NORFOLK Medieval graffiti the medieval economy – the sheep and cattle that created the wealth that actually built many of these magnificent churches – are almost entirely absent, in favour of the beasts and birds of the hunt: deer, hounds, and birds of prey associated with the upper echelons of medieval society. Likewise, while horses do occasionally appear, they are not beasts that would be seen pulling a plough across a rutted field. Rather, they are the war horses of knights – some of whom are shown in the saddle – as at Weybread in Suffolk, where a now badly eroded early 15th-century knight can be seen plunging his lance down towards a long-vanished foe.
This martial imagery is repeated across dozens of English churches, and can turn up in the most unlikely places. At Swannington in Norfolk, for example, a whole series of tiny, neatly drawn inscriptions, just a few inches above floor level, show all the equipment of the medieval man-atarms, including pole-arms, shields, and swords. Meanwhile, just over the Suffolk border at Worlington, the walls are scattered with shields and tournament helmets with elaborate crests. Might this bias against mundane images of farm animals and the common plough-boy in favour of chivalric and hunting themes suggest a level of aspiration among those who made the graffiti?
ABOVE Medieval graffiti artists seem particularly interested in chivalric and hunting themes, such as this deer from Troston, and knight from Weybread, both in Suffolk.
BELOW One of a series of windmill images identified at Lidgate, Suffolk.
Writing on the wall
One of the most spectacular churches we examined outside Norfolk is at Lidgate, Suffolk. Although the church itself is relatively modest, it was constructed in the outer bailey of a 12thcentury castle, nestling within extremely impressive earthworks. Violet Pritchard examined its
current archaeology | www.archaeology.co.uk graffiti in the 1960s, but her investigations were limited by available technology – relying in most cases on taking rubbings and redrawing the results. With modern digital technology, however, even the shallowest inscription can be accurately recorded, and we found that there was far more to see than Pritchard had noted: over 400 graffiti, mostly 15th-, 16th- and early 17th-century in date. Among these is a fine collection of windmill images, clustered in one area of the north aisle and pre-dating the insertion of a late 15th-century screen. Might this concentration hint at the presence of a now-lost aisle altar, perhaps even a Guild altar associated with millers?
Aside from these, the church walls bustle with just about every type of graffito imaginable, including texts, religious imagery and depictions of demons, some extremely rare examples of musical notation, and rebus inscriptions – medieval puzzles using a mixture of words, music, and pictures to create a phrase. For example, one wistfully romantic rebus combines the word ‘well’ with a stave of music marked with the notes ‘fa’, ‘re’, ‘mi’, and ‘la’, a picture of a die known in the Middle Ages as a ‘cater’, and letters spelling out ‘yne’. Taken together, this melancholy message reads ‘farewell, my lady Catherine’ (CA 291). It authorship is hinted at by an adjacent inscription that says John Lydgate fecit hoc die sancti Symon et Jude (‘John Lydgate made this on the day of St Simon and St Jude [28 October]’), a possible link to a poet known to have been born in the village in 1370.
Over on the north side of the doorway into the tower, we found a small and neatly cut inscription of equal historical interest. Comprising the words ‘18 January 1583, ano Eliz vingtu sext [26th year
June 2016 |