Sunday, 12 May 2019

Blurred Boundaries: magic, graffiti, and the medieval church


"Two householdsboth alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene, from ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean."

Well, to be totally honest, it was Waterstones cafe in Norwich rather than Verona, and the two households were a pair of forty-something mums, accompanied by two teenage girls who may, perhaps when I was looking elsewhere, have looked up from their phone screens. They were probably messaging each other about the horrors of having to be seen in public with a 'parent'. We've all been there.

I was only there by accident anyway, my favourite coffee venue - the Little Red Roaster* -  being stuffed to capacity, so I fell back on a Waterstones pot of tea for one, and their rather good cake selection. See, I can be civilised. The mums and teens were on the next table, so I do have an excuse for overhearing their conversation. Not many of us on the tables in that vicinity had much of a choice as it turned out.

What followed was a discussion. I use the term 'discussion' in this context rather loosely. The discussion became, at times, almost heated - or at least animated enough to make at least one of the teenagers briefly glance up from their phone. It had begun in the teenage literature section of the store, with one of the mums finding fault with the popularity of fiction that appeared to involve vampires, werewolves, and the supernatural. She wasn't even keen, it transpired, on Harry Potter. It would, she appeared to firmly believe, send the wrong message to the young adults reading such books, and legitimised the occult and ideas of magic. It was definitely not the message she wanted to send to her daughter (slight raised eyebrows in front of a phone screen). The other mum was of the opposite opinion. Anything that got young people reading, and away from their phones, was a good thing. Anyway, she argued, it was all harmless, and none of it was real. However, the discussion only really got intense when she pointed out that Christianity was pretty much the same. It was just another form of 'magic' and 'superstition', and the fact that it was seen as acceptable by mum number one, whilst Supernatural and Harry Potter were not, was just a matter of perspective.

The actual shock and outrage of mum number one was palpable, and I get the feeling that the rest of Saturday's shopping trip may have been 'strained'. It may not have been an 'ancient grudge', but 'new mutiny' was most certainly not far from the surface.

***
So really it is all down to the definition of what does and does not constitute 'magic'? Not a new argument I'll admit. Just about everyone who has ever written about the areas that sit outside the orthodox beliefs of the medieval church has felt the need to try and define exactly what magic really is. That this is the case is really perhaps fundamental to any analysis of magic in the pre-reformation era. The exact definition of what constituted magical activity is by no means set and standard, and varies greatly depending upon which area, era, or which evidence, you choose to study. And the same that is true now was also true at the time. Cases that found themselves before the church courts dealing with what we may generically term 'magical activities' were often there, not to bring down the might of the medieval church and hand out just retribution, but were rather brought before the learned authorities of the church to decide whether any wrongdoing had actually taken place? Had the activities of the individual brought before the court actually crossed the boundary between what was theologically acceptable, and that which was not? It was most certainly the argument of many a defendant that their activities had been lawful within the eyes of the church, and that they had been acting not against the church or the will of God, but, if not with His overt blessing and collusion, at least within the loose frameworks of theology and belief accepted by the Church.

For the early Church the definition of magic was, at least on paper, fairly straightforward, and typically hostile. As Ronald Hutton makes clear, the church authorities regarded 'all attempts to wield spiritual power to achieve material ends as demonic unless deployed by its own accredited representatives'. The situation would appear straightforward, giving, in the simplest of terms, a complete monopoly on spiritually influencing the material world to the church and its appointed officers. If such activities lay outside the church then they were coming, not from God, but from the devil. This overriding position encompassed all forms of magical activity - from formal ritual magic, to charms, scrying and divination - at least technically. However, whilst the 'official' position of the Church as an entity was exceedingly clear, the realities of the day-to-day, particularly at a parish level, were often very different.

Whilst all levels of the church may condemn 'maleficium', essentially the acts of witches and witch craft, what might be considered less harmful acts, such as healing charms and divination, were clearly tolerated at a parish level. Although this undoubtedly altered from parish to parish, and there were unquestionably instances when even the most benign wise woman or cunning man found themselves facing accusations or inquisition from the church authorities, it creates a deep seated ambiguity when examining medieval attitudes towards magic. All magic was formally condemned, and yet some magic was tolerated, but there were no definite forms or guidelines that would indicate when the line had been crossed from one to the other, and a realism that, even were there clear lines of demarcation, they could shift from one time or place to another.

The situation became more ambiguous still when these acts of what might be termed petty magic were discovered to have been carried out by the priests and officers of the church itself. Where records do survive, and they are admittedly relatively few and far between, it is clear that one of the main categories of individual who find themselves facing inquiries into their magical activities are actually parish priests and other members of the clergy. Those who should have been staunchly upholding the official church position that all forms of magic were unlawful, were the very people being accused of carrying out such acts.

The gatehouse of St Benet's Abbey. Watercolour by David Killick.

In some cases the misdemeanours of those in holy orders was on a scale far beyond the casual and everyday charms and incantations, and may relate specifically to the act of summoning demons and spirits. The case of William Stapleton in the early sixteenth century is perhaps one of the most complete and enlightening. A full account of Stapleton's activities, and 'all things committed and done by me', were detailed in a long letter that he wrote to Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII. Stapleton was, by his own admission, a monk of St Benet's Abbey in Norfolk. Whilst residing at the abbey Stapleton was brought two books relating to the summoning of spirits, the Thesaurus Spirituum and the Secreta Secretorum, by one 'Denys of Hofton', who had had them in turn from the vicar of Watton. From the other instruments supplied by Denys it is clear that Stapleton was intent on undertaking a campaign of 'treasure hunting' with the aid of spirit guides. Such activities were not wholly uncommon in the period, and usually involved digging into ancient sites, barrows, and burial grounds in the hope of finding precious metals.

