The OUD’s definition of ‘graffiti’ is ‘a piece of writing or drawing scribbled, scratched or sprayed on a surface’. The symbols, writing and sketches scratched onto church walls some five to seven hundred years ago are a different kettle of fish and, because nowadays we tut-tut at graffiti, thus it seems a different word really needs to be used. Some of the images are intricate and would have taken some time to scratch into the stone and were done in the body of the church for all to see so they were viewed in a quite different way, acceptable, respected and allowed by the Church.
Norfolk and Suffolk have about 1 100 mediaeval churches and in 2010 a survey of the graffiti in these started in Norfolk, it was the first county to do this. A similar survey was started in Suffolk a few years later and has spread to several other counties.
Stained glass windows, brasses, ornate tombs, monuments in churches speak of the lord and lady, the well-to-do, those of influence and power in a parish but where are memorials to the common man? Where is the tinker, the tailor, the poor man, the thief? In mediaeval times, roughly from the end of the Roman Empire to the Reformation of Henry viii, everyone had a very well defined place in society, from king to knave everyone knew their place. This is demonstrated in the ‘Boke of Seynt Albans’ written in the 1400’s, hawking was very popular but, depending on one’s position in society one could only own and fly a particular breed of hawk. Only a king could fly a ‘gerfalcon’, ‘there is a spare (sparrow) hawke and he is a hawke for a prest’ and ‘there is a goshawke and that hawke is for the yeman(farmer)’and that well known one used as a title for a book and then a film, a kestrel for a knave. The graffiti which in some churches cover, wall and pillar, arch and sill could have been done by poacher, ploughman or shepherd, are these graffiti the memorials to the ordinary villager?
Interiors of churches of hundreds of years ago were brightly painted with pictures of saints painted directly on to the walls. The graffiti were done with care and intent, what was their original purpose, were they prayers, charms, protection? The Church taught that at death the soul went first to Purgatory to pay for sins committed while on earth before entering heaven so perhaps some graffiti were to a saint to intercede for their soul and the more time and devotion given to carving a symbol the greater effect it would have. ‘Fire and fleet and candle lighte / And Christe receive thy soule’. Why were ships cut into the stone in inland parishes, was this to wish that it would give safe passage for a soul on its last journey? Latin prayers, names, geometrical circles and patterns, crosses, heraldic inscriptions and even architectural plans can be found. It was believed that devils lurked round every corner to tempt the human soul so were some of the graffiti for protection? Names too were cut into the stone, ‘John Lydgate made this on the day of St. Simon and St. Jude’ (28 October), this is thought to date from the late 1300’s to early 1400’s.
Records in stone of all our human frailities, love, hope, death and fear, the daily perils of an ordinary life. Many of these graffiti are time worn and it needs a very sharp eye to see them. Just think, to be able to stand where someone else stood five, six, seven hundred years ago and touch the symbol he carved is to be hand in hand with him.