Tuesday 27 October 2015

Agincourt: a 600 year old myth?

In the tiny and well kept church of St Mary at Barnham in Sussex is an intriguing little piece of ancient graffiti. Protected today behind perspex, and difficult to read, local tradition states that the Latin text asks for the reader to 'pray for the soul of my father who died at Agincourt'. Is this then a direct link between an individual and a medieval battle that has come to be regarded as iconic? Does this tiny inscription actually refer to a real person? A warrior that fought through the mud, blood and terror of that damp October day alongside an English king? Or is it perhaps just one more myth to be added to the already long list of such myths that surround this much written of little war? If it is, then it's in good company - for even today, six long centuries after armour clad warriors tore each other to pieces in a muddy field, the whole event is almost more myth than reality - and one of the greatest of those myths still survives, often repeated and never questioned, right through to the present day.

The significance of the battle of Agincourt goes far beyond medieval military history, and far beyond what was actually only a moderately successful armed incursion into the realm of France by a belligerent young English monarch. It was undoubtedly a logistically great, and unexpected, victory for the outnumbered English, and saw the pitiless deaths of a large number of the French nobility. But really? Does that make it worthy of all the fuss and jingoistic nonsense that has been poured forth from the national media in the last few week? I think not. No, the real reason that Agincourt has become so significant to the people of this damp and verdant island is simply because it is how the English like to see themselves. Agincourt has become more significant in the last two and a half centuries than it ever was during the Middle Ages, for the very simple reason that it embodies an 'idea', perhaps even an 'ideal', of Englishness. The idea of the underdog, taking on a massive and overbearing enemy and, against all odds, coming out victorious. It is the story of 'the few' against the many - and no coincidence that the Laurence Olivier version of Shakespeare's Henry V was actually made during the height of the Second World War - a time when mention of 'the few' would awaken sharp echoes of very recent events that took place in the skies above southern England. As Jeremy Paxman of all people has written, the phrase 'We few, we happy few, we band of brothers', has become "the rallying cry of the English idea of heroism".

Agincourt has become the democratic battle in the eyes of the English. When proud and humbly born yeomen brought down the might of the French aristocracy with their peasant weapons. It was a battle won by massed flights of feather fletched arrows piercing the elegant plate-armour of the nobility. It is the battle where the common men of England, against all the odds, stood their ground and overturned the accepted order of the day. Where noble birth would not save you, whatever your rank, from the mud and the blood.
And that is largely the problem with Agincourt both as a battle and a symbol of English 'pluck' - yes I said 'pluck' - in that the story has now become far more powerful than the reality. The images and ideas have become more potent than the truth. The myths have become the story that the good man teaches his son, and any attempt to dispel such myths is actually met with hostility.  A knee-jerk reaction that sees such questioning of accepted 'fact' as simply un-English, un-patriotic and verging on the sort of thing only 'johnny-foreigner' would do! The reaction, even of some historians, to someone questioning the essential truths of the Agincourt myth would put even the outrage of a member of the English Defence League being given a gift voucher for a Burka wholesalers to shame. You simply don't do it.

The problem of course is that much of the story that has been pedalled out these last few weeks is simply that - a story. A myth that has grown up around the cinema and writers of nineteenth century epic novels for ambitious, Empire bound, schoolboys. You see, the traditional story of the 'great victory' of Agincourt is largely based on misinformation and misconception. It may well be a story that chimes well with our view of ourselves, but we must recognise that even great stories sometimes need examining again in the light of new, or even old, information. Okay, I'm not going to suggest here that the English didn't win the battle or something similar. I'm unlikely to accuse Henry V of 'war crimes' either (as a recent French interpretation did). All I'm suggesting is that our recent image of the battle, of the plucky English archers, picking off the French knights with their longbows, is largely a fiction. Simply didn't happen. Actually couldn't happen. It's a myth.

You see, there is rather a fundamental problem with the traditional story of the battle of Agincourt - and when I say 'traditional' I mean of course that portrayed by Hollywood, and most likely the image you have in your head - in that the English longbow, the English archer and the English cloth-yard arrow, could NOT penetrate the high quality plate armour worn by the majority of French men at arms that day. It simply couldn't do it. Not a hope. The image of the massed volleys of arrows turning the sky black and bringing down wave after wave of French knights simply couldn't have happened the way most people think it did. The "thud of bodkin arrowheads striking through plate-metal armour and tearing into flesh" didn't happen either. Sorry! And it is, I think you will agree, a rather fundamental problem with regards to our interpretation and image of the battle.

Now at this point I should rather make a confession. Never something I'm totally happy to do obviously. You see, the thing is, long before graffiti got it's claws into me, I wrote my MA thesis on the military decline of the longbow. I also, for my sins, wrote almost a whole page of the Mary Rose catalogue, and spent a lot of time looking at late medieval and Tudor archery. Perhaps more importantly, I am an archer myself. I have been since I was eight years old, and have used a longbow for over a quarter of a century, and in my twenties regularly shot a war-bow several times a week. I know longbows, I know what they can do, and as such this rather major flaw in the whole Agincourt debate didn't pass me by.

Now I am by no means the first person to have noted this rather fundamental flaw in the Agincourt story. Not by a long way. There has been a rather vocal argument between a number of historians over the last few decades arguing exactly this point. On the one side some have stated that the 'science' rather supports the view that arrows from a medieval longbow cannot penetrate good quality plate armour. One the other side historians have argued that frankly, the science is doing it all wrong, and that the historical accounts must be correct. It's an argument that has, at times, seemed bloodier than the battle itself. So what of the science I hear you ask? Well, it's simply really. Ever since this 'problem' was first noted, way back in the nineteenth century, people have been conducting tests to see exactly what an arrow from a longbow could penetrate. Most of the early tests, which were admittedly pretty unscientific, came to the conclusion that the arrows simply couldn't do the job. However, with every set of tests that came back negative there were always those whose answer was that the tests themselves were faulty - and that the wrong type of bow had been used, or the wrong type of arrow - or even the wrong type of armour. New tests were needed.

Finally, only in very recent years, were a new set of tests were undertaken. The arrows and bows were modelled exactly on those found aboard the Tudor warship 'Mary Rose', the armour was of exactly the same metallurgy as examples from the period, and the tests were undertaken in scientific conditions at a defence research laboratory. Much to the delight of those historians who favoured the traditional view of the battle - the arrows were found to pierce plate armour! However, closer examination of the results showed that the arrows certainly could pierce plate armour - but only if shot from almost point blank range, striking the armour at a particular angle - and then only piercing it to a depth of about an inch. Bearing in mind that armour was worn over a heavily padded 'arming doublet', it's safe to say a more damaging wound could probably be inflicted with my desk stapler. So how then had this come to pass? How could historians have got it all so very wrong for such a long time? How could all the written accounts just be so incorrect? Well, the truth is that neither the contemporary accounts, or the historians, had all managed to get it wrong.

