Friday 27 December 2019

The girl in the glass...

It is the eyes that are hard to forget. Heavily lidded, and almost sleepy, they stare past you at something sitting a few inches over your shoulder. They never look at you, and if I was asked to describe their colour I couldn't. I'd probably suggest a deep, rich brown, but with no element of conviction in my voice. For the colour has been drawn more from my imagination than from the reality before me. Oh, the hours I have spent staring at her form. Slowly caressing each tiny line of her face, admiring the full lips, and tracing the soft curve of her throat with my eyes.

And she is always there. Waiting for me, or so I like to think. Always there, and always perfect. I have stared at this beauty as the years have passed, in many a church. As I grow older, and fade from this world, she remains the same. Her beauty never fading. Timeless in the light.

She is the girl in the glass.
Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalen

I can't say exactly when I first saw her. It was many years past, and I forget the exact moment. She sits high in the windows of the north aisle of the church of St Mary Magdalen, Wiggenhall. A small fragment of what was once a far larger scheme of medieval glass that would have once filled these great spaces with coloured light. A quiet reminder that, despite the building feeling as though its ancient stones have remain unchanging and resolute, these old walls have seen more than their fair share of comings and goings, of alterations and transformations. For five centuries the girl in the glass has looked down on an ever changing, and eventually dwindling, congregation, whose brief lives must have seemed like mayflies in her eyes. Brief flashes of vitality across the flagstones, before they too were planted outside amongst their ancestors. Yet there she has remained, through reformation, civil war, famine and pestilence. A small fragment of painted glass with a story to tell.

The glass here belongs to a stylistic group known today as the 'Norwich school'. East Anglia is rightly famous for its medieval stained glass, and given the zeal of the iconoclasts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the amount of examples we have left - that have survived the stones and hammers of those who would smash their pale faces from the walls - really is something of a little miracle. There are several almost complete windows, such as the magnificent Toppes window in St Peter Mancroft church in Norwich, or the great expanse of glass in the east window at East Harling church - both repaired - but both unquestionable masterpieces. Scattered across the region you will also come across dozens of other churches that still proudly display their medieval glass - Warham, St Peter Hungate, Cley, Elsing, Stratton Strawless, Mileham, Ketteringham - to name but a handful. In some cases the medieval glass has been re-set within more modern restoration schemes, in others, such as at Colkirk, windows have been created from a surviving jumble of fragments, creating a mosaic of light that hides a wealth of charming, and sometimes disturbing, details.

Sir Robert Wingfield, East Harling church, Norfolk.

The glass that can be attributed to the Norwich school is distinctive, and contains a number of elements and characteristics that set it well and truly apart from other English glass of the period. The most obvious are the angels. Angels with curling golden hair, and suits of feathers - mimicking, some claim, the suits worn by those taking part in mummers plays of the period. The angels are more than distinctive, and are often shown playing a variety of medieval instruments, and are to be found at multiple churches across the region. Indeed, so alike are these angels that it is even possible to superimpose an angel from one site with an angel from many miles away. Copied from the same pattern-book, or drawn by the same hand. The faces of the angels are generic. Pleasing most usually, but of a generic 'type'. And I'm not even going to begin to discuss their earlobes.

Norwich school feathered angels, Hungate, Norwich.

These are the glorious Norwich school angels. A motif and style that appear so often that they are the generic tell-tale amidst many fragments of reformed glass. The marker of a single school, workshop, or even craftsperson.

Norwich school feathered angel, Bale, Norfolk

It isn't just the feathered angels with their generic that make the Norwich school distinctive. It is also the other faces they captured in the glass. The faces of the saints, and of the sinners. Faces that display the distinctions of reality upon them. Dark lines in the glass, capturing the essence of the individuals; their orbits marked out in the finest of brushstrokes, a loose curl of hair escaping from beneath a veil, and pale shadows showing depressions of their chins. These are, you cannot help but feel, images of real people. Portraits captured for centuries in the thinnest of fragile glass. These are, perhaps, the faces that they saw around them every day. The population of late medieval Norwich, fossilised in the glass of the furnace. Are these in fact the very crafts men and women of the Norwich school itself, or perhaps their friends and family, or the face of the girl they passed each day in the street?

In the most general of terms we really know very little about individual medieval artists and craftsmen. Unless they worked for the very elite echelons of society, including the major aristocracy or royal household, their names are generally lost to us. They only rarely signed their work, and it is unusual to be able to link and individual craftsperson to an individual piece of work. Their testaments are the works of sublime art that they left behind them, and their fame is often limited to being described, not by their own name, but as the 'Master of...'.

Warham St Mary, Norfolk.

However, this isn't quite the case when it comes to the late medieval stained and painted glass associated with the 'Norwich school'. Thanks to the work of scholars such as David King, and the Rev. Charles Woodforde, we actually know far more about the artists and craftsmen of the Norwich school than about almost any other group of craftsmen operating in late medieval England. We know, to a certain extent, how they operated from day to day, where some of their physical workshops were located, and even about the family relations involved within certain groups. We know some of the sites they were specifically commissioned to work on, and can link the names of individual craftspeople to actual surviving works of art.

For example, we know of the glazier William Moundford, a Dutchman who came to Norwich in the middle decades of the fifteenth century, where he was a glazier in the workshop of John Wighton. Moundford married a local woman called Helen, who is one of the few female glaziers of whom there is a record, and together they had a son called John - perhaps named for his Godfather and father's employer? When John Wighton eventually passed away, his own son Thomas took over the workshop, eventually reaching the esteemed height of Alderman within the city corporation. When Alderman Thomas too passed on, it was the young John Moundford who appears to have continued the work of them all, as is most probably the individual responsible for the stunning east window at East Harling. We know too of William Heyward, a glazier who is also known to have created monumental brasses, and that he became a freeman of the city in 1481. We know of his extensive property dealings, the fact that he had both Robert Balys and John Trenche as his apprentices, and that he too rose through the ranks to become a city councillor, constable, and eventually chamberlain and alderman.

Warham St Mary, Norfolk.

