Medieval voices: recording England’s early church graffiti

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What can graffiti, whether impulsive or ornate, tell us about the hopes, fears, and interests of our medieval forebears? Matthew Champion describes a pioneering project that is shedding light on these enigmatic etchings.

England’s first large-scale survey of medieval graffiti has brought volunteers face-to-face with the past. Here project members explore part of Norwich cathedral.

Six years ago, deep in the wilds of the Norfolk countryside, a small community archaeology project was born. Established as an entirely volunteer-led initiative, the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey had the ambitious aim of undertaking the first large-scale survey of medieval church graffiti in England (CA 256). Now, after making tens of thousands of discoveries, and receiving numerous national awards, the project is eloquently demonstrating how a practice that today is regarded as an antisocial nuisance can reveal a wealth of social and historical information about the medieval people who created these incised images and words.

Despite its name, this initiative actually grew out of a Suffolk-based project, funded by the HLF, to conserve a stunning series of wall paintings at St Mary the Virgin, Lakenheath (CA 265). During this work, we noticed that the walls also bore less ‘official’ markings: a host of early graffiti, some of which was clearly medieval. When I tried to find out more about such inscriptions, however, I found that very little had been written about early church graffiti, and what had been published was largely based on limited site-specific surveys.

These first forays brought me into contact with John Peake of the Blakeney Area History Group, who had been researching medieval graffiti along the north Norfolk coast, and the Rev. Neil Batcock, vicar of Blakeney and published architectural historian. Together we determined to explore medieval graffiti as a wider phenomenon, by surveying all of Norfolk’s 650-odd churches. What would our fledgling project find? The honest answer is that we did not know. Nobody had undertaken a graffiti survey on this scale before, and John’s coastal investigations had shown just how much variation existed between sites: some churches contained only a few dozen graffiti, while others a few miles away boasted hundreds.

We were able to establish some patterns to help us in these predictions, however: rural churches in settlements that had declined in status since the Middle Ages were far more likely to preserve graffiti than urban churches whose relative wealth had ensured numerous redevelopments over the centuries. Likewise, if a church was covered in limewash, or had seen too vigorous a Victorian ‘restoration’, it was unlikely that much if any graffiti would survive. After taking these factors into account, however, in Norfolk alone some 60% of churches were still likely to have significant levels of inscriptions – far more than a small group of enthusiasts could ever hope to record. We would need to expand.

Blessings and curses

What began as the brainchild of three individuals was therefore launched as a community project, and we set out to recruit and train volunteers to help in the recording process. Offers of help came flooding in: the idea that anyone, after only a few hours’ training, could record inscriptions that had not been seen for over 500 years, caught the imagination – but with no equipment or funding, it looked as though the project might fall at the first hurdle. Then we had two pieces of luck in quick succession that changed everything.

Images identified during the survey range from the mundane to the mythological, such as this ‘demon’ from Beachamwell, Norfolk.

The first of these was the discovery of a whole series of extremely rare mid-13th-century inscriptions at Binham Priory. These were no illicit scribbles, but rather the working drawings of an anonymous Master Mason who, while working in the church, had pragmatically used its walls as his drawing board. The resulting sketches all appear to relate to the building of the priory’s west front in the 1240s, using a revolutionary design featuring the first known example of ‘bar tracery’ in the country – the introduction of this new kind of structural window tracery held the key to constructing larger windows in cathedrals and churches, ushering in the new Gothic style. The Binham finds pre-date similar work at Westminster Abbey by a decade, and, prior to this discovery, only a dozen or so such inscriptions were known in England. In one afternoon, however, we had added another five.

With national press coverage came interest from academics and local history groups: suddenly we had access to university libraries, and were being invited to give presentations on our work to groups ranging from local branches of the Women’s Institute to the Society of Antiquaries. Each talk brought a small amount of money, enabling us to buy equipment, set up websites, and hire training venues. We were on our way.

The second stroke of luck came when our project was Joint Winner in the national Awards for the Presentation of Heritage Research in 2010, funding the purchase of digital cameras, large lights, extension leads, and lots more photo scales.

