Some objects from the Cult of Thomas Beckett at Canterbury
In the later middle ages, pilgrims who arrived at holy sites and shrines would have been able to purchase souvenirs of their travels, including badges and ornamented ampullae (small containers to be filled with holy liquid). The production, collection and distribution of these souvenirs is an important aspect of the rich material traditions which accrued to the act of pilgrimage. These objects had economic, devotional and social implications, and give us an insight into how pilgrims engaged with holy sites.
Today, many of these badges have found their way into museum collections, having been discovered in river banks, waterways and sewers. The large number of these objects mean it is not viable for museums to place them all on public display. The Digital Pilgrim project in Cambridge has produced 3D digital images of a large number of the badges which reside in the collections of the British Museum, annotating them with key information.
The pilgrims of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales are bound for the shrine of St Thomas Beckett in Canterbury. A wide variety of badges depicting St Thomas and his shrine have been found in England and across Europe. The digitised objects on this page present three images of St Thomas and his martyrdom.
Image, above right: 'pilgrim badge', Museum no. 1984,0505.1 © The Trustees of the British Museum
© The Trustees of the British Museum
Read the account of the murder of Thomas Beckett by eyewitness Edward Grim, here.
Take a look at the three 3D digitised objects in the slides below, and consider the accompanying prompts. Each object relates to the practice of producing and obtaining souvenirs at Canterbury, and shows a different image of Thomas Beckett.
Who are the three figures on this ampulla (flask), and how can we distinguish them? What scene from the life of Thomas Beckett is represented here?
Look at the text on the back of the ampulla. What is the significance of this hidden detail for the pilgrim? What function(s) might the souvenir have served? What does this item tell us about how God's grace was seen to manifest in the world?
All three images © The Trustees of the British Museum
Bibliography and further reading
Sarah Blick, 'Votives, Images, Interaction and Pilgrimage to the Tomb and Shrine of St. Thomas Becket, Canterbury Cathedral,' in eds Sarah Blick and Laura Gelfand, Push Me, Pull Me: Imaginative, Emotional, Physical, and Spatial Interaction in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art (Leiden, 2011) 21–58.
Amy Jeffs, Gabriel Byng, 'The Digital Pilgrim Project: 3D Modeling and GIS Mapping Medieval Badges at the British Museum', Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture, 6 (2017) 80-90.
Hanneke Van Asperen, 'The Book as Shrine, the Badge as Bookmark: Religious Badges and Pilgrims’ Souvenirs in Devotional Manuscripts', in eds Marco Faini and Alessia Meneghin, Domestic Devotions in the Early Modern World (Leiden, 2018) 288–312.
Michael Staunton, ed. and trans., The lives of Thomas Becket (Manchester, 2013)
Diana Web, Pilgrimage in Medieval England (London, 2000)
Brett Edward Whalen, Pilgrimage in the Middle Ages: A Reader (Toronto, 2011).
Blogs and online articles
Jane Chan, 'Thomas Becket Badges: Developments and Interpretations of His Cult since the Twelfth Century', The Pilgrim's Guide
Janet Clayton, 'A Flask for the Journey: a Becket Ampulla', Canterbury Cathedral
Danièle Cybulskie, 'Medieval Pilgrimages: It’s All About the Journey', Medievalists.net
'Medieval pilgrim souvenirs', Museum of London
‘Thomas Becket: the murder that shook the Middle Ages’, British Museum Blog