Stapleton was obviously not wholly happy with his vocation as a monk, having fallen foul of his superiors due to his tardiness and general failure to carry out his duties in the church. He therefore applied to buy his freedom from his vows, possibly becoming a solitary hermit instead, but was refused due to his poverty and inability to raise sufficient funds. However, the Prior was not wholly without sympathy, or perhaps just desiring to see the back of such a lacklustre example to his fellow monks, so granted him a six month leave of absence in which he could attempt to raise sufficient funds to buy his freedom. If he failed to raise the money, at the end of the six month period Stapleton was to return meekly to his cloistered life.

Stapleton's next few months were characterised by what can be termed feverish activity. In association with a number of ever changing individuals he set out on numerous expeditions across Norfolk and Suffolk, working for himself or a variety of patrons, to search for hidden treasures. He was almost wholly without any form of success, with the exception of his earning a rather lavish reward of £46 for carrying out an unspecified act that he did not care to talk about - but appears to have been not directly related to his treasure hunting activities. However, Stapleton's abject failure to locate hidden treasures is perhaps of less interest than the community of magical practitioners that it brought him into contact with, and which he documented in detail to Thomas Cromwell. Whilst Stapleton's account is at times fragmentary, and obviously glossing over areas that he would rather not discuss, what is very clear is that a large number of those individuals involved in his immediate circle of practitioners were in holy orders. These included the parson of Lesingham, the parish priest of Leiston, the parish priest of Gorleston, and the parson of Wanstrowe, several of whom were clearly already engaged in these activities, and had access to further magical volumes.
Stapleton's account is by no means alone. I could talk of the reverend John Betson who, in 1564, was ordered to hand in to the church authorities books which he had used in ceremonies to help his parishioners recover stolen goods. The three Norfolk priests who, in the same year of 1586, were all accused of 'conjuring'. The list goes on. However, what makes Stapleton's account so informative is that it goes beyond just the, never dry, accounts of the church courts. It isn't just a list of who did what, with whom, and which animal was involved, but gives a glimpse into the diversity of these networks that sat upon the fringes of the church. The men of religion who dabbled with things that sat outside what might be thought of as their own realms. They didn't delve deliberately into the dark arts, but they most certainly tried their luck in a good variety of grey areas. They operated on the boundaries, in more ways than one.


These boundaries between the formal teachings of the church, and the informal beliefs of the medieval parish, are an area I have become familiar with. It is my area of study. The ritual protection marks, taper burn marks, concealed items, of the late medieval and Tudor church. The 'ritual' of the medieval parish that sat outside anything you will find in the Bible or Book of Common Prayer. The actions, ceremonies and rituals for which evidence will be lacking to historians who study only the formal texts, but evidence for which is writ large on every church and cathedral that survives from the Middle Ages. The acts of the 'other'. The evidence is carved into the stones, the glass, the timber, and the lead - all there to be read by anyone who cares to look. However, these areas of ritual - or worship - do not sit outside the confines of the church, they are not separate from the prayers of the parish priest, but rather a physical manifestation and reinforcement of those prayers and offerings. They are complex, they are nuanced, they are sometimes indecipherable, but they are most certainly no more outside the beliefs of the church than Stapleton's prayers to God before he attempted to summon spirits to his aid. They are not even superstitions, but rather what happens when orthodox theology meets lay piety and tradition head on. The result is not a chaotic crash, and violent mangling of beliefs, but rather a pragmatic compromise and assimilation. A mingling of beliefs. The early church should at least be familiar with THAT concept. Waterstones sells books on the subject.

*shameless plug in the hope of a free cup of coffee

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Devil's doors: evidence, traditions and superstitions


A new book came out a few months ago that deals with Norfolk folklore - 'This Hollow Land: Aspects of Norfolk Folklore' by a pleasant chap called Peter Tolhurst. It's a fine book, and has already won an award, and everyone with an interest in the subject should immediately go out and buy a copy. Preferably from a local independent bookshop. Except sadly you can't. It has already sold out. See, I told you it was good. There are many reasons that I rate this book, not least that it has medieval graffiti on the front cover, and I even get the odd mention or two, which is always nice. It rather makes you feel that all those hours spent in freezing cold churches haven't been totally in vain. Probably.



However, when I first read the book I was a little taken aback. A little shocked even. I may even admit to being a tiny bit pissed off. You see, the first section of the book deals with the history of studying East Anglian folklore, and gives a nicely concise run through of all the major characters that have written upon the subject over the last few centuries. It charts, in effect, the development of folklore studies in the region. All the big names are there, dealt with chronologically, outlining their triumphs and achievements. Walter Rye, Enid Porter, George Ewart Evans - all the big hitters in local folklore and tradition - and then me. At the end. The last couple of paragraphs.

In truth it is barely a mention, but I will admit to being a bit taken aback. Leaving aside the fact that my name was being mentioned alongside some of the most influential of local writers, which I was slightly in awe of, it was the fact that I was being portrayed as someone who had contributed to the development of folklore. Folklore! Bloody folklore!

An overreaction I know, but the thing is that I have always considered what I do to be archaeology rather than any other more specific area of study. I have nothing against folklorists, but whatever way you look at it, there is still a certain sniffy snobbery amongst mainstream academics against those who study things like folklore. There is a suggestion that it lacks any real and tangible evidence. Even after decades of sterling work by individuals and organisations like the Folklore Society, the attitudes persist, and I suppose that is why I have always argued that all of the graffiti studies sit within the field of archaeology rather than anything else.

