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  • Alice Ridgway

The Weird World of Bawdy Badges

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.

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