Believe it or not the battle of Agincourt is one of the best described late medieval battles to have taken place in western Europe. The stunning and unexpected outcome of the battle, and the fact that so many members of the nobility perished that day, made it a popular subject for contemporary historians and chroniclers. As a result we have quite literally dozens of contemporary and near contemporary accounts of the conflict - all of which have been brought together most usefully by Dr Anne Curry in her wonderful volume 'The Battle of Agincourt: Sources and interpretations'. They range from eye-witness accounts of the slaughter itself, to historical monographs written a decade later and detailing the battle as God's vengeance upon the unworthy French. However, whilst the sources may be varied, they all tend to agree on one thing. The English archers that day did great slaughter - but that the slaughter was not done with arrows. The accounts talk of the English archers 'wounding' French knights with arrows, and most certainly killing, maiming and wounding the horses of the French cavalry attack, but not of the massed volleys of arrows plunging French knights into the mud - as so beloved of film-makers everywhere. The slaughter from the English archers came in a different manner. It came with the swords, the axes, the knives and the clubs - searching out into the mud, amongst the screaming and dying horses, to put an end to men clambering to their feet amongst the blood and horse shit. It was the savagery of daggers thrust into armoured joints, of axes chopping down onto exposed flesh, and leaden clubs beating in the steel helmets until all movement ceased. It was, put simply, butcher's work. Mud splattered steel and once bright embroidery ripped from the mangled bodies that choked in the filth and their own life blood. A great English victory, hard won from an overwhelming force, that perhaps saw the very best of medieval England; but most certainly its worst.

And so endeth the myth. Ah, but myths don't die that easily. You see, despite a rearguard action by a few well meaning but misguided historians, we've rather known all this for quite a while. Anyone reading any of Anne Curry's books on the subject will note that she steers very well clear of discussing the actual power of a longbow. About what it can actually do. The trouble is that nobody really wants to be the person that turns around and says that, all that stuff you thought you knew, is utter rubbish. It won't go down too well. Certainly won't get you invited to too many dinner parties, that much is certain. Not twice anyway.

So where then does this leave the myth of the battle of Agincourt? What reality or truth must we consider when viewing that long distant conflict? Does it change anything? Which story should the good man teach his son? 

Well, I for one think there is a clear answer, and it is that we should never accept a 'given' history. That we should always question that which is placed before us as accepted 'truth'; particularly where patriotism and jingoistic rhetoric play a part. History is indeed written by the victors - military history doubly so. This perhaps is more pertinent to graffiti studies than you might think. With so little written upon the subject, what has been written tends to be accepted as the truth. It shouldn't be so. As with all history, new evidence leads to new interpretations, and we should always be open to looking at them with as open a mind as possible. And as for the Agincourt graffiti in Barnham church - well perhaps we'll leave some myths and stories to endure just a little while longer...

Tuesday 8 September 2015

Understanding medieval graffiti: Long lost souls peering over your shoulder...

So I'm here. Sitting in a church again. Staring at the dark monochrome of the walls, all whitewash and dark stained stonework. Above me I can hear the rain, a gentle persistent hiss against the lead of the roof. Even the bright glass of the windows is dull and opaque, longing for the kiss of sunlight. The wall is in front of me. It's always in front of me - stones bonded by the sweat of men and time. Just me and the wall. And so, as one does with an old friend and an even older adversary - I simply stare - looking for a way in. Washing light across the surface, watching it illuminate the darkness of centuries, bring to dancing life the figure of the demon to my left. Another sweep of the light across the cold stone. An intricate design of latticed circles leaps from the wall, design to trap the evil from a time now lost to memory. Time out of mind. Then there are the letters, degraded, worn and near indecipherable - a prayer for health by a soul whose bones have long ago wasted to dust? The light finds them all - and yet still I look for a way in. A way past the markings. A way past the scratching on the wall. A way that no light, no matter how strong, can light a path to; a way into the medieval mind.

The rain is harder outside now and faint drums echo above me. In a dark corner of the church an intermittent and all but silent splash on flagstones; a place where water, rot and time have finally found their way in. Above me fragments of paint peeling angels now weep real tears. Their bright colours temporarily restored for a few splendid, damp, hours - before they fade again even further into the past. And yet there is nobody here to see their glory but me. Me and the figures dancing in the light on the wall - and, I fear, I understand the demons on the stones far better sometimes than the angels on high. The demons on the walls are my friends. They are my way in. They are the key to understanding.

It isn't enough to simply record what we find on the walls. It is a start. No more than that. The key though has to be understanding what we are seeing. To try and find our way into the mindset and motivations of the long-dead who left these tantalising messages for the future. Without understanding we are no more than collectors of images; seekers of historical butterflies that we happily send to the gas jar and pin to a trophy board. Without attempting to understand what we find we are drawing out the life, the humanity, of every single simple marking. Hunting treasure for the sake of the treasure. Creators of catalogues. No more. What can we truly understand and learn from the name John Abthorpe carved into the tower arch of Troston church unless we know that he was the last of his line; a childless lordling whose name would die as his flesh corrupted.  What can we understand of the plaintive inscription in the chancel at Acle unless we understand that it was made during an outbreak of the plague; a time when the very fabric of the world became unraveled and desperation brought painted demons into the church?

And so we must, if we are to understand what we see, find a way in. Find a way to worm ourselves between the stones. To understand the mind that leaves fear and demons on the wall. I wonder myself, as I sit in the darkness listening to the rain, whether archaeology alone has the key. Can a profession that thinks in terms of a 'juvenile interment' rather than 'child burial' really understand what it means to discover the mortal remains of a once beloved son or daughter? Can those who strive to be seen as scientists, echoing the words of textbooks, really understand the humanity in what they view? I am, I know, being too harsh. Some of the very best archaeologists are those who have always let the humanity show through their work. Have always remained ultimately human. And yet, after the long years staring at the walls, the way in lies elsewhere. 

To understand what we find and record we must understand, or at least try to understand, the motivations of those who created these marks. These scratches in the stone. We must look at their church of incense and bright colours rather than the drab monochrome of today. We must hunt through the borders of their manuscripts, chasing the tails of grotesques and jousting snails. We must listen to their words and their music; try to understand the chant, the melody and the dance of medieval life. We must see the splendour and embrace the squalor - and feel the lost souls peering over our shoulders as bright light washes across the stones. To do any less simply leaves us sitting in the dark, listening to the rain...

Tuesday 1 September 2015

Terry Pratchett, Jane Austen and Jonathon Jones - and why George Wickham was a cad...

I wrote a book recently. It's selling quite well so far (although that might well end after this article is published) and has received a number of favourable reviews. Those who have read it seem to quite like it. A few have been embarrassingly gushy about it. My mother has sent copies to her friends. Both of them. The idea behind the book was a simple one. To take a subject that is generally considered fairly academic and specialist and to present it in a manner that would be accessible and enjoyable to a far wider audience. To make a study of medieval church history and lay piety not just an educational tome to be waded through, but actually make it mildly interesting and entertaining as well. To examine, in a fair amount of detail, the subject of 'medieval church graffiti' in a way that won't have everyone who picks up a copy wonder if it would be a 'good read', or whether it might be better used to wedge that awkward table leg that has always wobbled and often leads to unseemly spillages of coffee/chardonnay/single malt (delete as applicable). The book begins, as I insisted it should, with a quote from the late Sir Terry Pratchett.

Playing to the mainstream you might think. Putting aside the academic pretensions to appeal to the unwashed masses; the readers of popular entertainment? Hoping to turn up in a few more Google searches? Trying to make a greying archaeologist appear a bit more... what's the term? Hip and cool? Street?

Not a bit of it I'm afraid. You see, the thing is, I'm a bit of a fan of the work of Sir Terry. I never met him, now freely admit that a couple of his early works were a touch unpolished, but am a devoted follower of his now sadly ended writing career. I'd be the first to admit that not all of his works were great; not all of his books were sparkling gems in his literary crown, and that one or two were actually a bit poor. However, that is one or two books out of a collected works that fills an entire shelf in a bookcase at the top of my stairs. Handily situated on the way to up to the bedroom or down to the garden. And each volume is well thumbed. Well loved.