It is, in the end, all down to the evidence. Many academic disciplines study, in depth, a single strand of evidence. That strand of evidence is often formed of a mass of material, but it doesn't go beyond its own self limiting boundaries, and when it does it is sometimes a mere nod towards the term 'context'. The study of archaeology however, is the study of the material culture of the past. A material culture that, at least in my interpretation, takes in everything from the graffiti on the walls, to building chronologies, the written records, and the individual artefacts. I will even, at a push, talk to art historians. Archaeology is, in my eyes at least, the study of all forms of evidence - with the potential to draw all forms of conclusions. Even, upon occasion, to realise that different forms of evidence can never actually be reconciled, but with the secondary realisation that those historians that confine themselves to studying a single form of evidence may well be missing a trick or two.

This is quite a difficult concept for some people to apparently embrace. That two sets of evidence can be wholly contradictory, and yet, at the same time, correct. Some years ago I wrote about a tradition of the church that to be buried on the north side of the church was considered to be unfavourable. That the north side of the churchyard, being often in shadow, was thought of as being the less desirable place for your mortal remains to rest. The north door of the church itself, which led out into this unfavourable area, was also known as the Devil's door - for it was here that evil spirits were to be found.

Since writing that piece it has caused some controversy. Several well regarded historians have produced written counter arguments, stating that there simply isn't any evidence that this was the case, one describing the notion that people avoiding being buried on the north side of churchyards was no more than 'Victorian nonsense', and that the archaeology of churchyards 'proved' that this wasn't the case. Their arguments have been well researched, well evidenced, cogent, and broadly correct - and yet, at the same time, have largely missed the point.

My statement about the existence of a 'tradition' that considered the north side of the churchyard to be an 'unlucky' place to be buried is also wholly correct. Such a tradition existed, and existed at least as far back as the middle of the seventeenth century - at which time it was regarded as being an ancient, well known, and widely believed superstition - and this tradition has been often repeated throughout the centuries since then.

The "Exemplary Death of Mr Benjamin Rhodes, Steward to Thomas, Earl of Elgin", a pamphlet published in 1657, tells us that Rhodes himself requested he be buried on the north side of the churchyard in an attempt to 'crosse the received superstition' that burial there was unfavourable. A manuscript from the 1730s, once in the possession of the Bishop of St Asaph, clearly stated that 'None but excommunicated, or persons executed, or very poor, and friendless people are buried on the north side of the churchyard' (National Library of Wales, ms 2576).

Half a century later Gilbert White, writing in 'The Antiquities of Selborne' (1789), bemoans the fact that his parishioners avoid being buried on the north side of the churchyard, leaving the south side cluttered and overflowing. However, White noted that 'two or three families of best repute' had recently taken to being buried upon the less crowded north side, in the hope that 'their example be followed by the rest of the neighbourhood'. In 1801 Richard Colt-Hoare visited the churchyard of Gwyddelwern in Denbighshire, where he observed that 'the custom of not burying on the north side is scrupulously adhered to. On the other sides (sic) the graves are crowded'. The same year the Reverend W. Bingley also visited Wales, where he 'observed that, in most parts of North Wales, the same practice prevails which is common in England, of crowding all the bodies into that part of the church-yard which is south of the church'.

In 1899 the Reverend George Tyack, writing in his 'Lore and Legend of the English Church', claims that the tradition or superstition, call it what you will, was still at large, leaving old churchyards with 'few mounds or memorial stones on the northern side, whilst the southern one may be inconveniently crowded'. George Tyack was indeed a Victorian, but the evidence is very, very clear that the tradition existed, and was common, many centuries earlier.

Exactly why the north side of the churchyard might have gained the reputation, at least by the seventeenth century, of being the least favourable area to be buried in is open to question. However, there are certainly a few more old 'traditions' - many of which are supported by solid documentary evidence - that we might want to consider that do proffer some explanation at least.

As mentioned above, the north side of the churchyard was where those who had died un-baptised were reputedly buried - the still-born and infants who died before baptism. Strictly speaking they should not have been buried in consecrated ground at all, and should have been buried outside the churchyard, condemned as they were to eternal hell (the concept of 'limbo', a neither 'here nor there' state where un-baptised innocents went after death, is a relatively modern concept - invented by a Church that realised that eternal damnation in such cases might be 'hard to sell'). Although archaeology provides enough evidence of female burials that include that of a new born to suggest that such rules were not strictly obeyed, there are documentary references that indicate that the letter of the law was occasionally applied. Writing in the fifteenth century, John Mirk referred to a woman who had died in labour before the child was born, resulting also in the death of the child. Mirk recorded that it was ruled that the mother could be buried in the parish churchyard, but only after the dead child had been removed from her body, so that it could be buried elsewhere - outside the consecrated churchyard. In a similar vein, in 1398 a royal licence was granted to enclose part of the cemetery of Herford cathedral, with one of the supposed reasons for this being that it was to prevent the unlawful and secret burial of un-baptised children within the precinct (Daniell, C., Death and Burial in Medieval England).

However, the pragmatic parochial approach more generally appears to have been to bury them within the churchyard, and often against the northern churchyard wall or enclosure. Similarly, executed criminals and suicides, when not being buried at the local crossroads, face down and with a wooden stake through the heart or mouth, were reputedly interred just outside the northern edge of the churchyard - as close to consecrated ground as possible, without actually being able to enter it. It was only as recently as 1823 that an Act was passed allowing the burial of suicides within the churchyard itself, and then only without formal ceremony, and between the hours of 9pm and midnight. The same treatment was reserved for those formally excommunicated by the church. Like the unbaptised infants they should have been excluded from churchyard burial, but parishes often just turned a blind eye to such practices, as long as they were discrete. The burial register of Low Ham in Somerset recorded that the excommunicate Andreas Symock was buried in 'the northern corner of the churchyard, but by what person or persons I know not'. The author's claim that the burial had been carried out by 'persons unknown' was simply a way of ensuring that those who had buried Symock in consecrated ground would avoid the punishments that the church regulations stipulated they should receive for carrying out such an act.

