Medieval graffiti: the lost voices of England’s churches in the Middle Ages

From beasts and demons to Latin prayers for the dead, the walls of England’s medieval churches and cathedrals are covered with inscriptions and doodles. But what do they tell us about the Middle Ages?

Lidgate, Suffolk. Two crowned heads inscribed into the pillars. (Credit: The Norfolk and Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey)

In his new book, Medieval Graffiti, archaeologist and leading expert Matthew Champion explores the meaning behind the graffiti that has, until recently, been almost entirely overlooked. He draws on thousands of examples from surviving medieval churches across England.

Here, writing for History Extra, Champion explains the significance of medieval graffiti – the lost voices of the medieval church…

Today, graffiti is generally seen as both destructive and anti-social, and certainly not something that should be either welcomed or encouraged in our parish churches. However, that attitude is a relatively modern one. During the Middle Ages, graffiti appears to have been both accepted and acceptable, leaving many of our medieval churches and cathedrals quite literally covered with inscriptions.

Generally speaking, most of these inscriptions had been largely overlooked except by a very small handful of academics and scholars, and are still often described simply as the creations of ‘bored’ choirboys; paradoxically in many cases long before there actually were any choirboys to be found in the church. In recent years, however, new large-scale surveys of these early inscriptions have revived interest in medieval graffiti, and have seen it become the focus of intense academic study.

Field Dalling, Norfolk. A medieval allegory carved into the stones of the church that later became a focus for public devotion. (Credit: The Norfolk and Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey)

So the question must really be – why study graffiti in the first place? What can the scratches on the walls possibly tell us about the past that we cannot find elsewhere? The answer is actually a very straightforward one: if you walk in to just about any one of the thousands of surviving medieval churches scattered across the English countryside, you will undoubtedly see a wealth of features surviving from the Middle Ages – stained glass windows, the sheen of alabaster monuments and the dull glow of memorial brasses set in to the floor. However, almost without exception, all these survivals were created by or for the top five or 10 per cent of medieval society; the parish elite that could, quite simply, afford to have themselves memorialised.

Compass drawn designs, many of which were designed to function as ‘ritual protection marks’, are amongst the most common finds in medieval church graffiti. (Credit: The Norfolk and Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey)

Where, then, are the lower orders of medieval society? Where are the common folk who for generations worshipped within the church walls? Where are the memorials to the simple commoners who paid for, and in many cases actually helped construct, these monuments to their ‘betters’?

Well, these individuals do turn up occasionally within legal agreements, wills and manor court rolls. However, in most cases these documents are atypical. Put simply, they represent times when those individuals came into contact with the authority of either the civil administration or the church, and they most certainly do not represent those peoples’ everyday interactions with their church as either a building or an institution. Their voice has been muted and distorted by the conventions of the records themselves.

A typical late medieval example of ship graffiti from Cley-next-the-Sea in Norfolk. This particular type of vessel, known as a ‘Cog’, would have been a common site around England’s coast in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. (Credit: The Norfolk and Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey)

This, then, is what makes the study of early graffiti inscriptions both worthwhile and utterly fascinating. Unlike almost every other surviving record from the Middle Ages, the graffiti inscriptions have the potential to have been created by anyone and everyone; from the lord of the manor and parish priest all the way down the social scale to the very lowliest of commoner. They are, quite literally, the lost voices of the medieval church.

What, then, are these newly rediscovered voices actually telling us? Well, the most obvious point to make is that these early inscriptions are very different from most of the modern graffiti that blights our bus shelters, underpasses and public toilets (technically known as ‘latrinalia’). Putting aside street artists such as Banksy, modern graffiti tends to be largely territorial or memorial in nature; a simple ‘I was here’ or ‘this is mine/ours’. It would be wrong to argue that it is meaningless, but its meaning is a very long way away from the tens of thousands of early graffiti inscriptions that litter the walls of our medieval churches.

