Friday, July 1, 2016
Medieval Graffiti – The Lost Voices of England’s Churches (2015) by Matthew Champion is the first study of the subject since Violet Pritchard’s pioneering work English Medieval Graffiti (1967). Her work was based around Cambridge, where she studied, and Champion admits that his own survey draws much upon his research in East Anglia: he has a blog about his work as the Director of the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey. But he explains there are areas of the country where “nobody has really looked for them yet. They are all out there – just waiting to be discovered after centuries of hiding in the shadows.”
These carved or inscribed words or symbols are, as he says, marginal in every sense and have not until recently attracted much attention, This might be due originally to an intellectual disdain for this crude and seemingly casual craft, or to the richness of other forms of art and symbol in our churches demanding higher attention. But there are also practical difficulties in pursuing the study. Much graffiti will only show up in a certain light, or shade, and it is sometimes in furtive, rather inaccessible places.
Even when it is found, it is often difficult to read, if text, or to interpret, if symbol. Champion quotes “a tiny inscription in St Mary’s church in Ashwell” (Hertfordshire) which has a clear date, 1381, but goes on to say that whereas “the noted church historian M.R. James” interprets it as referring to the Peasants’ Revolt, other authorities think it refers to the exchange of some ploughlands or the completion of the church rebuilding.
However, as the epigraph from M R James (1895) on pg 2 of the book, also quoted by Violet Pritchard, reminds us, ‘The more closely we study the remains of early sacred art, the more frequently do we detect the smallest details have a meaning…’. Some scrawlings are of course, as today, the signs of profane amusement by the bored or mischievous. Even games, such as Nine Men's Morris, can be found burrowed into stone or wood. But there is much else that seems to link to folk belief. The majority of this graffiti seems to be apotropaic, that is, intended as a form of protection – if so, a remarkable example of popular magic persisting even within the hallowed walls of the church.
But Champion reminds us that folk ritual was a common part of the year’s round in the church – with such customs as blessing the plough, beating the bounds, circling the church, having a liberal mixture of pagan practice within them – so these carved marks are not quite in such a contrast to the sacred services as we might suppose.
I would add to this that ritual marks are also found in historic timber in secular buildings, such as old manor houses, farmhouses, or barns, often carved by carpenters on roof beams or doorways and supposed to be there to ward off evil or to invoke blessings. These, too, have not been significantly studied, apart from one particular monograph, ‘Ritual Marks on Historic Timber’ by Timothy Easton (Weald and Dowland Open Air Museum Journal, Spring 1999).
Some of the same shapes and signs carved in churches are also found in secular buildings. Crude signs, mostly: M, W, an X between doorposts |X|, which possibly suggests Christ guards the threshold, the Chi-Ro, rarely a Y [Ygdrassil?], these all sometimes so strewn and so slashedly hewn that they might appear casual or accidental, as indeed some people do think they are. Yet there are also more elaborate symbols, clearly marked by intention, such as labyrinths. Sometimes only strong light, chalk or charcoal rubbings fully reveal them. Some are hidden on parts of the timber never usually seen. And what if some were not wards and sealings, but invitations and openings?
Ronald Hutton in The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles (1991) noted that while cave paintings of animals have had a lot of attention, the more numerous geometric symbols have not, because harder to interpret. By analogy with surviving tribal societies, these might be spirit maps of supernatural journeys, he suggests. The same point might be made about these ritual marks. We don’t know what they are, what they mean, and so they are left largely unstudied. The larger point is that our understanding of non-textual religion and belief may be seriously skewed. We see it through what we already know: what we don’t know may be much more important.