In the Middle Ages the village priest would have been regularly called upon to bless the crops in the fields, the livestock in the sheds and the corn in the granaries – an act which was thought to increase fertility and the welfare of the crops. Almost any event on the agrarian calendar required a liberal sprinkling of holy water and the presence of the local priest. It was believed that pestilence was caused by evil spirits which infected the air. Physical manifestations such as pest infestation, spoliation of crops or sickness among the livestock could only be countered with spiritual weapons. It was in this sphere that the church claimed a monopoly (Thomas 1971).
Of the many Catholic rites annulled by the Reformation and the Puritanical movement, some at least persisted until the Civil War or resurfaced at a later date. Sometimes they continued unabated, covertly enacted among isolated rural communities. The same is true of some of the symbols found among graffiti assemblages that re-appear in the archaeological record as they were re-purposed (and possibly appropriated) as ritual protection marks in the Early Modern Period (c.AD 1650-1800). Post reformation, and under the reformed procedure of the Royal Injunctions Act of 1559, processions (or rather, ‘perambulations’) around the parish boundaries and fields recommenced in a more sober form – but one which still allowed prayers for good weather and a successful harvest. Taverner conceded that, “God’s word will utter and execute his virtue and strength upon the corn and air, that those noisome spirits of the air shall do no hurt at all to our corn and cattle” (Taverner 1841 quoted in Thomas 1971). The Protestant work ethic was applied to agricultural production like any other mercantile endeavour. In 1987 Ralph Merrifield had noted that many charms and witch bottles had been found in farms or their outbuildings as part of his survey of the ‘The Archaeology of Ritual & Magic’ and stated that, ‘from the beginning, food production possessed a strong religious element.’
On RPM we recently featured the ritual taper burns that had been made on the roof timbers of Bredon Barn; compass-drawn circles that were discovered in a cow-shed (featured on the ‘White Peak’ episode of ‘Countryfile’) and those which had been identified on a birthing stool on the Antiques Roadshow ( both BBC programmes). Although academics still disagree regarding the use (and meaning) of certain graffiti symbols, nearly everyone in the field agrees that the compass-drawn circle (in its myriad forms) is one of the most ubiquitous apotropaic (or evil-averting) signs. It is known from comparable sites that compass-drawn circles and especially the six-petaled rosette design feature heavily in secular and religious buildings during the Early Modern Period.
As an exemplar of apotropaics in an agrarian setting, the sheer number and diversity of compass-drawn circles within the Tithe Barn, Bradford-on-Avon is difficult to beat. There are single, concentric, multiple and over-lapping etched circles which concentrate around each of the four principal openings to the barn, among a range of other known apotropaics. If there was any doubt as to their role as agents to repel unwanted evil influences, their presence around the splayed window jambs provides a clue as to their intended use. The interior of the barn is lit like an ancient church, with open lancets (or loops) positioned high up the walls beyond reach. They could have only been accessed by a ladder or scaffolding during (or after) construction. It appears that no opening of the barn had been left vulnerable to the possibility of psychic or spiritual attack. While it is true that there are plentiful circles and marks on the rest of the walls, the spatial distribution model favours a focus around the openings to the building.
The Manor of Bradford-on-Avon was considered to be an expansive one even at the time of the Domesday Book of AD 1086. The original complex of farm buildings which comprised the Grange preceded the construction of the Great Barn as the addition of other barns and granaries accreted over time (Haslam 1983). An earlier barn of AD 1300 was superceded by the Great Barn in the 1330’s, when tithes were being collected by Shaftesbury Abbey in Dorset –the richest nunnery in England. The barn is 51 meters long comprising 14 bays formed of timber A-frame crucks supporting 100 tons of stone roof tiles. It possesses two cross-wings (or ‘streys’) which form the opposed entranceways so that carts could arrive laden from the north and leave by the south following unloading (Historic England Listing 1184239, English Heritage 2021).
So when were the ritual protection marks in the form of compass-drawn circles added to the building? Further work would be required to understand the building’s precise chronology, the building techniques used and research required to identify the craftsmen and masons employed in its construction. There is the strong possibility that at least some of the marks were made by the builders during or just after its completion. However, recent comparisons made between graffiti assemblages collected from both ecclesiastical and vernacular buildings of the 16th and 17th centuries suggests that this period saw a spike in the use of apotropaics alongside the practice of concealing objects in buildings. Concealed objects, the creation of witch bottles and charms discovered in buildings of this period have been covered by RPM elsewhere.
Shaftesbury Abbey was suppressed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. By 1546 Henry VIII granted the manor to Sir Edward Bellingham, a Gentleman of the Privy Council but it reverted to the Crown following his death. In 1635 William Paulet, Marquess of Winchester held the manor until 1774 whereby he sold it to a neighboring landlord, Paul Methuen of Corsham (English Heritage 2021). There is a strong suggestion that many of the marks may have been added to the barn during the tenure of the last two named owners.
To the north of the barn is the farmhouse itself, a stone building as large as a manor house. It dates to between the 15th to 18th centuries but may conceal earlier fabric of the same period as the barn’s construction in the 14th century. One clue to the dating for the symbols is that a number of apotropaics can be found on the Barton Farm House itself, around its entranceways, outbuildings and stone porch.
As a preliminary photographic survey undertaken by RPM this short interim article cannot hope to answer these questions without further work and it presents a number of potentially interesting research agendas. In regard to the graffiti, members of the Wiltshire Graffiti Survey have come to similar conclusions about the compass-drawn circles discovered in the Laycock Abbey barn complex (Hack 2019), and strikingly similar results have been recorded by the author from Middle Littleton Tithe Barn (Worcestershire) and Bredon Barn as mentioned above.
There is still some question as to what produce was actually stored here as, ‘it did not have any suitable defences against vermin, so it may have been used for cattle’ (English Heritage 2021). However, it clearly possessed many defences against spiritual infestation as the vestiges of the profligate compass –drawn circles adequately illustrate.
The Barton Farm Tithe Barn is a Grade I listed building managed by English Heritage and the Bradford-on-Avon Buildings Preservation Trust.