However, despite all we do know about these individuals and their work, there is still a far greater number of things that we do not - and probably never will. Like the re-set glass in the windows of many East Anglian churches, we are merely piecing together broken fragments to try and make sense of what was once a glorious whole.

So how does all this tie in with the glass in Magdalen church, and the enigmatic girl portrayed in the glass? Can it indeed shed some light on, if not who she might have been, but upon the individuals who created her? Whose muse may she have once been?

Rose and sunburst motif, Colkirk, Norfolk

The medieval glass there is most certainly of the Norwich school, and our familiar feathered angels with generic faces are evident high in the tracery. There are also fragmentary remains of the 'rose and sunburst' motif to be found amongst the glass, a symbol of the royal house of York. This suggests a likely date for the creation of the glass of between 1461 and 1483, when the Yorkists were in the ascendency, and a time when the Moundford family were at their busiest within the Wighton workshop. Glass expert David King has also studied the glass in Magdalen church, and has suggested that it is somewhat unusual in its subject matter. Although not all of the saints can be identified, those that can point to some unusual choices being made, with the inclusion of a number of only very rarely depicted additions, including St Britius, St Leger, St Callistus, and St Romanus. King believes this is due to the fact that the scheme took for its inspiration the Litanies of the Sarum Breviary, and that the glazing scheme was designed to echo the litany, and thereby act as a visual guide for the prayers of the congregation. It would most certainly make it an unusual scheme.

Where then does this leave 'our girl'? Where then does the girl in the glass fit into this cycle of litany and directed prayer? Well, the simple answer is - apparently nowhere. She doesn't fit. She is indeed entirely out of place.

This isn't the point that I launch into an extended monologue upon the litany of the Sarum breviary, you will undoubtedly be pleased to hear. Instead I simply invite you to look at the glass itself. To join me in staring at the girl in the glass, and then comparing her face, her style, her scale, with all the other saints depicted in the windows there, and it soon becomes apparent that she is indeed slightly out of place. Leaving aside the fact that her head is out of scale with the heads of the other saints painted there, the style is very different indeed. The hair and eyes are executed in a very different style, with the girl lacking the shading shown on the other heads, and she has been created with the minimal use of lines. Simplicity even. She stands out from the rest in a way that is clear to even the casual observer.

So where then does she belong? Well, we can't really say for sure. Was she even ever part of the same scheme, or even from the same church? Again we can't be sure. And the reason that we can't be sure is that the glass at Magdalen church has already seen multiple interventions, the most extensive taking place in the 1920s, when major 'restoration' was undertaken by Samuel Cladwell. Cladwell was undoubtedly talented, also working on the glass at Canterbury cathedral, but he also wasn't above moving this around a little to suit his own needs and tastes. A missing pane or panel could be replaced with another taken from elsewhere in the church, or even from somewhere else entirely. So, whilst our girl in the glass clearly doesn't quite fit in the upper reaches of the windows of the north aisle, she may always have found her home in this atmospheric church. Or not.

So I continue to stare up at her. Knowing that I will never truly know who she was, or where she was created for, or whose muse she once was. And as the light fades, and the shadows creep across the church, so too does she fade. Another day of radiant beauty passing into night, only for her to be awoken again by the first faint glimmer of the dawn. But now, in the gathering gloom, she is gone. Lost in shades of grey, as I stare up at the now opaque glass, set high in the cold stonework. I turn to go, the merest hint of an ancient soul standing beside me. A touch upon my shoulder...

Tuesday 24 December 2019

Twas the night before Christmas - when the Devil came to visit...

Twas the night before Christmas...

The depths of Winter. A time of traditions. A time to gather together. A time to join with friends and family. A time to huddle around the flickering flames of an open fire, and tell ghost stories...

So sit back this Christmas Eve, open the Quality Street and a bottle of something, and listen to my simple tale. A story of a dark and stormy night, the curse of the Devil, and the great black demon-hound known as Black Shuck.

You should also be aware that I am trying to fit in all the major clichés before New Year - so this is only going to get worse. You've been warned. However, by now you should at least be trying to work out why there are so few of the 'purple ones' in the average tin of Quality Street, as compared to those very indistinct and tedious fudge thingies, and thanking the Lord that they usually include so few of the coconut ones, that the odd cliché should slip by fairly unnoticed. Now where was I? Ah, yes...

It was a dark and stormy night...

August 4th, 1577. It began with the wind. A Summer breeze that gradually grew in strength as the daylight began to fade. Dark clouds gathered, and the people of the little town of Bungay, nestled in the Waveney valley on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, cast anxious glances to the sky. Lammas was just past, and for many this marked the beginning of the harvest season. A time for gathering in the crops, and long days out in the fields. But now a storm was coming, driven before the wind, and the harvest would be threatened.

The first drops of rain began to fall. Heavy and large as they splattered in to the dry earth, audible as they hammered into the lead and tile of the church roof. The sky was black now, a swirling mass of cloud, bringing darkness to the land long before the late Summer evening was due. And then came the thunder. Great echoing claps of thunder that cracked across the sky, and rolled down the valley above the Summer shrunken river. A storm was coming.

But this was no ordinary storm. This was no Summer blow, over and forgotten about in a few short hours, leaving the world refreshed and bright. This was a storm being driven by the devil. The rain began to pound and pummel the earth, beating down crops, turning to red ruin the soft fruits of the cottage gardens, and shredding the leaves on the trees where they stood. The thunder cracked across the sky, and flashes of bright white only lent greater form to the dark mass of boiling cloud, driven in to crazed patterns by the coiling wind. The devil himself had come to Bungay.

In fear, and fearing for their homes, lives and livelihoods, the good people of Bungay - for there were a few good people amongst them - ran to their place of safety. Through the driving mass of rain, and with the wind now screaming the devil's wrath around them, they made for the church. The great stone-built refuge that would protect them from the weather and the evil that came at them from the sky. And there, in the semi-darkness of an unnatural night, they cowered around guttering candles as the great storm hammered down onto the land. Hammered down on to their church.

