Alexandra Kiely, guest post on medieval graffiti:

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.”    [See:  http://www.medieval-graffiti.co.uk/index_files/NMGS_SURVEY.htm  Heath, Neil. “Mysteries of medieval graffiti in England’s churches”. Also BBC News. BBC.com. July 16, 2014.]

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, superstitious attempts to ward off demons, and stubborn holdovers of pagan traditions. [See: Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey website. “Interpretations”. http://www.medieval-graffiti-suffolk.co.uk/page8.html ]

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. I think that my fascination is summed 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.

[See:http://www.medieval-graffiti.co.uk/index_files/NMGS_Graffiti1.htm ]

JB’s note: Do look at the images on the Norfolk Graffiti Survey website. And watch this space for more on the subject by Alexandra Kiely.

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