Yesterday, the BBC published an article about recent efforts to catalog and study medieval graffiti in English churches. The Medieval Graffiti Survey, a project which started in Norfolk in 2010 and has since continued in the neighboring counties including Lincolnshire and Suffolk, aims to photograph and catalog the wide variety of doodles scratched on the walls of medieval churches in those areas. According to the Lincolnshire project’s director, the mostly volunteer cataloging staff has found “some wonderful ancient art including Mason’s marks, pentagrams, circles, crosses, names, dates, board games, animals, ships, human figures and even musical notation, […] all casually scratched onto stone.” (1) The meanings of these marks, as well as the motivations of those who made them, are still being debated, with suggested interpretations including boredom during long church services, prayers for safety and prosperity, superstitions attempts to ward off demons, and stubborn holdovers of pagan traditions. (2)

For someone like me who loves the medieval and the mysterious in equal proportions, learning about this project was basically an unexpected trip to the candy store for me. I think that my fascination is summer up pretty well by this quote from the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey’s website:

By its very nature surviving medieval graffiti is regarded as being outside of the mainstream of the study of image and devotion within the medieval church. Its creation lacks the legitimacy associated with wall paintings, monuments and stained glass and all too modern connotations associate it with destruction and defacement. However, it is this patent lack of legitimacy, this distancing from authority, that can allow it to be regarded, at least in part, as a reflection of the relationship between commonality and church. Graffiti can be, and was, created by all levels of society and it offers a unique and un-studied insight into the people of the medieval parish.” (3)

One of the main things that attracts me to the study of art history, particularly of the ancient and medieval periods, is this aspect of insight into life in times gone by. I believe that phenomena like gargoyles, grotesques, and graffiti can provide us with new and fascinating perspectives on life and belief in the European Middle Ages if only we can come to a better understanding of their meaning and significance. I find the possibilities tantalizing. That is why I dream of in some way contributing to our eventual decoding (if you can call it that) of such symbols. Look for me to write more about medieval graffiti in the near future, as I fully plan to add it to my list of long-term research topics. In the meantime, enjoy the photographs provided by the cataloging projects and learn more about their efforts on the following websites:

Down Your Wold (Heritage Lincolnshire)

East Sussex Medieval Graffiti Survey

Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey

Norfolk project director’s blog

Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey

Surrey medieval Graffiti Survey

Notes: (1) http://www.lincolnshiretoday.net/en/lt/heritage/1918

(2) http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-28035013

(3) http://www.medieval-graffiti.co.uk/index_files/NMGS_Graffiti1.htm

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