The drawn faces of the terrified townspeople raised their eyes upwards, uttering prayers to heaven, and staring hard at the church roof that the devil himself was hammering. And then it came. A great crashing blast of thunder, a blinding light, and the doors of the church burst inwards - letting loose the devil within the church. In the shape of a great black hound, the devil leapt down the nave, crashing through the terrified townspeople, and leaving death and destruction wherever his great black paws touched. With wild mad eyes, the great beast lashed out, and bodies were tossed aside. Blood flowed, and white fire flicked across the heads of the cowering congregation. The church itself shook, the stones tearing themselves apart as the devil caressed them, and the spire came crashing down. Timber splintered, glass shattered, and the people were cast aside as the devil did his work. Death came to Bungay.

"All down the church in midst of fire, the hellish monster flew, and, passing onward to the quire, he many people slew".

By the time the storm began to die away, driving onwards to cause more destruction at Blythburgh in Suffolk, the church of St Mary was a wreck. The spire had gone, driven down through the roof of the nave, and amongst the mass of injured and bewildered people lay two forms that would move no more. The devil had come, and his price had been the lives of a man and boy, both burnt and curled amongst the debris. Their bodies as broken as the church around them. But the devil had left them again, and of the great hell-hound there was no sign. The beast had vanished with the storm, leaving only great burn marks upon the church door, where his claws had bitten into the timbers. The mark of the devil.

Taper burn marks on the door of Bungay church

And there they remain to be seen to this day. The claw marks of the great beast - the devil in animal form - burnt into the timbers of the ancient church door. Great claw marks of darkness, bearing witness to those terrifying events of that tragic night. The devil has left his mark upon the church. A warning to all, and a story that they tell in Bungay to this day, as visitors come to see the devil's paw print on the door of the church.

Except that they’re not, of course. But why let facts stand in the way of a good ghost story? Far more handy to claim some kind of notoriety for your town that is most likely the only interesting thing to have happened there. The marks are, of course, what we today term 'taper burn marks'. Deliberate burns placed upon the fabric of buildings to ward off evil, to protect the building and its inhabitants from harm, created by a light designed to drive out the darkness. Although once thought to have been created accidentally, the result of the careless use of tapers and candles, today they are generally accepted as having been made deliberately - for the most part. Experimental archaeology has also shown that they are actually rather tricky little blighters to create accidentally. The candle must be held against the timber at just the right angle, for just the right length of time, before the charred timber is scraped away, and the flame reapplied. And we are coming across them all over the place, in sometimes quite astonishing numbers. Sites such as Little Morton Hall, Gainsborough Old Hall, Plas Mawr, Knole, Sissinghurst Castle - all boast many hundreds of examples. However, it is of churches and the devil that we speak...

Edingthorpe church, Norfolk.

What seems exceedingly strange to me these days is just why the taper burn marks on the church doors at Bungay and Blythburgh have received quite so much attention? Why these two sites have been singled out, and stories grown up around these particular marks? They are, after all, not really very unusual at all. Now we know what we are looking for, and actually take the time to look, we find that these taper burn marks on church doors are actually commonplace. Sorry Bungay. Sorry Blythburgh. You aren't that special. In fact, if you visit an East Anglian church, and it has any of the original doors still in situ - be it the south door, north door, or even the west doors - then there is roughly a fifty percent chance that, on the back of it you will find taper burn marks. And it isn't just East Anglia, although we may have a higher percentage of surviving medieval doors than elsewhere. The same taper burn marks are found on the back of church doors across the country. There are also very probably a lot more out there we haven't noticed as yet. When we first began recording graffiti inscriptions in English churches a decade ago taper burn marks simply weren't on our radar. We didn't really look for them, and if they were present they were most probably overlooked, so there are almost definitely others out there that we have missed. Perhaps hundreds of marks on the backs of church doors.

So there is the first thing to note. The marks are found on the back of the church door. On the inside of the church. I'm sure there are exceptions to this rule out there, but they are few and far between. Even where the outside face of the door has been protected from weathering, that might eat away at any marks there, no such marks are found. It's only the inside face of the door that has them.

St Edmund's church, Acle, Norfolk.

And then there are the marks themselves. We have now recorded so many that there are certain patterns starting to emerge. Patterns that might be missed when viewing each site in isolation. So, whilst there are sites like Blythburgh and Bungay, where you have multiple burn marks on the back of the doors, these are a little bit unusual (there you go Blythburgh and Bungay, you are still a 'tiny' bit different). The majority of sites where these marks are being recorded tend to only have a single burn mark. A single taper burn - slap bang in the middle of the doorway. Just the one. It doesn't matter whether it's the north, south or west doors, and in the case of Brent Eleigh in Suffolk all three, but it will be just a single applied burn mark in the centre of the reverse of each door. Sometimes the mark is only lightly applied, but just as often it has been burnt and re-burnt, until the distinctive teardrop shape forms a deep hollow in the surface of the wood. In eastern Suffolk Timothy Easton has also noted that the marks are to be found alongside 'peep-holes' through the door. However, these 'peepholes' don't seem particularly common across the region, so in the sixty-plus sites where I have recorded these marks none were near such holes - because there weren't any holes. They are, after all, funny buggers down there in Suffolk.

Take the church at Brent Eleigh for example. A church that's worth a visit for just so many reasons. The medieval wall paintings in the chancel are simply stunning (and covered in early graffiti), the graffiti on the tower arch is a bit special too, as is the very fine parclose screen at the end of the south aisle. The locals are friendly, and very interested in the history of their lovely church, and they are quite used to people rocking up to stare at the walls. The church also appears to have all of its pre-reformation doors still intact - south, north, and at the west end - and all display taper burn marks. They don't quite follow what I have come to think of as the 'typical' pattern, but are still noteworthy. Where the two leaves of the door join you will find deeply burnt marks, extending on to each door. Each door also has a secondary mark applied, right in the centre. The placement appears very deliberate. Very precise.
Medieval wall paintings at Brent Eleigh, Suffolk

So what the actual feck is going on? These aren't quite the same patterns we are seeing in vernacular architecture, where the marks are associated with thresholds, gaps, openings, and vulnerable points such as chimneys and fireplaces. Certainly, in cases such as Brent Eleigh, you can argue that the marks are being placed at vulnerable points - where there may be a gap between the two doors, but at most of the sites this isn't the case. Just a single taper burn mark bang in the middle of the door. Is this offering some form of protection to the door as a whole? Protecting the entrance? Tempting... but probably not.