Worlington, Suffolk. One of a large number of heraldic inscriptions found in the church, but too generic in nature to ascribe to an individual. (Credit: The Norfolk and Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey)

Recent research into English medieval graffiti inscriptions has shown that, while there are a number of inscriptions that might be nothing more than the doodlings of bored choirboys, the vast majority of the inscriptions appear to be devotional or religious in nature. They are, in the very simplest of terms, prayers made solid in stone.

In some cases the inscriptions are literally that – Latin prayers that wouldn’t be out of place in a traditional church service, etched deep into the stonework; prayers for the safe return of long overdue ships or for a good harvest, and prayers for the souls of a dear departed family member.

All Saints, Litcham, Norfolk. A prayer of a play on words? The name ‘Martyn’, a cross and a heart, may well be a medieval prayer, or perhaps a rebus of the name Martyn Crossheart? (Credit: The Norfolk and Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey)

Others are less easy to decipher. Ritual protection marks, more commonly known as ‘Witch Marks’, designed to ward off demons and the ever-present ‘evil eye’, clustered around medieval fonts. Elaborate crosses cut deep into the arches of doorways in memory of vows undertaken, or asking for God’s blessing upon a new and perhaps hazardous undertaking. Medieval ships complete with crew members still sailing across the stonework after many long centuries, and images of demons pinned to the walls for evermore by deeply etched pentangles and ‘demon traps’.

Norwich cathedral. Musical notation is a very rare discovery amongst medieval graffiti, and is usually only found at larger site such as cathedrals; perhaps reflecting the fact that it was only in such places that music was formally taught. (Credit: The Norfolk and Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey)

The walls of our medieval churches are full of minute testaments to faith and belief that were once commonplace. They tell the stories of life, love, hope and fear within the English medieval parish; a record that depicts sudden death and the perils of the soul that, every day, faced our ancestors. Most of all, though, these scratched mementoes by the long dead tell us about people.

A single church, such as that of St Mary’s at Troston in Suffolk, can hold many hundreds of early inscriptions, ranging from the mundane to the seriously outlandish. On the tower arch sit elaborate compass-drawn designs dating back to the time when the church was first built and consecrated by the bishop. A little further up the stonework is the name ‘Johed Abthorp’ (John Abthorpe), lord of the manor in the second half of the 15th century.

Lindsey, Suffolk. An elegant and beautifully inscribed Tudor Rose motif whose significance remains a mystery. (Credit: The Norfolk and Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey)

On the opposite side of the arch, which is now badly decayed by centuries of wear and damp, are a long series of dates from the turbulent time of the Civil War. Just below them are the sadly defaced outlines of two medieval ships; prayers, perhaps, for safe voyages undertaken by local churchgoers. The eastern end of the church is covered in even more graffiti, while the north side of the chancel arch is so densely covered with inscriptions that it is difficult to identify individual designs. Only two or three things can be made out; a man in late medieval costume is shown with his hands raised in prayer, an outline of a medieval shoe and the elaborate medieval text inscription that simply reads ‘Deo’ (God).

A tentative reconstruction of how medieval graffiti inscriptions would have originally appeared; scratched through the medieval pigment that decorated all churches to reveal the pale stone beneath. (Credit: The Norfolk and Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey)

On the south side of the chancel arch the graffiti takes a sinister bent. Just below a beautifully executed medieval coat-of-arms can be seen another outline of a medieval shoe. However, this time scrawled alongside it, and partly obscuring it, is a small head of a demon. Admittedly, demon imagery was common in the medieval church, with colourful and grotesque examples often found casting the souls of the damned down into the pit of hell on the surviving doom paintings that can still be seen above many chancel arches. However, the number of graffiti examples here is noteworthy.

Higher up the arch is a second demon inscription, this time shown in profile with a gaping mouth full of sharpened teeth and its tongue lolling out. Across the demon’s head is a pentangle, scored deeply into the stonework suggesting that it was gone over time and time again. The pentangle, originally a Christian symbol of protection, sits exactly within the confines of the demon’s head – quite literally pinning it to the wall and trapping the ‘evil’ within.

