Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Chasing the dead

I appear to have spent a lot of time recently chasing the dead. Chasing after notes, fragments and details of the long dead - and looking at the tiny, and sometimes immaterial, monuments they have left behind them. Many of course left nothing. The majority of the medieval population of England have no memorials, no monuments to lives well lived - or otherwise - but passed through this world leaving not a single lasting mark upon it. The dead and unseen of the past. The brasses and monumental marble effigies were for the rich; those who could afford the cash and time to ensure that they would, in name at least, be remembered. The less wealthy, but still well off, gave money towards church improvements or the gloriously painted rood screens and stained glass that still grace many of our churches. Their names inscribed into the churchwardens records, and often the object itself, to stand as a permanent testament to their three score years and ten. For the rest, in an age before gravestones and burial registers, the most they could hope for was a decent send off with family and friends. A few candles and masses, should they be lucky enough to belong to a local guild that supported such activities, and bread and ale distributed to the needy poor after they had taken their place back in the deep soil of their parish.

There was, however, one group of individuals that left their mark all over the parish churches of England, cut deep in to the stonework of piers, walls and doorways - the merchant classes. The rising middle class of the late middle ages or, to give them their more recent title amongst trendy post-revisionist historians, the 'middling sort'. Don't ask me what a 'post revisionist historian', or even  the earlier model 'revisionist historian', actually is.  I don't know. Along with 'multi-vocality' it is a closed book to me.

The merchant classes of the later middle ages were ambitious. Ambitious people in an aspirational church. Where wealth and status were sought not as a means to an end, even a spiritual end, but as the end in itself. One need only read the accounts of people such as Margery Kempe or Chaucer's Wife of Bath prologue to realise that wealth and status were, for some, their own reward. Eyes that should have gazed heavenward in search of salvation darted to left and right instead, undoubtedly costing to the nearest penny the Alderman's wife's new gown or checking to see that everyone had noticed your own new attire. And for the most ambitious of this middling sort, those who made their chinks in trade and industry, the rewards of this generation were sometimes not enough. Those who really made their way in the world, and piled away the gold and silver, could expect to buy a marriage for their children that took them way above the expectations of their own humble birth and in to the lower ranks of the gentry. If they were ambitious enough, and rich enough, their grandchildren would be born in to the nobility. Had they lived long enough then, in all likelihood, they'd not have been welcome guests at their own grandchildren's weddings.
However, as with all ambitions, great oaks from small acorns grow. The ambitions of the merchant classes had many, many outlets - and their need for memorialisation was only one amongst many that jostles for position. In terms of church graffiti the most obvious symbol is the 'Merchants Mark' - a device or motif supposedly unique to an individual merchant that acted in much the same way as a logo does for a modern company. A symbol that was easily recognised by both the literate and illiterate alike, and one that was associated with one particular merchant. Merchants used these marks to mark their goods, to sign documents and even to adorn their houses. For those that made it in to the ranks of the very rich these same marks are found adoring their own memorial brasses or alabaster tombs. A small but proud mark of the humble trading origins of a merchant of note. They were, in effect, a type of heraldry for those of too low a class to be entitled to have their own coat of arms. The ultimate in aspirational motifs.

I come across a great many merchant's marks scattered across the walls of our medieval churches and cathedrals. Neatly executed and bordering on the 'professional' they are often to be found in small groups, huddled together against a mass of surrounding inscriptions. In some cases they are to be found in distinct patterns, concentrated around areas that might be deemed spiritually significant; side altars, image niches and shrines. Here they cluster like notes upon a prayer tree; each a little request for the benevolence of the Almighty to fall upon the owner of the mark. A prayer for an ambition achieved. And yet here is the thing. Many of these merchant's marks, these unique identifiers, are just that - unique. They don't adorn the brasses and tombs of rich merchants. They don't decorate large timber framed merchants hall, and they don't appear in the port books or alderman's records of the great trading towns. In many cases they are the only example of that particular mark; the symbol of ambitions that never bore fruit and fortunes that were never made. They are the last mark on this world of hopes that were dashed by either misfortune or ill chance. The last message of a shattered dream.
I spend a lot of time chasing the dead. Sometime they leave far too little to find...

Saturday, 29 November 2014

The BEST graffiti church in England - and a bit about blowing up moles...


In terms of medieval graffiti there are certain churches that are simply legendary. Churches that are just so damned good that they have become a Mecca for graffiti hunters everywhere. Places where you would fight hostile churchwardens and evangelical happy-slappy guitar playing vicars simply to be allowed to step over the threshold. These are the GREAT graffiti churches. The churches such as Lidgate, Blakeney and Bedingham. However, all these amazing churches pale into insignificance at the mention of one particular church. It's very name makes graffiti hunters go weak at the knees and dribble to leak from the corners of the mouth in anticipation. It is the cream of graffiti churches, the best of the best. The one graffiti church that has been subject to intense study - and it is Ashwell in Hertfordshire.
I'm a contrary sod at the best of times. You say black and I will invariably say white. It isn't really just to disagree with you - more just to see what the reaction will be. A bit like licking you fingers and then sticking them in a power socket. You know it's wrong - but can't help wondering just what will happen (2nd degree burns as it turns out). Or the time I experimented with using gun powder as a deterrent for moles - all in the interests of healthy experimentation and being a contrary bugger. The mole experiment, just in case you want to try this at home, wasn't a great success. However, I did learn that it was possible to sleep through the night with your hand in a bucket of cold water. Right... where was I? Ah, yes, Ashwell church. Well, here's the thing, if somebody tells me that a church is THE greatest graffiti church in England then I will immediately take such a statement with a really, really big pinch of salt. I will, to be blunt, blow raspberries in their general direction and assume that they don't know what the hell they are talking about. Sure, Ashwell might be good - but have they been to Lidgate? To Blakeney? To Bedingham?
So, finally, this week I went to Ashwell. I have been before, but that was many years ago - before I really knew what I was looking at - so a return trip was in order. I had to go across to Oxford earlier this week to give a lecture at the university (I know, I know... it isn't Cambridge - but beggars can't be choosers etc) and Ashwell was sort of on the way. Give or take.

So there I was, camera and torch in hand, faced by what the world has come to think of as the 'great' medieval graffiti church. I had about an hour to wander round and, if I was lucky, should get in a good deal of sneering and bad comparisons in that time. I ventured inside...
Ok. So it is good. One of the best. Actually quite superb... Holy crap I was shaking after ten minutes of running a torch across the surface of the stone walls! It was, not to put too fine a point upon it, immense. Just about every single surface I looked at was covered in a mass of early graffiti. The tower, the piers, the western wall - everywhere. Layer upon layer of inscriptions and symbols. I was, quite simply, in graffiti OMG heaven. Here's the thing. Ashwell IS the best known graffiti church, and certainly the most extensively written about. It has been studied by Hine, Coulton and Sherlock, and had TV archaeologists and historians crawling through its nave. However, they've all been getting terribly excited for completely the wrong reasons.

