Saturday 29 October 2016

Why Witch Marks aren't just for Halloween...

So all the signals are telling me that Halloween must be fast approaching. How can I tell, you might well ask? Is it the sudden proliferation of bright orange and totally inedible pumpkins wherever you look? Perhaps it's the sudden filling of every available supermarket shelf with cheap bags of high-sugar-content snacks and sweets - only available in day-glow colours and in sizes that scream 'MEGA', 'BARGAIN' and 'Fun-Sized'. Could it perhaps be the grins on the faces of the manufacturers of cheap glow-in-the-dark costumes, designed to last for one evening only, and invariably shed more glitter around the house than you thought humanly possible? All subtle hints that Halloween might be approaching it must be said. However, for me, the sign that Halloween is upon us once more is the sudden deluge of media enquiries and requests for images. interviews and articles on... yep, you guessed it, 'Witch Marks'.*

In the last few years it would appear that the linking of witch marks and Halloween has become almost as commonplace as Christmas and Coke adverts, Boxing Day and the DFS sales. They have become the fallback of any journalist who wants a bit of a heritage twist to a story, and can't find a good killer clown exclusive. They'll be the usual 'Witch Marks Discovered in (insert building here)' story. The heritage organisation asking the public to 'Record their own Witch Marks'. The tabloid double page exclusive on how 'Immigrants stole my Witch Marks'. (nope, I've no idea what that means either - but it looked really good when I wrote it...)

However, the thing is, that 'Witch Marks', otherwise known as 'Ritual Protection Marks' or 'Holy signs', have absolutely nothing to do with witches per se, and certainly nothing at all to do with Halloween.
A variety of typical ritual protection marks

These marks are symbols and motifs that were applied to buildings and objects, and were deemed to be 'apotropaic' in nature (it's from the Greek - go look it up). In essence, they add a layer of spiritual protection to a physical object, and are designed to 'ward off' evil. In some respects it can be easiest to think of them as acting as the opposite of a curse. Whereas a curse is designed to bring down misfortune, an Apotropaic Mark was designed to do just the opposite - and keep an object, space or individuals safe from harm. Exactly what the harm these marks protected you from is open to question. In many cases it appears to be a non-specific evil, such as the ever-present 'Evil Eye', in others there are clear links to the activities of Demons, whilst certain symbols in certain specific locations 'may' have been to deter the activity of witches.
The six petal rosette or 'sexfoil'

The ancient origins of many of these symbols are very unclear, and there is most certainly evidence that their meaning and function changed or evolved over time. Take for example the 'Six petal rosette', one of the most common type of compass drawn designs that we come across amongst medieval church graffiti. Some claim, albeit without much in the way of evidence it must be said, that the symbol was originally a symbol associated with the sun. What we can say for certain is that, during the Roman period, the symbol was in popular usage - and it is the single most common symbol found amongst the ancient graffiti at sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum. Exactly what it's meaning was to the Romans is unclear, but from its usage on items such as altar stones it most certainly appears to have had a spiritual significance. What is also not disputed is that, by the  early Norman period, the very same symbol had become very clearly linked with the Christian rite of baptism, with the six petal rosette motif being the most common single symbol found on early fonts in English churches.
C12th font, Toftrees, Norfolk

It also appears that this early association with baptism, and perhaps the spiritual safeguarding of the font and the infants baptised within, continued well into the later Middle Ages. In terms of church graffiti there are a number of sites where mass concentrations of compass drawn designs are to be found solely in the area around the font, and in cases like Bedingham, Wighton and Tittleshall (all Norfolk) where the designs have been etched into the font itself. In the wider medieval church the six petal rosette can be demonstrated to have been used as an occasional alternative to, and replacement for, the cross of crucifix - the most powerful apotropaic symbol of the Christian church. The cross could drive out the devil, keep people safe from harm, and make places and spaces immune to evil forces. As an alternative to the cross, the six petal rosette can be found used on many burial slabs (cross slabs), and even occasionally as a painted church consecration cross. It gets about.

In the post-medieval period these designs and motifs continue in use, and commonly appear in a domestic setting. Whilst it's often said that they are generally located around entranceways to a structure, such as doors and fireplaces, lending protection to areas that might be considered 'vulnerable' to evil, there is virtually no surface or object to which they were not applied. Furniture, in the form of chests, coffers and beds, were liberally decorated with these designs - echoing what we see on parish chests with the medieval church - and where early plaster survives in a structure then they can be found there too.

