If you want to know what made the medievals tick, says Jess Macdonald, ditch the history books and check out their wildstylin’.
We all know what archaeology is. It’s Tony Robinson standing in a muddy ditch in Somerset while a bearded man froths orgasmically over a shard of Anglo Saxon pottery, or it’s Harrison Ford suavely dealing with Nazis, Biblical treasures and getting into punch-ups while women of a certain age fan themselves. But not for me…
I have to insert my disclaimer here and say I’m not an archaeologist, a historian, or even someone who’s studied the past in any meaningful way. I’m just a stay-at-home mum (with both children at school, so I think we can tag ‘lazy-arse’ in there too), who happened to fall in love with the archaeology of medieval graffiti.
Yes, it’s a thing. Honest. No, wait, come baaaack! This stuff is fascinating! It’s across the walls of churches and cathedrals all over the UK – and it is mindblowing. Step inside any religious building from the last 800 years and the first thing you’ll see are the monuments to the elite, the rich, the powerful, the top five per cent of medieval society. The tombs, the statues, the stained glass, the plaques.
So what’s missing? Us. The commoners, the plebs, the real people. No sign that anyone like us ever worshipped, was christened, married, buried or even visited. But if you take an LED torch and shine it across the surface of the stone walls… magic happens.
It sort of started for me way back in the mists of time, when I was a slightly podgy 10-year-old on holiday in the village of Salthouse in North Norfolk, where the local church, St Nicholas, is crammed full of graffiti: ships, and names and dates going back hundreds of years.
Where it properly started though, was hearing about the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey on Twitter nearly two years ago. Completely made up of volunteers, it was aiming (still is!) to visit and survey every medieval church in Norfolk (more than 650, the highest concentration anywhere in the world) and accurately record the graffiti found there.
There are names and dates and ships and prayers and music and curses and compass-drawn designs we call demon traps and architectural sketches and wonky faces and absolutely bloody hilariously bad depictions of St George slaying the dragon.
Today, these markings are difficult to see. You have to shine a torch at certain angles to highlight the faintest lines from centuries ago. From what’s been discovered though, we know that at the time they were created, they would have been just as obvious as a spraypainted “Daz shags goats” is on a bus shelter today. At any point, the church authorities could have destroyed them. But they didn’t. Even allowing for the widespread ‘restoration’ the Victorians undertook, in the county of Norfolk alone, more than 28,000 inscriptions have been recorded and we’re only really halfway through the 650+ medieval churches here.
To me, it’s been a complete revelation. To think that graffiti inside a church was once seen as both accepted and acceptable. I can stand right where a stonemason stood, 800 years ago and trace the lines of a design for a window. I don’t understand the slightest thing about the design, obviously, but to think that something so personal, so human is just so there and I can actually touch it, makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck, I feel giddy, I stare and then usually, because I’m such a tragic case, I burst into tears at the wonder of it.
This is one of my personal favourites. A beautiful little rose, only 3cm in size, etched into the wall. Yes, etched into. The reason it looks 3D is entirely down to clever lighting and photography and witchcraft. No, I didn’t take this photo; how did you guess (my tendency to descend into snotbubbling weepery means I’m utterly useless at taking photos, so I leave that to others)?
These little marks matter. For some, it might be the only trace that they have left on the world, their only testament to existence. They were people, just like us, with their own petty little concerns and worries and we know so little about them. We know so little, precisely because they were The Little People, not the great and the good.
In 500 years, people will look back and wonder why we were so obsessed with Kim Kardashian’s arse, or whether David Cameron really did pork a porker. It might be in the news and widely reported upon but it doesn’t really reflect my life in any way.
Imagine then, if you could leave one lasting mark of your life, perhaps anonymously, perhaps not, that those people could see and have some understanding of your earthly years upon this planet. What would you leave? What would be important enough to you that you would carve it into the stone?
That’s what archaeology is to me. Finding these past lives and trying to understand them (getting flustered over Harrison Ford is optional, but I’ve found it helps).7799 Views
Jess Macdonald is a quite sweary blogger and mother of two with Scottish hair. http://putupwithrain.blogspot.co.uk