Thursday 4 July 2013

Medieval Pilgrims Satchel

I worked so hard to get my families new things finished for the event I mentioned in my last post, but to paraphrase Jane Austen “our intended excursion to Wadköping turned out very differently from what I’d expected. I was prepared to be wet through, fatigued…. ; but the event was still more unfortunate, for we did not go at all.” That is, little B and I didn’t go, as he got ill. Tobias went up on Friday afternoon, but came home again on Saturday evening to help me with the poor sick child. Little B’s been really ill, with huge, painful blisters in his mouth, and gums swelling so heavy his teeth almost disappeared from view, and it has prevented him eating very much at all. When he’s been so hungry he couldn’t help but eat, he did so crying from the pain. It was truly heart wrenching to witness. Naturally we went to the doctor, but as it was a virus there wasn’t much they could do. Now, after eight days of fever, he’s slowly on the mend – thankfully! He can eat again without more than the occasional whimper and is moving from liquids to soft solids, only has fever in the evenings, and can find things amusing once in a while. He’s still more sensitive than he usually is though.

Unfortunately Tobias and I are coming down with it now. I’ve had a fever for a couple of days, and I have a very sore throat. Bleh. So, pictures of the new tunic I finished for Tobias in time for the event will have to wait until we both feel better.

I have however managed to sew something during this last couple of days when B’s been getting better, and I’ve been getting worse: a medieval pilgrim’s satchel. (Isn’t satchel a nice word by the way? Just listen to it: satchel...) I have mixed feelings about them, as they are far more common in the living history world than they appear to have been at the time. Then, they seem to have onlybeen used by people during travelling, like pilgrims, but so many people of today feel the need to carry a lot of things with them, and must have something like their modern purse. I usually don't carry a lot of things with me, once I've left all my things in our tent all I have is my belt pouch. But having something more to pack in for events, and to carry the now needed child related things in, is important enough for me to have made one. It will be a good complement to baskets.

It’s made from rather heavy wool twill scraps I had in my stash, with white yarn in the warp and brown in the weft. Wool is a good choice for bags and purses, as it keeps the contents reasonably dry, unlike linen. Leather would have been even better, but I don’t have any I want to use for this.

The body of the satchel is made from one piece, and the strap from another. The satchel is about 30 cm wide and 32 cm deep. I made the strap rather short, as they often appear to be so in period art. I also find it more comfortable and balanced.

from Grace of God, late 14th century or early 15th century.

I had planned to tablet weave it together with blue wool yarn, but the fabric frayed too much for it to work. Instead it’s stitched together using waxed linen thread and trimmed it with wool braid. I also added tassels, which is a common feature in medieval bags and purses, including pilgrims’ satchels. 

I could have lined it, making it even prettier (I'm not thrilled about how it looks on the inside of the lid) and more sturdy, but I didn’t have any fabric I wanted to use for this, and I’m working from materials in my stash as much as possible at the moment. Still, all in all I'm pleased with how it turned out.

So that’s another of this summer’s planned projects I can cross of the to do list.


  1. I love the wool braid trim and tassels on the bag!

    I always mentally justify bringing a pilgrim's bag to events by remembering that most medieval people rarely went more than a couple miles from their homes. They'd carry the most likely necessities like a knife on their belt, and if they needed something else it was a fairly simple matter to either walk home then or delay the task until they could walk home. If a medieval person had to walk the distance a reenactor travels to get to an event, that medieval person would have almost certainly used some kind of bag to carry at the very least food and/or money.

  2. Every element of a pilgrim's kit was filled with religious symbolism and it was the custom in England for a priest to bless the satchel and cloak - and present the staff from the altar, just like a knight's sword.

    In medieval Latin the satchel or scrip was called capsella ("little container"), which is the same word used for small reliquary chests and other containers of Holy relics; the connection was not lost on people at the time. The satchel also symbolised humility and charity, since it was too small to carry much in the way of food or belongings - all pilgrims relied on monasteries, the Church and others for charitable hospitality along the way.

    It is a misconception that people did not travel far from home - huge numbers of people were persuaded to travel all over Europe and beyond, carrying almost nothing with them. Each day's journey was planned to end at a monastery guesthouse or pilgrim hospital along the route - itineraries were available showing these rest stops, places of interest and perils to avoid along the way. The reasons they went were many: religious zeal, seeking a miraculous cure, penance for sin or punishment for crime. Local priests had the power to impose the penalty of pilgrimage for even minor infractions.

    Jonathan Sumption's book "The Age of Pilgrimage" traces changes in pilgrimage during the entire medieval period; it emphasises the huge numbers of travellers and the equipment they carried, along with the religious symbolism involved. One item he misses is a particular type of pilgrim staff made from three long hazel sticks bound together with strips of bark or rawhide - this symbolised the Holy Trinity and was a constant reminder that the pilgrim was supported by God as well as his staff.


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