Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 1-2 (November 2009)Sebastiaan Ostkamp: The world upside down. Secular badges and the iconography of the Late Medieval Period: ordinary pins with multiple meanings

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1 Introduction

Thanks to the use of metal detectors vast numbers of Late Medieval pilgrim and secular badges have been found in the Netherlands in the last few decades.[1] The secular badges confront us with an aspect of the reality of everyday life in this period that so far has remained largely unknown. This is hardly surprising. The ordinary pins, manufactured from a cheap alloy of tin and lead, were used by those people in Late Medieval society who are almost absent from the written sources. Representing the largest part of the population, they are often typecast as the silent majority. The badges give us a glimpse into their worldview.

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Fig. 1 Badge displaying a boar playing a bagpipe, 1375-1450, found in Amsterdam (Van Beuningen Family collection, inventory number 1460). © Van Beuningen Family Collection

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Fig. 2 Miniature displaying the Visitation surrounded by margin decorations. The one at the bottom on the left also displays a boar playing a bagpipe, from the Très riches heures du Duc de Berry (1340-1416), Musée Condé Chantilly (MS. 65, FOL. 38v).

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Fig. 3 Badge displaying a monkey stamping and urinating on a mortar, 1375-1450, found in Reimerswaal (Van Beuningen Family collection, inventory number 143). © Van Beuningen Family Collection

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Fig. 4 Miniature displaying soldiers stamping on mortars surrounded by margin decorations, one of which shows a monkey and an ass stamping on a mortar, from a manuscript from the library of Lodewijk van Gruuthuse (1422-1492), Bibliothèque Nationale Paris (MA.FR. 2645, FOL. 1).

The interpretation of the scenes depicted on the badges may be carried out through analysis of written and iconographic sources. The problem in decoding the meaning of these cheap pins is that we have to use sources left us by the Late Medieval elite in order to understand the worldview of the ‘common person’. Beautiful examples of such sources are illuminated manuscripts. For example a boar playing a bagpipe, seen on several badges found on Dutch soil (fig. 1) (Van Beuningen & Koldeweij 1993 268; Van Beuningen, Koldeweij & Kicken 2001, 415), is also represented in the margin of the famous Très riches heures du Duc de Berry, although in a bowdlerized version since the boar’s phallus is missing (fig. 2). Another example is the depiction of a monkey stamping in a mortar (fig. 3). A parallel may be found in the margin decorations of one of the manuscripts from the famous library of Lodewijk van Gruuthuse (1422-1492), treasurer of the illustrious Order of the Golden Fleece (fig. 4) (Martens 1992, 135). Here a monkey and an ass are stamping on a mortar and again the scene has been bowdlerized. The monkeys on the badges are urinating into the mortar, something that remains absent on the margin decoration of the manuscript. In addition, the fish that the monkeys are standing on are missing from the manuscript illustration. An extensive study of the margin decorations in Late Medieval illuminated manuscripts would undoubtedly yield more parallels (Compare: Unterkicher 1974, 53, 70, 121 and 139; Van Beuningen & Koldeweij 1993, 252 and 264-265; Koldeweij & Willemse 1995, 23, fig. 9 left ). Others may be found in medieval literature (for examples see Winkelman 1999; Winkelman 2002b). We should be aware that these examples do not prove that the depictions stem from a identical worldview. However, they show that in Late Medieval society both the elite and the common person availed themselves of a comparable iconography. In studying these simple and common pieces of jewellery, we must also be aware that they must have had more than one layer of meaning at the time they were used. The sociologist Bedaux has already pointed out the amulet function of the badges (Bedaux 1995). In addition there is an interpretation that connects these badges to each other deriving from their shape. Secular badges coexisted with religious ones and they are encountered in the same archaeological contexts. Thus we can conclude that both types of objects were used by the same groups of users at the same time. There is little difference between the types in terms of shape, constituent materials and manufacture. Therefore it is not unlikely that the meaning of the secular badges is partly found in the extension of these religious examples.

An obvious explanation can be found in the popular Late Medieval theme of the inversion of the world and its natural order. In the inverted world animals perform human actions. The normal hierarchy is also reversed in this anti-world; the servants are kings and women subjugate their husbands. Herman Pleij, Emeritus Professor of Historical Dutch Literature at the University of Amsterdam, has focussed on the role of the inverted world in Late Medieval culture in the Netherlands (Pleij 1979, 1988, 1992). In his earlier work Pleij emphasizes the temporary character of ‘turning the world upside down’, especially during the festivities around Shrove Tuesday, in which inverting normal roles functioned as an escape from reality. Once a year the act in which the servant becomes king makes clear the true relationship throughout the rest of the year. Although such festivities concur with Late Medieval culture in which humour and laughter are very important elements, the inverted world undoubtedly played a more structural role.[2] Besides the comical element, it actually had a very serious meaning because the inverted world confirmed what was ridiculed and thus reinforced it. The most proven method of this confirmation was to represent the subject as an anti-image. This is illustrated in the famous Book of Hours of Catharina van Kleef (ca. 1410-1473). One of the miniatures displays an image that is a variation on the theme of the Fall of Man (fig. 5). To the left of the Tree of Knowledge a naked Eve receives the apple from the devil. To the right of the tree, the customary Adam is replaced by a fully dressed Virgin Mary with the Christ Child. An angel above the tree holds a banderole which reads: ‘Eve cause of all sin; Mary cause of merit’. That this textual comment was unnecessary to reveal the inherent meaning of the image is proven by the handle of a knife excavated in Amsterdam (fig. 6). On one side we again see Eve as the mother of all sin. The other side depicts the Holy Virgin Saint Barbara with her tower. Although for the Catholic medieval people the miniature clearly alludes to the two most important episodes in history – the Fall of Man and the Redemption from Sin by the suffering of Christ – the actual contrast between the icons of sin and purity plays an important role. The Holy Virgin Saint Barbara on the handle of the knife is setting an example by her lifestyle of chastity, just like the Holy Mary.

