North Devon in 100 Objects 95

95. A Pilgrim’s Ampulla

Pilgrim’s ampullae are small leaden flasks which were bought by early medieval pilgrims visiting a saint’s shrine. In the ampulla they carried away a drop of water from the shrine or a drop of oil, in the hope that some degree of sanctity would be imparted to them. Pilgrims would sew ampullae to their hats or clothing, or would suspend them from a cord around their neck. Known from the end of the 12th Century, ampullae were later frequently replaced by pilgrim’s ‘badges’, decorations worn on the clothing by those who went on pilgrimage to a saintly shrine

The pilgrim’s ampulla takes its name from the shape of a Roman two-handled flask. Made in lead, the ampullae were cast in stone moulds, the top being pinched together when the holy water was added. Unlike the pilgrim badges which were sold in shops, ampullae were sold officially at the shrine of the revered saint. Huge numbers were made, but only a tiny proportion have survived.

Found at Pilton, these ampullae came originally from the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk, one of the greatest shrines in medieval Christendom. Pilton is the furthest west that any such have been found, representing a journey of several weeks travelling from North Devon to Norfolk. A pilgrimage was the only way most people would see any of the world beyond their own home.

An ampulla was a proof of pilgrimage, a souvenir and a talisman against harm. Tourist souvenirs of today may be considered their distant descendants.

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