Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Little Comberton, Worcestershire



As I recalled in my previous post, we didn’t manage to get inside the church at Little Comberton the other day. But we could see the interior of the north porch, where we admired the doorway and looked at a small collection of incised graffiti on the right-hand side as we entered. Carved and scraped graffiti was once the bane of church visitors and worshippers. ‘How could they deface the building like this?’ we would murmur, and some people added disbelief to outrage when it became clear that many of the marks on walls, pillars, and even magnificent effigies, had been made in the medieval period, the so-called age of piety. Many of us now see these things differently, wanting to understand more about these marks – what they might mean, who might have made them, and why.

The marks in this porch are fairly easy to see* and apparently simple: the outlines of hands, a pair of initials, a date. Hand outlines have one of the longest traditions in art – there are prehistoric examples, and when it comes to church graffiti many date back to the Middle Ages. These are later, however, being in a porch that bears the date 1639 and they include the initials WD and a date inscription of 1733. Medieval hand graffiti (and also shoe graffiti) often seem to have been done by pilgrims visiting shrines – there are examples in Canterbury cathedral and also in churches on popular routes to notable shrines, where pilgrims might stop to pray or attend divine service en route. These 18th-century graffiti were made long after the age of pilgrimages in England, and they seem to be more akin to the initials and other marks made in the early modern period on effigies in churches. Many of these, although we may see them as marks of vandalism, were carefully made, with attention to the form of the letters and the shapes of fingers and thumbs.† They seem to record visits to the church, perhaps visits when a particular prayer was said that had specific importance for the person concerned. If to some they seem little more than the thoughtless scars left by modern tags or reminders that ‘BILL WOZ ERE’, for the graffitist, they may have had greater, and perhaps more reverent, significance.§

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* I have increased the contrast in the photograph a little to make the marks a little clearer.

† Some hand graffiti appear to have been made by tracing the outline of the maker’s hand, as if uniting person and building.

§ For the best recent general account of church graffiti, see Matthew Champion, Medieval Graffiti (Ebury Press, 2015), which I reviewed here.


Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Surely we sometimes need no more significance than "Young man with penknife"?

Susan Johnson said...

Many years ago I visited Kenilworth Castle, about which I can remember little besides thinking how beautiful it must have been before Cromwell had it slighted ... and a vivid memory of a blocked off staircase with some big graffetti carved into the visible wall, dated in the 1640's. As a child I suddenly realized we've been carving our initials into things for a very long time.