And the reason I say probably not? Because, as usual, I'm only telling you half the story.

There is another place in churches where we have also begun to regularly come across these taper burn marks. Not just on the doorways, but also on the medieval timber screens that divide areas of the church, one from the other. The rood screens between nave and chancel, and in particular, the parclose screens that divide off areas of the aisles, most usually to create a small chapel within the wider body of the church. And these marks are not to be found on the doorways through these screens, but on the main bodies of the screens themselves. The rails and dados, the panels and mullions. The screens may mark the divisions between areas of the church, and the doors in them mark the thresholds, but the screens are by their very nature permeable. The upper sections a delicately carved lacework of tracery and geometric designs. More air than timber.

So these marks do not add protection to a vulnerable threshold, but rather mark a whole boundary. They delineate a space, and divide the one from the other. The nave from the chancel, the outside from the inside. And this is a pattern we have seen elsewhere. A pattern that has been also noted in some of our vernacular buildings, where the taper burn marks are not gathered around the doorways, but rather spread around a room or space. At Gainsborough Old Hall for example, where the steward's room has a single taper burn mark placed centrally along each section of the four walls, both delineating and protecting a space. Marking out those boundaries.

Because boundaries are dangerous, and thresholds are just one example of a boundary. All boundaries mark the change from one to the other, be it from one space to the next, from inside to outside, or from dark to light. From light to dark. So on this evening in the depths of Winter, as the world shifts across another boundary, and we celebrate both the darkness, and the promise of future light, be wary. Boundaries are dangerous places... and the devil prowls the boundaries.

Tuesday 10 December 2019

Of books, book curses, and the wrath of librarians...

Yesterday I was linked in to a conversation on Twitter about some strange and unusual markings that had been found on the front-piece of a sixteenth century book. The symbols were circular, and one was bisected by a number of lines in the form of a star. I was asked if I had come across anything similar, as the markings seemed to be a bit of a puzzle to those studying the work. The answer was 'yes - all the damned time - and I am sure I've written about it somewhere'. It turns out I had started a blog on the subject, but just never got around to finishing it. As usual. So below is a version of that blog post. I have re-written sections of it to tie in with the excellent blog written by Elizabeth DeBold from the Folger library, and hope that the bits and pieces I have found will enhance and add to what she has been looking at. I have, however, left most of the swearing in.

Since I began the graffiti project about a decade ago it quickly became clear that there were certain symbols and motifs that turned up time and time again. To begin with they were most obvious amongst the graffiti, but as the project received more publicity people started emailing and messaging me with their own findings. In many cases they were intrigued that the marks they were coming across in their own fields of research were the same as those that I and the numerous volunteers were coming across etched into buildings. Years later and the photographs keep on coming. However, amongst some of the first people to contact me were book historians and librarians, who had come across these same markings on books in their own care and were somewhat puzzled as to why they were there, and what they meant? At first it was just one or two images of books, but the numbers soon began to increase, and we all soon realised that 'something' was going on.

Bodleian Library, Ms Rawl. 141

These marks are actually far more common on books than we at first realised, and once researchers have started looking for these simple annotations they really are turning up everywhere. Often as an informal drawing on the fly-leaves, sometimes on the covers, and occasionally even hidden amongst the more formal decoration and illumination. Compass drawn motifs, pelta designs, pentangles - multiple variations upon a theme - and occasionally even combinations of symbols.

A selection of typical 'holy signs' or ritual protection marks found on buildings and objects.

These symbols are exactly the same symbols and motifs that we are finding amongst the graffiti on the walls of our historic houses,churches and cathedrals. Not just similar, but the same. It is a language or canon of symbolism that crosses just about every boundary. They can be found upon buildings, upon fonts, upon parish chests, upon beds, upon seals, upon pilgrim badges, upon jewellery, and as we have seen - upon books. They are quite literally universal in pre-reformation and early modern western Europe. To be blunt, they get bloody everywhere.
Bodleian Library, ms 57-2

So the big questions have to be - what do they mean, and what was their supposed function?

All these signs and symbols are part of a group of markings that are often referred to today as 'apotropaic' marks, or 'ritual protection marks', or more commonly misreferred to as 'witch marks'. Put simply, they are markings that are designed to ward off evil, and offer some form of 'protection'. Today a lot of people tend to class these markings as being part of some sort of superstitious practice - often referred to as 'folk magic' or 'folk belief'. However, over the last decade it has become clear that this attitude is generally a massive over simplification, and that the use of these markings and signs was fundamentally embedded within the everyday practices of the medieval church. They are used by all levels of society, including the parish priest, and turn up on a regular basis amongst the formal decoration of the orthodox church. The use of these symbols was no more a 'superstitious' practice than many of the other traditions of the early church, including the blessing of the farmer's plough, or even, dare I say it, the Mass itself.

A lot of these symbols, if not all, have their origins in the pre-Christian period. Take the six petal rosette, for example, also variously known as a 'daisy wheel', 'hexfoil', or 'geometric'. This familiar symbol is the single most common motif recorded amongst the graffiti inscriptions at the Roman site at Pompeii, where it appears to have been regarded as a symbol associated with the sun. It also turns up on Roman altars, particularly in northern Europe, and on Roman grave markers, where it is to be seen alongside a number of other previously identified spiritually significant symbols. However, the early Christian church was a bit handy when it came to appropriating the myths, legends, and symbols of those who came before, and the six petal rosette was quickly swept up by the early Christians. It's associations with the sun and concepts of rebirth and renewal fitted well with the newly developed Christian message, and most particularly with the rite of baptism. As a result it entered the formal imagery of the early church, and in this chilly little island stuck in the north sea, it became the single most common decorative element that has been recorded on twelfth century baptismal fonts.

