Today the word graffiti carries unpleasant connotations. Articles tackling both graffiti and churches are normally reports of destruction and wanton vandalism. For one community archaeology project, however, church graffiti has shone new light on the Medieval parish, as Matthew Champion reveals.
In 2010, a volunteer-led community archaeology project was established to attempt the first large scale survey of Medieval graffiti for over half a century. The Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey (NMGS) aims to examine every Medieval church in the county, identifying and recording any Medieval graffiti. The impetus for establishing the NMGS was the recent republishing of Violet Pritchard’s English Medieval Graffiti. This groundbreaking work remains the only full length treatment of the subject, but it suffers, by the author’s own admission, from a number of shortcomings. The most obvious of these was Pritchard’s lack of personal transport, forcing her to concentrate on sites within 40 miles of her Cambridge base.
Where she depended upon rubbings and sketches, the NMGS deploy multiple raking light sources, digital imagery, and image manipulation software. The clarity of results has stunned survey members. Although the NMGS has, to date, only examined a sample of the county’s Medieval churches, they have proven far richer in graffiti than anyone guessed. In fact, their experience has led them to adopt the general rule of thumb that, if a church is not entirely covered in lime-wash, and if the ‘reformers’ have not resurfaced the interior walls, then graffiti inscriptions WILL be present. Of the 50 churches examined so far, over 30 contain some form of pre-reformation graffiti inscriptions.
From an archaeological perspective, these discoveries provide an invaluable insight into the real lives of the people who lived in the Medieval parish and worshiped in the village church. For the vast majority of these, the church building was the focus of both social and religious life. It was a symbol of local pride, of Church authority and religious salvation. For the common people of the parish, community life began at its font, was entwined in marriage within its porch and ended with vigils for the dead beneath its roof. Yet, despite playing a fundamental role in shaping the rights of passage of countless generations of commoners, we know very little about how these individuals interacted with the church on a physical level.
This is perhaps the most important feature of the discoveries being made by the NMGS. The surviving images and inscriptions cross the boundaries of wealth and class. They could be cut by commoner, priest or nobleman; man, woman or child. In this they are unique and, as such, can be regarded as truly reflecting the hopes, fears, humour, and ambitions of the Medieval parish inhabitants. If we can only read them.
Set in stone
The quantity and quality of graffiti inscriptions vary wildly from site to site. Churches constructed of softer stone tend to harbour a higher number of inscriptions than those built of a harder fabric, for obvious reasons. Even those constructed with the very hardest granite, however, are likely to contain some graffiti. Particular places within churches are used time and time again, with ‘hotspots’ occurring around doorways, aisle piers, and tower arches. Indeed, modern graffiti inscriptions are invariably near, or superimposed upon, earlier examples. The subject matter of these etchings is as diverse as the churches in which they are located. Certain patterns, such as ‘swastika pelta’ and ‘Daisy wheels’, are believed to have religious associations and occur repeatedly. Yet, more profane renderings of shield-shaped pseudo heraldic inscriptions, phallic symbols, and multiple crosses are almost as common. More interesting still are the inscriptions that contain names or prayers, a number of which are in Latin and, in one case, what has tentatively been identified as Greek.
All Saints, Litcham, was one of the first churches to receive the NMGS treatment, and it gave a dramatic foretaste of what was to come. The church was chosen simply because it was known to contain at least one pre-reformation inscription. The question was: where there was one, would there be more? The answer was an emphatic ‘yes’. The initial visual survey, carried out with only small LED torches, revealed that the soft piers of the nave were, quite literally, covered in graffiti. Although a number were modern, or from relatively recent centuries, at least 40 pre-reformation examples were recognised. Names, prayers, faces, hands, Latin cryptograms, multiple daisy-wheels, and swastika pelta were all present beneath the flaking lime-wash, making it one of the greatest concentrations of material yet surveyed. However, the graffiti was spread evenly throughout the nave and little information could be gleaned from its distribution within the building. While every marking could tell us something, the overall impression was of a chaotic jumble of images and words. Luckily for the survey team, other churches told a very different story.