And they continue in use long, long after the more general fear of witchcraft had all but died out (except in Suffolk obviously... but they've always been a bit odd) - and once again their meaning and function appears to evolve. Whilst they are still regarded as symbols of protection, any direct links with formal religion and baptism appear to vanish, leaving them just to be regarded as symbols to 'avert evil' or even simply bring good luck. It can even be argued that their continued use owes more to habit and tradition than to a belief in any spiritual protection they might offer.

The other thing about these markings, at least many of the more common examples such as the 'VV' symbol, is that it is pretty easy for the inexperienced to mistakenly identify other types of graffiti as witch marks. The VV symbol does, after all, look pretty much like a 'W' - which as all good children know, is one of the most common initials used until very recent centuries. It turns up a lot.  It may even be a letter 'W' - rather than a pair of 'V' letters - as that is how it was often written until very recent centuries. It's therefore all too easy for inexperienced students to get all over excited about Victorian tourist graffiti in the mistaken belief that they are some form of 'witch mark'. The usual give away of course  is the presence of other initials. If it says 'W C' - it should usually just be flushed down the pan of graffiti research.

And then of course there is context. Context in any archaeological investigation is important. Context is everything. Therefore, if you come across a 'VV' symbol on a bottle of wine in Tesco, the chances are it isn't an apotropaic marking. A really useful example for the unwary to bear in mind is somewhere like Creswell Crags in Derbyshire. The cave walls are literally covered in graffiti, and there are certainly a lot of 'VV' symbols present, but none of these have been shown to be anything other than relatively modern tourist graffiti. Again context is key.

The caves themselves came to the attention of archaeologists in the late nineteenth century, when they realised that they contained evidence of early human activity, and a large number of fossilised animal bones. To extract this valuable information the archaeologists had to conduct excavations on what, even for the times, was a quite monumental scale. The caves were filled with thousands of years of rubble, debris and soil, all of which had to be removed. In the case of Robin Hood Cave the debris filled the chamber to within a few feet of the roof - to a depth of eight or nine feet. Eight or nine feet of debris that completely covered the walls, therefore making it impossible for anyone, from the last ice age until circa 1865, to leave their mark.
Cross section of Robin Hood Cave, Creswell Crags,
showing the level of infill prior to the 1865 excavations.

What is very obvious is that all these ritual protection marks have a long history of belief and use associated with them - stretching back over two thousand years in some cases. They didn't always mean the same thing, they weren't always used in the same way, but they continued in use as 'spiritually significant' motifs. Some of them, such as the 'VV' symbol, crossed over into more orthodox usage within the lexicon of church symbolism, whilst others, such as the early christian symbol of the pentangle, fell away to become only associated with the 'dark side' - much to the love of young Goths and manufacturers of cheap silver jewellery everywhere. However, the fact that they were such a universal belief throughout the Middle Ages and beyond means that we cannot treat them lightly. They were the physical symbols of people's belief and fears. They marked the boundary between the everyday reality of the physical world, and the potential harms and evils of the realm of spirits. In some cases they were the first line, perhaps even the only line, of defence against the unexpected, the malign and the malignant.

So just remember folks, like puppies and Christmas, Witch Marks aren't just for Halloween...

*and if you think I get grumpy about Halloween - just wait until Christmas...

Friday 28 October 2016

Where is all the smut? The tricky questions about medieval graffiti...

So I'm standing before the audience, lecture over, trying to answer the questions posed by the audience. Some are brilliant questions - things that hadn't even occurred to me. Others are more expected. The questions that get asked almost every time. So common indeed that I don't even cover the subject in the lecture. I know it will come up later on. However, there is one question that I am never quite prepared for, particularly when it comes from a respectable looking, tweed clad, little old lady in her eighties. It is a question that keeps getting asked, again and again. Where, in the collection of medieval graffiti that we keep recording, is the smut? Where are the 'naughty' images - the phallus inscriptions, the smutty jokes, the sleazy graffiti? "Where", cackles the old lady, long past caring what others think of her, "are all the cocks"?

Well, it is actually a legitimate question. It's also a question that has been asked before in many different ways and in many different forms. Where, in short, is the subversive graffiti? Very recently I was contacted by the author of an American publication on graffiti through the ages - focussing upon graffiti as an act of political dissent or rebellion. Very nicely they asked if I had any good examples of medieval political or subversive graffiti, that they could add to their work? I had to decline - politely - and explain that we simply don't come across any. There are no "King John smells of wee" inscriptions, and most certainly no graffiti expressing such sentiments as "Down with the feudal system!", and "Peasants arise!". It just isn't there.