Ashwell is really known for the massive number of medieval text inscriptions to be found in the church - and it does contain a really unusually high number of early Latin inscriptions. They range from the inscription in the tower, which records the arrival of the Black Death in this small Hertfordshire village, to a tiny inscription in the south aisle which records the peasants revolt. There are texts of moralising verse - and Latin insults describing the Archdeacon as 'an ass'. There are excerpts from the bible and comments upon the quality of the mason's workmanship. You name it - it's there - and they are wonderful. However, the text inscriptions, all of which are open to interpretation, are a tiny, tiny fragment of what else is there. Probably less than 1%.
Ashwell church is full of early graffiti. Images of people, faces, buildings, animals and ritual protection marks galore. 'vv' markings cover one side of the tower arch, compass drawn designs are everywhere - and a hand raised in the act of blessing adorns the pier at the eastern end of the south aisle. Wherever you look there are devotional markings; the hopes, fears and dreams of the medieval congregation etched deep in to the walls of the parish church. The text inscriptions are good too - but they are an embellishment. The gilding of the lily. Even without them, and their multiple and enigmatic interpretations, Ashwell would still be a jewel in the crown of graffiti studies everywhere.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Graffiti, Gaza and THE GIRL: Why I do what I do (with a passing reference to Cornish pasties)


Being someone who stares at the walls rather more than most people, and someone who believes that graffiti has a certain value as a historic record, it is rather odd when I am confronted with the most obvious question - why study graffiti? It happened a couple of days ago in the city of York, that noble tourist magnet and coffee shop haven of the north. I was in the city to fill the civic parking meters with cash, deliver chocolate to members of the Council for British Archaeology (Thorntons - no messing about!) and take some pictures of the graffiti in the minster. As you'll probably already know I was in the city a month or so back leading some lovely American academics on a tour of the medieval graffiti in the minster. Much was found, pics were taken - some of which were subsequently found to be 'rather poor'. I blame the previous evenings visit to the Yorkshire Terrier. As a result new pictures were required and chocolate delivery seemed a perfect pretext (just so you know - the CBA now 'demand' that ALL visitors supply them with chocolate - cookies at a push - but not the yucky ones with smarties on the top).


So I went to the minster. I crept in the back door (there isn't one - don't bother looking) and began to shine a torch on the walls and take a few pics. Now the first thing that usually happens is that a cathedral guide will sidle up and ask what you are up to? Their role, as custodians of the 'public' face of the minster/cathedral, is to check that you are...

a) sober

b) not a complete nutter

c) not a spot check by the diocese (which may involve a combination of the above)

A quick mention of mason's marks and 'lovely' C18th graffiti (which they know about) is usually enough to send them happily on their way - leaving you to scour the walls for the really interesting stuff. However, if you shine a light on the walls of a minster, church or cathedral it does tend to attract a certain amount of attention. The kids will be the first. They will drag their reluctant parents towards you, demanding of them to know exactly what you are doing. Let's face it, for many of them this is the most exciting thing that's going to happen in the building until they get to blow months of hard earned paper-round money in the gift shop. Are you looking for cracks? Is the whole thing about to tumble down around their ears? Will they get a chance to post the pics on facebook/tumblr/twitter etc? The parents are obviously reluctant to ask. After all, every modern city dweller has spent decades training themselves to ignore the weird guy talking to the walls/light fittings/invisible aliens in the tin-foil hats. Why start now - after all, they're on holiday? However, eventually, pressured by the un-ending questions from little Jimmy/Emma/Jordan, and aware that the weird wall staring guy 'can' actually hear them, they will sidle across and ask what you are looking for.


This is the point it gets interesting. You tell them. You explain all about medieval graffiti, how much of it still lays undiscovered, how it can tell us a great deal about the people who built and worshiped in this building, what some of it means. Suddenly they are engaged. Graffiti - now that is something they can relate to. They understand the concept. It isn't some weird academic concept involving ancient liturgy - but an immediate and tangible point of access to 'real' medieval people. It is at about this point that you should read them the health warning - that states that medieval graffiti hunting can be, upon occasion, more addictive than crack cocaine, Ginsters Cornish pasties after one pint too many and those odd purple jelly babies - all combined together.

However, this time was different. This time there was the girl. Actually, let me rephrase that. This time there was THE GIRL. Early teens I'd say, American from the accent (east coast) - and obviously destined to be either a nuclear scientist or civil rights activist who will be the bane of all right wing western government. She was obviously smart. I mean really smart. Her parents were obviously dragging her around the cultural sites of Europe in the hope of widening her education, or perhaps to distract her from beginning her own left wing civil rights movement at her obviously expensive private school.

Mum and Dad were the first to come across to see what I was up to. Both just a little too keen to be honest. A little too loud. A little too 'gee whiz'. Both obviously trying to interest THE GIRL and get her to put down the iphone and 'take an interest'. So, we got to talking...

THE GIRL did eventually put down the phone and listen. In fact by the look of concentration on her face she appeared to be listened pretty darned hard. It was clear that, as far as she was concerned, if her parents found the wall staring guy fascinating then she wasn't going to be fascinated. She, intent on showing off her remarkable and expensively acquired intellect, was going to utterly destroy him and all he had to say. So she was going to listen, find the faults in the arguments and then DESTROY!

The problem was, of course, that she couldn't. I'm not trying to brag here about what I do, it's just that there aren't really any arguments to debate. We simply show them what's there, make it available to them, and let them think it through themselves. After ten minutes even THE GIRL was running her hands across the stonework, feeling for inscriptions that haven't really been seen for over five centuries, and asking questions. And then it came. Just as they were leaving. THE GIRL, who had by this time become 'the girl', drew herself up, remembered that she was in fact a teenager and therefore, without question, NOT interested - asked the question. "Why", she asked, "is this stuff important? I mean, like, these people have been dead for centuries - so what does it matter what they wrote on the walls? There are hundreds of people dying in the world - in Gaza (parents frowned), Iraq and Syria - why is this old stuff important?"


BLOODY good question really. One I've asked myself a lot recently, I can tell you. Surely all the graffiti volunteers, and myself, and every other community archaeologist out there, would be far better off devoting our time, talents and energy to working in a food bank or relief agency? Surely it is better to try and help the living than recording the graffiti of the long dead?

