evolved to export millions worldwide from their offices on Portobello Road.

MacFie notes how anyone could afford to wear a badge, fans, rather than labels or the music industry could dictate trends. They are cheap, small, and easy to make, they tell the story of what is on the street. In this sense, the badges seem to be giving an autonomous expression to people in the form of grassroots fashion and style. They harbour a coded subculture and act as a means of communication. Badges include those within the subculture and operate as a smaller microcosm of larger society, offering security and solidarity between those marginalised in the wider world.

However, MacFie also sees the uncomfortable contradiction of this culture and asks: ‘are we a crassly commercial cash-in or a living breathing extension of culture? It was easier to sell an IT [International Times] badge than a copy of the magazine itself. There is an argument that people are not interested in the information itself, only being seen to apparently have that knowledge. I can remember going to school with an obscure blues record under my arm to pose around with.’

This piercing social comment highlights that the cheap, popular, and viral pin badge is both a blessing and a curse for political causes and subcultures. Circulating a message on a badge is quick and visual; this can rally up immense support and awareness or render a slogan meaningless. Ultimately, this power lies in the hands of the wearer and with the appeal enduring since the 12th Century, the tightrope walk between activist and exhibitionist is set to continue.

The Ephemerist has long been one of my favourite periodicals so I am delighted to be included in the 2021 Winter Issue. Looking through my collection of badges, I chart the history of the smiley face and its subversion over time. Head over to The Ephemera Society website to grab a copy!

A condensed version of my dissertation has also been published in the 'Counterculture Now' issue of Nieuwe Vide's Journal of Humanity. If you are interested in non-Western counterculture then it's an informative read about dance culture and style in Mali in the 1960s.

bottom of page