LEFT Images identified during the survey range from the mundane to the mythological, such as this ‘demon’ from Beachamwell, Norfolk.
Despite its name, this initiative actually grew out of a Suffolk-based project, funded by the HLF, to conserve a stunning series of wall paintings at St Mary the Virgin, Lakenheath (CA 265). During this work, we noticed that the walls also bore less ‘official’ markings: a host of early graffiti, some of which was clearly medieval. When I tried to find out more about such inscriptions, however, I found that very little had been written about early church graffiti, and what had been published was largely based on limited site-specific surveys.
These first forays brought me into contact with John Peake of the Blakeney Area History Group, who had been researching medieval graffiti along the north Norfolk coast, and the Rev. Neil Batcock, vicar of Blakeney and published architectural historian. Together we determined to explore medieval graffiti as a wider phenomenon, by surveying all of Norfolk’s 650-odd churches. What would our fledgling project find? The honest answer is that we did not know. Nobody had undertaken a graffiti survey on this scale before, and John’s coastal investigations had shown just how much variation existed between sites: some churches contained only a few dozen graffiti, while others a few miles away boasted hundreds. We were able to establish some patterns to help us in these predictions, however: rural churches in settlements that had declined in status since the Middle Ages were far more likely to preserve graffiti than urban churches whose relative wealth had ensured numerous redevelopments
RIGHT At Binham Priory, an anonymous medieval mason had used the church walls as his drawing board, leaving behind rare evidence of the early days of Gothic architecture.
| Issue 315
| Issue 315
over the centuries. Likewise, if a church was covered in limewash, or had seen too vigorous a Victorian ‘restoration’, it was unlikely that much if any graffiti would survive. After taking these factors into account, however, in Norfolk alone some 60% of churches were still likely to have significant levels of inscriptions – far more than a small group of enthusiasts could ever hope to record. We would need to expand.
Blessings and curses
What began as the brainchild of three individuals was therefore launched as a community project, and we set out to recruit and train volunteers to help in the recording process. Offers of help came flooding in: the idea that anyone, after only a few hours’ training, could record inscriptions that had not been seen for over 500 years, caught the imagination – but with no equipment or funding, it looked as though the project might fall at
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