But this is the answer I gave her. The people who left the marks on this wall were just like you and me. Just like the people suffering today in Gaza and the Middle East. They too had hopes, dreams and fears. They too had joy and suffering. However, unlike some of the people today their story remains untold. They had no internet, no facebook and no twitter - just the walls. So they scratched their messages here - laid down their prayers in the stonework - in the hope that someday God or someone would take note. For many of those long dead people these markings may be the only thing they have left on this planet. The only mark that they have left upon this world. Their only testament to existence. They left these messages in many cases in the hope that they would be read - much like the people of Gaza are leaving messages on the walls today. And perhaps, just perhaps, by beginning to understand just a little bit more about those people of the past we will try and not replicate their mistakes. Perhaps.

It's what I told her - and she nodded, put her iphone in her pocket and wandered off after her parents - undoubtedly exiting via the gift shop. And if still not sure that it was the right answer...

Friday, 25 July 2014

A fascination with choirboys... and the bits Wiki never mentions

Following on from the last 'rant' about the mass dials, or scratch dials, I thought it worth expanding upon a couple of themes I touched upon earlier. Well, to be honest, it's probably just going to end up being another rant if truth be told. I blame the BBC. No, honestly, I do!

Last weekend the lovely BBC (God bless 'em. Worth every penny, etc etc) ran a pretty big story about the medieval graffiti surveys. Despite the focus being on the lovely Lincolnshire survey we all got a good deal of feedback. Hundreds of thousands of hits on the websites, hundreds of emails, a card from my mum - that sort of thing. However, apart from drowning the start of my week in replying to lovely emails, it had a less obvious downside. It got people talking about medieval graffiti. Chatting on facebook, tweeting on twitter and generally talking about the subject in a way we rarely see. Hardly a bad thing you'd think? Certainly not. The only downside was to see repeated, time and time again, the same old fallacies, the same old clichés and misconceptions.

It was bound to happen I guess. I'm generally too busy looking at images of graffiti to jump in on every debate going on, and being generally a technophobe whose idea of programming a computer involves an axe, I usually only get to see the debates long after they have taken place. Which rather leaves the field clear for the other 'experts' to wade in.

You've probably all come across them. The type that see a question unanswered and, having once read a book on the subject, or at least having thought about borrowing it from the library, feel they have to answer it. The type of person who, armed with a selection of 1960s text books, spends their spare time editing wiki entries - removing anything put there by recent scholars because "if it isn't in the book...". Does that sound bitter? Sorry. Actually some of my best friends are wiki editors. Obviously they are all academics who fill wiki full of complete nonsense just to keep their students on their toes (don't smirk - this happens. A good percentage of wiki entries are factually incorrect 'for a reason'. There is also a reason Wiki's logo is a jigsaw with bits missing... just saying...).


 Sorry, where was I? Ah, yes... and so it was last weekend I saw the old chestnuts well and truly brought out to get a good airing. In no particular order we have 'bored choirboys', 'crosses around doorways were made by pilgrims', 'masons marks were so the master mason knew how much to pay his men' and, yes you guessed it, 'the daisy wheel is an ancient sun symbol, proving that the pagan religion survived well in to the middle ages'. Actually I could name a few more - but will spare you this evening as I have a glass of wine and am feeling vaguely generous.

Now obviously I fully realise that this is MY fault and my fault alone. If we'd been getting our message across in a more efficient manner all talk of choirboys, excepting amongst certain specialist interest groups, would be a thing of the past. As it is we are putting out about five or six academic articles each year, have a book out next year and try and get our message out via popular media and events as much as possible. Last year I personally did over 35 talks, Colin and Pat also handled a good number, we attended over a dozen major events, two conferences - and we were all over the national and regional press - but this is obviously not enough. Terry's suggestion that we make individual home visits, armed with powerpoint projectors and laminated overlays, simply isn't practical, and Jeff's suggestion that we begin with the choirboys themselves is... frankly suspicious.

So here's the plan. We knock down each and every fallacy, every untruth and every misconception one by one. We'll pull the bricks out until the whole thing collapses, and then rebuild the story stone by stone. We aren't planning on rebuilding any great monumental truth, but what we can do is help people question the truths they 'thought' they knew, and hopefully, like the idea that medieval knights had to be winched on to their horses due to the weight of their armour, such misconceptions will eventually fade away. Eventually. No promises eh...

So where to begin? Well I guess the most obvious place is with the choirboys (steady there Jeff!). It is after all the story that probably gets repeated most.  People see graffiti in a church and the assumption is that was the work of those mischievous little chaps in the white gowns howling at the front of the church. A story repeated in church guides, websites and by tour leaders. Church graffiti equals bored choirboys. So why is this? Why is the assumption made in the first place and why is it so universal? Well actually I believe that this touches upon one of the most fundamentally difficult questions relating to medieval graffiti - that of legitimacy.


We view the church graffiti, even that created five centuries ago, with modern eyes and modern sensibilities. To us today graffiti is seen as something bad; something anti-social and inherently destructive. The bane of our underpasses (joke- I live in Norfolk) and bus shelters. Vandalism pure and simple. Therefore ALL graffiti is viewed in the same way; and church graffiti must also be destructive and anti-social. It certainly can't have been something that was either accepted or encouraged - and therefore must have been created illicitly by those urchins in white who carry the name 'choirboys'.

Well, to state the obvious, there are a few problems with this interpretation long before we begin to look at the graffiti in any detail. Firstly there is the dating of much of the graffiti - created in many cases long centuries before the church even had choirboys. Churches certainly had singers, and often groups of 'singing men', but boy choirs are actually a pretty recent innovation in all but a very few high status chapels. Secondly, if these early inscriptions were the work of choirboys then, at the very least, their schoolmasters are to be congratulated. Their knowledge of Latin, including the use of contractions and abbreviations, is excellent, their handwriting often superb, and their knowledge of astrology and geometry certainly boast a very high level of learning! Indeed, given the level of education and the obvious amount of time they spent at their books, it is rather surprising that they actually had any time to create graffiti (for those readers for whom English is not their first language this was a poor attempt at the use of sarcasm).

So if not the choirboys then who? Who felt the need to scratch their names, prayers, hopes and fears into the very fabric of their village church? Well here the graffiti itself begins to tell its own tale.  In the case of Ashwell, Ludham and Wood Norton it was the parish priest. In the case of Troston it was the lord of the manor. In the case of Lidgate it was, perhaps, a monk and medieval poet. In short, it was just about everyone, from just about every level of society. At Wiveton and Blakeney it was the rich merchants. At Cley it was a builder and his labourers. At Parham it was a musician and organ enthusiast. And at Stoke by Clare it may even have been the singing men... not the choirboys... but their ancient forebears who left their musical portraits scattered across the church walls.

And the reason all these people left their marks on the walls? Quite simple really. Graffiti wasn't seen in the same way as we see it today. Graffiti wasn't seen as destructive and anti-social. It wasn't frowned upon or prohibited. Given that the majority of the early inscriptions we record actually have a spiritual dimension, and many are clearly prayers, it would appear that these inscriptions were far more than just tolerated. They were both accepted and acceptable. As much a part of the everyday experience of the church as the mass.