Many might think that after an age or two ploughing through the minutia of churchwardens accounts from the fifteenth century, or reading sixteenth century texts on how to summon demons using no more than a few easily accessible household utensils, that an hour spent with Pratchett is a much needed escape from reality. A diversion into another reality where stress can slide away as my smile widens (this is a literary metaphor. I never smile. Live with it...) and I get the chance to wander the streets of my favourite city in the company of Vimes, the Night Watch and Nanny Ogg. A reality where the rocks are alive and a good witch CAN be grown on the chalk. A place where you can be an atheist, just so long as you don't mind a whole bunch of annoyed Gods turning up next morning and chucking rocks through your windows. The chance to visit myriad different worlds that are only a single step away, or a world that is so near that the M25 really is a demonic symbol and angels really can run an unprofitable second-hand bookshop. It is, I will admit, a damned good reason, but most certainly not the whole truth.

The real reason that I adore Pratchett, have actually grown up and old with Pratchett, is that he was, quite simply, a great social commentator. He was one of the great social historians of his time. He saw the world through his own eyes and laid it forth before his readers with his own special take on it. He ridiculed that which is ridiculous about our own world. He lambasted those who thought they deserved admiration and praise. He was critical. Critical of our times and our beliefs - and wrote it in such a way as to make it entertaining and amusing. He took the social mores of his time, turned them upside-down, gave them a shake, and had a good poke through what fell out. Pratchett, for all his faults, understood just how mind-numbingly stupid humanity could be. And then he wrote about it. His books aren't just a fantasy of a pizza shaped world riding through space on the back of four large elephants, they are a critique of our own, just as ridiculous, world. For me they do exactly what I hoped to do with my own book. They take massive and difficult subjects, subject normally left only to the academic or political commentator, and put them into the sphere of the everyday. Ideas and concepts such as war, jingoism, politics, science, immigration and religion. He took them apart and reconstructed them in a manner that highlighted the laughable, the ridiculous - and in doing so shone a light upon our own society.

That I suppose is why the recent article by Jonathon Jones in the Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2015/aug/31/terry-pratchett-is-not-a-literary-genius) so annoyed me. Not only did he freely admit to having never read any of Pratchett's work, sin enough for many, but he then went on to dismiss his work as immaterial and no more than popular reading. A sin compounded by drawing the, quite literally ill informed, comparison between Pratchett and Jane Austen. Austen may today be considered great literature, but that certainly isn't how she was considered at the time, or how she considered herself. She was writing for a single reason. To make a living. She was writing to pay the bills and, she hoped, was writing popular literature. Unpopular literature simply wouldn't pay the butcher, grocer and baker. Now I'm not going to start an argument here about how good Austen was as a writer, or whether Pratchett will stand the test of time, but I will take the comparison further. Austen and Pratchett shared an eye. They shared the ability to look critically at their own times, and put those observations down on paper for their readers to be quietly amused at. To observe, to extrapolate from that observation, and to ridicule. To lay their own societies bare to the gaze of their contemporaries and future generations alike.

Many of Austen's nuances are lost to us today, even to the Guardian's well educated columnists. Few will understand that the moment George Wickham appeared in Pride and Prejudice that all but the most ill informed reader would immediately know he was a rake. Would understand that he was 'the bad guy'. Would understand her own sharp poke at the society in which she lived.

What I suspect Jones really fails to grasp is that both Austen and Pratchett are writers than many individuals feel have given them a better understanding of the world in which they live. What he really fails to appreciate is that, for individuals like myself (and there are millions like me), they are often the same individual. A love of Austen does not harden my heart towards Pratchett, but neither does a love of Pratchett mean that Austen is beyond my grasp. I will not argue that Pratchett was a literary genius - but both are writers that deserve attention. The attempts of a middling critic to gain a moral high ground for literary snobbishness have simply shown him for what he really is. Not very well read. And that, oddly enough, makes me sad. I am sad that he has never laughed at Corporal Nobby Nobbs. I'm sad that he's never spent an evening with the Patrician. I am sad that, in a moment of self tormented fury, as he reads the Amazon reviews on his latest book, he's never shouted aloud "Where's my Cow?"

GNU Terry Pratchett

Monday 24 August 2015

No Angels - just Demons...

If you wander into just about any medieval church in England, or at least one that hasn't been too heavily messed around with by the Victorians and their brutal concepts of restoration, then they are all around you. The angels and demons. You may not see them immediately, they may not leap out at you, but they are there. Quietly watching, as they have been down the long centuries, through the brightest of Summers - and the bleakest, darkest of midwinters. They will be there, as they were through the tumult of the reformation, the dark days of that most uncivil of civil wars, and the long, long years of the nineteenth century. They have survived wars, plague, famine and fire - and will still be there long after you and I have become nothing more than faded memory to a jaded world. Still there, still watching - the angels and demons of the medieval church.
The angels and demons are sometimes easy to see. The carved angels that support the timbers of the most complex and inspiring of roof trusses. Wings outstretched and, despite the impact of many a sour hearted puritan musket ball, still glowing with their original colour. Angels carved in attitudes of prayer on dark oak bench-ends; details worn smooth and pale by the passage of a thousand caressing hands and the passing of the years. And then there are the angels of light. Those ethereal creatures that survive in stained and painted glass, that radiate sunlight in a dozen different colours, and who watched on in mute horror at the destruction wrought upon many thousands of their fellows. Who watched as painted majesty became mere fragments of shattered glass, and windows fell from golden glory to become mere holes to let in the light. And the others. The ones that still adorn the walls in a bare handful of churches. Those that sit upon the right hand of God in the Doom paintings that once shouted out their message of salvation and damnation from above the chancel arch, giving a helping hand to those souls that were destined for the eternal joys of heaven. And, in a few remote and blessed churches such as Barton Turf in Norfolk, the massed choirs of angels that march in triumph along the painted panels of the rood screen, missing only the faces that once so offended the iconoclast reformers.
And then there are the demons. The grinning, contorted faces that balance their angelic counterparts above the chancel arches, casting the souls of the damned down into the pit; an open mouthed devil that spews forth flames and the stink of sulphurous burnt flesh. The carved wooden demons that decorate the misericords in dozens of church choirs, grinning lewdly up at the fat clerical arse above them. The demonic gargoyles and grotesques that roost and colonise the corners and buttresses of a hundred church towers; leering, jeering and fondling themselves in an attempt to drive off the evil eye and outrage the rector and timid goodwife. You are never far from the demons of the medieval church. Peeking from behind stiff-leaved stone foliage, peering down from the rafters, or scuttling beneath the choir stalls. They are there. Their millennia long battles with the angelic host put aside at the creaking of a church door, a glimpse of sunlight, and your arrival...
Our churches are full of angels and demons. The product of a medieval theology that, in essence, boiled down to 'no Devil = no God'. The church NEEDED devils and demons to exist, to balance each other out and show that salvation wasn't a given; that the fate of your soul was in your own hands, and that a single act on your own behalf would determine which side of the chancel arch you would eventually find yourself on. The battle between the light and the dark wasn't won, but was an ongoing struggle that, despite God's reassurance of eventual victory over Satan, would have many casualties along the way. A battle that, you would expect, would be echoed in the graffiti on the walls of our churches. It isn't.
There are certainly echoes of the great medieval battle for the souls of the congregation amongst the thousands of graffiti inscriptions that we have recorded. The multitude of apotropaic marks that adorn almost every surface you can think of, designed to ward off evil and the unkindly, death bringing, gaze of the ever watchful evil-eye. There are the prayers too. The names of God etched into the stones, the Latin invocations and the images of hands raised, and forever frozen, in the act of blessing and benediction. And there are the demons there too. Etched deep into the surface, like the wide-mouthed, sharp toothed demon of Troston, or the devil of Beachamwell; armed with a metal meat-hook, to strip the eternal souls of the damned from their earthly and stinkingly corrupt flesh. The demons are to be found everywhere. Staring right back at you from the walls.  But where then are the angels on the walls? Where are the agents of eternal balance, that celestial militia whose vigilance keeps the evil at bay? They are simply not there. They have not been obliterated with the passage of time. No Victorian restoration has wiped them from the walls. The massed ranks of Demons did not drive them upwards to the rafters in one last great battle across the stonework. They are simply not there, and never have been.
This is something that has only really occurred to me in the last few months. After many years of hunting down and recording medieval graffiti inscriptions. As the numbers of recorded inscriptions grew into the thousands, and then the tens of thousands, so too did the number of demons that we recorded. Demons from all over the country, from all manner of churches, hidden in all manner of places. But no angels. One 'possible' angel that came to light only very recently; the statistical anomaly that we can never apparently do without, but no serried ranks of the angelic host. They aren't were you might expect them to be, and the question has to be why?
There is, I believe, a really quite simple answer. An answer that the graffiti itself points us towards. Whilst the walls of our churches may be reflections of medieval beliefs, they are reflecting only certain aspects of that belief. They do not show us everything, but only those things that, to the members of the medieval congregation, were real and to be feared. The walls of our churches are a testament to the fears and horror of the medieval mind. The angels were not in that class. Angels are part of the orthodox church; the ethereal long-hoped-for salvation of the soul - but they had no part in this world. In this reality. People were not visited by angels on a regular basis, with a few notable and usually frowned upon enthusiastic exceptions, and the angels were largely reserved for the divine. Their images may adorn the windows of the church, and be carved into the ornate woodwork of the pews, but that was the only hold they had in this world. Demons on the other hand were all too real. All too much a part of the everyday reality of the medieval parish. It was the demons that brought the life threatening illness of a much loved child. It was the demons that caused the unexplained death of a much needed sow. It was the demons that brought the harvest wrecking storms, the lightning bolts from a dark sky, and the fires that could lay waste a settlement in a matter of hours. The demons were to be feared, for on earth there were no angels to stand between a naked soul and the evil that floated through the miasma that surrounded them. The dread demons could bring forth a plague that would sweep an army from the face of the battlefield, and there were no ranks of celestial militia to take their place. The demons were to be feared because they were real, they were tangible and they were there - walking amongst them. And so it is the demons who find themselves scratched into the walls of our churches alongside the prayers and blessings, alongside the apotropaic marks and the symbols of hoped-for protection.