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Fig. 5 Miniature displaying a variation on the Fall of Man, from the Book of Hours of Catharina van Kleef (ca. 1410-1473) (The Morgan Library & Museum, New York).

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Fig. 6 Handle of a knife excavated in Amsterdam displaying Eve and Saint Barbara, 1450-1525 (Bureau Monumenten & Archeologie, Amsterdam).

A ceramic plate, manufactured in Den Bosch and found in a monastery in Hooydonk in the Duchy of Brabant (fig. 7), is yet another example of these oppositions. A forcep, a banderole and an amputated breast (symbols for the Holy Virgin Saint Agatha) are depicted in the sgraffito technique, while the name of Mary is incised twice on the rim of the plate. Saint Agatha’s attributes are flanked by a jester and a fish, both symbols of lust and gluttony (Nijhof & Janssen 2000, 260 and 265). In this capacity, a fish is depicted several times in the Garden of Earthly Delights, painted by Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1460-1516 - fig. 8) (Bax 1956, 205). Another plate shows the incised name of Mary under a crown, while beneath it again is the counter-image of a fish (fig. 9). Similar plates are found in both urban and rural domestic contexts as well as monasteries and castles (Nijhof & Janssen 2000). This reveals the importance of chastity to all ranks of Late Medieval society. It is clear that this phenomenon is not typically urban, as sometimes suggested by written sources.

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Fig. 7 Ceramic plate with the incised attributes of the Holy Virgin Agatha (a forcep, a banderole and an amputated breast) flanked by a jester and a fish, 1450-1525, manufactured in Den Bosch and found at the site of the monastery in Hooydonk (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, inventory number F.1766).

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Fig. 8 Detail from the Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1460-1516) - the fish as a symbol of lust and gluttony (Museum Prado, Madrid).

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Fig. 9 Ceramic plate with the incised name of Mary under a crown and beneath it the counter-image of a fish, 1450-1525, found in Dordrecht (Provinciaal Bodemdepot, Alphen a/d Rijn).

Ceramic plates with sgraffito decoration comparable with the above-mentioned examples were produced in various parts of the Netherlands. The most common motifs on this type of plates have either a religious or a heraldic subject, such as the numerous known plates decorated with symbols of saints. A beautiful example is a plate excavated in Dordrecht, which is decorated with a tower (attribute of Saint Barbara) and flanked by the Gothic letters B and A associated with this holy virgin (fig. 10). Another plate shows the coat of arms of the Egmond family (fig. 11). This piece was excavated at the site of their castle, near the village of Zoetermeer. However, examples are also known where symbols of a lesser nature are glorified, such as jesters, owls or dice – sometimes even incorporated in a heraldic coat of arms (fig. 12).

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Fig. 10 Ceramic plate with the incised attribute of Saint Barbara (a tower) which is flanked by the Gothic letters B and A, 1450-1525, found in Dordrecht (Provinciaal Bodemdepot, Alphen a/d Rijn).

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Fig. 11 Ceramic plate with the incised coat of arms of the Egmond family, 1450-1525, found at the site of their castle, near the village of Zoetermeer (Provinciaal Bodemdepot, Alphen a/d Rijn).

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Fig. 12 Ceramic plate incised with dice incorporated in a heraldic coat of arms, 1450-1525, found in Dordrecht (Bureau Monumentenzorg en Archeologie, Dordrecht).

Numerous stoneware funnel beakers produced in the German town of Siegburg are decorated with appliqués showing the Holy Virgin Mary with the Christ Child (fig. 13) or a saint. However, a small number of beakers has appliqués of less common iconography. Occasionally we find one with a loving couple or even a phallus replacing the more normal depiction of the saints and applied in exactly the same manner (fig. 14).

The numerous religious badges that have been excavated, and their secular counterparts, which contrast sharply to the applied themes, should also be seen as an expression of the aspect of Late Medieval culture which is mentioned above (Van Beuningen & Koldeweij 1993). In the 1980s secular badges were often typecast as carnival badges, an extension of their interpretation. Whether the role played by the badges depicting the world upside down was restricted to festivities, or whether they had a more structural position in daily life remains unknown. From the above-mentioned examples, the latter option seems the most likely.

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Fig. 13 Stoneware funnel beaker produced in the German town of Siegburg and decorated with appliqués showing the Holy Virgin Mary with the Christ Child, 1375-1450, found in Venlo (Provinciaal Depot voor Bodemvondsten, Maastricht).

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Fig. 14 Stoneware funnel beaker produced in the German town of Siegburg and decorated with appliqués showing a phallus, 1350-1400 (Stadtmuseum Siegburg).