So, next time you hear a church guide dismissing graffiti inscriptions as the work of bored choirboys, passing quickly over to look at the 'lovely' Victorian glass, remember that the problem lies with them. It is their views, their experience and their preconceptions that make it so. Now if they would open their eyes just a little wider, and actually 'read' what was written on the walls, then they, like myself, would realise that sometimes questions are far more interesting than answers...
 
Although if they will run about in cloisters...
 
 

 

 

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Time for Mass and kicking tradition up the arse.

The problem with spending quite so much time immersed in medieval graffiti is that, despite my very best intentions, it does tend to raise far more questions than it answers. What once appeared relatively simple and straightforward suddenly becomes, under the weight of masses of new evidence, highly questionable. Although, in retrospect, describing any of this as straightforward in the first place is probably pushing it a bit. Or a lot.

I suppose this is the same problem that faces anyone working in a relatively new area of study. A severe lack of reference points - and those that do exist, you discover, are built upon foundations of sand. If you are lucky. Whenever I give a talk or present a paper I always make a joke of the point that I tend to use the term 'the current theory is', or 'it appears likely', rather a lot. Sadly I'm not joking. Think about it. Here we are, faced with a massive new corpus of medieval material, with almost no reference points. There's only ever been one book published on the subject; and even the author herself admitted that that particular work was hardly blemish free. We are blindfold, in the dark, groping from one hand-hold to the next. Can it get any more difficult? Well, yes, it can actually. It gets worse at the point when you realise that the hand-holds you were using to guide you actually turn out to be as insubstantial as smoke. That all the 'taken as reads' haven't been, and that all the accepted wisdom actually refers to the same untruth or misconception just being repeated long enough and often enough.

So where do we start? At which point do we begin to pull out bricks and see just how many we can remove before the structure collapses around our ears? Mason's marks? Pilgrim crosses? Medieval board games on the walls? Nope. Let's begin where it all began. Where the study of graffiti inscriptions, in a rather odd manner, actually began - with Mass Dials.


Now just about everybody who has taken the time to wander around a few medieval churches will have come across these distinctive little markings. Also known as 'scratch dials', they are most usually to be found on the south side of the church, scratched in to a buttress, sometimes near the priest's door into the chancel and quite often inside the porch. The traditional interpretation is that these are simple sundials; designed to inform the congregation of the time that the daily mass would begin. They are also one of the few areas of inscriptions in church fabric that have received any level of formal study. Indeed, there is a whole sub-group of the British Sundial society that goes around and records these early timepieces - and therein lies part of the problem.

Putting aside the question of dating these inscriptions, where tradition states that the cruder the manner of execution the earlier they are likely to be (based upon absolutely no evidence whatsoever as far as I can see), the real problems begin to occur when you examine the traditional interpretation as to their use. They are, in many instances, very clearly sundials - designed to mark off the hours. However, there are rather a lot of examples that simply don't fit the pattern - and raise some really quite interesting questions. In the first place there are those actually found within porches - most usually carved into the framework of the south door. The traditional interpretation is that these were actually in place prior to the porch being erected. Then there are those on the north side of the church; where tradition states that the stone has most probably been moved or re-used. Then there are those found inside the church itself - where tradition states that the stone has again been moved or re-used. That, in short, is rather a lot of 'tradition' - and appears to be a very convenient way of avoiding asking some really quite important questions.


Just examining one particular site can highlight exactly how weak the traditional interpretation really is. Let's take one church - Worthing in Norfolk - a tiny and isolated church set in the Wensum valley. The church is an ancient one, with a round tower and many early Norman features, that has seen much change and alteration over the centuries. On the south side, now covered by a late medieval porch, is a most striking and beautiful early Norman doorway - into which are inscribed at least three mass dials. Yes, you heard me - at least three. Ok, so let us agree with a little tradition - and assume the mass dials were inscribed prior to the porch being built (see, I can be reasonable). Why then are there three identical dials? All appear to be to the same standard, and incised in a similar manner - so why do you need more than one? What are they doing? Showing the time in London, Rome and Jerusalem? I think not.


And it isn't just at Worthing that these supposedly simple dials don't fit in to the traditional story. I see too many examples of multiple dials, dials set on the north side of the church, or even inside, to believe that all of these are re-used or moved bits of stone. The weight of actual observed evidence would appear to be leaning against a convenient tradition. Yes, many of these are simple time-keepers located in the right place - but many, many others don't fit the pattern.

So what is going on? What was the function of these familiar markings on our medieval churches? Well, to be honest, I really can't say. I can make a few suggestions based upon what I have observed, but I don't have any hard and fast answers. Not yet anyway. All I can say is that the traditional and accepted ideas associated with them are no longer, if you'll excuse the pun, set in stone. We have to throw tradition out of the tracery window and begin to look at the actual evidence with fresh eyes. We have to begin to question what has remained unquestionable and no longer accept 'accepted wisdom'.

And don't even get me started on pilgrim crosses...

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Seahenge: diggers, druids and a long forgotten past...

So Seahenge has a sister. The Bronze Age timber circle found on the North Norfolk coast, and excavated amongst scenes of tense confrontation, wasn’t alone. For those of you in the UK the news has been spread all over various media platforms for the last few weeks. Those in Norfolk trumpeting the fact that yet another major archaeological discovery has been made in the region (they’d have appropriated the Staffordshire hoard given half a chance) where the past forms such an integral part of the present. The new timber circle was ‘discovered’ only a short distance from the original circle and this time, much to everyone’s relief, it is to be left to gradually erode away and fall prey to the cycle of erosion and renewal that makes the North Norfolk coast the dynamic landscape that it is.



Now I’ll let you all in on a little secret. The circle isn’t actually a new discovery at all. The timber trunks at its centre, flattened on one face, were clearly visible at the time that the original circle was excavated, and sections of the outer palisade had been exposed to the air only a few months before the original Seahenge became the centre of such a media driven confrontation. In short, we’ve known it was there, along with a whole range of other artefacts, for nearly two decades. How do I know this you may well ask? I could after all just be saying this now to look incredibly wise and intelligent after the fact – nodding sagely when anyone mentions timber circles eroding from the peat beds of Holme. What the hell does the graffiti guy know about Bronze Age Norfolk? Well, here I’ll let you in to another little secret – which isn’t really a secret – just part of my past I’ve tried (with little success) to put behind me.

You see, back at the end of the last millennia, I wrote a little book – Seahenge: a contemporary chronicle – that documented the whole sorry story from the initial discovery, through the media shit-storm to the eventual excavation and confrontation. It wasn’t a great book. One of the main drawbacks was that I knew absolutely sod all about Bronze Age archaeology. I’ve always been a medievalist at heart, and my knowledge of the Bronze Age was largely confined to generations old books handed down from Wiltshire archaeologist A. D. Passmore (but that’s another story). However, putting aside the dodgy archaeology, the book turned out to be rather an interesting exercise in the study of archaeology and conflict – not something you usually get to study in this country.