Therefore, the association between the north side of the cemetery and burials of the condemned and damned may well have led to a reluctance for 'good Christians' to be buried there. This association with evil, misfortune and the dark may well also be the origins of the tradition behind the north door of the church being known as the Devil's door. The tradition is certainly widespread, but it's origins are unclear, despite it having been around for several centuries.


Edric Holmes, writing in 1920, repeated the tradition with reference to churches in Sussex, and certainly believed it to have been an ancient association - as did George Tyack, who repeated it in 1899. Nearly seventy years earlier, in 1832, the church of Carlton-in-Lindrick in Nottinghamshire demolished the whole north wall of the north aisle, in the process destroying the small doorway located near the western end, that was known locally as the 'Devil door'. The whole tradition has been recently examined by Dr Nick Groves, who has written a concise paper upon the use of the north door in the formal functions and activities of the medieval church ( https://www.academia.edu/12109373/Devils_Doors_Revisited ) where he concludes that the tradition is 'a piece of unintelligent post reformation antiquarianism'. Dr Groves also concludes that the tradition most probably had its origins in the fact that the northern side of the church was associated with the devil, and that these northern doors became so tainted by association.

So we have an unquestionable documentary tradition, stretching back over three and a half centuries, that states that being buried on the north side of the churchyard was considered unlucky. There really isn't any denying it. It's there in black and white. However, the counter argument, that what archaeology is available indicates that there is no such bias in the evidence, is also true. There isn't any denying that either. Viewed in isolation the two standpoints, the two strands of evidence, are completely incompatible. Which is why good historians and archaeologists rarely use only one form of evidence. In the same vein we have a tradition of the north door of a church being known as the Devil's door stretching back at least two centuries. It is, I personally believe, and as Dr Groves argues, a post reformation invention. However, it is also a long held tradition, and to try and trace its origins, if at all possible, may well give insights into just how such beliefs come to be established.


Sunday, 10 March 2019

'Why I love medieval Graffiti' by @jessikart


(This blog-post by @jessikart was first published on the Standard Issue website, and is archived here because it is too funny and insightful to just disappear into the ether as the Standard Issue website is taken down - Ed)

Why I ❤️ medieval graffiti


If you want to know what made the medievals tick, says Jess Macdonald, ditch the history books and check out their wildstylin’.

"We all know what archaeology is. It’s Tony Robinson standing in a muddy ditch in Somerset while a bearded man froths orgasmically over a shard of Anglo Saxon pottery, or it’s Harrison Ford suavely dealing with Nazis, Biblical treasures and getting into punch-ups while women of a certain age fan themselves. But not for me…
I have to insert my disclaimer here and say I’m not an archaeologist, a historian, or even someone who’s studied the past in any meaningful way. I’m just a stay-at-home mum (with both children at school, so I think we can tag ‘lazy-arse’ in there too), who happened to fall in love with the archaeology of medieval graffiti.
Yes, it’s a thing. Honest. No, wait, come baaaack! This stuff is fascinating! It’s across the walls of churches and cathedrals all over the UK – and it is mindblowing. Step inside any religious building from the last 800 years and the first thing you’ll see are the monuments to the elite, the rich, the powerful, the top five per cent of medieval society. The tombs, the statues, the stained glass, the plaques.
A ship, seemingly with designs upon becoming a castle.

So what’s missing? Us. The commoners, the plebs, the real people. No sign that anyone like us ever worshipped, was christened, married, buried or even visited. But if you take an LED torch and shine it across the surface of the stone walls… magic happens.
It sort of started for me way back in the mists of time, when I was a slightly podgy 10-year-old on holiday in the village of Salthouse in North Norfolk, where the local church, St Nicholas, is crammed full of graffiti: ships, and names and dates going back hundreds of years.
Where it properly started though, was hearing about the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey on Twitter nearly two years ago. Completely made up of volunteers, it was aiming (still is!) to visit and survey every medieval church in Norfolk (more than 650, the highest concentration anywhere in the world) and accurately record the graffiti found there.
There are names and dates and ships and prayers and music and curses and compass-drawn designs we call demon traps and architectural sketches and wonky faces and absolutely bloody hilariously bad depictions of St George slaying the dragon.
 
A collection of compass drawn designs.

Today, these markings are difficult to see. You have to shine a torch at certain angles to highlight the faintest lines from centuries ago. From what’s been discovered though, we know that at the time they were created, they would have been just as obvious as a spraypainted “Daz shags goats” is on a bus shelter today. At any point, the church authorities could have destroyed them. But they didn’t. Even allowing for the widespread ‘restoration’ the Victorians undertook, in the county of Norfolk alone, more than 28,000 inscriptions have been recorded and we’re only really halfway through the 650+ medieval churches here.
To me, it’s been a complete revelation. To think that graffiti inside a church was once seen as both accepted and acceptable. I can stand right where a stonemason stood, 800 years ago and trace the lines of a design for a window. I don’t understand the slightest thing about the design, obviously, but to think that something so personal, so human is just so there and I can actually touch it, makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck, I feel giddy, I stare and then usually, because I’m such a tragic case, I burst into tears at the wonder of it.
This is one of my personal favourites. A beautiful little rose, only 3cm in size, etched into the wall. Yes, etched into. The reason it looks 3D is entirely down to clever lighting and photography and witchcraft. No, I didn’t take this photo; how did you guess (my tendency to descend into snotbubbling weepery means I’m utterly useless at taking photos, so I leave that to others)?
These little marks matter. For some, it might be the only trace that they have left on the world, their only testament to existence. They were people, just like us, with their own petty little concerns and worries and we know so little about them. We know so little, precisely because they were The Little People, not the great and the good.
 
A collection of faces from those making a small mark on history.