With these resources we could, for the first time, begin to tackle larger buildings like Norwich cathedral. The sheer scale of the structure, and the fact that it is an extremely busy tourist attraction on top of a working place of worship, presented unique challenges to our volunteers, but they nevertheless recorded over 5,000 inscriptions, some dating to the 12th century. Thanks to massive rebuilding programmes (a result of fires, tempests, and changes in architectural fashion) having taken place in almost every century since the cathedral was built, there were some areas where it was difficult to locate a single piece of stonework dating from the Middle Ages, but where large patches of medieval fabric did survive we found plentiful inscriptions, particularly compass-drawn protective markings and merchant’s marks (bigger and more elaborate symbols than better-known ‘masons’ marks’, thought in some cases to represent a guild rather than individual merchants). These were often found in distinct clusters, perhaps marking the location of a now-lost side chapel or altar.

Other graffiti were less pious in intention, notably three rare ‘curse’ inscriptions. These markings were traditionally thought to be largely confined to the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods, but ongoing research is demonstrating that the practice was longer-lived than imagined, continuing well into the later medieval period. These maledictions use a combination of personal names, inverted text, and astrological symbols or incomplete versions of markings more commonly associated with protective powers.

One very well-preserved example in the south ambulatory included the name ‘Keynford’ written upside down, above a pseudo-astrological symbol known from several charms and curses preserved in manuscripts. (The Keynfords were a prominent late medieval local merchant family who appear as correspondents in the Paston Letters, a series of mostly 15th-century writings between members of the eponymous Norfolk gentry family and their associates.) The graffiti’s location in an area not normally accessible to the public, and the confident, unhurried lettering used in its execution, might suggest that it had been created by a member of the cathedral community itself. While the presence of a curse in a place of worship might seem unusual to a modern audience, we should remember that the Church in the Middle Ages was a very different entity to its modern incarnation, and one that was not averse to passing down its own curses to those who fell foul of its authority – the most extreme being the ‘Great Curse’ of formal excommunication.

Harbouring secrets

Another highlight was Cley-next-the-Sea’s church, whose ambitious architecture reflects the former wealth of the Norfolk port, flowing from lucrative medieval trade routes with the Baltic and Low Countries. This golden age ended with the irrevocable silting up of the harbour, however, and today green fields lie where ships once rode at anchor, while the bustling port community has been replaced by hordes of tourists and birdwatchers. Medieval vessels can still be found in Cley, though, sailing across the stonework of its church walls in one of East Anglia’s finest collections of ship graffiti.

These range from crude depictions of local fishing boats to elaborately carved trading vessels, complete with rigging, flags, and decorative bunting. Some are so detailed that we can identify specific ship types, such as the ‘cog’ located at the eastern end of the south aisle. Besides this impressive fleet, Cley also has a clutch of ritual protection marks, builders’ accounts, images of long-dead parishioners, and one of the most unusual inscriptions found to-date in any Norfolk church. Although crudely carved, it is similar to the mappa mundi seen in medieval manuscripts, and indeed an identical symbol appears in an early 15th-century document by John Gower, where it is described as an image of the world. With local churchwardens’ accounts also preserving an enigmatic record of a mappa mundi in nearby Blakeney church prior to the Reformation, might this suggesting a strong local interest among the maritime community in maps of the world?

Medieval graffiti artists seem particularly interested in chivalric and hunting themes, such as this deer from Troston.

Thus far, our Norfolk survey has recorded over 26,000 inscriptions, including a wealth of prayers and other texts. These are usually in Latin, suggesting an educated or even ecclesiastical scribe, and it is not always possible to interpret them, as words often run together and can be abbreviated or letters elided. Of those that can be read, however, they range from apparent nonsense – perhaps representing a charm – to more everyday inscriptions such as personal names. Drawings are also common, from mounted knights and heraldic symbols to human faces and animals.

The latter images are relatively common, but the creatures depicted can be surprising. Those staples of the medieval economy – the sheep and cattle that created the wealth that actually built many of these magnificent churches – are almost entirely absent, in favour of the beasts and birds of the hunt: deer, hounds, and birds of prey associated with the upper echelons of medieval society. Likewise, while horses do occasionally appear, they are not beasts that would be seen pulling a plough across a rutted field. Rather, they are the war horses of knights – some of whom are shown in the saddle – as at Weybread in Suffolk, where a now badly eroded early 15th-century knight can be seen plunging his lance down towards a long-vanished foe.

This martial imagery is repeated across dozens of English churches, and can turn up in the most unlikely places. At Swannington in Norfolk, for example, a whole series of tiny, neatly drawn inscriptions, just a few inches above floor level, show all the equipment of the medieval man-atarms, including pole-arms, shields, and swords. Meanwhile, just over the Suffolk border at Worlington, the walls are scattered with shields and tournament helmets with elaborate crests. Might this bias against mundane images of farm animals and the common plough-boy in favour of chivalric and hunting themes suggest a level of aspiration among those who made the graffiti?

