New Light Through Old Windows: Apotropaic Merels, Dots & Powder Procurement.

There is a concentration of merel-type designs and cartouches* composed of interlinked drilled ‘dots’ on the sloping windowsill of St Milburga’s church, Wixford, Warwick. Within graffiti corpora the symbol is quite a common one; 19th century Antiquarians often noted their presence in churches and interpreted them as ‘ad hoc’ gaming boards (Plate 1).

Plate 1: Miniature from the ‘Book of Games,’ (c.AD 1283) by King of Castile, Alfonso X the Wise. From Grunfeld, Frederic V (1975) Games of the World. (c) Wiki Commons.

The act of creating a ‘dot’ (with either a pointed blade or, in some larger cases, coins) has the effect of both defining the outline (or main axes) of the design, whilst at the same time providing the carver with the opportunity to procure masonry dust from a consecrated building. This ‘magical’ dust may have then been collected and used in potions (Champion 2017).

The apotropaic qualities of the merel (particularly in the Mediterranean) has been discussed at length on Mario Bonaviri’s ‘Seigni e Simbol: Graffiti Simboli dal Medioevo all eta Moderne’ site, and, closer to home, in an excellent field study of church graffiti by Anthea Hawdon in Essex. Her findings suggested that the merel-type designs which were both small in scale (only a few centimetres across) and located on vertical surfaces added to the consensus that similarly placed examples possessed an apotropaic function. Among the corpora discovered, the Three Men’s Morris variant was by far the most common symbol present (Hawdon 2019).

The efficacy of the Merel (Nine Men’s Morris) symbol appears to derive from its tripartite arrangement as enshrined within the architecture of the sacred buildings of the Near East and the Mediterranean. In Britain, this arrangement was present in the layout of both Late Iron Age sanctuaries and Roman temples. In each instance, the internal spaces were organised into outer and inner courtyards with the ‘holy of holies’ at the centre. Christian churches retained this arrangement conceptually as the nave, chancel and sanctuary. Three represents the Trinity and, in Christian scared numerology is considered to be a magic number.

Three is a magic number
Yes it is, it’s a magic number
Somewhere in that ancient mystic trinity
You get three as a magic number
The past and the present and the future
Faith and hope and charity
The heart and the brain and the body
Give you three as a magic number.

De La Soul, ‘Three Is A Magic Number.’ Tommy Boy Records.

Hawdon’s conclusions regarding the size, spatial distribution and location (often on vertical surfaces) is echoed by a number of surveys undertaken in the Midlands & Kent by the author (Plate 2).

Plate 2: An example of a Merel (Nine Men’s Morris) and a dot design in the south porch of St Paul’s, Broadwell, Gloucestershire. Note central ‘dot’ or depressed boss in the centre (c) W Perkins 2019.

The Three Men’s Morris version divides the square in 8 equal parts arranged as opposed triangles with three rows of three dots marking the intersections within the design (Plates 3 & 4). For Christians the number 8 evoked the octavo dies or ‘eighth day’ – the last, everlasting day in Heaven (Stemp 2010: 107). The divisions within the design incorporates a Greek (part of the Chi-Rho symbol) and St Andrew’s cross (saltaire) at its centre.

Plate 3: Three Men’s Morris. Image: Wiki Commons.
Plate 4: An example of a Nine Holes / Three Men’s Morris design comprised of 3 rows of 3 evoking the Trinity, window sill, St Leonard’s, Bretforton, Worcestershire. Another Nine Holes design is located on the adjacent vertical window jamb. Note the saltire motif ‘X’ to the right
(c) W Perkins 2019.

A modified version of this design has also been recorded on physical healing amulets and charms such as the one held in the Wellcome Collection. Five crosses – one at the end of each diagonal of the design and the central cross makes 5 – another symbolic number which, in Christian numerology, can represent the Five Wounds of Christ (Nice 2019) (Plate 5).

Plate 5: The Three Men’s Morris design incorporated into an apotropaic lead charm with an added a cross added onto each of the diagonal arms with a fifth cross in the centre. Thanks to Anthea Hawdon for alerting me to this article. (c) Wellcome Collection

In the north of England, tripartite designs including concentric squares and ‘God’s Eye’ motifs – when recorded in proximity to thresholds – have been interpreted as spirit traps much like the Mexican Ojo de Dios which is a ritual tool that was believed to protect those while they prayed (Billingsley 2020:32).

This spectacular palimpsest of Three Men’s Morris and merel-type symbols at Wixford (above) also includes an incomplete tripartite symbol (top right), a Marian mark (top left) and a compass-drawn circle (centre) along with several other indistinct designs.

Notes

Title with a nod to Chris Rea’s, ‘New Light Through Old Windows’ 1988 compilation album.

*Variations also known as Nine & Three Men’s Morris, Nine Holes (3 rows of 3), Alquerque or Fox & Geese gaming board-style symbols.

References & Links

Historic England (2022) St Milburga, Wixford, Warwickshire. https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1355369?section=official-list-entry

Hawdon, Anthea (2019) Gaming Up The Walls. https://rakinglight.co.uk/tag/merels/

Champion, M (2017) MGS Volunteer Handbook

Stemp, R (2010) The Secret Language of Churches & Cathedrals: Decoding the Sacred Symbolism of Christianity’s Holy Buildings. London, Duncan Baird Publishers Ltd.

Nice. R (2019) A Medieval Guide To Practical Magic https://wellcomecollection.org/articles/XTg2FxAAANU9P4UW

Billingsley, J (2020) Charming Claderdale: Traditional protections for Home & Household. Northern earth Books, Hebden Bridge.

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