How, why, and what we collect as souvenirs has a history. The human impulse to collect physical objects with a direct connection to special experiences, especially related to travel, is strong and present throughout history. But the forms that such souvenirs take changes over time and varies among cultures.
The invention of railroads, cars, and airplanes revolutionized the idea of travel, so now we think of it as a common human activity. This point was brought home for many of us during the recent pandemic when our ability to travel was suddenly curtailed and we realized how central it is to how we think of ourselves as human beings. But in the Western world during the Middle Ages, most people rarely ventured beyond a twenty-mile circumference of where they lived. The one exception was if they got the opportunity to go on a pilgrimage.
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Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, written in 1387, dramatizes the meeting of a group of pilgrims at an inn as they set off to Canterbury Cathedral, a popular pilgrim site after the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170. This frame tale serves as the set up for each member of the party telling four stories during the trip—two on the way and two on the way back—to keep everyone entertained during their travels. Chaucer finished only 24 out of the planned 120 stories, but the work is still considered a masterpiece of English literature.
In his famous description of the Pardoner—where it is unclear whether the character joins the pilgrim party as an act of piety or profit seeking—Chaucer notes, “A vernycle hadde he sowed upon his cappe” (line 685). A “vernycle” was a common badge acquired by pilgrims who visited St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, the holiest pilgrim destination outside of Jerusalem. The badge replicates St. Veronica’s veil, which became imprinted with the face of Jesus Christ after she wiped his face with it while he was carrying the cross. The veil was hung in the Chapel of St. Veronica in St. Peter’s and became a popular pilgrim destination.
Other relics and supposed sacred objects in the Pardoner’s possession include a pillowcase that he claims is a veil that once belonged to the Virgin Mary, a scrap of the sail from St. Peter’s boat, and a cross with many stones embedded in it. Chaucer also adds that “in a glas he hadde pigges bones” (line 700), i.e., pigs bones that he tries to pass off as belonging to saints. These objects were intended to be venerated by those seeking to purchase a pardon from him, as well as to give the Pardoner an air of authenticity. In contrast, the souvenir vernicle on his cap from his trip to Rome is simply meant to be worn, not venerated, and was part of the standard “uniform” of pardoners. As a symbol, it shows that perhaps he too, in addition to taking advantage of Chaucer’s pilgrims, is a pilgrim seeking redemption.
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Travel during the Middle Ages, in the words of historian William Manchester ,“was slow, expensive, uncomfortable—and perilous.” Travelers encountered numerous tolls, rickety bridges, and dilapidated roads. Some streams and rivers had to be forded, and most inns only offered beds crammed next to each other crawling with vermin. Unscrupulous innkeepers, prostitutes, and highwaymen preyed on travelers and were seldom held to account for their actions. For these reasons, people often traveled in groups, much like the band in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Christian pilgrimage began around 400 A.D. when religious travelers headed to numerous shrines where miracles were said to have taken place. At the sites, they could see bones of deceased saints that were said to hold magical powers and special waters that cured diseases and healed conditions, such as blindness. Pilgrims often took the trip in the hope that the sites where saints performed miracles could benefit them. In the case of Chaucer’s pilgrims, once they arrived in Canterbury they would be able to see a container of water that was said to be mixed with blood that had dripped from St. Thomas’s murder wounds.
Pilgrims were usually identifiable on the road wearing brown woolen robes and heavy walking sticks. For many, pilgrimages were an act of atonement, and sometimes they were ordered by the church for infractions. The longer the distance to the destination—a state cathedral, Rome, or even Jerusalem—the greater the atonement needed to offset the offense. Most pilgrims, though, were self-motivated by devotion, and their trips were often a means of helping a deceased relative out of purgatory.
Pilgrimage was not only an act of penance and spiritual renewal, but also allegorically manifested the journey of one’s life. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), a forerunner of the English novel, presents the idea of a pilgrim’s journey as an allegory of Christian life in extended narrative form. The travails that pilgrims encountered while making such difficult journeys, and the joy of reaching the destination where a form of spiritual salvation was to be found, was a means of enacting in compressed form the life cycle of a Christian.
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By the twelfth century in Europe, pilgrim badges and souvenirs had become an important industry in medieval pilgrimages. The popular items served as proof that one had made the religious journey to the chosen shrine, and they could even serve as a pass to exempt the wearer from paying highway taxes and receive safe passage on the roads.
The badges often contained images of the saint associated with the site. What made the vernicle so popular is that along with its connection to St. Veronica, it had an image of Jesus Christ himself. The Veronica was the most popular pilgrimage site in the Middle Ages, so its badge was the most prolific and identifiable during this time. Like today, such souvenirs were a sign of worldliness on the part of the owners, that they had made the journey past the market or fair that normally marked the limit of one’s travels. Unlike today, these souvenirs were generally not displayed in the house but were attached to a cord and worn around the neck or on a cap, as in the case of the Pardoner.
Pilgrims wanted to bring back proof that they had reached their destination, which could include wax drippings from sanctuary candles, charcoal rubbings of inscriptions, and water from the Jordan river. This need, however, could also serve as a threat to the shrines themselves. One pilgrim allowed to kiss the True Cross on Good Friday bit off a chunk of it and carried it away in his mouth, while others sought to hammer off pieces from statues or places of divine worship.
Much like tourists today, pilgrims were eventually encouraged to purchase cheap and easily replicable items to fulfill the primal need of taking evidence of a trip home with them. Strips of cloth rubbed up against relics or jars of water from a sacred water source were objects that could satisfactorily connect pilgrims to the subject of their destination. Some wearers came to believe that the badges themselves took on magical powers, especially if the badge had touched the statue or relic that served as the draw to the holy site. These now sacred objects, in turn, could even become their own destination for pilgrimages. It wasn’t long before a market for manufactured souvenirs developed around such sites, with items such as embossed flasks, crossed palm fronds, crucifixes, medallions, bells, and small paintings being sold to pilgrim tourists.
The badges and other objects acquired during pilgrimages served a double-metaphysical purpose: they physically connected their owners to the spiritual world through their association with the religious site where they were acquired, and they served as a special object that helped to evoke the memory of, and to prove to others, of the significant trip they took. In future posts, I will argue that while the metaphysical properties of souvenirs now take different forms—in some ways, the two cited above have merged, albeit in more secular terms—such properties are just as active and powerful in souvenirs today.
Bell, Adrian R. and Richard S. Dale. “The Medieval Pilgrimage Business.” Enterprise & Society, 12:3 (Sept. 2011), pp. 601-627.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Second Edition. Boston: The Riverside Press, 1957.
Malo, Robyn. “The Pardoner’s Relics (And Why They Matter the Most).” The Chaucer Review, 43:1 (2008), pp. 82-102.
Manchester, William. A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance, Portrait of an Age. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1993.
Potts, Rolf. Souvenir. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.
Rhodes, James F. “The Pardoner’s ‘Vernycle’ and His Vera Icon.” Modern Language Studies, 13:2 (Spring 1983), pp. 34-40.