The walls are the haunt of only the demons, not angels...

Monday 29 June 2015

Harry Potter and the philosophical question: curses, charms and spells...

I truly believe that one of the greatest achievements of writing 'the book' was the fact that I managed to get a reference to Harry Potter in there. Sounds odd? It shouldn't. Not to those that know me. They'll tell you that I quite like the Harry Potter books and movies, that I have been known to turn up at the Warner Brothers Studio Tour (but only during Dark Arts week obviously...) and that Sirius Black and I share the same stylist. They'll comment that I 'may' have exclusive access to Mad Eye Moody's wardrobe, as well as possessing Severus Snape's kind and cheerful demeanour. However, much as I obviously can't deny any of the above (although it was a blatant tabloid lie concerning myself and Tonks), the real achievement of getting a Harry Potter reference into the book was that it sets it well and truly apart from the standard academic work.

Don't misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that readers of Harry Potter books are not exactly academic, and I could point out a good few university professors who would far rather be teaching at Hogwarts (put me down for Defence Against the Dark Arts obvs...), but that I really wanted to ensure that the book was accessible to everyone; everyone and anyone with an interest in the past. It isn't a great academic tome - which will undoubtedly appear at some point (you've been warned) - but rather a collection of stories and incidents that tell the tales behind exactly why the graffiti was made - or at least some of the current theories. It is something that looks at the bigger picture, and puts it all, I hope, into a little context. It may not exactly explain what all the markings on the wall mean - but it may help us come to them with a more open mind, and an understanding of 'some' of the motivations.
Actually, I confess, there is far more to the Harry Potter thing than that. There, I've said it now. The Harry Potter books have, as far as I am concerned, actually opened rather a lot of people's eyes to a couple of very odd concepts; odd that is in modern terms. Most obviously they have opened people's eyes and minds to the concepts that surround belief in magic.

Let's be clear here. I don't believe in magic. I don't believe in anything much really. If someone tells me the sky is blue I tend to be the awkward bugger that argues that actually it isn't; all you are seeing is a refraction of light through the atmosphere. As you can imagine, I'm a real hoot at parties. Having said that, I really have no idea how half the gizmos and gadgets in my life, including this computer, my phone and possibly even the fridge actually work - so it could all be magic as far as I know. However, the last five years of studying medieval graffiti has meant that I have had to spend rather a lot of time looking at, studying and examining areas of medieval belief that we would today consider to be within the realms of magic. I'm not talking here of the everyday magic of the medieval church, the miracles of the saints and the transformation of one substance into another. I'm talking about the fringes of belief, the ideas and concepts that sit outside the orthodox teachings of the church, the ideas that burn upon the edge. Let me explain.

The medieval church was one in which magic was an accepted everyday phenomena. It happened. Deal with it. Bread and wine were/are miraculously transformed into real flesh and blood. Saints really could/can cure the sick. Devils and demons really did take on physical form to drag sinners down to the raging pits of hell. This was the everyday of the medieval church. The norm. However, even for the medieval church there were boundaries that should never be crossed. Prayers to bring healing were acceptable. Prayers that sought to bring ill health upon others were also acceptable - as long as it was the righteously aggrieved seeking the downfall of 'evil' oppressors. However, a 'prayer' to summon a demon to bring healing, or to cause illness in others, was not acceptable. Curses certainly weren't acceptable - except those used and issued by the church - which were...

Confused? You should be. You see, the thing is, that the boundaries that should never be crossed weren't really very well defined. It was really rather easy to cross those boundaries without ever realising you had done so. In fact, it's best not to think of it all in terms of black and white - but rather differing shades of grey. What we know about much of the magical practise in late medieval and Tudor England actually comes from the records of the church courts, from the prosecutions of those accused of having crossed those shifting boundaries. The thing is that those self same records make it clear that even the church is not entirely sure as to what actually constituted crossing from the orthodox and acceptable into the areas of the heretical and devilish. They are decidedly vague. A 'cunning man' brought up on charges by the church courts could claim that the cure he is accused of effecting was entirely the result of praying to God. The old lady who had cured her neighbours cattle could, and did, claim that she had simply prayed to the right saints. What could the church do? Punish someone who, on the face of it, appeared to be fully supporting and justifying their own position? Indeed, what then was to be made of the Vicar of Wanstead who, in 1523, proclaimed a curse against everyone in the parish who refused to pay their tithes? Tricky...
Which brings me, in a rather round about way, back to Harry Potter. For those that have read the books or seen the films you will know that they are full of magic. The magic is not tied to any religious belief, and its origin is never made clear. It is more of an elemental force than one borne of any particular deity. However, even the magic in Harry Potter has form, it has structure.  It does, I would argue, even have a hierarchy. At the far end of the spectrum there are the curses, and most particularly the 'unforgiveable curses', which will see anyone who uses them imprisoned. Then of course there are 'spells', the general everyday magic formula that cause someone to either hang from the ceiling by their ankle, or aid in the execution of everyday household tasks. Then there are 'charms' - a fairly non-distinct area that appears to involve more minor magical actions. All happy with that? All pretty straightforward? No major theological questions raised? No urges to go out and set fire to a school library?   Just checking...

