We think of graffiti as something destructive, anti-social, even subversive – certainly not the kind of thing we’d want to encourage in our historic churches and cathedrals. But it wasn’t always this way. On 17 February, award-winning archaeologist and historian Matthew Champion – England’s leading expert on medieval graffiti – will be giving an online talk on some of the weird and wonderful inscriptions found in our ancient ecclesiastical buildings, including Peterborough Cathedral. Moment editor Toby Venables talked to him.
We don’t generally hear much about medieval graffiti. Is there a lot of it about?
All of our cathedrals are in absolutely covered with early graffiti inscriptions, dating from 12th century all the way through to… well, last week in some cases! Cathedrals, once built, don’t tend to have massive rebuilding unless something falls down, like the spire of Norwich cathedral. You don’t get that with a lot of parish churches, as they tend to get a restoration every century or century and a half, and a lot of that early stuff is wiped away. So, cathedrals are really fantastic examples, because you’ve got this whole story running through from when they were first built to modern times, and it’s showing how cathedrals changed their use and were used by different people throughout different periods. You also have this opportunity to talk about the whole story. Instead of talking about the architecture for a change, the graffiti gives you an opportunity to talk about the people. With medieval studies it’s often all about the rich, the elites, those people who can afford to have themselves memorialized, those people who turn up a lot in the records. And of course, the lower orders don’t turn up – what they were feeling and thinking is kind of missing – but the graffiti has the potential to put those ordinary people back in the frame.
How have attitudes towards graffiti changed?
We call it the graffiti paradox. And it’s not just about age, it’s about how we value graffiti. The example I always use is if you write on the walls of the National Trust property, chances are, it’s not going to be welcome. But if you put exactly the same message on the walls of the National Trust property 500 years ago, it suddenly becomes historically valuable. Then you can take the paradox slightly further… If Banksy came along to a National Trust property and left graffiti there, then actually that could be seen as having both cultural and financial value. So the actual act of making graffiti itself isn’t the issue. It’s about how we perceive it, and how people perceive it. Today, it is seen largely as vandalism, simple as that. But that in itself is a modern attitude. I wrote a paper recently on changing attitudes to historic graffiti, and concluded that essentially, prior to about 1850, no one had any issues with people going around leaving graffiti on walls. And, oddly enough, it coincides with the invention of the term ‘graffiti’, which was made up by archaeologists to describe informal inscriptions they were then coming across at Roman sites such as Pompeii. Attitudes start changing when we start seeing these places as heritage sites that should be protected.
Who was doing this?
Everyone was doing this, from what we can tell; we’ve got good, strong evidence for this in the pre Reformation period. Everyone from the parish priest and the Lord of the manor all the way down to the lowliest commoner. Now, obviously, if it’s text, then we’re looking at literate individuals, and by the 15th century we’re looking at the majority of the population being at least basically literate. But we have this sort of disjuncture, at the Reformation. Prior to the Reformation, if you look at churches and cathedrals, the vast majority of our inscriptions are imagery. Text is actually a really small percentage – I would say about 5%, possibly much smaller. Imagery, of course, can be produced by the literate or the illiterate. In the pre-Reformation period the vast majority of the inscriptions are also devotional in nature, and these are the same sort of motifs and symbols that we’re seeing elsewhere in manuscripts or within the church itself, within its normal decoration.
How did the Reformation – the break with the church in Rome – change things?
It changes radically. Post-Reformation is when we start seeing initials, dates, names, that kind of thing, and it becomes virtually all text. Pre- Reformation about 5% of inscriptions are text, but by the 17th century, it’s 95% text. So there is a real fundamental kind of shift. It’s also from here onwards you start getting much more of the commemorative ‘I was here’ type of inscription – and in some cases it literally is ‘I was here’. But we also see a large number of inscriptions which we would generally think of as memorialization, in some cases memorializing an event. We also have a lot of them which are commemorating lives – kind of informal death memorials. So, those people who couldn’t afford mortuary monuments are leaving these informal inscriptions, and that carries on all the way through into well intothe 19th century. A lot of the people could not afford a gravestone; in fact, gravestones don’t really start turning up in churchyards until the early 17th century. So, in some cases, this is the only record of their existence that’s left on this world, and a large percentage of the non-religious post-Reformation inscriptions are these informal memorials. In some cases that will commemorate a birth or death, but also local events – all of which can be quite useful to historians. At Alphamstone church in Essex in the late 16th century, the local parish priest was paying for works on the church, and he wanted to make sure everyone knew it. So he left inscriptions every time he did any building works ‘These roof timbers were replaced by me, Nicholas Le Gryce Parson, in 1578…’ This is a building archaeologists dream!
