In July 2014, the BBC published an article about recent efforts to catalog and study medieval graffiti in English churches. I was immediately fascinated. The Medieval Graffiti Survey, a project which started in Norfolk in 2010 and continued in neighboring counties including Lincolnshire and Suffolk, aimed to photograph and catalog the wide variety of doodles scratched on the walls of medieval churches in those areas. For someone like me who loves the medieval and the mysterious in equal proportions, learning about this project was like an unexpected trip to the candy store. As you guys probably all know, one of the main things that attracts me to the study of art history, particularly of the ancient and medieval periods, is its insights into life in times gone by, and I believe that marginal imagery like doodles, graffiti, and grotesques are singularly well positioned to provide us with new and fascinating perspectives in this area. I think that my fascination is summed up pretty well by this quote from the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey’s website:
“By its very nature surviving medieval graffiti is regarded as being outside of the mainstream of the study of image and devotion within the medieval church. Its creation lacks the legitimacy associated with wall paintings, monuments and stained glass and all too modern connotations associate it with destruction and defacement. However, it is this patent lack of legitimacy, this distancing from authority, that can allow it to be regarded, at least in part, as a reflection of the relationship between commonality and church. Graffiti can be, and was, created by all levels of society and it offers a unique and un-studied insight into the people of the medieval parish.“http://www.medieval-graffiti.co.uk/index_files/NMGS_Graffiti1.htm (Source is no longer available online.)
Based on my brief fascination with this topic, a fellow history blogger invited me to write a guest post about medieval graffiti soon after. I’ve recently discovered that this blog no longer exists, so I’ve decided to re-post my article below, exactly as I originally wrote it. I haven’t edited or expanded it in any way, and I haven’t done any additional research on medieval graffiti since then. Please excuse the lack of photographs, as image reproduction rights remain scarce in this area.
Medieval Graffiti in English Churches: The fascinating new discovery of a very old tradition
From pretty much the first moment I read the term “medieval graffiti”, I knew that its combination of medieval art and thus-far unexplained symbolism ripe for interpretation would make it a long-lasting fascination for me. Considering the attention the topic has received recently, it seems that I’m not the only person to feel that way. “Medieval graffiti” refers to the plethora of symbols, pictures, and words found engraved on the interiors of churches in the British Isles, seemingly made by the parishioners who worshipped there in the Middle Ages. The idea of finding anything that could be termed “graffiti” in medieval churches seems strange enough to warrant quite a bit of attention, but there are many other reasons to be interested. As with numerous other aspects of medieval art, the meaning of this graffiti is shrouded in mystery. Scholars and archaeologists are still debating the reasons behind the graffiti’s very existence, as well as the specific meanings of individual markings. All that’s certain is that these symbols must have had some importance for the people of long ago to have created them in such large quantities and wide varieties. Whether they were prayerful, superstitious, documentary, or deviant is fascinating to speculate on.
Medieval graffiti is also intriguing because it is a relatively recent discovery. The topic was written about by Violet Pritchard in her 1967 book English Medieval Graffiti but then not seriously studied again into 2010, when a group in Norfolk, England began photographing and cataloging the graffiti in Norfolk’s churches. The Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey (NMGS), as the project is called, is led by archaeologist Matthew Champion and has trained many volunteers to complete its mission. Between January 2010 and June 2012, over one hundred NMGS volunteers fully surveyed over two hundred churches in Norfolk, partially surveyed over forty more, and took over five thousand photographs, according to the project’s website. The NMGS has written several articles and given numerous talks on the work and findings.1 It has also recently expanded its operations to the neighboring county of Suffolk, where it is referred to as the Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey. It is through the efforts of the NMGS and its offshoots that the topic of medieval graffiti has received quite a bit of attention in recent months, and the vast majority of the available information about medieval graffiti is from or about the project.
As mentioned before, the severe lack of information about the meanings of the varying kinds of images recently uncovered is simultaneously the most interesting and most problematic aspect of studying medieval graffiti. While the meanings of specific images, the purpose of medieval church graffiti as a whole, and the role of such graffiti in the medieval parish are inter-related concepts, finding firm answers to any of them is difficult when the wide variety of graffiti found seems to preclude any easy solutions. And what a diversity of images there are! According to the Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey’s website, the most common categories of graffiti are as follows: curvilinear designs drawn with a compass, ships, double ‘v’ symbols thought to possibly refer to the Virgin Mary, crosses in a variety of styles and configurations, Solomon’s knots, mason’s marks, merchant’s marks, heraldic crests, pentangles thought to have a served a protective function, textual inscriptions in English and in Latin, architectural elements typically related to the design and construction of the church in which they appear, and human and animals figures.2 Other sources add a “straw king” figure in a Lincolnshire church, sundials or “scratch dials” which may have been used to tell the time of the next Mass, hands, Daisy wheels, peltas, cryptograms, prayers, windmills, musical notes, and names.3
While the symbolism behind all of these images is still very much in question, several possibilities have been put forth for discussion. One of the most common theories is that the graffiti represents prayers of some sort and that the act of creating the graffiti functioned as a method of praying – a “lay piety” according to Champion. Some inscriptions and other symbols have been interpreted as prayers, and Champion has suggested that these little ship images functioned as prayers for missing ships or thanksgiving for those that has safely returned.4 Conversely, inscriptions that seem to be names written upside down may represent an attempt to curse the named person.5
Another prominent theory puts the pentagrams, Solomon’s knots (a type of interlace pattern), and compass-drawn symbols in the role of apotropaic devices or “demon traps” intended to ward off evil. According to Champion, “it was believed that the demons that roamed through the earth were rather stupid. They were attracted to bright shiny things and, should they come across a line, then their stupidity and curiosity would cause them to follow that line to the conclusion.” While Champion attributes this to “the medieval church [being] incredibly superstitious”, other scholars like the Lincolnshire survey’s director Brian Porter see these markings as indicative of residual pagan beliefs. He specifically points to a “straw man” figural graffiti marking in Cranwell Parish Church in Lincolnshire as a depiction of a pagan fertility symbol. Champion is doubtful, stating that “I’ve yet to come across a genuine pagan symbol”.6
Finally, some engravings served a more practical function. The architectural imagery found in some churches appears to have been the original masons’ working drawings for the design and construction of the church buildings themselves. At Bingham Priory in Norfolk, such architectural engravings may have even aided scholars in uncovering the original design of the church’s west window, which has since been modified.7 The original masons often marked the stone with their distinctive and individual mason’s marks as well.