So, to steal a much loved Bill Bryson phrase, here is the thing. Here is the philosophical question. What is the difference between a spell and a curse? What sets one magical act aside from another? Curses are obviously designed to inflict injury on those that they are directed at. They mean to harm. However, many of the other 'spells' used in the Harry Potter world can be almost as nasty as the curses; sometimes being used in a benign manner, but in others being used to cause harm or incapacitation to an individual. The same spell, in theory, could slice a loaf of bread, or cut an opponent to bleeding ribbons of flesh. Where then are the boundaries? What line must one cross for a spell or charm to become a curse? A few of you may have spotted it, but a few moments ago we ceased talking Harry Potter and went back to talking about medieval graffiti...
You see this isn't just a question that faces fans of a certain bespectacled boy, but to anyone discussing the magic of the medieval world. When does a charm stop being a charm and become a curse? For example, medical charms were the mainstay of the late medieval 'cunning man' and 'wise woman', and in a society of limited medical knowledge actually formed much of the frontline in the battles against illness and an early death. Charms against the plague, charms against the fistula, charms against miscarriage, charms against the ague - all of which appear in written examples of the period, and occasionally amongst the graffiti we find on the walls of our churches. Charms to protect. Charms to heal. What though are we to make of the charm recorded as being commonplace in Norfolk until quite recent centuries?

"A charm against the ague... go to a four crossways at night all alone, and just as the clock strikes 12 turn yourself about 3 times and then drive a ten penny nail into the ground up to the head. Walk away from the place backwards before the clock is done striking; and you'll miss the ague - but the next person who passes over the nail will take it in your stead..."

The boundaries, it would seem, were very blurred indeed...

Sunday 21 June 2015

Searching for a virgin in Norfolk - How to read a church

Well that was a weird weekend. No denying it. They don't get much more surreal than that. Today, much to my surprise, the Sunday Times ran a full page book review for the new Medieval Graffiti book in their culture section. 'Culture' might be pushing it a bit I feel - but they can be the judge of that. I'm not going to argue. All a bit of a shock really, particularly as the reviewer didn't pan it, and very, very unexpected. However, wonderful as the review was my thoughts have been completely elsewhere.
You see, the thing is, in the last couple of weeks two of my friends, both much older than myself, have suffered massive and life changing strokes. In the latest case, which only happened a couple of days ago, it is still touch and go. The first was a couple of weeks ago when Mike, or Captain Lynch as he is better known locally, was rushed into hospital. Mike is an old chum. A drinking buddy, teller of great (and sometimes tall) stories who has seen the world, done everything worth doing - and then told it afterwards exactly what he thought of it. Mike was a person who saw the world as a place of fascination - but not something to be taken too seriously. Mike survived the stroke - just - but things are going to be very different for him from now on; very different for his two sons and for all those around him. A tragedy. Then late last week I was told that Susan, another old friend, had also suffered a massive stroke - and that things were not looking good. Not good at all.
To describe Susan as an old friend is probably a bit of an overstatement if truth be told. She was a local publisher and historian who has been about just about all my adult life. She lives only a few miles away from me, and her son and I have grown up as friends together; grown older as friends. We have just always been around each other. Indeed, our children have now grown up together. His son and mine are only six months apart in age, have known each other quite literally since the day they were born -  and now go to the same school, share the same school bus, lifts to events and a mutual nervousness around members of the opposite sex. They have been mistaken for brothers, and sometimes bicker like an old married couple. So Susan has always just 'been there' - at every birthday party, school sports days and Christmas gathering. Quiet, clever and competent Susan.
However, in the last few days I have not been thinking about Susan the mother of my friend, or even Susan the grandmother, but actually Susan the local historian. You see, many years ago Susan wrote and published a slim volume entitled 'The Reformation in Norfolk Parish Churches'. It wasn't a massive work, and it certainly didn't have a massive print run, with the first 1000 copies being knocked out by Susan herself on her old letterpress printer - but it was an absolute gem of a book. It was written by someone who not only knew the churches she was writing about, but had actually trawled the archives, parish records and churchwardens accounts as well. It was, quite simply, a gem - and I bloody loved it! You see, despite its small size, it was just packed with information - and the information was put into the context of the reality of the Norfolk churches I knew. When she wrote about North Elmham church and the troubled churchwarden's accounts of the 16th century, I could walk along that very same nave and side aisles in my head, following their building works and repairs in my mind's eye. It was a first step towards learning that a church was far more than a jumble of architecture; that a church building was, like any written document, something that could be read and could be understood. You just had to look hard enough for the key.
I know. It does sound a bit odd. However, these days there are many and varied books you can buy that set out to teach you exactly that - how to read a church. Some are good. Some are a little bit dire. All are popular. But no matter the quality of the book, I am here to tell you that the real ability to read a church won't be found solely between the covers of a book. That might give inspiration and information, but the real key is to look, to dissect what you are seeing and to then assess each element as both individual parts and as a whole. Sounds complex? It isn't. In fact, here's one I made earlier...
Let's take a look at the west face of the tower of Fakenham church in north Norfolk. Why shouldn't we - it's a lovely church with some amazing carved and flint flushwork decoration. Okay, so Fakenham was voted Britain's most boring town for a couple of years running - but what the hell! We wear that as a badge of pride these days. The rest of the world appears to be having wayyyy too much excitement. Anyway, where was I? Ah, the church... The picture obviously only shows us a tiny section of the west face, but it is here, around the doorway, that the decoration is concentrated. Lovely isn't it...
What though can we deduce about the past of this church from looking at the decoration? What is it telling us. Well, the most obvious thing is the church's dedication. Fakenham church is dedicated to the Saints Peter and Paul - and everything outlined in the image in red relates directly to that dedication. The two empty image niches would once have held statues of the saint. Above the niches are two shields; one showing the crossed keys of St Peter and the other the crossed swords of St Paul. Running between the two shields is a long carved frieze made up of the crowned letter 'P' in a nicely lombardic style.
So far so good. All a wee bit straightforward actually. Childs-play you might say. Ah, but then things start to get a tiny bit more complex. Why not take a look at the two other shields - the ones marked in blue. Not easy to make out I'll grant you - I was using my phone and was in a rush to check out the reduced book sale inside - so I'll save you the trouble. On the left the shield shows the 'Instruments of the Passion' - the spear, nails, flail, etc all associated with the events of the crucifixion. The 'Instruments of the Passion' is actually a pretty common theme in East Anglian church decoration during the later Middle Ages. It smacks a little of the blood and gore that appears to attract religious devotion in the years after the Black Death. At the same time one of the images of the Virgin that begins to appear with increasing regularity is Our Lady of Pity. Not the comfortable image of the blessed Virgin holding a bouncy red-cheeked child, but a darker image of Our Lady with the body of the crucified Christ lying across her lap. Cheery. The shield on the right is a little easier to see - and appears to show the 'lions and lilies' of England; essentially the arms of the king. Except, in this case, I suspect that they have made a mistake! Whilst it would be perfectly legitimate for a church to display the royal arms I strongly suspect that these are not the arms that the parish asked for. You see, what most people don't know is that the town known today as Fakenham was actually once known as 'Fakenham Lancaster' - indicating that it was actually part of the powerful Duchy of Lancaster. The arms of the Duchy and the king are really rather similar (almost identical) and the town and church have no obviously royal connections. Conjecture I know - but I'm allowed the odd moment or two of whimsy.
Having dealt with most of the carved decoration we are left with only two other features - here outlined in yellow. Both were created using a technique known as flint flushwork - a building style that used the glossy dark surface of the black flints to infill around the pale carved stone, creating an almost two tone effect. The symbol on the right is a fairly obvious one that most church crawlers will instantly recognise - the crowned 'M', representing the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven. What we would term a 'Marian' symbol, and one that turns up just about everywhere in just about every type of material. The symbol on the left is slightly less straightforward. It is usually regarded as a 'V V' symbol, supposedly representing the Latin prayer 'Virgo Virginum' (Virgin of Virgins), and is again considered a 'Marian' symbol. However, here at Fakenham, things may not be quite that simple. Firstly, if you peer closely at the screen (those of you looking at this on your phones may as well save yourself the trouble and just take my word for it) you will see that this particular example is very, very clearly not a conjoined 'V V' - but actually a very clear 'W'. Well that certainly throws things out slightly. Not entirely what might be expected. That is, until you remember exactly where we are. The town of Fakenham - only a bare few miles from the major medieval Marian shrine at Walsingham - and the last stop for many hundreds of thousands of pilgrims before they made the last effort to trudge northwards. Perhaps then this particular piece of decoration is actually a reference to the nearby shrine, balancing the reference to the Virgin on the other side of the tower? Perhaps indeed it is both - a reference to Walsingham AND a reference to 'Virgo Virginum'? A double edged decoration to honour the holy Virgin?

