When Thomas A’Beckett was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, the miraculous healing properties of his blood quickly became legend, and high status visitors, from home and abroad, began arriving to take caskets of relics, including flasks of ‘waters’, home to their own churches and cathedrals. Soon, humbler types were arriving and local metal workers neatly climbed on board the bandwagon by producing miniature versions of common flasks, called ampulla, which could be bought cheaply, and displayed, if so wished, as a sign that they had been to Canterbury!
Other religious centres caught on, one of the most prolific being the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in N Norfolk where production of ampullae probably continued right up until the Reformation in the mid 16th century.
Ampullae were also produced in Europe, and the shell pattern, being the accepted symbol across the continent of pilgrimage, became the most common decorative feature on an ampulla. Other motifs included, flowers, shields and letters eg ‘W’ for Walsingham. The little bottles were made of lead or lead and tin alloy – easy to melt and therefore to mass produce. They were basically circular, but flattened, with a slightly flared neck and with a small loop either side of the narrowest part, to which a cord could be attached (to be worn around the neck) or by which the ampulla could be sewn to a cap. The neck could be crimped if the water, oil, or perhaps dust (anything from the site would do) was to be held secure before being scattered or transferred. Occasionally ampulla are found that have not been opened, but the substance has escaped over time.
Pilgrim badges became popular later, perhaps as ‘display’ became more important, for whatever reason.
However, by the later Medieval period, ampullae were common again. It is currently thought that it may have become a ‘tradition’ of some kind to open the ampullae and spread the contents on fields, perhaps to bless the field and encourage fertility, or simply to bring the sacred back, literally to home ground. The bottles, with their necks ripped off, are commonly to be found in, or alongside, fields. They are also found in river banks or close to graves.
We might reflect that little changes. Using something to show where we have been (from a good tan to a sticker in the car – make your own list!) has never gone away. And all over the world little workshops produce cheap souvenirs for us to take home and show our friends. Neither have beliefs about special places, or people, which we (in our secular age) might describe as ‘superstitious’, become completely irrelevant. Indeed, in many societies pilgrimage remains important.
All illustrations © The Salisbury Museum. All finds here were processed by Salisbury Museum Volunteers.
With thanks to William Anderson (2010) Blessing the Fields? A Study of Late Medieval Ampullae from England and Wales, Medieval Archaeology and to the Portable Antiquities Scheme.