Oh, but they can, only we do not yet understand everything they say.In order to decipher the message conveyed in medieval church graffiti one really ought to get inside a medieval mind…Let’s have a go, then! Religion in the Middle Ages was a strange combination of official Church teachings, folk religion and beliefs and even magic.The Church was inclined not to discourage these popular beliefs, which was also a good method of exerting clerical control over parishioners. The walls and pillars of our churches are covered in graffiti.They have been a subject of the Norfolk and Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Study, headed by its Project Director, Matthew Champion.The study culminated with a publication of his book, to which I am indebted in this short article.Numerous graffiti have been identified, photographed and catalogued; however, we still do not know for sure “who, when and why?” Our little church is also hiding secrets, some barely visible under a thick layer of lime wash. Entering the south porch, we come across a strange mark (Fig. 1) clearly visible around the west window jamb. This inscription may represent either a mason mark, showing a cipher of a master mason who worked on the building, or be a means of identification of a stone mason, who cut the block in the quarry, and was paid per block. Another possibility is that the stone was hand finished and marked to indicate its final position in the building. The Church encouraged and fostered a belief in the protective power of symbols.After all, life was a continual battleground of good and evil. Evil was everywhere; it even attempted to invade the sanctity of the parish church. It had to be kept at bay!Churches are full of ritual protection marks, or witch marks, intended to enhance spiritual protection of the building. Figure 2 shows a very faint compass-drawn daisy wheel, scratched on one of internal walls. These signs were a popular design in a vast repertoire of protective marks, still abundant in medieval churches today (Ashwell has a beautifully executed example on one of its south arcade pillars). Again, their precise meaning eludes us. The significance of these curious “pock marks” in Figure 3 is much less obvious and I have been at a loss to explain their significance. They have been found around a base of the font, obviously intended there as an extra protection from evil during baptism and of too regular a shape to be incidental. The north door of a church is traditionally known as the “Devil’s Door”. When a baby was baptised it was important for it to produce a loud yell, a sure sign that the devil left its body and fled through the north door. To stop him from coming back the blacksmiths used a protection mark in the shape of a saltire cross etched on the inside door latch (Figure 4+5). However, it appears that our Caldecote blacksmith was particularly superstitious as he put saltire crosses on all outside metal door fittings too! (Figure 6) Our most exciting and unexpected find to-date is still visible on the north tower wall and is apparently extremely rare. Mr Champion calls it swastika pelta and I have found not one but TWO examples in our church, in close proximity (Figure 7). It was believed that the devil was attracted to lines and if he came across one he would follow it to the end. Trouble was, pelta was in a shape of an endless knot so the devil would trap himself forever within the symbol.Rather like in a “Hotel California”, right down to “… those voices calling from far away…” Perhaps the strange squeaks that could be heard in the dead of the night are his pleas to be released? And so our little church continues, albeit reluctantly, to reveal its secrets and mysteries. To medieval church enthusiasts it offers a prime opportunity to inspect it inch by inch inside and out in the hope of piecing together everyday lives of people who worshiped here and whose protection marks scratched on the walls almost 500 years ago are still powerful enough to keep the building safe for us to enjoy for many years to come. Grazyna
Notes Champion, M. Medieval Graffiti. The Lost Voices of England’s Churches. London 2015. Wilson, D. A Brief History of the English Reformation. London 2012. Cook, G.H. The English Mediaeval Parish Church. London 1970.