In 500 years, people will look back and wonder why we were so obsessed with Kim Kardashian’s arse, or whether David Cameron really did pork a porker. It might be in the news and widely reported upon but it doesn’t really reflect my life in any way.
Imagine then, if you could leave one lasting mark of your life, perhaps anonymously, perhaps not, that those people could see and have some understanding of your earthly years upon this planet. What would you leave? What would be important enough to you that you would carve it into the stone?
That’s what archaeology is to me. Finding these past lives and trying to understand them (getting flustered over Harrison Ford is optional, but I’ve found it helps)."

Sunday, 30 December 2018

My cult is bigger than your cult: judging the popularity of saints in the Middle Ages


December the 29th was the feast of the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket. Just in case you didn't know. You might not I suppose. It is possible that there are those out there who don't spend their lives dealing with medieval saints and pilgrimage, and therefore might have missed this momentous event. However, if you have an interest in medieval history, and happen to be on social media, then it was pretty difficult to miss. There were medievalists tweeting and posting images of beautiful pilgrim badges, amazing stained glass, and a few rather gory wall paintings, whilst others discussed the location of his shrine at Canterbury cathedral, or the archaeology of cathedrals themselves. It was rather like Christmas day all over again for the average medievalist. However, it left me with something of a question. It was clear that the cult of St Thomas was incredibly popular during the later Middle Ages, with all these works of art, written references, and archaeology telling us so, but how do we judge the popularity of lesser known saints from the period?

So how do you judge exactly how popular a saint was during the Middle Ages? The obvious thing to do was ask the experts, and garner a few opinions from others as to how they would determine the general popularity of a medieval saint? So, in time honoured tradition, I posted the question to twitter. The results were certainly plentiful, and there were a wide variety of answers soon filling my twitter feed. However, it soon became clear that nothing was really very clear at all. That there was no single answer, and that each source of evidence was likely to produce different, and sometimes outright contradictory, results.

One of the first suggestions was that the number of churches dedicated to a particular saint could be deemed a general indicator as to how widespread was the devotion to that particular cult. Churches, unlike works of art or manuscripts, are fairly solid and enduring pieces of evidence. However, it was also pretty clear that, what seemed at face value a fairly straightforward indicator, was anything but clear. In the first instance there is the little known fact that church dedications are nowhere near as stable and unchanging as many people perceive them to be. In short, they changed. South Lopham in Norfolk began life dedicated to St Nicholas, but today stands as St Andrews, Binham Priory is today dedicated to the Holy Cross, but undoubtedly began life as St Mary's. Studies of Norfolk church dedications (we have 650+ surviving medieval churches after all) have suggested as many as 20% of modern church dedications are not the same as the original medieval dedication.

Binham Priory

There are also still churches today where we are a little unclear as to what the original dedication was, or if there even was one. Take Great Witchingham in Norfolk, commonly referred to today as St Mary's - the most common dedication in England. However, it has been argued that the original dedication was to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a dedication you will find in several guidebooks and websites, whilst others argue, based upon the evidence of the carved porch spandrels, that the original dedication was actually to the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Exactly what it was in the medieval period - we don't know. It has also been a long held belief amongst some scholars that church dedications may have had nothing to do with the veneration of a particular saint, but rather reflect the name-saint of the principal donor, or even the saints day upon which the church was consecrated.

Then there are the saints that we know were popular in the late medieval period, and yet almost never appear as church dedications, or amongst most surviving art works of the period. The most obvious is perhaps St Christopher, whose image was to be found upon the walls of most medieval English churches, and is the most common single saint to be found amongst surviving medieval wall paintings. Reference to these images are also frequently to be found amongst the written records, and yet, despite this near universal popularity, you will find a bare handful of churches dedicated to the saint, and even fewer depictions in the other surviving artworks of the period. For example, you will look in vain for the saint on East Anglian rood screens. The same is true of St Barbara, who is commonly depicted on rood screens and panel paintings, and is amongst the most popular saint depicted on late medieval copper alloy pilgrim badges, and yet has only two known medieval churches dedicated to her - both now lost.

It is also worth remembering that a church dedication represents only a single moment in time. St Remigius for example, has no less than four medieval churches dedicated to him in the county of Norfolk (out of only six in the whole of England), and yet you will hunt in vain through the documentary records and wills, the images on rood screens and wall paintings, for reference to this fifth/sixth century evangelist who reputedly baptised the king of the Franks (or was Bishop of Lincoln, or rector of Hethersett - depending upon which source you choose to believe). If church dedications alone were an indicator of popularity then Remigius can be regarded as being far more popular than St Christopher or St Barbara.

Almost all of the arguments above can also be applied to other strands of evidence, such as the time taken to officially recognise a saint, or precedence of festivals and feasts. This is particularly true when looking at a period when 'unofficial' cults could take a firm hold in a very short space of time, and yet never resulted in the formal acceptance of the potential new saint. Consider for example the popular cults of Richard Caister of Norwich, John Shorne of Long Marston, and king Henry VI. All three of these individuals had popular cults grow up around their memories in the fifteenth century, and yet none of the three were ever formally canonised.

All of these informal cults are exceptionally visible in many of the strands of evidence, with all three attracting pilgrims to their sites, having pilgrim badges created in the honour, and being depicted in stained glass, on rood screens, and in wall paintings. However, you'll find none of them amongst the lists of the festivals and feasts of the medieval church. You'll find no formal and orthodox dedications to their memory. As saints, they do not formally exist, and yet we can see evidence of their popularity on myriad levels. There are almost as many surviving medieval pilgrim badges attributed to Richard Caister of Norwich as there are to St Alban, and Henry VI appears nearly as often on East Anglian rood screens, and amongst references to church statues, as Mary Magdalene.



So where then does that leave us?

