Amgueddfa Blog: Museums, Exhibitions and Events

The shrine of St David in St David’s Cathedral, Pembrokeshire, was an extremely important pilgrimage site in the Middle Ages. Two pilgrimages there were worth one to Rome, and thousands of people would have visited before the shrine was destroyed at the Reformation.

Inspired by the ‘Beneath our Feet’ project run by Narberth Museum and Tenby Museum and Art Gallery, which is looking at the theme of pilgrimage in Pembrokeshire, Saving Treasures; Telling Stories decided to find out more. What did those long-ago travellers leave behind them?

Pilgrim Objects

Two kinds of objects were commonly associated with pilgrims in the Middle Ages: ampullae, and badges.

Ampullae were little lead scallop-shaped flasks containing holy water that were pinned to clothing or hung around the neck in the belief that they offered spiritual protection. You might expect to find large numbers of them in Pembrokeshire, with its important holy shrine.

It seemed a fair bet that local metal detectorists had found plenty over the years.

But, a search on the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) database, where over a million detectorist finds are recorded, revealed some surprises.

In fact only SIX examples from Pembrokeshire have been recorded with PAS – a surprisingly small amount! Surely there should be many more?

To compare, we looked at the records for Kent, home of medieval England’s most important pilgrim destination – the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. Even here, only 50 pilgrim ampullae have been recorded with PAS, not such a huge number considering the many thousands of people who travelled there.

Contrast this with Lincolnshire, where 232 ampullae have been recorded, the biggest number of any county in Wales and England. Lincoln Cathedral boasted two important shrines (both to saints called Hugh), but this does not explain such a big difference in numbers.

What’s going on?

Confused, we turned to pilgrim badges. These were usually made of lead or pewter and depicted saints, letters and religious scenes and symbols. They were bought at shrines as souvenirs and pinned to clothing.

Surely lots of these cheap objects would have been lost by the visitors to St David’s?

But a search on the PAS database turned up NO examples from Pembrokeshire at all!

Even in St Thomas Becket’s Kent, no more than 11 badges have been recorded with PAS. Greater London has by far the highest number, at 119.

Then we saw that five pilgrim badges had been reported from Swansea, which seemed unusual as there was no important medieval shrine in the town. One of them was a badge of none other than Thomas Becket himself. How had that got there?

It turned out that each one of these badges had been discovered, not in the city itself, but under the sands of Swansea Bay.

Intrigued, we chose a random sample of the London badges and discovered that they had all been found in the River Thames.

We checked the find spots of the ampullae, and sure enough, two had been found on Tenby beach and two others in the coastal village of Manorbier. There was a definite watery theme!

Giving thanks?

In an age when travel was difficult and dangerous, ships were the fastest method of transport, though not necessarily safe.

So it makes sense that pilgrims going on long journeys would travel at least part of the way by water, and would be relieved and thankful when they reached the shore safe and sound. The evidence of all these badges and ampullae dug from the sands and fished from the Thames suggests that returning pilgrims threw them into the water, perhaps as a way of giving thanks for a safe return.

If you visit the Snakes exhibition at National Museum Cardiff (open till 15 September), you will see a 16th century book from the Library collections.

 

This unusual book is known as Hortus Sanitatis (although it is also written as Ortus Sanitatis) which roughly translates to ‘The Garden of Health’ in Latin. It is an early example of a herbal, a book containing descriptions of plants, along with how to prepare and use them as medicinal remedies.

 

It started life in 1485 as a German ‘Herbarius’, also called the Gart der Gesundheit, before an extended version, translated into Latin, was published in 1491. Unlike the German version, the new Latin version didn't just focus on plants, but also included remedies involving animals, birds, fish and minerals.

 

Over the next 50 years the book was published in many more editions and languages. As well as new Latin and German editions, it was also translated into Dutch and English (although often in shortened versions). The English edition is called the Noble lyfe & natures of man, of bestes, serpentys, fowles & fisshes, and was produced around 1527. All these editions indicate just how popular this book was in the 15th and 16th centuries. Perhaps it saw so many reprints because unlike most herbals of the period, it covered more than just plants. But by the 1530s it was being replaced by the herbals of the 'German Fathers of Botany', Bock, Brunfels, and Fuchs.