Often, though, the events recorded are much more extreme. So, at Ashwell in Hertfordshire and Acle in Norfolk we’ve got inscriptions memorializing plagues and epidemics – sounds familiar! When people created graffiti, it’s because they wanted to leave that permanent record – and often they did it when the world was literally crashing around their feet. They wanted to leave something more permanent than can be left with vellum or parchment, and so they turned to the building in the middle of their parish, perhaps the largest, most permanent building any of them would ever go into, and they inscribed their messages into the walls with the idea that they would be there forever. In some cases, they are.
Obviously people became more literate as time passed, but is there also a reaction against religious imagery after the Reformation?
In the pre-Reformation period, we are getting images of the saints, and the same motifs that you’ll find on fonts and on rood screens. I think the fact that these fade out in the 16th century is to do with the way that people view religious imagery, and how attitudes towards the church and the church building change as well. In the pre-Reformation period, the church looks very different. There would have been wall paintings all over the place. Where graffiti survives with wall paintings – such as the Prior’s Chapel at Durham Cathedral, Troston Church, or St John’s church in Duxford – the graffiti actually relates to what’s going on at the wall painting. So, these walls aren’t a static place; people people are interacting with what’s actually shown in the wall paintings. At Swannington, just outside Norwich, we’ve got a massive St Christopher that survives. It’s about 12 feet tall, and all the graffiti on the lower sections relates to the St Christopher. So we’ve got ragged staff emblems and holy monograms, all clustered around his feet. But the Reformation wiped most of those paintings from the walls. So that, in itself, is archaeologically quite interesting – and in some cases, we’ve just got the graffiti left and the wall paintings have gone, so it’s like you’re seeing half of the jigsaw puzzle.
Are these inscriptions kind of like prayers – something that might be good for the soul of the person making them?
There are lots of things going on. First of all, if you think about it, is territorial, and that covers all kinds of graffiti; you are placing yourself permanently within that structure. Modern graffiti is often talked about as being territorial – an appropriation of space. Interestingly, in the medieval church setting, it can also be about the appropriation of certain spaces. In most churches, for example, we will see massive concentrations in the nave, but not in the chancel, because the chancel’s reserved for the priests. You do get the odd bit of graffiti in the chancel and it’s clear that it’s the priest leaving it. There is a wonderful inscription of the church in Hertfordshire, which basically reads ‘If you are reading this, you shouldn’t be here…’.
But certainly many medieval inscriptions are devotional, and many are charms. We know that there are certain practices that were carried out which today we would think of as folk medicine. People would grind up the stones of the church itself, because the stones are consecrated. They would drill holes, take the powder and then will mix it with beer or wine, and it was used as a cure all. It was still done, until very recently in France and Italy, where it was known as ‘poor man’s aspirin’. So we
get these series of little holes which have been drilled into the wall, usually in patterns, so we’ll see a pattern of seven or nine or five – all the magic numbers. In some churches you’ll find certain areas where there are these collections of holes – quite often towards the east end, close to the main altar, because they wanted stone from the holiest part of the church.
You’ve also got some inscriptions which are very distinctly charms. One very common motif we come across is a six petal rosette, also called a hexafoil or daisy wheel, and you’ll often find those used in the area around fonts. If you go back to the 12th century, they’re actually used as part of the formal decoration of fonts and what we know is that this particular motif has a very ancient pedigree, going back to the Roman and pre-Roman period, when it’s a sun symbol. The early church adopts it as a kind of alternative to – and occasional replacement for – the cross. When a church is built, you have consecration crosses painted. Well, in a few cases, they don’t actually paint a cross, they paint one of these six petal rosettes, and about 5% of grave slabs have it too. So, it’s being used as an apotropaic device – essentially a device that wards off evil.