For those of you who didn’t follow the original story, or where busy being born or potty trained at about that time, the basics are this. Back in the late 1990s a local man, John Lorimer, became fascinated with various timber structures that keep appearing and disappearing on the wide open stretches of Holme beach. John wasn’t an archaeologist, but he was fascinated by history and recognised that these structures were unusual. After the discovery of a Bronze Age axe head nearby John reported all his discoveries and findings to the local archaeology unit. Archaeologists came out to investigate and the general consensus was that the timber monuments were early – most probably Bronze Age. The decision was taken to record the site – but then leave it to gradually erode away with the passing years and tides. So this is what happened. Limited excavation took place, samples were taken for dendrochronological dating, and a short press release was issued. Local radio covered it briefly. Everyone agreed it was a fascinating site – and back to the site hut for a cuppa!

And then the storm broke! Michael McCarthy, the environmental correspondent for the Independent stumbled across the story and decided to follow it up with a bit of background research – in particular with a chat to one of Britain’s leading experts on the Bronze Age, Francis Pryor. Pryor described the discovery to McCarthy as one of “the most extraordinary archaeological discoveries” he had ever seen and that “it must be preserved”. The little story that had filled a few minutes air time on Radio Norfolk suddenly found itself splashed all over a national newspaper (one of the ones that people tended to believe) under the title ‘Shifting Sands reveal Stonehenge of the Sea’. Well you can imagine what happened next. Every other newspaper and TV news channel rushed up to the Norfolk coast to catch a glimpse of this ‘internationally important’ discovery – largely to genuine disappointment by the journalists that it was so small and rather uninspiring. However, that didn’t stop the trickle of news reports which, egged on by a campaign by a local regional newspaper, soon became a flood – and the ‘Stonehenge of the Sea’ soon became ‘Seahenge’. *

And questions were being asked too. Well, one question in particular. If this site was so important, if it really was of international significance, then why wasn’t it being excavated? Why wasn’t it being saved for the nation? Who had made the decision to let it simply slide into the waves and be lost forever? Distinct signs of embarrassed mumbling, red faces and shuffling of feet amongst certain local and English Heritage archaeologists took place. Finally, pressured by the media, the decision was reversed – and it was decided that Seahenge would be fully excavated and preserved forever for a grateful population! A mistake had been made – but now it was to be rapidly rectified. What could possibly go wrong with that???

The trouble of course is that tides of opinion, like the real waters of the coast, ebb and flow. When the decision was announced that the site was to be excavated, and the timbers removed from Holme beach, the media storm of the previous month paled into insignificance when compared to the storm of outrage and protest that suddenly crashed upon the archaeological world. The local people of North Norfolk, and a large section of the New Age movement (as well as the odd archaeologist), simply didn’t want this to happen – and were prepared to stop it by any means possible. What was worse was that the local media, once so supportive of the excavation idea, read the way public opinion was leaning and began to quietly drift away from the archaeological side. After all, the New Age druids, chanting on the beach and blowing trumpets across the central oak, was a far better story than a simple archaeological excavation.




The senior archaeologists, isolated and pressured, then went on to make a catalogue of media and public relations errors that are actually too numerous to repeat. Court cases, exclusion orders and media own goals cast them in a pretty poor light. The locals were even describing senior archaeologists (not from Norfolk I might add) as bully-boys. Not too many miles from the truth. Perhaps the best example that I came across was when a certain senior EH archaeologist called a meeting of all sides in the village hall, to supposedly discuss the future plans for the site – and whilst all the protestors were gathered there used the opportunity to move all the heavy equipment down to the beach! What was worse was what was being experienced by the actual diggers on the site. None of the mistakes had been theirs and yet they were subject to intense pressure and, it must be said, intimidation and hostility each and every day. They were, after all, just trying to do their (badly paid) jobs. Particularly difficult as archaeologists tend to view themselves as the good guys (and girls - well mostly girls these days) used to fighting to protect our heritage. To find themselves cast into the role of villain really didn't sit too well with most of them. They were used to having the public on their side - not in their face. All in all it was a superb case study of how not to handle an archaeological excavation in the face of public hostility. Oh, and don’t even TALK about the trauma of Time Team getting involved!

So was it right to excavate the original Seahenge monument? Well, looking back after nearly 20 years there were, and still are, arguments for and against. To begin with the archaeological community was actually happy to leave the site to be eroded - and only changed its standpoint after strong media pressure. However, the timbers of Seahenge, or Holme1 as it is known in archaeological circles, have allowed us to discover a great deal more about how it was constructed and the numbers of people involved; knowledge that would have been lost if the site had not been excavated. But there are always two sides to every story. There are people who believe that the circle represented a sacred boudary; a boundary better life and death, land and sea - and that perhaps we should have let seahenge slip over that boundary one last time...

So that is how I am spending my Day of Archaeology. Revisiting Holme beach and revisiting some old memories and old beliefs. The landscape on this part of the coast is ever changing. The storm surge that took place just before Christmas has altered things once again. Large areas that were once sand and shingle now see the black mass of exposed peat showing through; the peat that has aided in the preservation of these four thousand year old timbers. The site has change a great deal since 1998, but then again, so has archaeology.

 

*It isn’t a henge. Never has been, never will be. It also wasn’t a fish trap, beacon for ships crossing the wash, lunar observatory – or any of the other weird and wacky ideas that anybody comes up with after a few pints and a few idle moments. It was, most probably, an excarnation site. A place where the dead were laid out so that the flesh could deteriorate from their bodies, with the help of our charming local seagulls, before the bones were collected together later. The word ‘ritual’ is probably involved. Makes you think twice before feeding chips to the gulls on Wells quay doesn’t it…**

**Oh, and it wasn’t built by the sea either. Local erosion is such that it was probably nearly a mile inland when first built, in the salt marshes that sat behind the coast.

So, bit of a silly name on both counts really…

Friday, 27 June 2014

Defecation in a rural church... and why it's a bad idea.


 If tomorrow’s headline in newspapers, newsfeeds and websites read ‘MEDIEVAL ARTWORKS DESTROYED IN BRITISH MUSEUM’ I’d expect there to be a bit of an outcry. I’d expect there to be murmurings of disquiet in middle England, and questions raised in the House of Lords. Paxman would undoubtedly be immediately brought out of retirement to jab pointed questions at those responsible and BBC would immediately commission a special documentary. However, replace the words ‘British Museum’ with ‘East Anglian Churches’ and it would pass largely unnoticed – and it isn’t tomorrow’s headline – but today’s.




