and their associates.) The graffiti’s location in an area not normally accessible to the public, and the confident, unhurried lettering used in its execution, might suggest that it had been created by a member of the cathedral community itself. While the presence of a curse in a place of worship might seem unusual to a modern audience, we should remember that the Church in the Middle Ages was a very different entity to its modern incarnation, and one that was not averse to passing down its own curses to those who fell foul of its authority – the most extreme being the ‘Great Curse’ of formal excommunication.
Another highlight was Cley-next-the-Sea’s church, whose ambitious architecture reflects the former wealth of the Norfolk port, flowing from lucrative medieval trade routes with the Baltic and Low Countries. This golden age ended with the irrevocable silting up of the harbour, however, and today green fields lie where ships once rode at anchor, while the bustling port community has been replaced by hordes of tourists and birdwatchers. Medieval vessels can still be found in Cley, though, sailing across the stonework of its church walls in one of East Anglia’s finest collections of ship graffiti.
These range from crude depictions of local fishing boats to elaborately carved trading vessels, complete with rigging, flags, and decorative bunting. Some are so detailed that we can identify specific ship types, such as the ‘cog’ located at the eastern end of the south aisle. Besides this
ABOVE The church at Cley-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, houses one of East Anglia’s finest collections of ship graffiti, including numerous detailed depictions of medieval vessels.
BELOW Does this enigmatic symbol from Cley-next-theSea represent a mappa mundi? A strikingly similar image (right) used in J ohn Gower’s Vox Clamantis (c.AD 1400) is identified as a map of the world by the manuscript’s author.
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impressive fleet, Cley also has a clutch of ritual protection marks, builders’ accounts, images of long-dead parishioners, and one of the most unusual inscriptions found to-date in any Norfolk church. Although crudely carved, it is similar to the mappa mundi seen in medieval manuscripts, and indeed an identical symbol appears in an early 15th-century document by John Gower, where it is described as an image of the world. With local churchwardens’ accounts also preserving an enigmatic record of a mappa mundi in nearby Blakeney church prior to the Reformation, might this suggesting a strong local interest among the maritime community in maps of the world?
Thus far, our Norfolk survey has recorded over 26,000 inscriptions, including a wealth of prayers and other texts. These are usually in Latin, suggesting an educated or even ecclesiastical scribe, and it is not always possible to interpret them, as words often run together and can be abbreviated or letters elided. Of those that can be read, however, they range from apparent nonsense – perhaps representing a charm – to more everyday inscriptions such as personal names. Drawings are also common, from mounted knights and heraldic symbols to human faces and animals.
The latter images are relatively common, but the creatures depicted can be surprising. Those staples of
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