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...