While most of these theories regarding the symbolism of the graffiti have historical precedent – for example, the symbols thought to be apotropaic devices have previously been seen as such in other contexts – Champion warns against putting too much faith in the little we think we already know. On his witty and insightful blog, entitled Demon traps, spiritual landmines and the writing on the wall…, he observes:
I suppose this is the same problem that faces anyone working in a relatively new area of study. A severe lack of reference points – and those that do exist, you discover, are built upon foundations of sand. If you are lucky. […] We are blindfold, in the dark, groping from one hand-hold to the next. Can it get any more difficult? Well, yes, it can actually. It gets worse at the point when you realize that the hand-holds you were using to guide you actually turn out to be as insubstantial as smoke. That all the ‘taken as reads’ haven’t been, and that all the accepted wisdom actually refers to the same untruth or misconception just being repeated long enough and often enough.8
If I understand Champion correctly, this means that everything I just told you about ships being prayers, compass-drawn patterns being demon traps, and so on could very well be complete nonsense. In a subsequent post, he warns against the many misconceptions about medieval graffiti that are frequently propagated by uninformed, popular discussion. He identified some of the most common misconceptions as follows: “In no particular order we have ‘bored choirboys’, ‘crosses around doorways were made by pilgrims’, ‘masons marks were so the master mason knew how much to pay his men’ and, yes you guessed it, ‘the daisy wheel is an ancient sun symbol, proving that the pagan religion survived well in to the middle ages’.”9
One point that the scholars behind the NMGS and related projects seem particularly determined to clarify is the fact that the type of graffiti being described here is not viewed in the same negative light as is modern graffiti. Medieval church graffiti was not made clandestinely or illegally – something Champion refers to in his refutation of the ‘bored choirboy’ theory mentioned above. Instead, scholars suggest that graffiti was at least popularly accepted and at most a common form of prayer. On this issue, Champion says: “Graffiti wasn’t seen in the same way as we see it today. Graffiti wasn’t seen as destructive and anti-social. It wasn’t frowned upon or prohibited. Given that the majority of the early inscriptions we record actually have a spiritual dimension, and many are clearly prayers, it would appear that these inscriptions were far more than just tolerated. They were both accepted and acceptable. As much a part of the everyday experience of the church as the mass.”10
It is difficult to speculate on where all this medieval graffiti research will end up. Although the initial phase of the Norfolk project ended in 2012, surveys in other areas of the United Kingdom are still turning up new images and data. Barring the appearance of some sort of medieval graffiti Rosetta Stone (a wildly improbably event), we will probably never fully understand the significance of graffiti for medieval churchgoers. What I hope we can expect is plenty of new discoveries and interesting theories that will get us closer to at least partial understanding. Champion and others associated with the project have stressed the fact that studying this graffiti provides for a better understanding of the average medieval churchgoer, who is usually obscured in the history books by the larger and deeper footprints of the clergy and the wealthiest patrons responsible for funding the churches. I hope that we will learn much more about those mostly-forgotten parishioners and their beliefs through this project in times to come.
Notes (some links may no longer be active)
- Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey website. “The Project”. http://www.medieval-graffiti.co.uk/index_files/NMGS_SURVEY.htm Heath, Neil. “Mysteries of medieval graffiti in England’s churches”. BBC News. BBC.com. July 16, 2014.
- Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey website. “Interpretations”. http://www.medieval-graffiti-suffolk.co.uk/page8.html
- Heath. “Mysteries of medieval graffiti in English churches”. BBC News. Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey (2013, Feb. 04). “Medieval Secrets revealed in Norwich Cathedral”. Past Horizons. February 2013. from http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/02/2013/medieval-secrets-revealed-in-norwich-cathedral
- Champion, Matthew. “Signs of Sailors: Ship Graffiti in Medieval Churches”. Past Horizons. December 17, 2013. from http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/12/2013/signs-sailors-ship-graffiti-medieval-churches
- Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey. “Medieval Secrets revealed in Norwich Cathedral”. Past Horizons.
- Heath. “Mysteries of Medieval Graffiti in English Churches”. BBC News.
- BBC News. “Medieval Graffiti Sheds Light on Norfolk Churches”. BBC.com. January 7, 2013.
- Champion, Matthew. “Time for Mass and kicking tradition up in the arse”. Demon traps, spiritual landmines and the writing on the wall… July 22, 2014. http://medieval-graffiti.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/time-for-mass-and-kicking-tradition-up.html
- Champion, Matthew. “A fascination with choirboys… and the bits Wiki never mentions”. Demon traps, spiritual landmines, and the writing on the wall… July 25, 2014. http://medieval-graffiti.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/a-fascination-with-choirboys-and-bits.html