Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Shorncote, Gloucestershire

Viva Maria!

A few weeks ago I injured a leg and for a while could hardly move and was unable to bend sufficiently to get in and out of the car – let alone drive it – without pain. By last weekend things had improved sufficiently for me to take my leg for a test drive, as it were, and, as things went well, I ended up a few miles beyond Cirencester and found myself in a tiny place called Shorncote, where I’d not been before.

The church at Shorncote is very small – just a nave, chancel, small side chapel and porch – but is full of the sort of things that I like: fragments of wall painting, an old timber roof, a tiny Easter sepulchre, a reading desk knocked together out of medieval panelling, and so on. As I was looking round, the sun came out and threw light on all this, and also on something I had not noticed until that point, a carved graffito on a window ledge, made up of a capital W or what this symbol is usually taken to be, a pair of overlapping Vs.
Matthew Champion’s excellent book Medieval Graffiti* is enlightening on this mark, which he and fellow graffiti-researchers have found in many medieval churches. He says that it is widely believed to symbolise the Virgin Mary, and written as two overlapping Vs is said to stand for ‘Virgo Virginum’ (Virgin of virgins), though it is also sometimes written upside-down, when it appears as a capital M, so it works that way too. Champion cites at least one place – a church at Fakenham, Norfolk – where the symbol is reproduced formally (i.e. not as graffiti), in the flint patterns on a late-medieval church wall, in association with the word ‘Maria’.

However, the symbol outlasted the Reformation, turning up in all sorts of places, including 18th and 19th-century secular buildings, suggesting that it might have acquired a significance beyond the church, as a kind of sign of good luck. In 20th-century Italy, incidentally, the symbol had an afterlife as an abbreviation for the word ‘Viva’ (long live).† There can be a lot to tease out of a small scratched mark on a church wall.

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* Matthew Champion, Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches, (Ebury Press, 2013). I reviewed this book here. I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in these things.

† To go off piste for a moment: The American poet E. E. Cummings gave one of his collections the title VV [ViVa], with the Vs printed to overlap (and often, given the limitations of typography, as a W), in the ancient manner. Cummings liked titles that were unusual or difficult to pronounce. Another of his was XAIPE, which is Greek, and I’m told sounds roughly like ‘chiry’, with the ‘ch’ as in the Scottish ‘loch’ and the word rhyming with ‘wiry’; the meaning is ‘Be happy!’, as witness Lawrence Durrell in Reflections on a Marine Venus: ‘When you see the gravestones from the little necropolis of Cameirus . . . it is the so-often repeated single word – the anonymous Xaipe – which attracts you . . . . It is not the names of the rich or the worthy . . . but this single word, “Be Happy,” serving both as a farewell and admonition, that goes to your heart with the whole impact of the Greek style of mind.’


bazza said...

I just read your post reviewing Medieval Graffiti. It looks like the kind of well-written book that would be a good read even if one is not especially interested in the topic.
My wife's cousin has just moved to Brinkworth, Wiltshire so we will be visiting the area soon I expect!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s concinnituous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Peter Ashley said...

Beautiful building, and setting by the look of it. Very interesting, all these intersecting Vs. Volkswagen.

David Gouldstone said...

e. e. cummings, surely?!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you all!

David: Cummings himself mostly signed his name the convetional way, with capital initial letters, and this is the way his publishers set the name these days. The lowercase version was something encouraged by some of his earlier publishers, and occasionally used by the poet himself.

David Gouldstone said...

Thanks, I didn't realise that.

FZN said...

What a wonderful chance encounter! Old building have so much history and I'm very impressed by your identification of the graffiti on the walls. Such a shame that bad weather and a lack of interest might mean that most of these old buildings and ruins may not be left standing for much longer. That's not to say that most people aren't interested. Clearly you were! And some construction companies are delving into heritage repairs as well, learning how to keep older monuments alive even if they don't have any official standing as a heritage site. Good eye though!