Another year has passed by, the solstice is upon us and Christmas is only a bare few days away. From tonight the nights begin to get shorter, the days longer, and the prospect of Spring, sunshine and warmth begins to seem a distinct, albeit distant, possibility. Hard though it is to believe, in only a bare few months the first glimpses of green will begin to show on the dark, charcoal drawn, parodies of trees that now scatter the Norfolk countryside. But now though is a time of darkness. The bleak midwinter.
For the medieval population of any East Anglian parish this time of year would have been an odd one. The winter stores were, if the year had been a kind one, still high. The ‘hungry months’, the time when stocks ran low but the new crops had yet to bring forth plenty, were still ahead of them. And yet, for those who lived by the sun, the days were short and the nights long. Advent, and the celebrations that it culminated in, was a time of limbo. A time between. A time to quietly celebrate, and hope that the lengthening of the days led to an early return of Spring, rather than a prolonged period of ice, snow and death. It was a time to give thanks for what had passed and to hope for good things in the future. Sitting in the darkness and praying for the light to return. And so it had been for many long thousands of years; long centuries before the dusty desert story of Christ reached these damp and dark-wood covered shores. But in the darkness of the winter’s night, when wind and sleet slammed against the shutters, the Devil and his demons roamed abroad - and the vague threats of possible future starvation were accompanied by the just-as-real threats of eternal damnation and other-worldly suffering.
Today it is a difficult concept to grasp. That demons wandered the world, crossing it upon the wind like a vague miasma, seeking out the souls of the innocent and depraved to latch on to and drag back down to the eternal damnation that was the Pit. Obviously, in terms of medieval theology, it was never that simple. It was never that cut and dried. However, it is difficult to conceive of how the nuances and subtleties of medieval church doctrine would have been understood by the common worshipers of the parish. Indeed, given the number of parish priests accused of necromancy, sorcery and divination, it would appear that such subtleties often escaped those who were meant to be imparting that very same doctrine into the hearts and minds of their flock. Demons were real, magic worked - and it really was possible to find stolen property using a key, a piece of string and a copy of the Bible (and we are going way beyond Blue Peter here). When it comes to the concept of medieval religion, the past isn’t so much a foreign country as an entirely new world.
And yet that is a part of what we are trying to do. By staring at the walls of medieval churches, recording the scratches and inscriptions that we find there, we are trying to find a way in to the hopes, fears and aspirations of the medieval mind. We are trying to unravel the mysteries of medieval religion and belief. Not the book taught religion passed down by Popes and Bishops, but the beliefs and faith of those who actually stood in those pigment daubed East Anglian churches and prayed for a better outcome. Prayed for a mild winter and a better spring; for the safety of their friends, families and loved ones. Prayed for an end to darkness.
And yet, very occasionally, we do catch a glimpse of this level of belief – and it is on the walls that we find it…