How much further can we take this story? How much more can we read in to this church? Is the great tracery window that sits above this decoration actually the work of the same master mason who created so many other works of art at this time in Norfolk? A man of such sublime skill that he has become known as the 'Wiveton Master', after the church on the coast that has few equals? That, you see, is one of the main things I have learnt from Susan and all the other local historians who have spent lifetimes studying our amazing, superb churches. That the story can always be taken a little further; that there is always more to discover. The problem though, as I have discovered for myself in these last few weeks, is that time is, apparently, always against us...

Friday 12 June 2015

The perfect picture: keeping your balls in the light...

I should be writing about ship graffiti right now. Yep, my favourite subject of the moment. The wonders of tiny inscribed ships sailing across the walls of our churches - just as they have been for long centuries. However, I'm not. I'm taking the evening off to have a really good whine instead. What's even better is that I'm going to share that whine with you all. I know, I know - no need to thank me - all part of the service...

Today has been a tiny little bit frustrating. Unsurprisingly a large part of that frustration was centred around computers. Now I'm not exactly known as the most technically literate of people. Indeed, until a few years ago my idea of reprogramming a computer involved the judicious use of extreme Anglo-Saxon threats - and an axe. In fact, the whole digital imagery thing came as something of a blow. Moving away from the dageurreotype and glass plate simply wasn't a natural progression as far as I was concerned. However, like all of us I have moved on a little. I have embraced new technology, am now surrounded by high tech digital cameras, laptops, desktops, tablets - and can almost use about half the functions on my phone. You see, I'm no philistine! That is until I come to graffiti hunting...

In the wide world of graffiti studies and church archaeology a new technology is emerging - Reflective Transformation Imaging - or RTI as it is more commonly known - and it is annoying the hell out of me! The system is actually pretty straightforward, and I should point out that it is a system that I DO use, which involves producing a composite image of an object in which, via the wonders of your home computer, you can actually alter the angle of light shining across the surface. What this means in practice is that you can sit at your desk staring at an image of a church wall covered in graffiti and then, much like you would on site, you can move the light source around to highlight different areas of the inscription. Sounds cool doesn't it? That's because it is. Really cool. Indeed, the public absolutely LOVE IT. Take along a laptop to an event with a few RTI files and they will spend hours looking at them, moving the angle of the light across the surface and going "oooeee". RTI is in fact a really wonderful tool for interpretation and outreach.

There you go, I've been nice about RTI. It won't last obviously.

The problem I have with RTI (actually I think we had better start using the term 'problems' rather than just the singular form here) is that it actually doesn't quite do what it says on the tin. In addition, despite the fact that the system doesn't quite do what everyone says it does, a very large number of technological minded archaeologists and academics are promoting the system as though it is going to revolutionise what we do. It isn't. Sorry! At least not yet.

Part of the problems is how you actually create the RTI files that the general public (yes, them again) so desperately love. The idea is that you use a fixed and immobile camera position in front of your object. Near your subject matter you then have a highly polished sphere on a stick - a globe that will reflect the angle that the light is coming from. Kits are available for about $350 - but you can also just use an old camera tripod, a polished billiard ball and a large wodge of blue tack (other brands of sticky blue/white stuff are available) - the choice is yours. You then take your high resolution photograph. Then, without moving the camera or the sphere, you move the light source and take another picture - gradually moving the light around a full arc as you take thirty of forty pics. Indeed, pretty much like we normally do when undertaking a traditional raking light survey.

Right, now here comes the science bit. All those images you have taken are now combined via a very useful bit of software to produce an RTI file - that can be viewed on an RTI viewer to keep the good old general public happy for hours. All sounds fine and dandy doesn't it. Fun for all the family.
However, any of my volunteers will already have spotted a slight flaw in the plan. To create each RTI file you need an awful lot of images - which takes a rather long time to do. You then have to spend quite a long time manipulating said images to transform them into an RTI file. Now if that one inscription is actually only one of three or four hundred in a church then, to be frank, we are probably going to be there for long enough to qualify for residential status. The other problem of course is image resolution. Undertaking a traditional raking light survey may well mean taking five or six images of the same inscription, all with different light sources, and with each image being at least five or six megabytes in size. If we took thirty or forty such high resolution images of a singe inscription and tried to combine them using the software then you end up with a rather large file size. In practice this doesn't happen. Speaking from experience any such attempt ends up with the software crashing, screaming abuse at you and shouting for its mum. As a result those actually making RTI files do tend to downsize their images so, instead of ending up with a three hundred and fifty megabyte file, they have a fifty megabyte file (many are smaller). As a result resolution is lost - and the great advantage that the system is meant to have of allowing you to sit at a desk and look at a high resolution 3D style image is also lost.

There are other problems with the system as well. The use of the spheres makes getting a really oblique angle across the surface with the light source actually impossible without either casting massive shadows across the inscription or losing the reflective point on the sphere. It also only really works for graffiti on relatively flat surfaces, something we don't see much of in the average church. I'd also respectfully suggest that a few of the people shouting about how good RTI is should learn how to take a decent old-fashioned raking light picture before playing with the technology. I could go on. I won't.

