Vandalism or Veneration? Medieval Graffiti on England’s Churches

By Matthew Beresford

Demon from Troston Church
Demon from Troston Church

Until recently, Medieval graffiti has been a relatively untouched subject. In fact, most people would not be aware that thousands of the country’s churches, barns, houses and halls contain examples of ‘graffiti’ dating back hundreds of years. The Medieval Graffiti Survey, currently underway in eleven separate counties, seeks to change this.

In April 2015, Involve Heritage CIC were awarded Heritage Lottery funding to undertake a Pilot project in the counties of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. It was called the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire Medieval Graffiti Survey, or DNMGS. We have now fully surveyed around fifteen buildings, and have recorded and photographed over 2000 separate pieces of historic graffiti.

Graffiti today is often seen as a destructive act, but in the Medieval and Post-Medieval periods it was far from that. Our research has shown that almost all of the graffiti was a purposeful, positive action, ranging from Mason’s marks on Medieval churches, through to a whole corpus of ritual protection marks, animal motifs, demons, angels and human figures. We have even found Medieval musical notation, inscribed in the Chapter House at Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire!

Animal image from Southwell Minster. Interpretations include a rodent or a mythical being.
Animal image from Southwell Minster. Interpretations include a rodent or a mythical being.

However, it is the animal and human imagery that is capturing our, and the wider community’s imagination. At Hawton Church, Nottinghamshire, for example, we discovered the captivating portrait of a bird in the doorway of the South Porch. Later graffiti carved over the top of this places it in the Medieval period (possibly 13th-14th century). Likewise, in Southwell Minster, Nottinghamshire, we found the enigmatic depiction of another bird, which appears to be feeding from the ground. Even more tantalising was the curious depiction of a very odd creature, also from Southwell, that may be a rodent or possibly some imaginary animal from the Medieval bestiary (of which there were many). But what on earth were they doing adorning the walls of the county’s churches, right there in plain sight? This is just one of the questions we are currently trying to answer.

Bird motif from the South Porch doorway at Hawton Church
Bird Motif from the South Porch Doorway at Hawton Church

Human and demon representations can be found in both Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. For example there appears to be a winged angel on the outside doorway of Hawton Church, and a stylised demon figure can be found a wooden pew at Langwith, Derbyshire. On a more personal scale, the so-called ‘Langwith Twins’, from a wooden pew at Langwith, show the portraits of a small boy and girl, the latter complete with tiny pigtails. Although we will probably never know who these two children were, their images have been captured in a snapshot of days gone by.

The Langwith Twins. Child portraits found on a pew at Langwith
The Langwith Twins at Langwith Church

By far the most widespread type of graffiti is that deemed as ritual protection marks. These take the forms of ‘Double-V’ witch marks, pentangles and compass-drawn circles. These types of symbols have been found in almost every building where graffiti has been identified. It seems they are just as likely to turn up in a 17th century barn or domestic building as they are the bedroom of a king. Some of these symbols are thought to be created to protect the building from witches or demons – examples include fireplace beams that are adorned with ‘Double-V’ symbols to stop harmful witches getting into the house via the chimney, or elaborate compass circles (known as hexfoils or daisy wheels) which are inscribed on the door or doorway to the church in order to prevent evil spirits entering.

Hexfoil or Daisy Wheel design (3). Compass-drawn protection symbol from the South Porch at Hawton Church
Hexfoil or Daisy Wheel Design. Compass-drawn protection symbol from the South Porch at Hawton Church

Recent research has shown these symbols were created at times of unrest or fear, such as in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot or during the English Civil War. These symbols may be linked with episodes of disease, such as the Black Death in the 13th century, or during the witchcraft craze in the Middle Ages.

Intriguingly, sometimes these protection symbols can be linked to the physical carvings of the demons themselves, and not just the metaphorical fear of them. At St. Botolph’s Church, Norfolk a carving of a demon was discovered with an additional carving of a pentangle (deemed to be a protective symbol) placed directly on top of it. This is thought to represent someone trying to physically ‘trap’ the demon, and thus prevent any wrongdoing on the demon’s part.

Although it is still early days for the DNMGS project and the wider Medieval Graffiti Survey generally, a picture is beginning to emerge of a lost world of art that has not seen the light of day for hundreds of years (almost a thousand years in some very early cases). Giving this art the label ‘graffiti’ does not do it justice. The term was coined several decades ago when we perhaps did not fully understand its importance. The skill needed for some of the more intricate carvings raises it far above mere doodles. Graffiti today has many forms, some of which is also highly skilfully created.

The multitude of human and mystical beings, animals (both real and imagined), sheet music, Medieval text, quotations, Mason’s marks and ritual symbols found adorning our church walls, from the humble village church right up to the grandest of cathedrals, creates a Medieval language portrayed through art in a time when the vast majority of people were illiterate. This graffiti provided a voice for the masses, and shows the language contained in it was understood across Europe; examples of graffiti can be found in France, Germany, Scandinavia and beyond.

As Matthew Champion, Project Director for the Medieval Graffiti Survey, has written, these are England’s Lost Voices, silent for over half a millennium, and now they are being heard once more. Our challenge now is to attempt to hear what exactly they are trying to say. You can find out more about the project at their DNMGS website.

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