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 ( ) 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)."