One would consider the documentary evidence, particularly at a parish level, to be a fairly solid source of evidence, but even here things are not always as they seem. Take for example the tiny Devon parish of Morebath, whose accounts and records have been subject to detailed study by Eamon Duffy in his excellent book - 'The Voices of Morebath'. On the 30th August 1520 the village welcomed a young and enthusiastic new priest, ChristopherTrychay, who was to remain in the parish for the next fifty-four years. However, the priest brought more than just zeal and enthusiasm with him to his new parish. In his first year it is recorded that he personally paid for the creation and gilding of a statue of St Sidwell, a local saint popular in the Exeter region, that was placed within his new church. Over the coming decades Trychay fostered the cult of the saint in the parish, encouraging gifts and small acts of devotion, bequests and benevolences, so that by the eve of the reformation the cult of St Sidwell in Morebath was almost as prominent as that of the Virgin Mary - with at least two young girls within the parish having been named after Sidwell.

Seen from an outside perspective, the growth of the cult of St Sidwell within the parish would appear to clearly evidence the local growth in popularity of what was clearly a local saint. A superficial examination of the paperwork would support this, and might even lead a historian to ponder how such localised cults become established? However, the deeper research into this particular parish has allowed us to understand that the growth and popularity of this particular cult was actually the direct result of the personal zeal of one particular parish priest; one man whose own devotion to the saint has led to a complete bias of the written evidence. If this was the case in Morebath it raises the question of how often this may well have been the case elsewhere?

It becomes perhaps more complex still if we consider other areas of written evidence. My own research has clearly indicated that even such seemingly straightforward sources such as post-mortem pilgrimage bequests - when an individual left money in their will for others to undertake pilgrimages on their behalf - were more likely to appear within surviving wills from particular locations than from others. In essence, such bequests appear in geographical clusters, suggesting either that those making their wills were influenced by the individuals writing them (scribal influence), or they were simply emulating the actions of others in the same locality - a post-mortem 'keeping up with the Jones'.

And if you think all that is just a bit confusing - it actually gets even worse. Certain saints appear largely in only one strand of evidence, and are almost entirely absent elsewhere. Take for example the late medieval cult of Catherine of Sienna. Jennifer N. Brown has convincingly shown that the saint became incredibly influential in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, particularly amongst literate female followers, with extracts of her writings surviving in numerous sources. However, the saint almost completely fails to make the translation from the written works to being depicted in popular religious art. Despite Catherine's demonstrable importance she appears only on a single retable (the Dartmouth, or Battel Hall, retable), and a rood screen in Devon. A third possible depiction, on the rood screen at Horsham St Faith in Norfolk, now appears more likely to be a depiction of the Virgin as Queen of Heaven - and why anyone ever thought it might be Catherine is something of a mystery.

In complete contrast to Catherine of Sienna is the story of 'Mistress Ridibowne'. She appears on the fifteenth century painted rood screen at Gately in Norfolk, with additional references to pilgrimage bequests in a very small number of Norfolk wills, and the 'possibility' that there was a further image of her at Hackford church - also in Norfolk. The thing is, we have absolutely no idea who she was. Although it has been suggested it might be referring to Christina of Markyate, and it is clear that the cult involved a minor site of pilgrimage, she really is a complete enigma. What is perhaps worse is the fact that she isn't alone. We have references to other bequests and offerings to minor shrines and cults that are just as much of a mystery.
Gateley rood screen figure

So where then does this leave the original question I asked on Twitter? How is it possible to judge the popularity of an individual saint in the medieval period? Well, I think the only true answer is that there is no one clear way; no single strand of evidence that can reflect the reality of late medieval piety, particularly on a parish level. We can say the St Thomas Becket and St Mary were incredibly popular in the later Middle Ages, and judge other cults from relics, pilgrims, and bequests, but once you get down into the nitty gritty of judging actual popularity, no one single strand of evidence will ever tell us more than a single 'version'; a truth that may well be supported by other forms of evidence, or, as we have seen, may well be totally contradicted by them.

There were other suggestions made by those on twitter that I do particularly like. For example, if the number of supposed relics claimed by various churches adds up to more than one whole individual - and I'm thinking of multiple claims to objects such as Aaron's rod, or the foreskin of Christ here - then they were undoubtedly popular. A saint with eight arms, three skulls, and five legs was undoubtedly a sought after individual. Likewise, I see a bright future for the idea of Medieval Saints Top Trumps.

Monday, 3 December 2018

After all, it is only graffiti...


Over the last eight years St Mary's church at Troston in Suffolk has received a fair amount of media attention. Whilst the church was already known for its really quite spectacular medieval wall paintings, much of the new media attention has been focussed upon the regionally significant collection of early graffiti to be found on the walls. Today was the turn of TV presenter and generally sound chap Clive Anderson, who was there to film a short section for a new documentary. You may not all rate him as a presenter, and you may not all find him funny (although his take-down of Piers Morgan to his face still ranks as one of the high points of modern television in my eyes), but you have to admire his courage - for today he was subjected to four hours in a cold church, listening to me rant on about how wonderful the medieval graffiti there really is. And the graffiti at Troston REALLY is that good. It has everything. Animals, people, faces, ships, dates and demons. Lots of demons. It really is rather special.

However, it soon became apparent on today's trip that not everything was well with the Troston graffiti, and that something very serious is taking place at the junction between the tower and nave. These two images show the same wall only two years apart - the image on the left having been taken this morning. The fifteenth and sixteenth century graffiti inscriptions (as well as later examples) are literally crumbling to dust, and flaking from the walls. Having survived for over five centuries something has changed, apparent by the very obvious damp levels rising through the stonework. The result is a mass of mineral salts leaching from the stonework, and some very serious delamination of the stone of the tower arch on the north side.


Luckily the graffiti at Troston is well recorded, and has been previously published - but that is all that will soon be left of this regionally significant collection of medieval and Tudor graffiti. The published record.