So what’s the problem? Are we seeing our churches invaded by hordes of big booted vandals intent on destruction? Have the iconoclasts of the 17th century returned to deface, smash and destroy all that they overlooked the last time? No. The answer is that our churches are increasingly becoming home to colonies of small, rather cute, flying mammals. Bats.

I may sound as though I am overstating the case here. What harm can a few bats and their droppings do to so many churches. We have 650 in Norfolk alone. Surely a few bats can’t be too much of a problem. Well you only have to go and see for yourself. Bat urine is highly corrosive and it isn’t simply a case of being able to wipe away the damage. It actually eats into the surface upon which it lands. Medieval wall paintings, memorial brasses, ledger stones, rood screens and alabaster monuments are all being affected. It isn’t simply damage we are seeing, which can be fixed by costly and clever conservation – but their slow, relentless and irreversible destruction. I have seen the surface of alabaster memorials simply crumbling away and ledger stones etched and pock marked by bat droppings. I have seen the glorious medieval paintings that grace our East Anglian rood screens dripping in bat droppings that eat into the pigment. And once these things are gone – they are gone forever.



Don’t misunderstand me. I actually rather like bats. Fascinating little creatures that we still have so much to learn about. Indeed, it was only very recently that we discovered that the Pipistrelle bat was not one species, as we’d previously assumed, but actually two. Now here is the real problem though. Both the bats and the medieval artworks are protected by legislation. To harm a bat or disturb its roost can result in prosecution and a very hefty fine, in the same way that damaging a designated heritage asset can.

Which rather leaves those who care for our medieval churches in something of a catch 22 situation. They cannot in any way disturb the bats but, by allowing them to continue their incontinent infestation, they are failing in their own duty of care to the medieval building and the artworks they contain. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

But surely this is nothing new I hear you ask (I have very good hearing) - and you would be right. We have always had bats in certain churches - bats in the belfry. However, the problem is growing at an extremely alarming rate. The number of churches being used as bat roosts is growing and the number of bats at established roosts also appears, from the quantity of crap they are leaving across our medieval monuments, to be on the increase too. Why should this be so? Well, to some extent it is a result of the success of bat legislation. The legal protection now afforded to bats has seen their numbers rise significantly – which is unquestionably a good thing. However, this rise in the number of bats has corresponded with a massive loss in traditional bat roosting sites. The traditional farm buildings, barns and outbuildings that once littered the East Anglian countryside, and played host to numerous bat roosts, are all but gone; either converted to housing, or demolished to make way for buildings more suited to modern farming and farm vehicles. The decline in use of harmful pesticides, coupled with wider field margins and uncut roadside verges, has led to an increase in insects – essentially making the growth of bat populations sustainable. As a result the bats are moving wholesale into our medieval churches – leaving them rather sticky and crunchy underfoot.


And the solution? Well there isn’t a cheap or simple one. Whilst certain churches have taken to covering almost every surface in plastic sheeting, cleared away only for services, this can cause as many problems as it solves. The sheeting causes condensation beneath, causing further damage to medieval artworks already damaged by bat droppings. No, like the last late night drunk at the bar, the bats need to be firmly and politely asked to vacate the premises. If this means building expensive and purpose built bat roosts in our churchyards, already a haven for wildlife, then so be it. In the long run it will surely be cheaper that trying to repair the damage being done to our medieval heritage.

However, if we sit back and do nothing, letting this low-key and gentle crisis continue unabated, then I urge you all, every one, to go and visit the wonders of medieval art that still sit in our glorious East Anglian churches. They won’t be there too much longer…

Thursday, 5 June 2014

The invasion that never happened...

It is the evening of the 5th of June. The summer sun has barely dipped below the rim of the world and the glow still sits on the western horizon across East Anglia. Real darkness never comes at this time of year as the days merge quietly into one another with only the very briefest of respite.  In a few short hours it will be light again. A new day. A new dawn. Tonight is an evening of quiet peace across the countryside. Nothing much stirs. The air is clear, the wind has dropped and the breeze does little more than nudge the trees into a creeping ripple of movement, almost lost in the shadows. Sounds carry across the fields as a fox barks in the edge of woodland, and I can hear the seemingly weary cries of the oyster catchers skimming down by the river - refugees from the tourist covered coastline a few miles to the north. The distant revving of engines marks no great undertaking, beyond the boy-racer attempting to impress the unimpressed young woman - who is rather thinking that she should, against all her expectations, have actually listened to her parents.

Seventy years ago it was a different story. On the evening of the 5th of June the East Anglian countryside was awash with activity and the sky full of planes. One of the greatest military operations in the history of mankind was building up to a bloody climax that would break with the dawn. A dawn that would see either victory or defeat but, either way, would see the ending of countless young men’s lives. D-day, the allied invasion of mainland Europe, was underway. Bombers, gliders and fighter aircraft were strung out across East Anglian airfields awaiting permission to begin the largest air operation in history, launched in support of the largest seaborne invasion ever undertaken.  The sounds of engines drowned out the foxes calls. To most people the build up to invasion meant different things. An awareness of increased activity, and a hushed expectation that time was now too short for so many things.



Tomorrow morning my 13 year old son, proudly wearing his air cadets beret and his great-grandfather’s medals, will stand alongside his uncle, my little brother, and watch the sun come up over the Normandy beaches. They are there on a pilgrimage of sorts. A pilgrimage to honour those young men who never had the chance to become fathers, let alone great-grandfathers. They are there to pay their respects, to lay a wreath or two and, I hope, to understand just a little more about the sacrifices and determination that are required if freedom from tyranny is to mean more than a few empty words and political rhetoric. To pay their respects to the past.
Last Friday evening I too came face to face with that determination. I met it, ran my fingers across its surface and smelt the stink of old, cold steel, ancient oil and centuries old timber. I was in the Suffolk village of Mendlesham to give a talk in the local church on the subject of medieval graffiti (no need to feign surprise). Mendlesham is an odd church, even by Suffolk’s eccentric standards. It is a rare gem that has had the benefit of the great love of generations lavished upon it. More recently is has been the decades old home for a very singular vicar. A man who loves the church - past, present and future. However, the real treasure of the church, a treasure that is a unique survival in England, was one that was safely lodged here for countless generations before the vicar assumed his post many decades ago.

In a small timber lined room above the porch, behind a thick iron-bound door, lies a secret. A secret the parish has kept largely to itself for countless generations. Here, in a small and ill lit chamber overlooking the churchyard, survives the only Tudor parish armoury anywhere in the country. From the wooden pegs in the walls, placed there over five centuries ago, hang suits of armour, helmets, powder flasks, the remains of muskets - and one of only four Elizabethan longbows to be found anywhere in this once longbow crowded island.



