I must admit that I have been surprised by this. Whilst many of the more extreme right-wing activists do tend to grab hold of any historical subject, clasp it to their bosom and push it forward as evidence of how great this country ‘used to be’, the idea that early graffiti would be of interest to them was a little surprising.
For starters it is graffiti. Although it has very little in common with modern graffiti it simply wasn’t something that I thought would ever enter the mainstream. It simply has too many negative connotations. For your right-wing activists graffiti is something that ‘yobs’ do down at the local bus shelter. It simply isn’t something you study as an aspect of medieval social history. Either that or they continue with the well worn (and wholly incorrect) idea that it was all created by bored choirboys (who were undoubtedly rather nice middle-class choirboys having a bit of fun). However, what really surprises me about their interest in, and use of, the subject matter is that, from my perspective, the one great potential of graffiti studies is that it sheds light upon the lives of the real ordinary people who lived and died in our English parishes many centuries ago. Not upon the landed classes (except at Troston), not upon the wealthy lords of the manor (except at Troston) and not upon the social elites (that’ll be Troston again) – but upon the lower orders – the commonality of the medieval parish.
For me archaeology and history is about far more than digging holes and searching through old documents. First and foremost it is about people. In the first instance the real appeal of studying early graffiti is the opportunity to gain an understanding of those individuals who lived and worked in the medieval parish - which is a real rarity. Individuals, particularly those from the lower orders, are rarely found in the documentary record as anything other than passing references. They certainly aren’t found in the churches. Indeed, if you walk in to just about any medieval church then just about everything you see – the alabaster monuments, memorial brasses and stained glass – all relate to the top 5% of society. The elite. Those who could afford to immortalise their memory in stone, brass and painted glass.
The amazing thing about the graffiti inscriptions we find and record is they have the potential to have been created by anyone and everyone. From the lord of the manor (Troston again) down to the lowliest commoner. Indeed, it would appear that many, many of the inscriptions we record were most probably created by the lower orders. At sites such as Blakeney, Cley and Wiveton it was the families who crewed the small fishing boats that ventured their lives in search of a meagre living who left us our stunning collection of medieval ship graffiti. At Wood Norton is was the retired and penniless priest who scratched his name into the porch he had spent a quarter of a century, most of his working life, gathering funds to build. At Litcham it was a family that scrapped an existence farming the common land and grazing sheep that left their names upon the aisle piers.
Many of these individuals lived hand to mouth, reliant upon the parish and the goodwill of their neighbours. They did no great deeds, fought no heroic battles, had no coats of arms and lived a fragile existence upon the very edges of society. For many of them those brief graffiti scratchings in the parish church might be the ONLY physical mark they have left upon this world. Their only testament to existence. However, it was a society of which they were an integral part. Were they alive today then it would be those individuals queuing at a food bank, getting free school meals and help with their rent. Society, it appears, has moved on.
That I suppose is the real absurdity of all the right wing attention the project has been receiving of late. The graffiti we record often deals with real people’s hopes, passions and beliefs. It sheds light upon a lost lower order of the middle ages. It focuses attention upon a long dead commonality of the medieval parish. As many of the right wing activists have made quite clear, time and time and time again, these are the people who today they place NO value upon. Whom they dismiss as scroungers, layabouts and benefits cheats. Perhaps then they should consider taking a step back, and considering the long view, the next time they scoff at the idea of food banks for the needy… or perhaps, to them, the poorer classes are only interesting when they have been dead for a few centuries.