So, the system has a few faults? What new system doesn't? I'm sure that over the next few years many of these problems will be sorted out. I'm sure it will prove invaluable in many areas and might, perhaps, even aid in discovering something that raking light images couldn't find alone. The public will still love it, and it will look very flash when presenting at conference. It will, in short, be great.
So why am I whinging about it then? Well, to be honest, it isn't just the system I object to - but the way it is being promoted. The area of graffiti studies has over the last few years seen a wee bit of a revival. It has, I might venture to suggest, become a tiny bit fashionable (although anyone who has seen me might beg to differ). Suddenly universities and academics are seeing it as a legitimate area of study where a wealth of new material simply sits awaiting discovery. As a notable archaeologist said to me recently - it is simply "low hanging fruit". And come they are. Projects appearing every other week; projects that I welcome. However, a tiny minority of the people involved aren't terribly happy with how we've been conducting things over the last few years, seeing the 'everyman' approach to archaeology that involves a volunteer, a £9.99 torch and a camera phone as a wee bit unprofessional. RTI is, along with the technical language, a very easy was to distance themselves from the herd; to be 'scientific' about the subject. To be elitist about 'their' area of research - and that REALLY annoys the hell out of me - particularly when their actual results aren't really very good.

Right, I did warn you it was going to be a whinge. However, I feel I do have a valid point to make. What has happened over the last five years has seen a real democratisation of church archaeology that has made a real difference to the subject and, most of all, the people involved. Science DOES still need to catch up - and RTI will probably become a really useful tool in the future. However, certain parts of archaeology and academia also need to catch up - and that may take a while longer.

Note: a couple of people have asked me to elaborate upon the last point I made here. All I will say is this. There is, amongst a certain few academics, a tendency to equate complexity and over complication of a subject with an enhanced view of their own research and personal prestige. They are the ones who believe that describing what they do as "recording early ecclesiastical inscriptions using a Reflective Transformation Imaging 3D imaging system" will bring them more kudos than saying they "take pictures of church graffiti using a camera and torch"...

Thursday 4 June 2015

Guest Blog 6: Pat May - Born under the stairs...

This week is national volunteers week. There's no getting away from it. It's been splashed all over the place. If you have managed to miss this fact... now you know. It therefore only seemed fitting that we have a guest blog from one of our volunteers. I say 'one' of our volunteers - but Pat May is far more than just one of our volunteers. She is a small army of volunteers all wrapped up in a tiny and enthusiastic package. Although slightly 'challenged' in the height department, Pat just can't be stopped. She has single highhandedly visited hundreds of churches, taken thousands of photographs, made dozens of amazing discoveries - and can very occasionally be found eating cake with the Norwich cathedral volunteers. Very, very occasionally I can convince her to use a photo-scale (my fault apparently - the bluetack simply isn't compatible with the photo scales I supply).

So this is Pat's view of what discovering history and involving herself with our own heritage project means to her. What Pat might not realise though, is that her involvement in the project has come to mean a great deal more to a lot of people than being simply  a community archaeology volunteer. To many she has become a friend, to others a mentor - to all a valued colleague. She is an expert photographer and the standard by which others judge themselves. She is at times one of my greatest allies, and my harshest critic - and welcome in both roles. From her first days with the project she has radiated keenness - and now even gives talks on the subject.

So here's the thing Pat - I might not always remember to say thanks to your face - but I thank you every day in my head.


Pat May

I was born under the stairs of the family home, during a WWII air raid on The Wirral, Cheshire. A much loved only daughter. I had three older brothers, the eldest died in infancy. I was surrounded by a large extended family. A lot of testosterone ran through my family. I was a tom boy; climbing trees and lamp posts, the best at hitting and throwing a ball, a keen roller skater, and riding my bike with no hands. I hung out with the boys rather than with girls, I was never a girly girl. I wasn’t ‘bright’. At school my favourite subjects were History and English, and thanks to my teacher she brought the past to life and gave me a hunger for history. I left school before my 15th birthday. I had never heard of ‘O’ and ‘A’ Levels (although I am now surrounded by my own family, all with degrees!) I spent a year at College of F.E. learning shorthand, typing and other office skills. I worked from the age of 16, apart from time out to have 3 children (our second son was stillborn), until I retired at 60. 

Since marrying Graham in 1963, and moving to Suffolk in 1964, my life has been full and eventful, a lot of highs and some pretty big lows. With a baby and toddler we moved to Hong Kong in 1969, spending 4 glorious years in the sunshine. When we returned home again it was down to earth with a bang and it was back to work for me.

We ran a state education residential school boarding house for 12 years, when I was organising the running of the house and domestic staff, I was also mum to 23 teenage boys. There had been a tradition of boarding in our town for 400 years which ended when the house closed its doors for the last time when we eventually left. In 1990 Graham, as a Feoffee, was chosen to become Town Reeve, a position dating back to Saxon times. In our own way we have contributed to the history of our small market town.

For the following 12 years I was Secretary of a large primary school. I was also a hot air balloonist for some of those years. Graham and I retired together. We planned to do so much, and did for a while, including several London theatre visits; visiting the family; plenty of walking; three wonderful and exhilarating holidays in Iceland. Graham, a retired Maths teacher, has always been involved in a variety of sports, local clubs and committees and, now retired, continues his interests and part-time private maths tuition. 

When our children left home for university, and eventually married, I found loneliness and a severe case of empty nest syndrome kicking in. (Our son has 3 children and lives in S. E. London; our daughter has 2 children and lives in Hampshire). I took over the post of secretary for a club I belong to, helping to raise hundreds of pounds for charity. I put my heart and soul into this for 9 years. I don’t enjoy what is regarded as the typical housewifely duties of housework, cooking, gardening etc., and I loathe shopping.

You might ask yourself the question ‘what has all this got to do with history, and more importantly, medieval graffiti?’ Well, a hell of a lot actually. Medieval graffiti, to use the cliché, has given me part of MY life back. As a ‘not very bright’, frustrated historian, medieval graffiti is fulfilling the need to learn about our journeys through the centuries AND it is giving Graham and me a little time together again, as a couple. 

It really began about 4 years before I became involved with the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey. A close family friend is a lecturer in medieval history and following her around Suffolk and Norfolk medieval churches I began noticing ‘marks’ in the stonework. I hadn’t a clue what they were and they intrigued me. She explained that they were masons marks. I wanted to know more. I was hungry to learn more. She gave me a book on English Medieval Graffiti by Violet Pritchard. That was it, my journey into our past had begun, but how do I take those first steps? I had no idea, not until I saw an article in a newspaper, with a photograph of Colin Howey and Paul Judkins showing graffiti in Litcham church, and a request for volunteers to survey for graffiti in Norfolk. Darn it, I was living in Suffolk

Although I tried to pursue my willingness to volunteer I was unsuccessful... That was until, through the Waveney Valley Community Archaeology Group, I met Matt, Colin and Paul at Bressingham church. We were a small group of WVCAG members, eager and enthusiastic. Although I had been using an LED torch we were shown the correct way of using the torch to bring to life the images almost unseen with the naked eye. I was immediately hooked. I clearly remember Matt showing us copies of the survey sheets and encouraging us to go and survey churches and find graffiti. And, like a bat out of hell, during the following months I went out, visited churches, surveyed and found graffiti.

I am embarrassed when I think how much my enthusiasm must have come as a ‘surprise’ to Matt. I thought there was a team of people, sitting in an office, receiving and recording all the graffiti finds. It took me some time to realise the ‘team of people’ was Matt, on his own. I bombarded him with survey forms and not-very-good photographs of graffiti, expecting praise. Not only did I receive praise, but also encouragement, which meant a hell of a lot to me.