Making graffiti now is seen as a rebellious, subversive act – a declaration or protest the powers that be would not approve of. Do we see any of that in the medieval period?
You’ve got to remember that the church then was very different from the church today, and what the church may not approve of now may have been perfectly acceptable in the MiddleAges. Someone who is writing a book on ‘graffiti as protest’ actually contacted me recently, wanting examples from the medieval period. I had to say ‘Sorry – haven’t got any!’ That sort of protest just doesn’t happen – or, at least, we’ve never come across it. What we do get which people would think of as being outside the mainstream, perhaps, are things like curses. There are a couple of examples in Norwich Cathedral. But even this is not quite the subversive act you may think it is… Firstly, the place we’ve got these curses in Norwich Cathedral is not a place the public would have had access to, so chances are these are being created by a member of the cathedral community. The second question you have to ask yourself is whether they are doing it on behalf of themselves, or for others, on behalf of their parishioners. You’ve got to remember that the medieval church was heavily into cursing; they actually had the ceremony once a year where they outlined what you could be cursed for, and of course, excommunication was known as the ‘great curse’. So it’s a very, very different kind of church from the one we think of today.
Beyond that, the other big difference is the lack of smut! If you look at Roman graffiti, and examples from Pompeii and Herculaneum, a large number of the inscriptions are pornographic. It can be text, or it can be imagery, but it is all sexualized. Then, of course, if you look from 18th century graffiti to the modern day, you have an awful lot of smut and pornography. But in medieval graffiti? None. I don’t just mean, not much, I mean, none – absolutely none. It has been suggested by people that it’s because we’re looking at ecclesiastical settings, but we’ve been looking in vernacular buildings as well and it’s not there either. In the vernacular buildings, we are seeing exactly the same imagery and motifs as we’re finding in the churches. And there just isn’t any smut at all. It’s not even the case of it not being common – it’s just not there!
What about Peterborough cathedral itself? Is there much graffiti here?
The first thing to mention is that Peterborough hasn’t had a full survey done on it. Norwich, though, has got over 5,000 individual inscriptions just in the ground floor area. Peterborough has only been looked at in kind of a brief overview, and what we can say is there’s not as much as Norwich, but it’s still has significant amounts of graffiti. And we’re seeing exactly the same sorts of things. So we are seeing these apotropaic marks, we are seeing quite a few post-Reformation initials, dates, that kind of thing. So we’re seeing a transition taking place at Peterborough, much like we see in all of our large religious buildings, from when it is something that is fundamentally a place of worship, to it becoming also a social centre – and a tourist attraction. But Peterborough has a lot that is waiting to be discovered, and I think what we’re kind of hoping to do with the talk as well is to build up a level of interest into what is actually going on at Peterborough, with the idea that other people will be able to undertake a full survey there. It’s a gem, Peterborough – always slightly overlooked, in my opinion. The other thing about Peterborough Cathedral is that it’s got such an interesting history as a structure, and what I’m hoping is that as we look at Peterborough in more detail, then it
will actually start to reveal aspects of that story that we simply can’t pick up elsewhere. The graffiti can sometimes act as an additional source of information. But it’s more than that. Sometimes we can learn things from the graffiti that we simply can’t get elsewhere. That, I think, is the real value of it. The potential for graffiti inscriptions in a place like Peterborough to tell us different parts of the story, how people use that building and how that changed over time, is really quite immense.
Matthew Champion is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London and has worked with organisations such as English Heritage, the Churches Conservation Trust and the National Trust – as well as writing and lecturing extensively upon historical subjects. His most recent full-length work, Medieval Graffiti: the Lost Voices of England’s Churches, was published by Ebury Press in 2016.
There are more talks in the History Talks series during 2022. If you book for four or more of them at one time, you get a discount. Follow the link peterborough-cathedral.org.uk/oht2022.aspx to see the full series and to book – the discount is shown when you view your ‘shopping cart’ having selected tickets for each talk.