So, shall we talk Lydgate then? Probably about time we did really – before the myth completely overtakes reality. So, where to begin…?
Firstly, I suppose, it must be pointed out that we – that is the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey or Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, depending upon how conflicted I am feeling of an evening – are not the first to survey Lidgate church. We are not the ‘discoverers’ of much of this graffiti. It has indeed been known about for over four decades. The church was first looked at by Violet Pritchard in the 1960s, and published in her book English Medieval Graffiti. If you haven’t read it – do. Available now from all good bookshops and re-issued by Cambridge University Press. Violet was the one who first identified the rebus inscriptions and, with help from a couple of Cambridge dons, deciphered them. Pretty good going back in the dark ages before God had invented google. Actually, having looked at the rebus inscriptions in detail now, I am absolutely amazed at what Violet achieved. If I have ever, in the past, made any disparaging remarks about her book and her work (to my shame I have) then they are withdrawn. It was, without doubt, an achievement. I’m impressed.
However, Violet’s recording techniques were pretty basic. All she really had to work with was the technique of taking rubbings, much as you used to do with monumental brasses, of the walls themselves. Whilst this was great for the deeply incised inscriptions on a smooth surface, much of the rest was simply too discrete to be recorded. The rubbings would pick up the surface of the stone – but not the lightly etched markings. All her rubbings are now lodged with the Cambridge record office if you feel like going and taking a look for yourself. Please do. Indeed, tell them I sent you. They’ll be very welcoming and undoubtedly glad of the business – but (foreign scholars take note) it is still bad manners to try and tip the archivist. A simple card at Christmas and the occasional bottle of port usually suffices.
Where was I? Ah, rubbings… well, to be honest, it is probably the reason that Violet missed the inscription we recently found. It is very lightly inscribed compared to some of the others and has, for the past few decades, been partly obscured by a picture frame. Nice print of the church itself, if memory serves. It is in fact too lightly inscribed to come up as anything other than a jumble of markings on even the most precise of rubbings – and Violet was pretty precise (see earlier reference to Cambs Record Office).
So… what does it say? Well actually it is pretty simple – and not terribly remarkable compared to the other inscriptions in the church. “Johannes Lydgate fecit hoc licencia in die sancti Symonis et iude” (John Lydgate did/made this by licence on the day of Saint Simon and Jude [28 October]). Simple really. What are perhaps more fascinating are the rebus inscriptions. The puns played out across the walls using a mixture of letters, musical notation and images. Each rebus (there are at least three) uses a slightly different musical notation – and all are in the same hand (as much as the term ‘hand’ can be used for writing on stone) and appear to date to the first half of the fifteenth century. They also appear closely associated with the ‘Lydgate’ inscription and the text appears so similar as to suggest they are by the same person – although with all the usual archaeological/historical caveats, etc, etc.
So the question remains? Is this the work of John Lydgate? Did he write this? Well, all I can really say is this. It is the work of ‘a’ John Lydgate – he tells us that much himself. But is it Lydgate the poet, Lydgate the writer, Lydgate the friends of Queens? That I am afraid I can give you no 100% answer to. However, what I can say is this…
The right name is in the right place, at the right time and in the right hand – written by someone from the right social and educational background who was more than used to the writing arts. If the rebus inscriptions are also their work, which looks reasonably likely, then they had an in depth knowledge of music, language and classical cryptography. All in all I’d say I was 80% happy to suggest that these are likely to have been the work of John Lydgate. However, I’m an archaeologist with a grounding in medieval studies. To go above 80% I’d want an entire biography (illustrated for preference), written on the wall and independently witnessed by three contemporary scholars – and their mothers. Probably their grandparents too. Now you can’t say fairer than that surely….
What is clear, from whatever perspective, is that the inscriptions in Lidgate church are pretty damned special. I’ve seen nothing quite like them anywhere else – and I’ve looked at a few hundred churches in ways most others haven’t. Not boasting or bragging – just saying. In all that time, through all those sites, Lidgate threw up more surprises than I could have imagined possible. We still have a lot of work to do at the site and I’m sure that there are many other surprises still in store for us…