Reading history books for pleasure is a treat that I am starting to indulge in again after a break from academia. I have missed it, especially the sense of discovery that these studies can provide. The draw to history for me has always been the chance to uncover the everyday lives of people living so long ago. The sense of strangeness but also the chance to recognise a shared human experience has always fascinated me.
‘Medieval Graffiti’ by archaeologist Matthew Champion turned out to be the perfect palette cleanser to get me invested in reading medieval studies again. This book brought together the findings of a nationwide survey of England’s churches and the long-overlooked historical graffiti found inside them. What this book strove to do was uncover “The Lost Voices of England’s Churches.” It absolutely succeeded in that aim.
The problem with our view of the Middle Ages is that it tends to overlook the everyday person who lived in it. Images of Kings, Queens and Knights are ingrained in our collective imagination but the lives of the average commoner (who share far greater parallels with our own lives) are sometimes impossible to tease out. In actual fact, you simply need to look a little closer to find them. The marks they left are less ostentatious but just as fascinating. Everyone, from the local landowner to the lowliest labourer, would have had the chance to express themselves by scratching these symbols into the fabric of their church walls.
The idea of carving your name into a church today might leave readers aghast. A church is sacrosanct; graffiti is destructive defacement – and the modern examples of beautiful street art still are the exceptions that prove the rule. That was not so in the Middle Ages. Champion expertly paints the picture of a world that was similar but fundamentally different to our own. A world were graffiti in churches was not only common but respected.
Champion takes us through the graffiti thematically to explain what each type of symbolism might have meant. Although quite exhaustive, the writing is also very emotive. Champion takes pains to bring the thoughts and feelings of the people who made those marks to life. The chapter on graffiti left during the plague years is especially chilling.
However, the image that stayed with me the most were the tiny ships carved into the red wall on the south arcade of Blakeney Church. Each ship respects the space of the others, despite being carved over a period of several hundred years, so it is obvious that this ‘graffiti’ had an understood value. It is easy to imagine how moving that fleet of tiny individual ships would have looked all those years ago, although faint and difficult to see now.
(Blakeney Church, Norfolk)
The book describes the graffiti as “prayers made solid in stone” and these could represent remembrance for lost love ones, or hopes for the future. Even the more practical marks, such as the mason’s marks, are incredibly rich signifiers of a little known area of common medieval life.
At the end of the book, there is a useful section that sign-posts churches to visit to see examples of these fascinating pieces of history. It is obvious that a huge amount of time and effort was expended on the part of those doing this survey and the fruits of that work leave us a wonderful resource.
One day, I hope to have the time to explore a few of these churches myself.