St Thomas and the Peacock's picture
Created on Monday 17th August 2015 by:
Dr John Jenkins

John is a historian who works primarily in the field of late-medieval English society and religion. His doctoral work was on the impact of rural monasteries on society in medieval Devon. He has... [Read more...]

Most pilgrim shrines in the Middle Ages offered travellers a souvenir of their visit, often a pewter or copper badge depicting some emblem of the saint or image that was the focus of the cult. The scallop shell of Santiago de Compostela is perhaps the most famous example. The badges would be worn on the hat or the chest and thus display the wearer's experience to the world, much as posting holiday photos on social media might do today. As one 14th century poem puts it: 'Then, as manere and custom is, signes there they bougte/ For men of contre shulde know whom they hadde soughte.'

Pilgrims to Canterbury could commemorate their visit by purchasing from a wide range of souvenirs. A popular 12th and 13th century item was a small lead phial called an ampulla which the pilgrim would then fill with 'St Thomas' Water' from a basin in the cathedral crypt. The 'water' was initially believed to be a homeopathic dilution of Thomas Becket's blood which could be taken as a drink or applied as a lotion to the sick, and was reputed to effect miracles ranging from leprosy, blindness, and tapeworms, to fighting a house fire. Miracle-working blood was theologically dubious, however, and brought up worrying parallels with the Eucharist, so the monks of Canterbury appear to have insisted over time that the water was merely water blessed by its association with St Thomas. The visiting public clearly felt less enthusiasm for the bloodless liquid, and numbers of ampullae decline from the end of the 13th century.

From the 14th century pilgrim souvenirs became more visual, and some of the most popular badges depicted either the shrine of St Thomas or the golden and bejewelled head reliquary of 1312 that stood in the Corona chapel. Badges survive that were aimed at Dutch and French pilgrims, as well as a brooch inscribed 'THOMAS PENSE TZCE THOM' (Thomas, pray for this Thomas), much as gift shops today offer personalised keyrings and nameplates.

Alternatively, pilgrims could take home something that linked their experience to that of St Thomas. Thanks to an episode in his life where he had safely made the return crossing from France to England in the dangerous winter months, St Thomas was known as one of the patron saints of seafarers. Thus pilgrims that had arrived by sea could buy a badge of St Thomas on a boat to commemorate both his and their safe journeys, while for those who had made the journey on horseback there was another popular souvenir depicting St Thomas riding back to Canterbury from his time in exile.

For the poorest pilgrims there were small copper badges of plain workmanship, often with just a 'T' on them. Some of these cheap badges carried inscriptions which imitated the 'Thomas is the best doctor of the worthy sick' written on the pewter souvenirs and ampullae, but which were often garbled - an inscription for illiterate pilgrims made by illiterate craftsmen! We might consider the power of the written word as a protective or even amuletic device in a semi-literate society, even when it made no actual sense.

Image of Peacock pilgrim badge - BM 2001,0702.2 (© Trustees of the British Museum) (click to enlarge)

It is less clear why many pilgrims in the early 13th century opted for a souvenir showing St Thomas riding on the back of a peacock. These lead stick-heads were designed to fit on to the end of a pilgrim’s staff, and some have a spike on the peacock’s neck that could be curled round to hold a small bell (and more on pilgrim bells and whistles in another post!). No story in St Thomas’ life makes the connection between the saint and the bird, nor does it feature as one of his liturgical analogies.

Brian Spencer's seminal book Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges (London, 1998) makes the argument that these could be reflecting a medieval tradition of courtly and mock-chivalric 'vows of the peacock' made at Becket's shrine. This is unconvincing on several levels, not least that the vows to which he refers only begin to appear in the 14th century, a hundred years or so after the date of these stick-heads. They also tend to be highly aristocratic affairs, out of keeping with the mid-price design and quality of these souvenirs.

The peacock was invested with a great deal of symbolism in the middle ages. Peacock meat was held to be incorruptible – it would never decay – yet it was never claimed that St Thomas was an incorrupt saint. The eyes on its tail were supposed to be representative of God’s all-seeing vision, and its reputed ability to eat venomous snakes and poisonous plants led to a belief in the immortal and healing properties of its flesh.

Yet none of these attributes provide a strong link to St Thomas’ cult. It is generally supposed that the modern idea of the peacock as a symbol of vanity stems from the Renaissance, although its bright plumage may always have invited the comparison with pride in appearance. Is St Thomas pictured riding it as one who had conquered his formerly luxurious lifestyle on becoming archbishop of Canterbury?

The conjunction of Thomas and the peacock seems to have flourished only briefly. Perhaps it was the subject of a popular song or poem sung by pilgrims on their way to and from Canterbury, or a variety of animal fable that was never written down. As such, it is a telling reminder of the problems in reconstructing the lived experiences of the past. Nonetheless, the conjunction of Thomas and the peacock is clearly deeply symbolic. The imagery may even have been specifically designed to appeal to those pilgrims who had thrown off their worldly accoutrements in order to don the pilgrim garb, pick up their staffs, fix St Thomas and his peacock to the top, and set off on a spiritual journey.

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