 

Our copy of Hortus Sanitatis is one of the Latin editions published in Strasburg in 1517 by Reinhard Beck. The full title is Ortus sanitatis de herbis et plantis. De animalibus et reptilibus. De avibus et volatilibus. De piscibus et natatilibus. De lapidibus et in terre venis nascentibus. Urinis et earum speciebus.

 

It has no known author, as was common with herbals of this period, and is heavily illustrated. The illustrations, along with the purchase of the paper for printing, would have been the most expensive part of producing the book, and so were re-used from other works. Unusually for the period, many of the woodcuts are coloured.

 

Our copy of this book is from the Willoughby Gardner Library, but also has a bookplate identifying it as part of the former collection of Charles Butler. Charles Butler, Esq. [1821-1910] was an English politician and collector. He held a very extensive and valuable library at Warren Wood, Hatfield, which was sold off at Sotheby’s in 1911.

 

It’s most likely that Willoughby Gardner purchased the book from that sale, either directly or indirectly from a rare books seller. He regularly purchased books from famous libraries, and so would have been well aware of such a significant auction.

 

The title page of the book also gives us a clue to a much earlier owner. Written in ink are the words ‘Monasterii Montis S. Georgii 1659’, indicating that it might have formerly been in the possession of a monastery in Austria.

 

The monastery of St. Georgenberg was founded on the site of a hermitage, near Stans, and held an extensive library. In the 17th century the abbot decided to reorganise it and give the books new marks of ownership, written on the first and last folios, and usually dated (most often in 1652, 1659, and 1661).

 

In 1850 the monastery sold a number of books from their library in order to raise money, and many of them have since ended up in public collections in the UK. It is quite likely that Charles Butler acquired Hortus Sanitatis from that sale.

 

 

Further reading;

Anderson, Frank J. An illustrated history of the herbals. New York, Columbia University Press, 1977

Arber, Agnes. Herbals: their origin and evolution, 3rd edition. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986

This is a community project led by volunteers from Dre-fach Felindre Gardening Club in conjunction with the National Wool Museum and involving the local primary school’s Eco group. The main aim is to provide a sustainable attractive garden using plants that traditionally have been used for their natural dyes. The plant materials are harvested and used in the end of season workshops.

Early in 2019, the Natural Dye Garden Group was approached by Dr Nicol, of the Sustainable Places Research Institute, Cardiff University, regarding the Economic Botany Collection. This is held in National Museum Cardiff.

Dr Nicol had met with the group some time previously to help explore how this collection of 3,500 specimens might support the public’s understanding and valuing of biodiversity. These specimens were wide ranging but only included one specimen of dye plant material from the UK.

The Museum asked if the Natural Dye Garden Group could provide a contribution to the Economic Botany Collection to expand the range of dye plants held. We were delighted to be able to help.

Every year plant materials from the Natural Dye Garden are harvested and stored for use in the natural dye workshops. From this resource it was possible to provide 13 specimens, labelled and boxed for the Economic Botany Collection.

Additionally, another box was prepared of corresponding dyed samples of wool fibre. In all, 20 colours were included, as examples of colour modifications were added such as yellow from weld overdyed with blue from woad to make green.

These boxes have significantly expanded the natural dye plant selection of the Economic Botany Collection and have all been grown on the National Wool Museum site here in West Wales.

Hi all, I’m Pip Diment from the Exhibitions team, and I'm one of a group of staff volunteering to care for the six live snakes we are housing as part of the 'Snakes’ exhibition at National Museum Cardiff.

Our exhibition is now open and runs to 15 September 2019. I was part of the team who cared for the snakes for the second two weeks of the exhibition run. We were trained by Guy Tansley from Bugsnstuff and he showed a group of us volunteers how to check on the snakes safely and provide basic care.

Guy Tansley from Bugsnstuff.

