Sire Kilroy woz 'ere

A few posts ago I mentioned the perils of going into a bookshop, where among other purchases I acquired Matthew Champion's book Medieval Graffiti. I thoroughly enjoyed it, although I did have a few caveats.

For a start, what you see is not quite what you get. Yes, the book is principally about medieval graffiti, but a good percentage of the book is about much later graffiti (very interesting it is too). The vast majority of the graffiti mentioned in the book is found within churches, so if you're interested in medieval graffiti found in houses or castles, you're going to come away disappointed, as although it is mentioned in passing, there is generally very little detail. I would have loved to have learned more, especially about the type of graffiti that was found in medieval homes. It's understandable that the book is church-heavy, as the majority of medieval graffiti surveyed has been found in churches, but it does mean that the book doesn't deliver quite what the reader is expecting.

The other issue is that much of the graffiti, by its nature, remains to a greater or lesser extent incomprehensible. For example, there is graffiti, all over East Anglia, of little ships - but are they memorials to dead sailors, hopes for a safe voyage (perhaps on pilgrimage), thanksgiving for a safe homecoming, or just ecclesiastical decoration? It's anyone's guess.

Why are certain symbols etched in particular areas of the church? What do they mean? Were curses ever acceptable to the church? Did the church encourage lay-superstition? Was it just part of everyday life? Or was the graffiti done covertly? Champion's book provides little information on this. I was very much reminded of an episode of Time Team in which an archaeologist admitted that when unsure of the significance of an object it was routinely deemed to be "sacred". A catch-all term when uncertain.

However if much of this book is guess-work, very fascinating guess-work it is. The sheer volume of medieval graffiti ranging from architects' drawings to simple memorials is surprising. And what is delightful about this book is the way in which it brings ordinary people long forgotten by history back to life - whether it is the simple memorial to a family probably wiped out by an epidemic, a mysterious sentence from a musical lover to his inamorata, or a sketch of a friendly cat.

Mysterious and uncertain though some of the graffiti may be, Champion's book brings the people of a past time to life. They are different to us; and yet many of their hopes and aspirations, frustrations and sadnesses remain recognisably familiar. The poignancy of someone scratching a loved-one's name into stonework, desperate to preserve their name for future centuries is as strong an impulse for an aircrew from the Second World War as a survivor of the Black Death.

For anyone living in East Anglia Medieval Graffiti is a delight, as much of the volume focuses on the collections of graffiti that can be seen in the many glorious churches of this region. This week I'm lucky enough to be going to a Suffolk based music festival, and have every intention of visiting Parham, one of the nearest churches, which apparently has a wealth of medieval graffiti. Inspiring and enchanting, Medieval Graffiti is a snapshot of another world.

If you want to find out more about graffiti in Suffolk churches, there is a fascinating website here.


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