From Winchester Cathedral to the Rosslyn Chapel, the walls of Britain’s religious houses echo with the voices of a long-dead past. But why is medieval graffiti so commonplace? And what does it mean for modern historians?
In a recent article for History Extra, Jessica Hope explores various meanings behind the countless examples of graffiti which cover the walls of Britain’s medieval churches. She writes with disappointment that past generations of historians too often overlooked the inscriptions and doodles, viewing them as little more than the ‘creations of bored choirboys’ and therefore unworthy of academic or scholarly surveyal. However, she goes on, paradoxically much of the graffiti actually dates back to ‘long before there actually were and choirboys to be found in the church.’ Indeed, in recent years, new large-scale surveys have revived interest in medieval graffiti and, unsatisfied with the crude suggestions of the past, many historians are now undertaking academic research to reveal the meaning of medieval graffiti once and for all.
An example of such research is the work of Matthew Champion, which draws on thousands of examples from surviving medieval churches across the width and breadth of Britain. He believes that while graffiti in the twenty-first century may be seen as ‘both destructive and anti-social, and certainly not something that should be either welcomed or encouraged in our parish churches,’ this appears to be a relatively modern attitude. Conversely, during the Middle Ages, graffiti appears to have been both accepted and acceptable, leaving many of our medieval churches ‘quite literally covered with inscriptions.’
Champion writes that the purpose of studying medieval graffiti is simply that it is so unlike any other form of historical research. He suggests that ‘If you walk into just about any one of the surviving medieval churches scattered across the British countryside, you will undoubtedly see a wealth of features surviving from the Middle Ages- stained glass windows, the sheen of alabaster monuments and the dull glow of memorial brasses set into the floor. However, almost without exception, all of these were created by or for the top five or ten percent of medieval society; the parish elite that could, quite simply, afford to have themselves memorialised.’ Where then, asks Champion, are the lower orders of medieval society? Where are the common people who for generations worshipped within the church walls? Where are the memorials to the simple commoners who paid for, and in many cases helped to construct, these monuments to their ‘betters’?
While yes, occasionally these individuals do turn up in legal agreements, wills and major court rolls. However, that is only to say that such documents represent the times when those individuals came into contact with the authority of either the civil administration or the church. Certainly, they do not represent their everyday interactions with the church as either a building or an institution. Champion therefore argues that the voice of the people has ‘been muted and distorted by the conventions of the records themselves.’ In contrast, the graffiti has the potential to have been created by anyone and everyone; ‘from the lord of the manor and the parish priest, all the way down the social scale to the very lowliest of the congregation.’ They are, quite literally ‘the lost voices’ of the medieval church.
What then, asks Hope, are the newly rediscovered voices telling us? Champion suggests that to begin with, one must establish the differences between much of modern graffiti which ‘blights our bus shelters, underpasses and public toilets.’ Putting to one side street artists such as Banksy, modern graffiti tends to be largely territorial or memorial in nature. A simple ‘I was here’ or ‘this is mine/ours,’ for instance. This is in no way meaningless or invalid, but according to Champion it’s very different to the graffiti found in Britain’s medieval churches.
Recent research would indicate that, while there are numerous inscriptions which might be little more than a choirboy’s doodle, the vast majority of examples appear to be devotional or religious in nature. Champion writes that they are, in their simplest form, ‘prayers made solid in stone.’ In some cases they are exactly that – a Latin prayer etched deeply into the stonework, or a prayer for the safe return of a ship or good harvest, as well as prayers for the soul of a dead loved one. Other examples though are less easy to decipher. ‘Ritual protection marks,’ often known as ‘Witch Marks’ are common, designed to ward off daemons and the ever-present ‘evil eye.’ These are often found clustered around medieval fonts. Also common are elaborate crosses, cut deep into the arches, perhaps to ask for God’s blessing or in memory of vows taken.
The walls of our medieval churches, argues Hope, are full of minute testaments to faith and beliefs that once were commonplace. ‘They tell the story of life, love, hope and fear within the medieval parish; a record that depicts sudden death and the perils of the soul that, every day, were faced by our ancestors.’ Most of all though, she goes on, ‘these scratched mementoes by the long dead tell us about the people.’ A single church might hold any number of secrets. The church of St Mary’s at Troston in Suffolk, for instance, bears an elaborate compass-drawn design on the tower arch which dates back to the building and consecration of the church. While, further up the stonework is simply the name ‘John Abthorp,’ a lord of the manor in the late fifteenth century.
On the south side of the church, below a beautiful coat of arms, a more sinister piece of graffiti can be seen. It takes the form of a medieval shoe, however etched alongside the shoe, and partly obscuring it, is the head of a daemon. Such imagery was common in medieval churches, yet Champion deems the number of examples of daemons in the graffiti of St Mary’s noteworthy. Higher up the arch is a second daemon inscription, this time shown in profile with its gaping mouth full of sharpened teeth and a lolling tongue. Across this daemon’s head is a pentangle, scored deeply into the stonework where it has been gone over numerous times. The pentangle, a symbol of protection, sits in the centre of the daemon’s head- ‘quite literally pinning it to the wall and trapping the evil within,’ says Champion.
Such symbolism clearly carried important meanings for the individuals who created the graffiti, and it is worth noting that many of the more elaborate designs would have taken several hours to complete. This suggests that they could not have been carried out without the knowledge and at least tacit-approval of the local church. While some designs are clearly devotional in nature, we may never truly understand the reason why the lord of the manor left his name inscribed on the tower arch. Hope wonders, was he simply recording his presence, or maybe marking his territory? Was it even John Abthorp who carved his name into the stonework, or was it perhaps created by another person with ‘a deeper, darker purpose?’
Other examples of medieval graffiti are much less enigmatic, and all too easy to understand. At Gamlingay in Cambridgeshire, for instance, a tiny Latin inscription in the north aisle reads simply, ‘Here lies Margaret in her tenth year.’ An equally tragic tale is evident at the church in Kingston, Cambridgeshire, where a small inscription is cut neatly into the stonework. It only lists three names; ‘Cateryn Maddyngley, Jane Maddyngley and Amee Maddyngley.’ ‘Exactly how old they were,’ Hope resigns herself, ‘we may never know,’ but as they do not appear in the parish records, it suggests that all three were children or infants, and all were related by blood. The date following the names offers a further indication as to their fate — ‘1515,’ the year the Bubonic plague returned to London, the south-east, and Cambridgeshire. This outbreak also appears to have been extremely virulent. Cambridge University is known to have suspended all studies, and the courts and places of gathering were disbanded in an effort to stop the spread of the disease. It was, however, to little avail.
Hope writes that ‘part of the problem was that this outbreak came only a short time after the last major outbreak of the Sweating Sickness in 1507.’ Moreover, as was typical of this period, the years immediately after a major epidemic usually saw an increased birth rate, as families and communities tried to recover the losses of the previous pestilence. This meant that, in the case of the 1515 epidemic, when the plague began to spread across England, the country had a far higher population of infants than it might ordinarily – and unfortunately, these children appear to have fallen victim to the disease in their hundreds and thousands. Across the country, so many infants died that they were hastily buried in unmarked graves with little or no time to memorialise or remember them. Hope writes that ‘In London, the hasty funeral processions, made up of only a few souls, walked the deserted streets; and in a small village in rural Cambridgeshire, a stolid tenant farmer quickly etched the names of his three dead children into the walls of his parish church.’
‘The simple inscription may well be the only mark those three young individuals left on this planet,’ writes Hope. ‘Sometimes the writing on the walls can break your heart.’