Well the American author obviously thought I was just being coy. He found it hard to believe that there simply wasn't anything like that amongst the medieval church graffiti. Perhaps he thought I was just being a wee bit staid, a wee bit English, and ignoring the graffiti that was deemed unseemly. Not the case I can assure you.

There are those who will argue that the political graffiti isn't present because the levels of literacy during the Middle Ages was so low. That the lack of political graffiti is simply the result of only the upper orders of society - the 'establishment' for want of a better term - could read and write. Now I'm not going to get in to that debate in too much detail, but suffice it to say that literacy levels in late medieval England are now considered to have been far, far higher than many of our Victorian historians would have us believe. Depending upon which 'authority' you happen to side with, current estimates for basic literacy sit at between 40% and 60%. However, that still leaves a bias towards the upper and clerical classes, making any analysis ambiguous to say the least. Indeed, if you want to study graffiti types that fall outside what may have been considered 'acceptable', it is far easier, and far more entertaining, to look instead at the area of good old fashioned, down to earth, smut! A form of inscription that, to put it bluntly, more often than not relies completely upon imagery. Words are not required...

The thing is, when you view graffiti as a whole, throughout history, smut is one of the key elements. It is one of the key features of continuity from the past to the present. Although as a recent article in the magazine Current Archaeology made clear, the symbol of the phallus was regarded by the Romans as both a mark of fertility and good luck, anyone studying Roman graffiti inscriptions will soon come to realise that it also went far beyond this 'formal' attribution. A quick glimpse at the graffiti inscriptions recorded at sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum (available in plain brown covers) will soon convince you that sexual graffiti was far more than a projection of fertility cults. There are numerous depictions of various sexual acts, alongside the usual "get it here" type inscriptions, and many linked with innuendo or downright smutty inscriptions. Similarly, just the same sort of depictions are found in seventeenth and eighteenth century graffiti - and a quick wander down to the local bus shelter or busy city underpass will soon convince you that it most certainly continues to this day. Although compared to some of the Roman inscriptions today it may even be considered a little 'tame'...
Roman graffiti from Pompeii

So, taken as a whole, sexual graffiti of one form or another can be found in graffiti inscriptions pretty much throughout history. Surely then it must also be turning up amongst the medieval inscriptions we are coming across? That other images and graffiti types continue without a fundamental break down the centuries is unquestionable. The compass drawn designs, or 'hexfoils', that we come across in such massive numbers are also the most common single motif you will find amongst the Roman graffiti at Pompeii - so why then does not the smut also continue? Well, the answer most probably has to do with location and function. Probably...

In terms of the church graffiti that we are recording the vast majority of identifiable inscriptions appear devotional in nature. From the ritual protection marks found in most churches, to the more formal devotional imagery of blessings, saints and Latin phrases, the inscriptions we are coming across are, as I have said many, many times before, simply prayers made solid in stone. They are expressions of faith; expressions of belief. Whilst there are most certainly secular inscriptions alongside them, the devotional graffiti forms the bulk of the material we record. They are located in and on a building of spiritual significance, and as such their location may indeed be a reinforcement of the potency of the prayer itself. They are site specific - and are therefore unlikely to represent the whole corpus of medieval graffiti. They are a representation of church graffiti only - and church graffiti appears to be, almost without exception, smut free!
Medieval 'festival' badge

So what about the rest of medieval graffiti? Does that contain the 'interesting' stuff? Is all the smut to be found in the medieval houses and barns, much like it is two centuries later? Were medieval cottages full of flying cocks and ribald imagery? Well, the rest of informal medieval decorative arts certainly had their fair share of such images. One need only look at a selection of the small leaden 'festival' badges in various European museum collections to realise that the medieval world had perhaps more than its fair share of such (sometimes surreal) imagery. However, in terms of the graffiti we may never really know. There are so few medieval vernacular buildings that survive without having undergone numerous restorations and renovations, that most vernacular graffiti has simply been lost. Wiped from the walls by generations of people actually living in these buildings. If such imagery was there, it was lost centuries ago. The smut, if it was ever present, has long since gone the way of the people who carved it... to dust.