C12th font, west face, Sculthorpe church, Norfolk

However, as with all these symbols, such a straightforward interpretation is also usually a far too simplistic interpretation. From the twelfth century onwards in England the six petal rosette is also to be found being used as a substitute or replacement for the more traditional cross or crucifix. At churches such as Eaton near Norwich, and Cerne Abbas in Dorset (and possibly Reigate in Surrey, where only the outline survives), the six petal rosette was actually used in place of the traditional equal armed cross as a church consecration cross. Likewise, there are a whole series of medieval grave markers known as cross slabs, that are found predominantly in the north of England, where the central motif of the four armed cross has been directly substituted by the six petal rosette. In these cases it appears that the symbols associations have gone beyond simple links with baptism, to being regarded as a substitute and alternative to the cross or crucifix. In the West Country the six petal rosette motif was traditionally even known as the 'symbol of the Passion', or 'flower of the Passion', again reinforcing the links between the motif and the cross or crucifix. As such, the motif would carry with it exactly the same potent symbolism, and apotropaic function, as the cross itself. The cross is, after all, one of the most powerful and protective of all Christian symbols and the sign of the cross has long been recognised as having a demonstrable apotropaic function across the Christian world. It is therefore logical to assume that symbols that act as alternatives, or substitutes, for the cross can be regarded as having been regarded as having similar, if not identical, functions. In a number of the Baltic states, where these symbols were still widely used until very recent times, they are known as 'holy signs', and are as much a part of lay piety as any other part of the church's teachings and imagery.

Six petal rosette used as a consecration cross, Eaton, Norfolk
And so, as these markings turn up on just about every other type of structure and artefact, I'd be more surprised if they didn't turn up on books as well. And they do, in quite considerable numbers.

Of particular interest are a whole series of medieval Jewish chronicles, where these motifs - and in particular the six petal rosette - form part of the formal decoration. In these manuscripts the motifs are actually formed of micrography (from the Greek, and literally meaning 'small writing'), where the symbols were actually created using text to form their shape. A mix of reading, writing and imagery, where the devotional text forms an image with spiritual associations. A double whammy as it were.


So as with the Jewish works, these symbols appear to have been added to the books to offer a form of spiritual protection. You marked your books in the same way that you marked your house, the box in which you held your valuables, the bed in which you slept - in the same manner you marked your child with the sign of the cross during baptism. All of these mechanisms were designed to offer an additional level of protection.


As with all of these symbols it is impossible to argue that the beliefs associated with them in the twelfth century continued unaltered through into the early modern period. Were people inscribing these same marks into sixteenth century books, or seventeenth century buildings, still thinking of these marks as alternatives and substitutes for the cross? Well, it is impossible to be certain in every case, but we do have some very well documented examples where, over time, the meanings and associations of a particular symbol shifts and evolves - an evolution of belief as it were. The example I always use (sorry!) is the pentangle. Today the symbol is largely associated with magic, witchcraft, and even the modern Wiccan movement. However, we know from the fourteenth century poem 'Gawain and the Green Knight' that in the later Middle Ages the symbol was deemed to be a Christian one, representing the 'five wounds of Christ' and the 'sign of Solomon', amongst other things. So, at some point in the centuries between then and now the meaning of that particular symbol has evolved, until it now actually has almost exactly the opposite associations to that which it began with.

I'm not arguing that this is the case with all these symbols. Some indeed are still used by the church to this day, and have overt religious connotations. However, what appears likely from the evidence is that for many of these symbols the direct religious associations diminished, and they evolved into symbols that were simply regarded as being 'protective', or at the most base level, perhaps even just 'lucky'. What is unquestionable though is that they continued to be used. On bloody everything.

C16th/C17th ring with apotropaic decoration.

The reality is that these strange markings shouldn't even really be regarded as particularly unusual in relation to book history. They are there to offer a level of protection to the book, and are simply another aspect of a concept that book historians and librarians are really already very familiar with - the book 'curse'.

Book curses - you've all heard of them right? Book curses? No? Well, we aren't talking about those weird people who display their paperbacks with the spines towards the wall, so that the multiple colour of the books don't interfere with their pale aesthetic. They probably should be cursed, but this is something completely different. These were written curses that were applied to ancient texts, most usually to deter thieves, or to 'encourage' the return of lost, stolen, or borrowed books.  The wording of these curses often invoked God, suggesting some form of divine retribution for those committing crimes against books and librarianship, and some of the medieval examples also contain an image of the cross for enhanced efficacy and potency. However, book curses carry on well into the post-medieval period, with the most recent that I have personally come across being applied to a book published in 1835. The 'curse' contains the name of the book's owner, 'Sarah Jane Webster', and the rhyme 'Steal not this book for fear of shame, for here you see the owners name. And if I catch you by the tail, I'll walk you off to Leicester gaol'. Powerful stuff for anyone that has visited Leicester... You can read more about book curses here.

The similarity between the better known book curses and these symbols is therefore clear. As many of the symbols themselves are alternatives or substitutes for the more traditional cross, carrying with them the apotropaic functions usually associated with the cross or crucifix, they are simply adding a layer of spiritual protection to the book. But unlike a lock or a book clasp, these motifs and symbols offered a protection that actually invoked God in aiding in that protection. And who would want to annoy God? I've seen him on Twitter, and he can be quite testy at times...

Sunday 12 May 2019

Blurred Boundaries: magic, graffiti, and the medieval church

"Two householdsboth alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene, from ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean."

Well, to be totally honest, it was Waterstones cafe in Norwich rather than Verona, and the two households were a pair of forty-something mums, accompanied by two teenage girls who may, perhaps when I was looking elsewhere, have looked up from their phone screens. They were probably messaging each other about the horrors of having to be seen in public with a 'parent'. We've all been there.

I was only there by accident anyway, my favourite coffee venue - the Little Red Roaster* -  being stuffed to capacity, so I fell back on a Waterstones pot of tea for one, and their rather good cake selection. See, I can be civilised. The mums and teens were on the next table, so I do have an excuse for overhearing their conversation. Not many of us on the tables in that vicinity had much of a choice as it turned out.

