Cataloguing the Museum’s collection of medieval pilgrim badges for Collections Online has been a great opportunity for me to look really closely at our objects and sometimes to find out that items are not at all what they appear to be. A great example recently has been a tiny little badge in the shape of a comb.
This little badge (no. 8737) was catalogued in 1908 as a pilgrim badge of St Blaise with the following entry: ‘Blaise, Saint; a comb, with double row of teeth, divided by a foliated bar in the centre; 13th-14th century’. It was found at Dowgate Hill near the River Thames in the City of London.
These comb badges were thought to relate to St Blaise as he had been martyred in the 4th century by being pulled apart by iron combs (before being beheaded). Some of the relics of St Blaise were kept at Canterbury Cathedral in a shrine by the high altar so it was thought that comb badges may have been brought by pilgrims visiting Canterbury.
While I was cataloguing this badge I double-checked its old record card, which had a better picture than the one in the 1908 catalogue. I noticed something rather odd about the decoration in the centre. What had been described as a ‘foliated bar’ (i.e. a band of foliage such as leaves) seemed to be a line of four phalluses joined by a wavy line. This was very intriguing. As I wasn’t sure whether to trust the photograph I went to the store to look at the object itself. When I peered at the object I realised the photo was correct – there were no leaves on the object, just phalluses.
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