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 clich├ęs 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...



1 comment:

  1. Excellent as usual Matt. Entertaining as well as informative. I share your pain as well as the benefits of white wine.