Sedgeford, Norfolk. Church graffiti didn’t simply cease with the coming of the reformation, with many centuries worth of vicars, churchwardens and parishioners leaving their marks on the stone. (Credit: The Norfolk and Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey)

Such symbolism as that found at St Mary’s at Troston clearly had meaning for the individuals who created these images, and many of the more elaborate examples would have taken several hours to execute. The length of time taken to create these designs does rather suggest that they couldn’t have been carried out without the full knowledge of the local church itself ­– and with at least their tacit approval.

Some are clearly devotional in nature, such as the praying male figure, but we may never truly understand the reasons why the lord of the manor left his name inscribed in the tower arch. Was he simply recording his presence, or perhaps marking what he considered to be his territory? Was it John Abthorpe himself who carved the name into the stonework, or was it created by another person with a deeper, darker purpose?

Scole, Norfolk. The crude outline of a medieval face stares back from the walls. Sometimes thought to represent the head of a long dead bishop wearing a mitre. (Credit:  The Norfolk and Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey)

I have come across a number of other inscriptions that are far less enigmatic, and whose meaning it is all too easy to understand. At Gamlingay in Cambridgeshire, for example, a tiny inscription in the north aisle reads simply ‘Hic est sedes margaratea vit an d(ecimo)’ (Here lies Margaret in her tenth year).

A few miles away at Kingston (Cambridgeshire), a discreet inscription appears to tell of an even more tragic tale. There, cut neatly into the stonework, are three names ­– Cateryn Maddyngley, Jane Maddyngley and Amee Maddyngley. Exactly how old they were we will probably never know, but the fact they don’t turn up as adults in the parish records rather suggests that all three were children or infants; all three related by blood. However, if the rest of the brief inscription is to be believed, the one thing we do know is that all three died in the same year – 1515. For most of England it wasn’t a particularly significant year, unless you happened to live in either London, the south-east or Cambridgeshire. In these areas, throughout the summer months, an old adversary returned: the Bubonic plague.

Troston, Suffolk. The name ‘Johed (John) Abthorpe’ inscribed into the tower arch. The Abthorpe family were lords of the manor at Troston from the 1440s until the 1490s, and a John Abthorpe is recorded as witness to a number of contemporary wills. (Credit: The Norfolk and Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey)

Although the plague was usually a little less deadly than the sweating sickness (which could see you hale and hearty at lunchtime but dead before supper), and had a higher recovery rate, this outbreak appears to have been particularly virulent. Cambridge University (and possibly Oxford) suspended all studies, and the courts and places of gathering were disbanded in an effort to stop its spread – but to little avail.

Part of the problem was that this outbreak came only a short time after the last major outbreak of the ‘sweats’ in 1507. As was typical of the period, the years immediately after a major epidemic usually saw an increased birth rate, as families and communities tried to make good the losses of the previous pestilence. However, in the case of the 1515 epidemic, all this meant was that when the plague began to ravage its way across England, the country had a far higher proportion of infants than it might ordinarily have – and it was these children that appear to have fallen victim to the disease in their hundreds and thousands.

Troston, Suffolk. A full length figure of a woman, hands raised in prayer, wearing a distinctive late medieval ‘butterfly’ style head-dress and surrounded by other graffiti inscriptions that litter the tower arch. (Credit: The Norfolk and Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey)

Across the south east of England these infants were buried hastily in unmarked graves, with little or no time to memorialise or remember them. In London, the hasty funeral processions, made up of only a few souls, walked the deserted streets; and in Kingston, a small village in rural Cambridgeshire, a stolid tenant farmer quietly etched the names of his three dead children into the walls of the parish church…

That simple inscription may well be the only mark those three young individuals left on this planet. Sometimes, the writing on the walls can break your heart.

Matthew Champion is the author of Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches (Ebury Press, 2015). To find out more, click here.

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