What followed was a discussion. I use the term 'discussion' in this context rather loosely. The discussion became, at times, almost heated - or at least animated enough to make at least one of the teenagers briefly glance up from their phone. It had begun in the teenage literature section of the store, with one of the mums finding fault with the popularity of fiction that appeared to involve vampires, werewolves, and the supernatural. She wasn't even keen, it transpired, on Harry Potter. It would, she appeared to firmly believe, send the wrong message to the young adults reading such books, and legitimised the occult and ideas of magic. It was definitely not the message she wanted to send to her daughter (slight raised eyebrows in front of a phone screen). The other mum was of the opposite opinion. Anything that got young people reading, and away from their phones, was a good thing. Anyway, she argued, it was all harmless, and none of it was real. However, the discussion only really got intense when she pointed out that Christianity was pretty much the same. It was just another form of 'magic' and 'superstition', and the fact that it was seen as acceptable by mum number one, whilst Supernatural and Harry Potter were not, was just a matter of perspective.

The actual shock and outrage of mum number one was palpable, and I get the feeling that the rest of Saturday's shopping trip may have been 'strained'. It may not have been an 'ancient grudge', but 'new mutiny' was most certainly not far from the surface.

So really it is all down to the definition of what does and does not constitute 'magic'? Not a new argument I'll admit. Just about everyone who has ever written about the areas that sit outside the orthodox beliefs of the medieval church has felt the need to try and define exactly what magic really is. That this is the case is really perhaps fundamental to any analysis of magic in the pre-reformation era. The exact definition of what constituted magical activity is by no means set and standard, and varies greatly depending upon which area, era, or which evidence, you choose to study. And the same that is true now was also true at the time. Cases that found themselves before the church courts dealing with what we may generically term 'magical activities' were often there, not to bring down the might of the medieval church and hand out just retribution, but were rather brought before the learned authorities of the church to decide whether any wrongdoing had actually taken place? Had the activities of the individual brought before the court actually crossed the boundary between what was theologically acceptable, and that which was not? It was most certainly the argument of many a defendant that their activities had been lawful within the eyes of the church, and that they had been acting not against the church or the will of God, but, if not with His overt blessing and collusion, at least within the loose frameworks of theology and belief accepted by the Church.

For the early Church the definition of magic was, at least on paper, fairly straightforward, and typically hostile. As Ronald Hutton makes clear, the church authorities regarded 'all attempts to wield spiritual power to achieve material ends as demonic unless deployed by its own accredited representatives'. The situation would appear straightforward, giving, in the simplest of terms, a complete monopoly on spiritually influencing the material world to the church and its appointed officers. If such activities lay outside the church then they were coming, not from God, but from the devil. This overriding position encompassed all forms of magical activity - from formal ritual magic, to charms, scrying and divination - at least technically. However, whilst the 'official' position of the Church as an entity was exceedingly clear, the realities of the day-to-day, particularly at a parish level, were often very different.

Whilst all levels of the church may condemn 'maleficium', essentially the acts of witches and witch craft, what might be considered less harmful acts, such as healing charms and divination, were clearly tolerated at a parish level. Although this undoubtedly altered from parish to parish, and there were unquestionably instances when even the most benign wise woman or cunning man found themselves facing accusations or inquisition from the church authorities, it creates a deep seated ambiguity when examining medieval attitudes towards magic. All magic was formally condemned, and yet some magic was tolerated, but there were no definite forms or guidelines that would indicate when the line had been crossed from one to the other, and a realism that, even were there clear lines of demarcation, they could shift from one time or place to another.

The situation became more ambiguous still when these acts of what might be termed petty magic were discovered to have been carried out by the priests and officers of the church itself. Where records do survive, and they are admittedly relatively few and far between, it is clear that one of the main categories of individual who find themselves facing inquiries into their magical activities are actually parish priests and other members of the clergy. Those who should have been staunchly upholding the official church position that all forms of magic were unlawful, were the very people being accused of carrying out such acts.

The gatehouse of St Benet's Abbey. Watercolour by David Killick.

In some cases the misdemeanours of those in holy orders was on a scale far beyond the casual and everyday charms and incantations, and may relate specifically to the act of summoning demons and spirits. The case of William Stapleton in the early sixteenth century is perhaps one of the most complete and enlightening. A full account of Stapleton's activities, and 'all things committed and done by me', were detailed in a long letter that he wrote to Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII. Stapleton was, by his own admission, a monk of St Benet's Abbey in Norfolk. Whilst residing at the abbey Stapleton was brought two books relating to the summoning of spirits, the Thesaurus Spirituum and the Secreta Secretorum, by one 'Denys of Hofton', who had had them in turn from the vicar of Watton. From the other instruments supplied by Denys it is clear that Stapleton was intent on undertaking a campaign of 'treasure hunting' with the aid of spirit guides. Such activities were not wholly uncommon in the period, and usually involved digging into ancient sites, barrows, and burial grounds in the hope of finding precious metals.

Stapleton was obviously not wholly happy with his vocation as a monk, having fallen foul of his superiors due to his tardiness and general failure to carry out his duties in the church. He therefore applied to buy his freedom from his vows, possibly becoming a solitary hermit instead, but was refused due to his poverty and inability to raise sufficient funds. However, the Prior was not wholly without sympathy, or perhaps just desiring to see the back of such a lacklustre example to his fellow monks, so granted him a six month leave of absence in which he could attempt to raise sufficient funds to buy his freedom. If he failed to raise the money, at the end of the six month period Stapleton was to return meekly to his cloistered life.