Writing on the wall

One of the most spectacular churches we examined outside Norfolk is at Lidgate, Suffolk. Although the church itself is relatively modest, it was constructed in the outer bailey of a 12thcentury castle, nestling within extremely impressive earthworks. Violet Pritchard examined its graffiti in the 1960s, but her investigations were limited by available technology – relying in most cases on taking rubbings and redrawing the results.

With modern digital technology, however, even the shallowest inscription can be accurately recorded, and we found that there was far more to see than Pritchard had noted: over 400 graffiti, mostly 15th-, 16th- and early 17th-century in date. Among these is a fine collection of windmill images, clustered in one area of the north aisle and pre-dating the insertion of a late 15th-century screen. Might this concentration hint at the presence of a now-lost aisle altar, perhaps even a Guild altar associated with millers?

Aside from these, the church walls bustle with just about every type of graffito imaginable, including texts, religious imagery and depictions of demons, some extremely rare examples of musical notation, and rebus inscriptions – medieval puzzles using a mixture of words, music, and pictures to create a phrase. For example, one wistfully romantic rebus combines the word ‘well’ with a stave of music marked with the notes ‘fa’, ‘re’, ‘mi’, and ‘la’, a picture of a die known in the Middle Ages as a ‘cater’, and letters spelling out ‘yne’. Taken together, this melancholy message reads ‘farewell, my lady Catherine’ (CA 291). It authorship is hinted at by an adjacent inscription that says John Lydgate fecit hoc die sancti Symon et Jude (‘John Lydgate made this on the day of St Simon and St Jude [28 October]’), a possible link to a poet known to have been born in the village in 1370.

Over on the north side of the doorway into the tower, we found a small and neatly cut inscription of equal historical interest. Comprising the words ‘18 January 1583, ano Eliz vingtu sext [26th year of the reign of Elizabeth I], muster at this town’, accompanied by the initials ‘T S’, this tiny graffito, made five years before the Spanish Armada’s attempted invasion, refers to a mustering of the local militia for training under the command of Thomas Smythe – an event that appears in no other contemporary documents, leaving the inscription as our only record of it having ever taken place.

This cunning rebus inscription, found at Lidgate church, forms a melancholy phrase: ‘farewell, my lady Catherine’.


Further afield

It is not only Norfolk and Suffolk where graffiti is being recorded: sister-surveys have also launched in Lincolnshire, Surrey, East Sussex, Wiltshire, and Kent, while investigations are planned for Cambridgeshire, Hampshire, Devon, and Cornwall in the near future. There are also two new HLF-funded pilot projects being coordinated by Matt Beresford of MBA Archaeology in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, and we are working closely with the Council for British Archaeology in hope of expanding the survey nationwide.

Recently our research has moved beyond places of worship to explore medieval castles, with intriguing results. Carlisle Castle in Cumbria has long been known to contain fine early carvings, including religious and heraldic imagery, and mythological beasts. These were traditionally attributed to prisoners housed in the keep, but are now thought to be associated with the castle’s chapel. An almost identical pattern can also be seen at Norwich Castle, where the chapel walls are littered with deep and elaborate carvings of saints, other religious images, and heraldic symbols.

Meanwhile, at Bodiam Castle in East Sussex, recent work undertaken on behalf of the National Trust revealed a number of 14th-century inscriptions hidden among the masses of tourist graffiti that cover its ground-floor areas, while ritual protection marks were found around almost every doorway and window. The sheer number of these symbols suggests that for the medieval inhabitants of Bodiam, the physical defences presented by battlements, gun-loops, and ironbound gates simply were not enough to defend against the forces of evil that might assail them.

It is these personal insights that make this material – together with its accessibility and its ‘undiscovered’ nature – so attractive. Graffiti connects us to the past in a way that decorated manuscripts or brightly coloured stained-glass simply cannot: these faint scratchings represent tangible interactions of real, ordinary people. They do not tell stories of the pomp and ceremony of the medieval court, nor of the terrifying violence of battle, but instead they speak of the simple hopes, dreams, and fears of a devout people. They are the lost voices of the medieval church.

This article appeared in CA 315.  Click here to subscribe!

Images: Matthew Champion


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