We are not required to feed the snakes – we have Dr Rhys Jones generously helping us with that. Our tasks are to change the water daily, remove any poo, ureic acid crystals (wee!) and calcium plugs, also to remove any shed skin and to check the snakes are not too cold or hot and that they are ok. These checks are all done daily by a team of two or three volunteers.

Some of our volunteer snake care team.

On my first day volunteering I worked with Melissa Hinkin (from Artes Mundi, who is a snake enthusiast) and Vic le Poidevin (from our Events team). There was great excitement the first morning as Prestwick, the Jungle Carpet Python had shed her skin and had an enormous poo!  She’s a fairly large snake so it shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it was huge! Like a large dogs! The skin itself came off in two parts and is now being used as part of the handling collections (not too much handling as it is fragile!). Underneath all that shed skin Prestwick has now emerged even more beautiful with her skin a stunning irridescent effect. And this was still only day one.

On day two I worked with Christian Baars (from Conservation) and Robin Maggs (from Photography). Once again, much excitement as Keith, the Royal Python, shed his skin overnight. Much smaller poo – smaller snake, so made sense! He also looked much more beautiful after shedding his skin.

Days three and four were not as eventful – only water changing and general checks required. Everyone seems very healthy and happy, and we are following their care instructions meticulously to ensure they stay that way. 

I admit I have an unhealthy interest in snake poo – and for the end of my first week we’ve had another poo! This time, again, from Keith. I am not the only one now excited by snake poos – see Robin and Christian admiring Keith’s offering (look closely it has substrate on it which makes it looks like it has eyes!)

I’m so glad I agreed to volunteer. I’ve held snakes before, but never spent so much time with them. I love that they all have great names and their own characters:

Prestwick, Jungle Carpet Python (Morelia spilota cheynei), female, approx. 10ft

 

Keith, Royal python (Python regius), male, approx. 3.5ft.

 

Mela, Boa constrictor (Boa constrictor), male, approx. 6ft

 

Kibblesworth, Hog nose (Heterodon nasicus), female, approx. 2ft

 

Carlos, Milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum campbelli), male, approx. 3.5ft

 

Seren, Corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus), female, approx. 4.5ft

Thanks for reading. You can read some of our other snake blogs here, here and here.

The exhibition runs till 15 September 2019, entry charges do apply, and all your contributions go towards bringing you even bigger and better exhibitions in the future.

Please note that there is no live handling of the snakes within the exhibition. In August we’ll be having snake handling sessions for the public – see here for details of booking.

Also, make sure you come and visit us this saturday (10 August) for our Venom Open Day!

If you stroll through St Fagans National Museum of History in August you will be exposed to an exuberant display of color, texture and fragrance at the Dutch Garden. Located at the parterre next to the Castle, this is one of the most beautiful historic gardens in Wales!

As you walk through the symmetrical paths you will find a variety of grasses such as the impressive gold Stipa gigantea, the bright green Sesleria autumnalis and the graceful Sporobulous heterolepis surrounding the Cherub statues. These all add texture and the dreamlike feel to the garden. There is also plenty of colour in a palette of purple, blue and red from flowers contrasted with the gold and bright green of grasses. You will notice the Verbena bonariensis with tall stems and clusters of purple miniature flowers, the vigorous blue Geranium Rosanne and the Helenium Moerheim Beauty with dark orange red flowers amongst a variety of Sedums and other cultivars.

I suggest that you visit this magnificent garden through different seasons of the year as it goes through a magical transformation.

This garden has changed a lot over the years. The most recent design was created by our talented Deputy Head Gardener Ceri Goring and maintained by a team of gifted gardeners and volunteers. This sustainable and drought tolerant garden has been carefully planned to withstand dry summer months, saving not only water but also the gardener’s hosing time.

If you walk around the fountain on a warm summer day your senses will be awakened by the fragrance of the lavender hedges, the buzzing of the pollinating bees, the tranquil sound of the cascading water and the impressive visual display of one of the most beautiful gardens in Wales.