The problem of course is that this isn't just happening in Troston church, but at dozens of other sites across the region. These inscriptions are being lost at a fantastic rate. Some are being lost to development, where the church undertakes 'improvements' without first surveying for significant graffiti. Others are lost due to changes in the church environment, often the result of poor maintenance and lack of funds to repairs the churches. Sometimes the losses are just through carelessness.


However, it is wrong to blame the churches and churchwardens. In most cases they are underfunded and over worked - with many churches now looked after by a tiny team drawn from a tiny, and shrinking, congregation. They are largely doing what they can with the resources that they have available to them.

In terms of getting their graffiti recorded, particularly prior to building works or renovations, a lot of churches have never even considered the concept. It simply isn't on their radar. And why would it be? They aren't experts in church archaeology, or buildings surveyors. They are just a bunch of good people doing what they think is best - and they'd be as horrified as anyone else out there if they thought they were doing long term damage to the buildings they so very clearly love. So where then does the blame lie - because it really is finger pointing time. Because I'm fed up with walking into churches to find our history literally falling from the walls. I'm fed up with picking up the fragments of the past from the floor; fragments that didn't have to be there in the first place. I'm fed up with the look of horror on the churchwarden's faces when you have to break it to them that their own parish past is literally slipping through their finders, and that what they now see before their eyes will be lost long before their own grandchildren ever have a chance to see it for themselves.


So where then do the problems lie? Well, if we are honest here, the main problem (and it certainly isn't the only one) lies with the planning process. A lot of people may not realise it, but historic churches don't actually have to follow the traditional planning process. Unlike us mere mortals they don't have to apply for planning permission via the local authority, and follow national planning legislation. Instead, due to an agreement drawn up way back in the mists of time, churches have to submit their plans to their local Diocese Advisory Committee (DAC), who will, if they are satisfied, issue a document known as a 'faculty' (essentially the equivalent of planning consent issued by a local authority). As part of the faculty process the DAC should also issue guidelines and conditions - such as mitigation measures based upon the likelihood of things like medieval wall paintings being present. Unfortunately, even after nearly a decade of ranting on about the importance of historic graffiti, you won't find too many DACs that give any thought, let along conditions, relating to historic graffiti.

Now don't misunderstand me here. We do have some wonderful DACs across the country, full of technical experts who really do their utmost to preserve the historic environment. However, we have some really shockers too. Truly. Horrifyingly corrupt. DACs that include barely any archaeological representation, yet are loaded instead with architects. No doubt they are good architects, with many years experience of working on churches, but these are also the same individuals who are working with local parishes to draw up plans and schemes that are eventually submitted to the DAC for approval. The same DAC that they sit upon. The same DAC that all their architect mates sit upon. You'd be amazed at the percentage of their schemes that get passed and have a faculty issued. Or maybe you wouldn't. Indeed, there are a number of DACs across the country that need completely disbanding - quite possibly with an axe - and being reformed. Preferably with new members who don't have a financial interest in passing their own, or their mates, schemes.


Sadly though it isn't just the DACs that are the problem. The blame also lies slightly higher up the ladder, with those statutory organisations who are meant to be issuing guidelines and advice when dealing with historic fabric. There are guidelines issued for just about everything in the historic environment - the care of wall paintings, care of monuments, care of stained glass, etc, etc. Lots and lots of guidelines. You might think then that, after nearly a decade of me and others banging on about historic graffiti, and half a century after Pritchard published 'English Medieval Graffiti', someone out there might have noticed that we have a rather massive corpus of early and often unique material scattered across the walls of our churches and cathedrals - and that it is at risk. That it is in danger of literally falling from the walls. That some form of guidelines might be in order.

The reality is that historic graffiti, for however many reasons, still isn't seen as a mainstream historic resource. It isn't seen as something worth issuing guidelines for. It isn't seen, by the powers that be, as important. Indeed, it can be argued that it just about the only area of true heritage at risk in the UK that isn't receiving any special attention whatsoever. There is no risk register, no guidance on protection, and certainly no money available for recording or even archiving purposes. If a bat decided to crap on it, that might be a different story, but as it stands any builder, churchwarden, or even architect, can destroy it, or allow it to be destroyed, at will.

Think about that for a moment. If this had been a medieval wall painting that was falling off the wall, or that someone (God forbid) had tried to repaint, then there would be an outcry. There would be guidelines and processes, and quite possibly funding (I did say 'possibly'), to actually do something about it. In this case there isn't even a process. It is, after all, only graffiti.


Thursday, 8 November 2018

Messing about in church: the sublime AND the ridiculous


North west Norfolk. You tend not to expect too much from churches in this small corner of the county. There are undeniably some real masterpieces, and a good number of truly pleasant churches, but the closer you tend to get to the Sandringham estate the more likely it appears that the churches will have been heavily restored. Restored to death. Like Sandringham church itself, they suffer almost from too much attention. Too many well meaning restorations. Too much money lavished on the gilding and stained glass. They almost glow in the dark, and in many of them even the most modest medieval survivals are a bit of a novelty.

I am sure that it was - and is - all very well meant, with many dozens of private benefactors spending vast wads of cash purely to glorify God etc. I am also sure that it is entirely a coincidence that it largely only takes place in these few churches clustered around the Queen's Sandringham estate, and not in the many hundreds of other churches across the county. Churches that would be only too grateful to accept a hefty donation or two, in the hope of keeping the rain from entering through the roof, or replacing an ageing bell frame. Instead this small pocket of churches does seem to have rather a large proportion of the country's gilding on show. Quite possibly the country's.

It is therefore a really quite refreshing change to walk into a church like Wolferton, only a stone's throw (gilded stones are optional) from the Sandringham estate. The outside of the church is typical of this area of the county, with liberal use of the gingerbread coloured carrstone, and the well tended churchyard that just begs to be visited by royalty. It all feels just remarkably 'neat'. It is therefore a wee bit of a surprise to wander in through the porch and find a church that still has so much of its medieval past on show - amongst which are some truly remarkable items.
Wolferton. The repainted doom. Just put down the paintbrush, and step away from the wall with your hands where I can see them...

