The study of medieval graffiti requires us put aside our modern perceptions of graffiti as vandalism. While we cannot be sure how much it was tolerated in the Middle Ages, it was probably viewed very differently in a church environment that was colourful, full of individual devotions, and ever-changing according to a packed calendar of events. Some graffiti appears to be devotional, perhaps a form of personal communication to God, the Holy Family or the Saints. The meaning of much of it, however, is still a mystery. We will endeavour in time to add our thoughts (and those of others) on interpretation to this site.
The quantity of graffiti varies enormously from church to church. In some churches, restoration and rebuilding work appears to have removed all traces, but these are in the minority. Unsurprisingly, graffiti is more likely to be found on softer, dressed stone than harder, coarser fabrics. Although it can be located almost anywhere in a church, the main graffiti ‘hotspots’ are aisle piers, chancel and tower arches, and around doors – the features most likely to be constructed from dressed stone that is the most rewarding to carve on. While most graffiti is found on stone surfaces, we are also recording it in wall plaster and on wooden furnishings, including bench ends, chests and doors.
The subject matter is incredibly diverse. There is the ‘one-off’ graffiti – the cartoon-like bird at Nicholas in Pyrford, or the profile of a head in a mail coif at St. Peter and St. Paul in Lingfield for example – but there are also a number of patterns and symbols that occur repeatedly. Circles, drawn with dividers and often with internal petal patterns, are particularly common, as are crosses.
For more information on medieval graffiti in England, visit the website of the pioneering Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey (NMGS). Well worth a look too is the blog written by the NMGS Project Director, Matthew Champion.