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Medieval graffitiThe study of medieval graffiti inscriptions in English churches has a long history. These interesting and enigmatic inscriptions have been studied by historians as far back as the early nineteehth century. However, until very recent decades these studies had all been focused upon individual churches.. The few churches in which significant graffiti was noticed were considered unusual and medieval graffiti in general was considered to be a rarity.
It was only as recently as 1967 that the first full-length work on the subject was written, English Medieval Graffiti by Violet Pritchard. However, as Pritchard herself admitted, the book was by no means the result of a systematic survey, but rather the sites she happened upon on her travels from her Cambridge base. For example, Suffolk contains over 450 medieval churches (more than any other county in England except Norfolk) and yet Pritchard's book mentioned only a handful as containing examples of medieval graffiti. The Norfolk Graffiti Research Group was established, to undertake the first large scale and systematic survey ever undertaken of an entire county's churches. Subsequently surveys have been set up in Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Suffolk and Surrey. The initial results have shown that medieval graffiti inscriptions are present in over sixty percent of the Suffolk churches, and opened up an entirely new and previously unrecorded corpus of medieval material.
Just about everything all the medieval 'survivals' in parish churches – such as stained glass, alabaster tombs and monumental brasses – relates to the elite members of the medieval parish, perhaps around five percent of the population. Any inscriptions tell us only about those who caused them to be created, not the makers themselves. Predominately they tell a story of power and affluence. Gentry dressed in their finery abound – but never an image of the peasants who created the necessary wealth, and who worshipped in the church perhaps just as often as their masters.
In contrast, graffiti could be, and was, created by all levels of society. As such it offers a unique insight into the people of the medieval parish. The study of graffiti offers a voice to an otherwise almost lost majority living in the medieval world.
Medieval graffiti falls into several categories:
Only from the seventeenth century onwards do intitials or names, often with dates, become common.
In addition to graffiti there are masons' marks and architectural 'working drawings'. Masons' marks look somewhat like graffiti but were inscribed as part of the construction of the church. They are commonly inscribed on a hidden surface of the stone, but not always. Where visible they can be found at any height in a building, not just at normal standing height. Their design conforms to some 'higher order' principles which can usually be recognised.
See Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England's Churches by Matthew Champion (Ebury 2015) for an up-to-date look at the subject.
The Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey web site also includes many helpful discussions about the motifs.
Some examples from near Avebury
In the seventeenth century someone inscribed the intials 'JS' (the 'J' looks more like a modern 'I') on the north wall of the tower of Fyfield church. The right hand photograph has been edited to show the lettering more clearly.
This may have been to commemorate the 'informal' burial of an unbaptised infant at the base of the tower. This was common practice for many centuries, based around a folk belief that the water dripping from the church roof was in its own way a 'baptism'.
Crosses were often inscribed into the doorways of churches, and near the sites of pre-Reformation altars and shrines.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century suggestions were made that these were inscribed by pilgrims. Although no evidence has been found to support this, it is frequently repeated as if it was a fact.
In reality these crosses are more likely to have made by people making oral legal agreements, usually by swearing an oath in front of witnesses. Some may be the marks left by wealthy people leaving their financial affairs 'in order' before departing on journeys, including pigrimages. But most would have been made whenever land changed ownership or when lending money.
These examples are at Berwick Bassett.
Also at Berwick Bassett is this splendid 'warrior'. We are unlikely to ever know who he might have been and why he was inscibed. The photograph at the top of this page shows the exterior of this church, now maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust.
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