of the reign of Elizabeth I], muster at this town’, accompanied by the initials ‘T S’, this tiny graffito, made five years before the Spanish Armada’s attempted invasion, refers to a mustering of the local militia for training under the command of Thomas Smythe – an event that appears in no other contemporary documents, leaving the inscription as our only record of it having ever taken place.
It is not only Norfolk and Suffolk where graffiti is being recorded: sister-surveys have also launched in Lincolnshire, Surrey, East Sussex, Wiltshire, and Kent, while investigations are planned for Cambridgeshire, Hampshire, Devon, and Cornwall in the near future. There are also two new HLF-funded pilot projects being coordinated by Matt Beresford of MBA Archaeology in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, and we are working closely with the Council for British Archaeology in hope of expanding the survey nationwide.
Recently our research has moved beyond places of worship to explore medieval castles, with intriguing results. Carlisle Castle in Cumbria has long been known to contain fine early carvings, including religious and heraldic imagery, and mythological beasts. These were traditionally attributed to prisoners housed in the keep, but are now thought to be associated with the castle’s chapel. An almost identical pattern can also be seen at Norwich Castle, where the chapel walls are littered with deep and elaborate carvings of saints, other religious images, and heraldic symbols. Meanwhile, at Bodiam Castle in East Sussex, recent work undertaken on behalf of the National Trust revealed a number of 14th-century inscriptions hidden among the masses of tourist graffiti that cover its ground-floor areas, while ritual protection marks were found around almost every doorway and window. The sheer number of these symbols suggests that for the medieval
ABOVE This cunning rebus inscription, found at Lidgate church, forms a melancholy phrase: ‘farewell, my lady Catherine’.
BELOW A small inscription at Lidgate provides our only evidence for a muster of the local militia in 1583.
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inhabitants of Bodiam, the physical defences presented by battlements, gun-loops, and ironbound gates simply were not enough to defend against the forces of evil that might assail them.
It is these personal insights that make this material – together with its accessibility and its ‘undiscovered’ nature – so attractive. Graffiti connects us to the past in a way that decorated manuscripts or brightly coloured stained-glass simply cannot: these faint scratchings represent tangible interactions of real, ordinary people. They do not tell stories of the pomp and ceremony of the medieval court, nor of the terrifying violence of battle, but instead they speak of the simple hopes, dreams, and fears of a devout people. They are the lost voices of the medieval church.
Matthew Champion, Medieval Graffiti:the lost voices of England’s churches (ISBN 978-0091960414; Ebury Press, £14.99). The book is due to be released in July. further reading
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