Stapleton's next few months were characterised by what can be termed feverish activity. In association with a number of ever changing individuals he set out on numerous expeditions across Norfolk and Suffolk, working for himself or a variety of patrons, to search for hidden treasures. He was almost wholly without any form of success, with the exception of his earning a rather lavish reward of £46 for carrying out an unspecified act that he did not care to talk about - but appears to have been not directly related to his treasure hunting activities. However, Stapleton's abject failure to locate hidden treasures is perhaps of less interest than the community of magical practitioners that it brought him into contact with, and which he documented in detail to Thomas Cromwell. Whilst Stapleton's account is at times fragmentary, and obviously glossing over areas that he would rather not discuss, what is very clear is that a large number of those individuals involved in his immediate circle of practitioners were in holy orders. These included the parson of Lesingham, the parish priest of Leiston, the parish priest of Gorleston, and the parson of Wanstrowe, several of whom were clearly already engaged in these activities, and had access to further magical volumes.
Stapleton's account is by no means alone. I could talk of the reverend John Betson who, in 1564, was ordered to hand in to the church authorities books which he had used in ceremonies to help his parishioners recover stolen goods. The three Norfolk priests who, in the same year of 1586, were all accused of 'conjuring'. The list goes on. However, what makes Stapleton's account so informative is that it goes beyond just the, never dry, accounts of the church courts. It isn't just a list of who did what, with whom, and which animal was involved, but gives a glimpse into the diversity of these networks that sat upon the fringes of the church. The men of religion who dabbled with things that sat outside what might be thought of as their own realms. They didn't delve deliberately into the dark arts, but they most certainly tried their luck in a good variety of grey areas. They operated on the boundaries, in more ways than one.

These boundaries between the formal teachings of the church, and the informal beliefs of the medieval parish, are an area I have become familiar with. It is my area of study. The ritual protection marks, taper burn marks, concealed items, of the late medieval and Tudor church. The 'ritual' of the medieval parish that sat outside anything you will find in the Bible or Book of Common Prayer. The actions, ceremonies and rituals for which evidence will be lacking to historians who study only the formal texts, but evidence for which is writ large on every church and cathedral that survives from the Middle Ages. The acts of the 'other'. The evidence is carved into the stones, the glass, the timber, and the lead - all there to be read by anyone who cares to look. However, these areas of ritual - or worship - do not sit outside the confines of the church, they are not separate from the prayers of the parish priest, but rather a physical manifestation and reinforcement of those prayers and offerings. They are complex, they are nuanced, they are sometimes indecipherable, but they are most certainly no more outside the beliefs of the church than Stapleton's prayers to God before he attempted to summon spirits to his aid. They are not even superstitions, but rather what happens when orthodox theology meets lay piety and tradition head on. The result is not a chaotic crash, and violent mangling of beliefs, but rather a pragmatic compromise and assimilation. A mingling of beliefs. The early church should at least be familiar with THAT concept. Waterstones sells books on the subject.

*shameless plug in the hope of a free cup of coffee

Sunday 14 April 2019

Devil's doors: evidence, traditions and superstitions

A new book came out a few months ago that deals with Norfolk folklore - 'This Hollow Land: Aspects of Norfolk Folklore' by a pleasant chap called Peter Tolhurst. It's a fine book, and has already won an award, and everyone with an interest in the subject should immediately go out and buy a copy. Preferably from a local independent bookshop. Except sadly you can't. It has already sold out. See, I told you it was good. There are many reasons that I rate this book, not least that it has medieval graffiti on the front cover, and I even get the odd mention or two, which is always nice. It rather makes you feel that all those hours spent in freezing cold churches haven't been totally in vain. Probably.

However, when I first read the book I was a little taken aback. A little shocked even. I may even admit to being a tiny bit pissed off. You see, the first section of the book deals with the history of studying East Anglian folklore, and gives a nicely concise run through of all the major characters that have written upon the subject over the last few centuries. It charts, in effect, the development of folklore studies in the region. All the big names are there, dealt with chronologically, outlining their triumphs and achievements. Walter Rye, Enid Porter, George Ewart Evans - all the big hitters in local folklore and tradition - and then me. At the end. The last couple of paragraphs.

In truth it is barely a mention, but I will admit to being a bit taken aback. Leaving aside the fact that my name was being mentioned alongside some of the most influential of local writers, which I was slightly in awe of, it was the fact that I was being portrayed as someone who had contributed to the development of folklore. Folklore! Bloody folklore!

An overreaction I know, but the thing is that I have always considered what I do to be archaeology rather than any other more specific area of study. I have nothing against folklorists, but whatever way you look at it, there is still a certain sniffy snobbery amongst mainstream academics against those who study things like folklore. There is a suggestion that it lacks any real and tangible evidence. Even after decades of sterling work by individuals and organisations like the Folklore Society, the attitudes persist, and I suppose that is why I have always argued that all of the graffiti studies sit within the field of archaeology rather than anything else.

It is, in the end, all down to the evidence. Many academic disciplines study, in depth, a single strand of evidence. That strand of evidence is often formed of a mass of material, but it doesn't go beyond its own self limiting boundaries, and when it does it is sometimes a mere nod towards the term 'context'. The study of archaeology however, is the study of the material culture of the past. A material culture that, at least in my interpretation, takes in everything from the graffiti on the walls, to building chronologies, the written records, and the individual artefacts. I will even, at a push, talk to art historians. Archaeology is, in my eyes at least, the study of all forms of evidence - with the potential to draw all forms of conclusions. Even, upon occasion, to realise that different forms of evidence can never actually be reconciled, but with the secondary realisation that those historians that confine themselves to studying a single form of evidence may well be missing a trick or two.

This is quite a difficult concept for some people to apparently embrace. That two sets of evidence can be wholly contradictory, and yet, at the same time, correct. Some years ago I wrote about a tradition of the church that to be buried on the north side of the church was considered to be unfavourable. That the north side of the churchyard, being often in shadow, was thought of as being the less desirable place for your mortal remains to rest. The north door of the church itself, which led out into this unfavourable area, was also known as the Devil's door - for it was here that evil spirits were to be found.

Since writing that piece it has caused some controversy. Several well regarded historians have produced written counter arguments, stating that there simply isn't any evidence that this was the case, one describing the notion that people avoiding being buried on the north side of churchyards was no more than 'Victorian nonsense', and that the archaeology of churchyards 'proved' that this wasn't the case. Their arguments have been well researched, well evidenced, cogent, and broadly correct - and yet, at the same time, have largely missed the point.

My statement about the existence of a 'tradition' that considered the north side of the churchyard to be an 'unlucky' place to be buried is also wholly correct. Such a tradition existed, and existed at least as far back as the middle of the seventeenth century - at which time it was regarded as being an ancient, well known, and widely believed superstition - and this tradition has been often repeated throughout the centuries since then.

