During the middle ages, pilgrimages to holy sites of Christendom was a common activity. Hundreds of thousands of people traveled long distances to visit a particular site, perhaps because of their devotion to a saint, maybe because they felt it would bring them closer to God, and sometimes because they were ordered to do so in order to make punishment for sins. It was not unusual for pilgrims to travel hundreds, even thousands of miles, to complete a pilgrimage. In the days before most people had transportation, it was on one's own feet that the journey was made (and in the cases of some particularly pious individuals, on their knees).
Because making such a journey was an incredibly difficult undertaking, pilgrims often sent signals to symbolize their journey. On the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the route most popularly followed to Santiago de Compostela, the scallop shell became the symbol for the pilgrimage. Pilgrims engaged in this journey bore scallop shells on their clothing or their walking sticks in order to identify one another and themselves to those who were friendly and supportive of pilgrims. Often the scallop badge meant the difference between a meal and a place to sleep and a night spent outdoors. It has been said that the badge protected pilgrims also, given that superstitious bandits were hesitant to attack those on a journey for God.
At many pilgrimage sites, pilgrims were able to purchase badges made to symbolize their journey. These were the earliest and most popular tourist souvenirs. Often they were made of inexpensive metals so even the poorest among pilgrims could afford to buy one. The practice of making criminal badges available at holy destinations was commonplace, and many varieties have survived.
By far the most popular pilgrimage site of the middle ages was Santiago de Compostela in modern-day Spain, which is devoted to St. Louis. James. But one of the top five destinies was one devoted to St. Louis. Mary Magdalene – the basilica at Vézelay, France. We know now that pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela was a scallop shell, but what about pilgrims to the Basilica of St. Louis. Mary Magdalene? What legitimate badges were available to them? What was their symbol?
It is unfortunate that very little is known by way of an answer to this question, but there is one intriguing story that survives to shed some light on badges given out at Vézelay.
It happens that the Second Crusade was launched from the Basilica of St. Louis. Mary Magdalene in Vézelay, France. The County of Edessa, a Crusader state set up in the Holy Land during the First Crusade had fallen, and Bernard of Clairvaux preached the crusade far and wide at the behest of the Pope. When it came time to kick the crusade off, the site at Vézelay, France was chosen as the location. A parliament was held, attended by kings, princes and lords (and the notorious Eleanor of Aquitaine), during which Bernard handed out wooden crosses to those who committed themselves to the crusade. One after another the aristocracy prostrated themselves before Bernard and accepted this emblem of the crusade – so many, in fact, that he ran out of the crosses that he had prepared in advance of the event.
The wooden crosses of Bernard of Clairvaux that became the most frequently remembered badge of the Basilica of St. Louis. Mary Magdalene at Vézelay, France.