Chances are if you’ve been in an old church, cathedral, or castle in England….you’ve walked by some form of graffiti at some point. Even more likely are the chances that you probably didn’t notice it. The practice of leaving marks behind in buildings is not new. There are ancient examples from the Romans, Viking specimens found in the Hagia Sophia and on statues, and of course the medieval examples that enrich the walls and pillars of churches and other historic buildings all over England.
Graffiti in the medieval and early modern era was not considered to be illicit or vandalism, but rather a common practice. We know this from the sheer quantity of graffiti that exist from this period and their sometimes rather prominent placements within public buildings like churches. When looking at graffiti in churches, many inscriptions are roughly at eye level, and some are deeply incised into the stone. The graffiti is found everywhere from towers, to piers in the nave, doorways, and porches – in many buildings it can literally be found anywhere.
There are several different kinds of graffiti that would have served different purposes for their creators. Dozens of interpretations and even a beautifully laid out typology have been put forth by the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey. But as this is a beginner’s guide, here are the basic and most common types you’re likely to come across should you choose to go searching:
- Apotropaic – Arguably the most common type of inscription found, and also the group with the most diverse examples. Apotropaic marks serve the purpose of warding off evil or negative influences – and the most famous of these designs is the daisy wheel – a compass-drawn design. Most commonly found as a six petaled flower, sometimes intricate interwoven designs are made out of several flowers at once, or even have fewer petals to look similar to a consecration cross. Other types of common apotropaic designs include peltas, large ‘W’ looking inscriptions, and stars that range from usually five to seven points.
- Memorial/Tourist – These are obvious. Names, initials, dates. Many examples of tourist graffiti are not medieval, but memorial graffiti span several different centuries and sometimes occur in small building shaped motifs such as the ones shown here from Norwich Cathedral. Sometimes we can use the dates and initials in memorial graffiti to find information in records about what was occurring in the parish at that time.
- Figures – A little harder to interpret as each one could potentially mean any number of things but images of animals and people are not unheard of. Cats, swans, bishops, kings, knights, horses, and even demons have been found on the walls of historic buildings. Sometimes these figures are devotional in nature, others appear to be almost cartoonish, there’s even the possibility some are heraldic. Either way, it’s difficult to determine the meaning of any face or figure without looking at the context within the building itself, but these are still exciting to find and make notes on!
- Text – Sometimes in Latin, sometimes in English, rarely (but still out there) in Greek. Text can range from a prayer, a curse, or something more simple like my favourite inscription from Winchester cathedral shown below. Text gives us a more literal and clear insight into the minds of people of the past, demonstrating their hopes, fears, and sometimes just their desire to leave their own mark and be heard.
Mind you, there are several other types of graffiti – some even with sub-types, and for a really good breakdown the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, (which has pioneered the recent surveys and studies in graffiti) has one on their site that is regularly updated to fit new discoveries based on continuing fieldwork. There are also several links on their site to resources regarding the finding and recording of graffiti, including surveys that might be active near you. In the meantime, the next time you find yourself in an old church or home, take a look at the walls and doors – you might be pleasantly surprised by what you find!
Guest Writer: Crystal Hollis is a historian and writer, and passionate about the role of medieval graffiti when it comes to understanding the past. Her main areas of interest are the history of parish churches, the City of London, and most recently- vikings