The "Exemplary Death of Mr Benjamin Rhodes, Steward to Thomas, Earl of Elgin", a pamphlet published in 1657, tells us that Rhodes himself requested he be buried on the north side of the churchyard in an attempt to 'crosse the received superstition' that burial there was unfavourable. A manuscript from the 1730s, once in the possession of the Bishop of St Asaph, clearly stated that 'None but excommunicated, or persons executed, or very poor, and friendless people are buried on the north side of the churchyard' (National Library of Wales, ms 2576).

Half a century later Gilbert White, writing in 'The Antiquities of Selborne' (1789), bemoans the fact that his parishioners avoid being buried on the north side of the churchyard, leaving the south side cluttered and overflowing. However, White noted that 'two or three families of best repute' had recently taken to being buried upon the less crowded north side, in the hope that 'their example be followed by the rest of the neighbourhood'. In 1801 Richard Colt-Hoare visited the churchyard of Gwyddelwern in Denbighshire, where he observed that 'the custom of not burying on the north side is scrupulously adhered to. On the other sides (sic) the graves are crowded'. The same year the Reverend W. Bingley also visited Wales, where he 'observed that, in most parts of North Wales, the same practice prevails which is common in England, of crowding all the bodies into that part of the church-yard which is south of the church'.

In 1899 the Reverend George Tyack, writing in his 'Lore and Legend of the English Church', claims that the tradition or superstition, call it what you will, was still at large, leaving old churchyards with 'few mounds or memorial stones on the northern side, whilst the southern one may be inconveniently crowded'. George Tyack was indeed a Victorian, but the evidence is very, very clear that the tradition existed, and was common, many centuries earlier.

Exactly why the north side of the churchyard might have gained the reputation, at least by the seventeenth century, of being the least favourable area to be buried in is open to question. However, there are certainly a few more old 'traditions' - many of which are supported by solid documentary evidence - that we might want to consider that do proffer some explanation at least.

As mentioned above, the north side of the churchyard was where those who had died un-baptised were reputedly buried - the still-born and infants who died before baptism. Strictly speaking they should not have been buried in consecrated ground at all, and should have been buried outside the churchyard, condemned as they were to eternal hell (the concept of 'limbo', a neither 'here nor there' state where un-baptised innocents went after death, is a relatively modern concept - invented by a Church that realised that eternal damnation in such cases might be 'hard to sell'). Although archaeology provides enough evidence of female burials that include that of a new born to suggest that such rules were not strictly obeyed, there are documentary references that indicate that the letter of the law was occasionally applied. Writing in the fifteenth century, John Mirk referred to a woman who had died in labour before the child was born, resulting also in the death of the child. Mirk recorded that it was ruled that the mother could be buried in the parish churchyard, but only after the dead child had been removed from her body, so that it could be buried elsewhere - outside the consecrated churchyard. In a similar vein, in 1398 a royal licence was granted to enclose part of the cemetery of Herford cathedral, with one of the supposed reasons for this being that it was to prevent the unlawful and secret burial of un-baptised children within the precinct (Daniell, C., Death and Burial in Medieval England).

However, the pragmatic parochial approach more generally appears to have been to bury them within the churchyard, and often against the northern churchyard wall or enclosure. Similarly, executed criminals and suicides, when not being buried at the local crossroads, face down and with a wooden stake through the heart or mouth, were reputedly interred just outside the northern edge of the churchyard - as close to consecrated ground as possible, without actually being able to enter it. It was only as recently as 1823 that an Act was passed allowing the burial of suicides within the churchyard itself, and then only without formal ceremony, and between the hours of 9pm and midnight. The same treatment was reserved for those formally excommunicated by the church. Like the unbaptised infants they should have been excluded from churchyard burial, but parishes often just turned a blind eye to such practices, as long as they were discrete. The burial register of Low Ham in Somerset recorded that the excommunicate Andreas Symock was buried in 'the northern corner of the churchyard, but by what person or persons I know not'. The author's claim that the burial had been carried out by 'persons unknown' was simply a way of ensuring that those who had buried Symock in consecrated ground would avoid the punishments that the church regulations stipulated they should receive for carrying out such an act.

Therefore, the association between the north side of the cemetery and burials of the condemned and damned may well have led to a reluctance for 'good Christians' to be buried there. This association with evil, misfortune and the dark may well also be the origins of the tradition behind the north door of the church being known as the Devil's door. The tradition is certainly widespread, but it's origins are unclear, despite it having been around for several centuries.

Edric Holmes, writing in 1920, repeated the tradition with reference to churches in Sussex, and certainly believed it to have been an ancient association - as did George Tyack, who repeated it in 1899. Nearly seventy years earlier, in 1832, the church of Carlton-in-Lindrick in Nottinghamshire demolished the whole north wall of the north aisle, in the process destroying the small doorway located near the western end, that was known locally as the 'Devil door'. The whole tradition has been recently examined by Dr Nick Groves, who has written a concise paper upon the use of the north door in the formal functions and activities of the medieval church ( ) where he concludes that the tradition is 'a piece of unintelligent post reformation antiquarianism'. Dr Groves also concludes that the tradition most probably had its origins in the fact that the northern side of the church was associated with the devil, and that these northern doors became so tainted by association.

So we have an unquestionable documentary tradition, stretching back over three and a half centuries, that states that being buried on the north side of the churchyard was considered unlucky. There really isn't any denying it. It's there in black and white. However, the counter argument, that what archaeology is available indicates that there is no such bias in the evidence, is also true. There isn't any denying that either. Viewed in isolation the two standpoints, the two strands of evidence, are completely incompatible. Which is why good historians and archaeologists rarely use only one form of evidence. In the same vein we have a tradition of the north door of a church being known as the Devil's door stretching back at least two centuries. It is, I personally believe, and as Dr Groves argues, a post reformation invention. However, it is also a long held tradition, and to try and trace its origins, if at all possible, may well give insights into just how such beliefs come to be established.