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.

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