Admittedly the church has been restored in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century's, and many may find some of the Victorian fittings a little heavy and cumbersome. The church may also be the perfect lesson in exactly why you shouldn't let early restorers of medieval wall paintings actually try their hand at full restoration, and the repainted Doom above the chancel arch is truly a sight to behold - if not entirely for all the right reasons. However, even this has a certain charm, having been recreated so many decades ago that now, as the colours begin to fade a little, it doesn't even feel 'too' out of place. Okay, it does - but I'm trying to be nice here. Even the Victorian font cover is a fairly good pastiche attempt at recreating a medieval marvel, and if you don't look too closely it really has a charm of its own. You might have to squint a bit.

However, as restorations go, I have seen far, far worse. They may have 'embellished' - and how they did love that word - but they didn't feel the need to create a clean slate upon which to build. What was of value from earlier times they tended to leave alone, or at least repair as best they could. A few things may well have been embellished, but not overly so.
The true secrets of this church take a little time to discover, and most are concealed in the woodwork. Close examination of the carved timbers in the roof is a good way to while away half an hour, and although there has been much restoration done even here, it has been done sympathetically and with a certain style. The timber screens though are what the guidebooks will direct you to examine - and rightly so. In the chancel arch are the remains of what was once a very fine fifteenth century rood screen, with the painted figures of saints - now sadly bedraggled - still clear to make out. To the north of this is another very fine fifteenth century parclose screen, that once separated off the east end of the north aisle as a separate chapel. The carving is still crisp and clear even after more than half a millennia, and although the pigment has now all but gone, it still feels an imposing sight as the sunbeams highlight the intricate carvings.

Wolferton. South aisle parclose screen.

However, in my eyes, the real hidden gem of this church lies not in the north aisle, but to the south. Here can be found yet another parclose screen, that separates the eastern end of this aisle off to form yet another chapel. Although the church records suggest that the man who created this chapel died in the opening years of the sixteenth century, the screen was already well over a century old by that time. It's exact date is unknown, but the style of decoration and carving would suggest the middle two quarters of the fourteenth century - a fifty year span bitterly and irrevocably divided by the terrible destruction and human decay known today as the Black Death. My own feeling is that it sits in the two decades after the coming of the pestilence; when church decoration and manuscript illustration reacted to the near destruction of the known world with an outburst of ingenuity, humour, quirkiness and, upon occasion, elements of downright blasphemy.

Wolferton parclose screen detail.

And that is what is captured in this screen. A moment in time - when a resigned population took stock of what God had sent their way, and what the church had failed to protect them from, and carved, painted and gilded their own reactions to events in the very fabric of the church itself. A stark irreverence combined with open elements of humour and parody. Fat friars and stupid priests, lecherous monks and harlot nuns, green men and grotesque beasts - all thrust into the very body of the church. Gone is the quiet reverence, and instead flows out a stream of self expression that obliquely questions the very structure of the church and the society in which they lived.

Wolferton. Laughter and misery?

All of this is captured in the parclose screen at Wolferton, in minute detail, but you have to look for it - and once you start to see it you simply can't stop. The more you stare at the screen, and its truly exquisite and tiny carvings, the more you become aware that the screen itself - or at least the dozens of leering faces that are hidden away in its decoration - are staring right back at you. Tiny imps carved into the head rail, green men with protruding tongues where ball-flowers might usually rest, leering grotesques of faces peering through the tracery. The screen is alive with a vibrant community of tiny faces. A chubby cheeked man rolls his eyes and pulls a face high up on the screen, whilst a near neighbour side-eyes the grinning demon carved a few inches to the right of him. It is the world made small, and a canvas for a wood carvers caricatures. It is, in my own humble opinion, a masterpiece - and the craftsman or craftswoman who made it a complete genius.

Wolferton. Parclose screen detail.

Exactly who they were we will probably never know, as no records relating to the screens construction survive. They are lost to us. I have only seen one other screen that is, without question, the work of the same craftsman - and that is to be found over thirty-five miles away in the south aisle of Mattishall church. It too is a work of art, but it lacks the humour and humanity of the carvings at Wolferton. For me the person who carved this screen is someone I'd really like to get to know. Someone I'd be happy to spend some time with. They were, in my own humble opinion, a wee bit good.

Wolferton. Parclose screen face, top rail.

You may be able to tell, but I rather rate this screen. The fifteenth century screen in the north aisle is good - a technical achievement of symmetry and rather orthodox carvings - but the screen in the south aisle is a thing of wonder. It has life. It has passion. It has humour. It has the story of an entire community, and entire congregation - the good, the bad, and the downright daft - locked within its tiny carvings. It tells a tale, and who, after all, doesn't like listening to a good tale. And yet, it may not be a tale that really belongs in Wolferton.

Wolferton. Parclose screen, top rail. I know how this one feels.

The thing is nobody quite knows where this fourteenth century screen comes from. It certainly shouldn't be from Wolferton itself, as the church suffered a devastating and massive fire in the fifteenth century, with the deep pinking of fire damage still evident on many of the stones. And it was a very big fire indeed. The upper levels of the south arcade still show bright pink, where the stones have been superheated, whilst the piers below, including that which the screen now abuts, were so badly damaged as to require almost complete replacement. If the screen had been in the church at the time it would have been turned to nothing more than a heap of ashes - unless of course this master craftsmen also managed to make his screen, not only sublimely beautiful, but fireproof as well. I expect even he had his limits though.

Oh, and there are also some nice mason's marks and a few compass drawn bits of graffiti there too. Just saying.