I am having a ball, the best time I have had for a very long time.  For 2 years I have been a volunteer surveyor of graffiti for the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, and the more recent Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey. For one day a week, almost every week, Graham and I spend the day graffiti hunting. He is my chauffeur. I decide where we are going in Suffolk after doing my research on churches which might, just might, have graffiti. We have driven to all corners of Suffolk, taking our little dog, Millie, with us. Graham takes care of the dog while I survey each church. He also has his own tasks. He looks for any graffiti or scratch dials on the outer church walls. Eventually he comes inside the church with Millie. If I am busy with graffiti on the stonework he looks for graffiti on the woodwork and on the window glass. Also there is usually a supply of second hand books on sale and he tends to find one or two worth buying. Often we will have a pub lunch and, if time will allow, walk the dog. He too enjoys our day’s graffiti hunting. We are seeing Suffolk as we have not seen it before. Beautiful churches in often beautiful towns and villages. Driving along picturesque lanes and enjoying the scenery. Needless to say our graffiti hunting is mainly done on fine weather days. Saying that, fine weather days can also be jolly cold! We have met some truly lovely people keen to know what I am doing with my torch and camera, scouring the stonework for signs of those graffiti images etched hundreds of years ago. 

I am eager to learn and through graffiti this frustrated ageing historian is learning in a way I never thought possible. My confidence has soared as I am being invited to give a talk, with a Power-point presentation, to local history groups and various clubs. I am introducing them to the world of medieval graffiti. I have joined the volunteers surveying Norwich cathedral, also becoming a graffiti tour guide. With Matt I have taken part in training potential surveyors, and introducing them to graffiti hunting. Through Colin, and an invitation to join his camera club for a morning, I met Steve, a Master Stone Mason, and his apprentices. Briefly I glimpsed into his world and a lot of those medieval graffiti images began to make sense, as he explained the workings and responsibilities of the Stone Mason. I have just begun a 10 week course on English Palaeography Explored – Tudor and Stuart. Me? Who would have thought it!

I have found the most amazing medieval graffiti, one, or two, or more, of national importance.  Graffiti surveying is addictive; it certainly has the ‘wow’ factor.

Joining the Norfolk and Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Surveys has certainly enriched my life. The praise and encouragement I have received from other members, and the ethos of this community archaeology project
has certainly made this diminutive woman a much more confident and more historically aware and educated person (possibly less of the ‘educated’!)

(Pat May)          

Sunday 3 May 2015

Guest Blog 5. At Home in History - Crystal Hollis

It is a very great pleasure to introduce the fifth of our Guest Blogs in our mini-blog-fest on the subject of 'What history/heritage means to me'. Crystal Hollis is a long time hunter of graffiti based on the other side of the Atlantic and describes herself as an 'IT Geek'. However, Crystal has spent a good deal of time in the UK (and rather wants to spend more time here) wandering around our fabulous churches hunting out early graffiti inscriptions. She was in fact one of the very first people to get in touch with our graffiti project in its very early days - and has been a strong supporter, and fount of knowledge, ever since. She has, you might say, become part of the international graffiti landscape. However, it wasn't always that way...

At Home in History

by Crystal Hollis       

     I was totally 'that kid'. At the age of seven I sat in my classroom listening to my teacher's stories of ancient Egypt - and I couldn't get enough. In a few short classes we were introduced to mummies, the discovery of King Tut's tomb, how the ancient Egyptians lived, and their gods. However, when the unit ended in school, it didn't quite end for me. I saved my allowance for huge photo filled books on Egypt at the bookstore - the ones with pictures that take up two pages and then fold out,  I watched documentaries whenever I could, my Christmas wishlist was all books about archaeology and ancient history, and every chance I got I made my very patient parents walk through the ancient Egypt exhibit at the Field Museum (I'm fairly certain my dad still has the whole layout memorised). To top all that one  year I went as a pyramid for Halloween (which earned me my nickname from a family friend 'the Pyramid Kid') - carefully scrawling 'Trick or Treat' spelled out in hieroglyphics on the front of my cardboard costume. I just loved it all – the mysteries, the  discoveries, and hearing about how these people lived in a way that was so different and yet so similar to me.
             Eventually I ended up in undergraduate studies where I tried to be practical and worldly and decided to major in computer science in the hopes that I would be able to graduate and secure a job. But like most plans – that didn't happen. While the logic was fascinating, and the story of how computing started and grew over time was amazing and a real testament to human ingenuity – I couldn't stand coding. For two years I sat at a keyboard loathing every homework assignment. I finally realised there was no way I was ever going to make writing computer code my life. I missed the stories and constant feeling of discovery I had had while taking history courses.
            The opportunity for change presented itself in the form of a semester in London – where on a daily basis I was confronted with all sorts of stories from the past. Between the numerous touristy walking tours where I heard about the English Civil War, Queen Elizabeth I, the Romans and of course the Victorians, my excursions to a host of wonderful museums (I finally realised my childhood dream of seeing the Rosetta Stone), and the history courses I took that encouraged me to dig not only in the archives, but to walk around the city itself and look for old buildings and plaques – I fell in love with history again and promptly re-declared my field of study. I recall telling one of my friends that I had officially switched, “It's like you've come home” he said.

             To be honest I hadn't thought about it like that before but I truly had. My projects were fuelled with a passion for giving a voice and bringing to light what had often been overlooked, taken for granted, or deemed unimportant. Everything was exciting and I looked forward into delving into hidden corners looking for things to write about.
            My remaining papers for undergraduate work were on women's sexual health in the Victorian era, French mistresses, and Roman war elephants. My internship had me digging for the story of a set of stained glass windows tucked away in beautiful little church in Western Michigan. For my masters I spent most of my waking hours in either cemeteries or churches that were off the beaten path. Every day I was steeped in fascinating stories of humanity through the ages all in different places and times. But every time I was asked what I was doing I was faced with a stark reality - history is deemed as boring to lots and lots of people. The response I heard so often and still hear at times is "But that's so boring! Remembering all those dates and names - what on earth made you want to do that?".

            The answer to this question was in two parts and seemed fairly intuitive to me. First, history wasn't just a collection of dates and names to me, but rather a collection of stories that connected all together that showed me how we as a civilisation ended up here. It wasn't just about the kings and queens and generals for me – history had quite a collection of people who will never be named. There were peasants, servants, soldiers, farmers, and others who will never get a direct mention in any sort of history text – but someone had to grow the crops, build the buildings, and so on. Beyond that there are still so many more stories out there waiting to be discovered! From glassware found at a dig near an old tavern to entire ancient cemeteries being excavated and studied there are thousands of things we have yet to even find and fully understand. How could that not be exciting? Second, I loved it - every little detail I could find from how a certain food was cooked, to what the court rules were for ladies in the 1700s, I could and can never get enough of the details that give history life.

            My fascination with the past has led me to pursue a research degree focusing on medieval graffiti, and incorporate my passion into my work life. Outside of my 'day job', I've decided to show other people just how interesting history can be by holding writing workshops at local museums. During these workshops I give participants tiny details from the past that they can relate to. I love to watch people connecting with the past through stories in a personal way when moments before they were convinced history was a dry subject. It's amazing to see all the different things they connect with too – it's never the same from person to person. One participant was so taken with the story of a stove that made a journey across America in the 1800s just because the owner refused to part with it she wrote most of her pieces about it, while others focused on the history of a tavern or a disused barn. 

            So I suppose that answers the grand question of “What is history/heritage to me?”. It's what I studied, it's what I love, and it's in part what I do for a living. It's this complex bundle of stories that are layered amongst each other with new hidden ones ready for discovery at a moments notice. History is more than my hobby or a field of study, to me it's my home – it's something I love to spend my time with and share with others when I can.