Parish armouries were once commonplace. Each parish was required to provide its own militia force, brought out for training on a regular basis, and to provide them with the basic arms and armour laid down in statute by monarch after monarch. They represented a last line of defence. A last line in the sand. In the event of foreign invasion, which was an all too present threat for Tudor England, this was the reality of home defence. Local lads in ill fitting armour, trained to a barely minimum standard, to stand up to the threatening hordes of Spanish veterans. Each parish keeping the tools of such defence locked safe and in good repair in their own parish armoury. Records of them are extensive. Accounts of the purchase of helmets and handguns, gunpowder and body armour, feature heavily in the documentary histories of the English parish.  Monies collected to pay for goods and monies expended to keep them in repair. They are a staple of anyone who spends their time, as I often do, searching through the medieval and Tudor parish records of England.  And yet, for all the paperwork they have left behind them, the armouries now are empty. The armour long since rusted away or sold off as scrap. The handguns, powder flasks and pike-shafts all succumbed to woodworm and the passing of the centuries. All except here – in this quiet corner of Suffolk.


Around the walls of the Mendlesham armoury sit unique pieces of Tudor armour, enough to make most military historians dribble with envy. They are not great works of art, they are not the best that could be made – they are simply serviceable and good quality. The best the parish could afford to protect their own loved ones should that terrible day ever arrive when the armour would be donned in earnest. And come it did.
In the Summer of 1588 another great invasion fleet rode the waves of the English channel. However, unlike the mass of ships that spread out across the water in June 1944, this fleet was not heading towards the blood, sand and slaughter of Normandy – instead it was heading towards England. The Armada of Philip of Spain was the largest seaborne invasion fleet that had, until that time, been seen in Western Europe. An undertaking on a massive scale to bring rebellious little England into line with the religion of the Catholic Church. A crusade to bring redemption and salvation to the heathen English. Under threat of invasion the parishes of the south and east of England were mobilised. The men of Mendlesham, along with all the neighbouring parishes, drew together and donned their armour, gathered their muskets, cleaned their swords – and marched off to face a threat that would, in all likelihood, result in their own deaths.

 
As all the history books tell us, things turned out rather differently. The Spanish invasion fleet never reached these shores, beaten by the weather, bad planning and the bloody-minded English sailors who harried them up the channel. God blew and they were scattered. And so, along with neighbours, friends and family, the men of Mendlesham eventually marched back to their homes and hearths – to hang their armour back on the pegs in the little timber lined room above the church porch. And there it hangs still. Generations have passed - and yet there it remains. A fragment of a memory of less stable times. A relic of an invasion that never came and a war that was never fought.
It will, I dearly hope, remain there for centuries yet to come. A relic of a bygone age that faced the same hopes and fears that we too face today.  And as the sun comes up tomorrow morning over the beaches of Normandy I hope that, like the men of Mendlesham, my 13 year old son will never have to face the same challenges and threats that our little island has faced before. I hope that, like the armour that hangs above the porch, he too will never be called up to test his steel against war, invasion and the chaos of bloodshed. And unlike many thousands of those who launched themselves from boats and landing craft onto the so foreign, yet so familiar, beaches of France – that he will come safe home.
This story shall the good man teach his son…

 

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Alway walk towards the light: the evolution of a cathedral

We were back at Norwich cathedral today to continue our survey work after a break of some months. A windy cold day, with the rain showers driving mist and spray across the cloister garth to splatter messily against the weathered stones. Not a great beginning. However, in the months we’ve been away a transformation has taken place at the cathedral. On the north side of the building three very new, and very modern, stained glass windows have been installed. They are not quite what you would expect in a medieval cathedral I suppose. All bright oranges, blues, purples and geometric shapes. They flood the north side with colour, spreading strange glowing hues across the stonework, changing as the light changes throughout the day. They add a level of mystery and wonder to an area of the cathedral which was largely a featureless thoroughfare. They bring out the warmth of the stone and highlight details and features that, in the past, I and millions of others would have just walked past without a second glance. They bring the dead stones to life.
As you can probably tell, I rather like the new windows. Didn’t really expect to that much, spending most of my time staring at the wonders of the medieval church, but I do. I like them a very great deal indeed (those who know me will tell you that, for me, such praise is gushing! I haven’t been this enthusiastic since they announced the return of Dr Who – and I was prepared to hate that too). During the day I made a point of returning to walk past the area of the new windows on several occasions. Watching how the light subtly changed as the sun moved around and how it, in turn, changed how I viewed the stonework. It was like watching a small miraculous evolution move across the cathedral walls.





However, I soon came to realise that my love for the new windows wasn’t shared by all the visitors to the cathedral, and that my passionate liking for the way the light changed was just as passionately disliked by some. Overheard comments, snatches of conversation, disparaging remarks all made it clear that to certain visitors the new glass was as welcome as an unemployed Romanian migrant at a UKIP conference.
It was the change that seemed to cause most problems. One older male visitor was explaining to his companions (a couple of very long suffering women of a certain age and a very bored looking teen girl who was continually glancing down at the mobile in her hand – willing the signal to return) that it was almost criminal to have placed such modern designs into the medieval cathedral. It was making a mockery of the original building. He finished by asking his companions what the original builders of the Norman cathedral would have thought of the new glass?  Another visitor, a woman I recognised as a reasonably well known local ‘personality’, was overheard telling her female companion that the windows were lovely – but should be in an art gallery, or the forum, rather than in the cathedral. They were, in her words, “a bit much”. If there is a more a damning judgement to be handed out by the middle classes I’ve yet to hear it.
It was rather an odd experience really. A few years ago I’m pretty sure I would have been one of the ‘bit much’ brigade. Seeing the installation of the new glass within the medieval setting of Norwich cathedral as a ‘desecration’. The work of those who care little for our medieval past and wish only to memorialise themselves and their works in the present. But I don’t – and I began to wonder why?
I came to the conclusion that it was probably because I have come to know Norwich cathedral so very well over the last few years. In the last two years, whilst we have been surveying the walls for early graffiti inscriptions, I have come to know a very great deal about that particular ‘medieval’ pile of rocks – as have all the volunteers. We have peered, pried and poked around in areas that most people walk past without a second glance. We have followed fabric changes along lines of 500 year old mortar, compared masons finishing techniques from centuries past and numbered the very stones themselves. We have unravelled the story of Norwich cathedral wall by wall and stone by stone. And we have all come to realise that the story of Norwich cathedral is not the story I once believed it to be.



