Ampulla and Graffiti

In a previous piece on this blog, I noted similarities between the so-called “witch-marks” and other apotropaic signs found as graffiti in churches and old buildings, and symbols found on lead tokens recorded on the PAS database. In the course of my lugubrious browsing of the database during the current lockdown (I unfortunately find myself in the high risk group) I noticed the same symbols, or some of them at least, on other artefacts; in particular on medieval ampullae.

Usually dated to the 13th-15th centuries, an ampulla is a small flask, most of them made from lead alloy, designed to contain a small amount of Holy water, oil or similar thaumaturgic fluid. They are well represented on the database with over 2000 records showing up from a simple search. They are close cousins of the pilgrim badge and in many ways served a similar function as a physical, visible symbol of a pilgrimage. Like badges, they could be worn – either suspended on a cord or chain, or sewn onto clothing or hats. In Piers Ploughman, Langland describes a pilgrim:

“And hundreds of ampulles

On his hat seten

signes of synay

and shells of Galice”

Whilst it has been suggested that poets such as Langland and Chaucer were to some extent parodying the pilgrim attire (hundreds of ampulles on a hat does seem excessive!) there is no doubt that people did bedeck themselves with these items, and it is tempting to think of ampullae and badges as being souvenirs – the medieval equivalent of the trinkets we buy today to demonstrate we have visited a place; something akin to an “I heart Canterbury” t-shirt. And to an extent they did fulfill that function, but there was a lot more to it. People undertook pilgrimages for different reasons. Apart from the obvious religious motivations, there were social and secular aspects; some pilgrimages were actually assigned as a penance. So we may assume people viewed badges and ampullae with similar duality; they could be simultaneously objects of personal devotion and reverance, and charismatic objects conveying status and kudos on the owner and wearer.

Two ampullae I record, DENO-BD4CBD and DENO-2E23D6 were decorated with the multi-petalled “daisy wheel” design so frequently found amongst church graffiti and on lead tokens.

Two medieval ampullae recorded in Derbyshire. Left: DENO-BD4CBD (Copyright: Derby Museums Trust, License: CC-BY). Right: DENO-2E23D6 (Copyright: Simon Nicholson).

A quick search found other examples, such as YORYM-973896, which also has on the other face, the “VV” symbol (the “Marion mark”), another symbol very common in church graffiti and also found on tokens. On ampullae is it suggested the symbol refers to Our Lady of Walsingham, a popular shrine.

A medieval ampulla found in Yorkshire with “daisy wheel” on one side and “VV” mark on the other. Record ID is YORYM-973896 (Copyright: York Museums Trust, License: CC-BY).

The reverse of “my” two ampullae show cross-hatched heart symbols, which are also found as graffiti, although not so commonly as the daisy wheel of VV. There would seem to be a connection between the decoration of some ampulla and common church graffiti. The exact nature of that connection is hard to pin down. Given the apotropaic function attributed to these symbols when found on buildings, it is tempting to assume the same magical/spiritual protection was being invoked by placing them on ampullae, giving the ampulla the function of amulet as well as any devotional and charismatic utility. But there is also a “chicken and egg” aspect to this question – are the ampullae decorations inspired by familiar graffiti or vice versa? In his book on medieval graffiti, Mathew Champion speculates that some graffiti were carved into the fabric of the church to solemnise a vow or to commemorate the completion of a vow or undertaking. He particularly cites the preponderance of crosses of various forms, but if I could indulge in a little speculation of my own, might it not be possible that a returning pilgrim may carve a symbol copied from the ampulla they have carried with them from the shrine they visited?

Taking my flight of fancy a little further, I note that there are other symbols and images found in church graffiti that, it could be argued, resemble those on ampullae. The Archiepiscopal mantle and mitre are quite common on ampullae associated with the shrine of St. Thomas Becket, and often the mantle is stylised as a cross-hatched triangle, which is a recognised graffito. Finally, scallop shells are found amongst graffiti and many ampullae are in the form of scallop shells – the “shells of Galice” mentioned by Langland. This symbol is strongly associated with the shrine of St. James of Compostela, but the scallop was also a generic symbol of pilgrimage.

I am aware of the strong possibility of barking up wrong trees here, but I find the similarities in these symbols tantalising and thought I would share my thoughts.

Bibliography

The vision of Piers Plowman, William Langland, London and New York: J.M. Dent and E.P. Dutton, 1978

Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches, Mathew Champion, Ebury Press: 1st Edition, 2015

Medieval Pilgrim Badges: Souvenirs or Valuable Charismatic Objects?, Margrete Figenschou Simonsen, www.press.nordicopenaccess.no