Thursday, December 3, 2015

Scratching away

As the streets outside get back to normal after my town’s annual pre-Christmas festival and knees-up (everything from Santa’s Grotto to the Mummers’ Play, plus food and presents galore) I realise that it’s once again the time of year when English Buildings becomes a book blog for ten days or so as I review some recent publications. As usual, I’ve stuck to books on subjects in some way related to the main subject of this blog, and to books I especially like, in the hope that some of my readers might find something they’d like to give or receive for Christmas. I begin with a book on a subject I’ve been intrigued by for years: the graffiti scratched on the walls of England’s parish churches, much of it done hundreds of years ago…

Matthew Champion, Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches
Published by Ebury Press

There’s quite a lot of ancient graffiti in England’s medieval churches. It’s usually not immediately obvious, but once you get your eye in, you see more and more. Ships, animals, abstract designs of various sorts, bits of heraldry, images of people and fish: all these appear frequently, scratched into the stone, and when you add masons’ marks and mass dials, it adds up to a formidable body of imagery that ought to tell us quite a bit about the people who made it. Matthew Champion’s book aims to describe this material and, where possible, to explain why it was made.

It’s a fascinating account of a phenomenon that passes most people by because, scratched shallowly into the surface of the stone, much of the graffiti is difficult to see. The book does a good job of describing it and pointing us towards it, drawing on lots of original research, especially that done by the Norfolk and Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, of which the author is Project Director. Other parts of Britain have been researched less thoroughly. There’s clearly a big job waiting to be done.

The text is lively and ranges widely across the evidence – archaeological, documentary, contextual –  that can help us understand the graffiti. The book is often inconclusive – we simply don’t know why a lot of this stuff was produced – but no worse for that because the text is absorbing, asks fascinating questions about the material, and makes illuminating distinctions. Champion distinguishes between the consecration crosses that were carved or painted on church walls for use in the ceremony of consecration and the many cross-like graffiti which are sometimes confused with these. He worries away at the simple little sundials, known as ‘Mass dials’, seen on so many churches, and asks what they could have been for, since so many of them are impractical for people to use to tell the time of upcoming Masses (many of these dials are on north-facing walls, for a start, a number of churches have several such dials close together on the same wall, and anyway most churches had bells). He talks about marks attributed to merchants, pilgrims, and other groups, untangles charms and curses, and suggests sources of symbolism and metaphor. Along the way he has some entertaining examples of how difficult these markings can be to interpret. One of my favourites involves a verbal inscription (few of these marks actually include words: they were mostly done by the illiterate). This line has been translated by one scholar as ‘In AD 1381 was the insurrection of the common people’ and by another as ‘In the year of our Lord 1381, five plough lands belonging to the church were exchanged’.

Fascinating stories and images emerge from such ambiguities. And not only this. The sheer volume and variety of graffiti lead Champion to a modified view of the parish church in the Middle Ages. Parish churches were not, or not only, places where the common people stood and watched the priest uphold the rituals and traditions of the church and celebrate Mass. It was a more interactive space in which parishioners not only responded to the dazzling array of statuary and stained glass (actually, it has to be said, we do not fully understood how they interacted with those things either) but also added their own contribution, making marks in the stone in which we can hear the distant echoes of their lost voices. Medieval Graffiti fascinatingly makes some of those echoes clearer, while modestly and rightly not trying to cover up the remaining mysteries.


Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

I would imagine Norfolk and Suffolk are very rich in graffiti, other counties much less so. I think it's a false notion that the liturgy went on "over there" and the laity were left out: the rood screen in the reconstructed church in the St Fagan's Welsh Life Museum actually unites clergy and people, particularly if the latter were standing up and could gather around it. Compare with modern churches with benches, where it's too easy to sit at the back and make the priest raise his voice. I also think that there was more literacy than many commentators claim: and at least a passive knowledge of Latin cf. the snippets in Piers Plowman. The investigation I did for my little piece on Magnus, the Lewes Anchorite (copies available gratis via e-mail) set me thinking along these lines. (Sorry for the advert!)

Eileen Wright said...

This looks like something I might have to buy for my own christmas stocking. It's a fascinating subject, something which I haven't given much thought to before. The parish church in Colyton, Devon, has quite a few of these marks around the outside of one of the side doors, including a lovely sailing ship, and I imagined people scratching these marks whilst hanging around waiting to go in to service. I'll have to read the book and find out if there's another explanation! :)

Philip Wilkinson said...

Eileen: I don't think the book mentions Colyton, but it certainly does cover other graffiti of sailing ships and offers several possible explanations – probably different explanations applied at different places.

The Greenockian said...

Sounds like an interesting book.