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)