NORFOLK Medieval graffiti the first hurdle. Then we had two pieces of luck in quick succession that changed everything.
The first of these was the discovery of a whole series of extremely rare mid-13th-century inscriptions at Binham Priory. These were no illicit scribbles, but rather the working drawings of an anonymous Master Mason who, while working in the church, had pragmatically used its walls as his drawing board. The resulting sketches all appear to relate to the building of the priory’s west front in the 1240s, using a revolutionary design featuring the first known example of ‘bar tracery’ in the country – the introduction of this new kind of structural window tracery held the key to constructing larger windows in cathedrals and churches, ushering in the new Gothic style. The Binham finds pre-date similar work at Westminster Abbey by a decade, and, prior to this discovery, only a dozen or so such inscriptions were known in England. In one afternoon, however, we had added another five. With national press coverage came interest from academics and local history groups: suddenly we had access to university libraries, and were being invited to give presentations on our work to groups ranging from local branches of the Women’s Institute to the Society of Antiquaries. Each talk brought a small amount of money, enabling us to buy equipment, set up websites, and hire training venues. We were on our way.
The second stroke of luck came when our project was Joint Winner in the national Awards for the Presentation of Heritage Research in 2010, funding the purchase of digital cameras, large lights, extension leads, and lots more photo scales. With these resources we could, for the first time, begin to tackle larger buildings like Norwich cathedral. The sheer scale of the structure, and the fact that it is an extremely busy tourist attraction on top
ABOVE Norwich Cathedral preserves thousands of early inscriptions, including rare finds such as staves of music and medieval curses – including this example (right) tar geting someone by the name of ‘Keynford’, a prominent local family. The music (left) is thought to pre-date c.1550, though it is difficult to be exact with such a short piece. Although the notation is incomplete, it is thought to represent plainchant of some kind.
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of a working place of worship, presented unique challenges to our volunteers, but they nevertheless recorded over 5,000 inscriptions, some dating to the 12th century. Thanks to massive rebuilding programmes (a result of fires, tempests, and changes in architectural fashion) having taken place in almost every century since the cathedral was built, there were some areas where it was difficult to locate a single piece of stonework dating from the Middle Ages, but where large patches of medieval fabric did survive we found plentiful inscriptions, particularly compass-drawn protective markings and merchant’s marks (bigger and more elaborate symbols than better-known ‘masons’ marks’, thought in some cases to represent a guild rather than individual merchants). These were often found in distinct clusters, perhaps marking the location of a now-lost side chapel or altar.
Other graffiti were less pious in intention, notably three rare ‘curse’ inscriptions. These markings were traditionally thought to be largely confined to the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods, but ongoing research is demonstrating that the practice was longer-lived than imagined, continuing well into the later medieval period. These maledictions use a combination of personal names, inverted text, and astrological symbols or incomplete versions of markings more commonly associated with protective powers.
One very well-preserved example in the south ambulatory included the name ‘Keynford’ written upside down, above a pseudo-astrological symbol known from several charms and curses preserved in manuscripts. (The Keynfords were a prominent late medieval local merchant family who appear as correspondents in the Paston Letters, a series of mostly 15th-century writings between members of the eponymous Norfolk gentry family
June 2016 |