The problem I suppose is one of attitude and perception. To the average visitor, and even the regular churchgoer, the cathedral is seen as a vast and unchanging monument to the medieval religious world. Shades of Ken Follet’s grubby masons still haunt the darker corners, and each carved corbel and decorated niche reflect a medieval thought, idea and ambition. It is a grade 1 museum piece that is as it was – and as it ever should be. An aspic preserved, deep pickled, gherkin of the medieval mindset. The problem is that this perception, this idea, simply isn’t true. It isn’t true at Norwich cathedral - and it isn’t true of any other cathedral anywhere either.
What my close involvement with the fabric of the cathedral has taught me is that the building is a constantly evolving vessel of worship, practical needs and ambition. Whilst we talk of it as being one of the greatest surviving Norman cathedrals in England there are actually whole sections that you are rather challenged to identify even a single original Norman stone. It has been burnt down, struck by lightning, remodelled, rebuilt and re-shaped in just about every century since it was first built. Each new generation of custodians oversees an evolutionary process to match the building to the needs of their own times. The whole of the east end has been remodelled, the façade has been replaced, the aisles altered and in the cloister it is actually quite difficult to even find areas of complete medieval stonework.
In the 15th century the spire collapsed, starting fires and bringing down the whole timber roof crashing into the nave and crossing beneath. The result was the new stone vaulted roof of Bishop Lyhart, with its world renowned roof bosses. Over 250 medieval roof bosses depicting scenes from the old and new testament that are unequalled anywhere in England. They are now one of the unique treasures of the cathedral, with visitors travelling from all over the world to crane their necks upwards and admire their painted beauty. Which is rather my point I suppose. Were there people in the 15th century who looked upwards at the new pale stonework in dismay? Where there those who felt that the warmth of the timber roof had been lost beneath the cold hard stone of the ambitious Bishop? Probably. There always are. But that new roof was simply one of many, many changes the cathedral has seen as it has evolved down the centuries. It is not, and never has been, a static building. It has never been finished and will never be complete. It will continue to evolve long after the teen girl gazing at her mobile has become a grandmother – and watched her own grandchildren wander through the soaring stonework of the cathedral.
And that is rather the point to remember here. The process is one of evolution – not revolution. The cathedral has changed once again. It will change again in the future. Long years after my dust has blown across the stones of a church somewhere in East Anglia, a new generation will be making changes to Norwich cathedral. Some people will love those changes; others will hate them. They’ll happen nonetheless and add a new chapter to the history of one of England’s finest buildings.
 


Saturday, 19 April 2014

"If someone uses the term 'medieval Banksy' ever again..." - The value of medieval graffiti


This week I went back to Lidgate. A gloriously sunny morning negotiating the winding byways of the Newmarket heath, dodging the early Easter get-away traffic, eventually found me at the church with a few minutes to spare. It makes a change. My normal motto, according to those who deal with me on a regular basis, should be “24 hours late – but moving fast”. However, this time I was on time – give or take – which was useful as I’d arranged to meet others at the church to show them some examples of the amazing medieval graffiti.
My guests were a diverse collection of lecturers and post-grad students from the University of East Anglia – my own former university. Although I used to be fairly firmly attached to the university, having studied there, lectured there and acted as an extra-mural studies tutor, these days I rarely get to cross the hallowed concrete. Indeed, rumour has it that my presence on campus causes certain academics to run screaming from the area, and the assistant dean to spontaneously combust. It’s a knack I have. Or is it the assistant Dean who runs screaming and the academics that spontaneously combust? I forget…
For most of the UEA this was their first visit to Lidgate church. For almost all of them this was certainly their first field trip to hunt for medieval graffiti. They were all there to see a certain inscription; an inscription that has rather made a few headlines in recent weeks. What they wanted to see was the tiny a discrete line of text, etched lightly into one of the stone piers, that may, or may not, have been created by the late medieval poet John Lydgate. A simple enough thing to see. Over with in five minutes. Well, it would have been if I’d taken them straight to the inscription itself. However, that’s not my way. That would be wayyyy too easy. Now this wasn’t just me being a stroppy git (although that has been known to happen upon occasion I admit). What I wanted was for my visitors to understand that this was just one single inscription amongst many, and that it was impossible to understand any single inscription without seeing them as part of the whole. Putting it into a wider context so to speak.


So I gave them the tour. Starting in the tower we looked at the bell ringer’s graffiti, the memorial to J. W. Wiseman who “departed this life” in 1810, and the inscription made by the “Jacob ringer” in the early 18th century. Then we looked at demons in the nave, compass drawn designs, windmills and medieval text across the walls. They saw faces, stars, music, names and dates. They crowded into pews to peer at the walls, squashed around piers and peered through gaps in the screens. Only then, about forty minutes later, did I show them the inscription that they had come to see… (I know – I am a bugger)
However, by the time they actually came to look at the possible Lydgate inscription something had happened to them. I saw it gradually spreading across their faces as we moved around the church, from inscription to inscription; something I am privileged to see on a fairly regular basis. A new understanding had been born. They suddenly ‘got’ medieval graffiti. They understood that is was about far more than scratched and idle doodles on the wall. That is went beyond our modern ideas of graffiti as destructive vandalism. Suddenly they saw the bigger picture. They saw that these markings had a meaning and function that, as medievalists, could help shed new light upon the world they studied.
Now I’m not claiming any great miracles here. I’m not suggesting that it changed the way in which they view the medieval church (although it did for me). All I am saying is that, for most of them I believe, they will never quite look at a medieval church in the same way. Their attitudes and perceptions had changed.
This change in attitudes and perception isn’t just confined to studying medieval graffiti. It is happening all around us all the time. You need only look at the current arguments surrounding the latest piece of Banksy art work to have been removed ‘for the sake of safety’ from the walls of Bristol. Now just think about that. A few years ago Banksy was widely seen as ‘just’ a graffiti artist – albeit a damned good one with a cutting edge wit and acute insights into the modern condition. His work popped up all over the place. Some loved it. Some hated it. Councils destroyed early examples and murals were painted over. However, here we are a few years later and his works sell for tens of thousands of pounds and critics talk of his work in terms of fine art. Works that would have once been painted out are now carefully removed and flogged off for a huge amount of cash by unscrupulous property owners. Others try to protect and preserve those Banksy pieces that are still on the walls, covering them in Perspex sheeting to ‘protect them’ from more graffiti ‘vandalism’. Protecting something that was once considered graffiti vandalism itself from further graffiti vandalism.  Do they see the irony do you think?

My point I suppose is this. In the same way that attitudes towards Banksy’s work have changed in the last few years, so too have attitudes towards medieval graffiti. It is gradual – but it is happening. We are moving away from the time when medieval graffiti studies were considered so far out on the fringes of academia that it was often only published alongside articles on folklore. We are moving towards a time when it sits, perhaps not in the mainstream, but at least alongside the main flow of research. Although this is incredibly good news for those of us that study it, it doesn’t come without dangers as well. We must remember that these markings that we study are not just another sterile collection of artefacts. That they are not another lifeless museum exhibit. As the group from UEA discovered at Lidgate, these inscriptions had both meaning and function to those who created them. They were spiritually important to them. In short, we must remember to place a real value on what we find on the walls; a value that can be measured in meaning rather than in pound coins.