Three Days of Illustrated Talks on the subject of Medieval & Historic Graffiti were held in and around Evesham Abbey & Worcestershire in April 2022
The aim of the talks and guided walks organized by the author was to alert local historians and the public to the presence of the medieval and historic graffiti which had been recorded within the medieval churches, buildings and barns of Worcestershire.
A recent preliminary survey of medieval buildings in Worcestershire had revealed a number marks and symbols carved into their masonry and woodwork. The survey was based upon English Heritage Grade II buildings survey protocols and was non-intrusive in nature, meaning that it was essentially a photographic survey of elements that are accessible to members of the public.
The study of medieval graffiti has been in the ascendant recently, with popular books published on the subject. These mainstream publications have helped to disseminate the new interpretative frameworks and ideas which are the culmination of the last thirty years of academic research into medieval inscriptions. The re-evaluation of medieval graffiti has revealed many more subtleties and diverse meanings than hitherto imagined..
Graffiti can span the entire medieval period but appears to peak between AD 1450 –1750 (Early Modern Period) at the time of the so-called ‘witch craze’ in Europe; a phenomenon particularly marked within secular domestic spaces, farms and farm outbuildings at this time.
There are many categories now recognised, including masons’ marks, devotional and memorial inscriptions and a whole range of ‘ritual protection marks’ or ‘apotropaic’ symbols (Greek, apotropaios -‘averting evil’ or ‘turn away from’) the latter now believed to represent elements of ritual building protection. These protective symbols are often concentrated around thresholds (or openings in the house) including doors, windows and fireplaces. Additionally, they are found where repairs or alterations have been made – such as a chimney stack being incorporated into an earlier building – or in cases where the ‘integrity’ of the building had been temporarily breached. They may have been intended to avert the evil-eye, bring good luck, to trap (or deflect) evil spirits and to act, in some cases, as counter-Witchcraft measures.
It is now generally agreed that many medieval buildings which exhibit examples of apotropaic graffiti are also likely to contain evidence for other ritual practices such as intentionally concealed objects within the fabric of the structure. There is now a growing database that records the discovery of concealed shoes (and clothing), buried witch bottles, written charms and mummified cats that have been found in building contexts and which are now recorded archaeologically.
This study takes the data collected from a random sample of medieval buildings in Worcestershire which, for the most part, had retained structural elements that dated to before 1800. The aim of the study was to determine if any of the graffiti found therein can be said to be apotropaic in nature and what evidence existed to support this hypothesis.
The more general aim, therefore, was to encourage community participation and hopefully set in motion a number of local graffiti surveys by the resident history groups in the area. Proposed research agendas could include an accurate survey / recording exercise of the graffiti. Although 3D-scanning may be financially prohibitive, research into spatial and chronological analysis of the marks – along with an attempt to fine-tune interpretations – would be within the competence of most individuals/groups. Further, the study of church records would enable the possible identification of the initials and dates that were found among the corpora.
The corpus of graffiti gathered within Worcestershire presents many possible research agendas and it is likely that much more graffiti (or related activities) will come to light under more advanced scrutiny by those groups who can initiate a much more thorough survey of each of the buildings.
Part 1: ‘Medieval & Historic Graffiti in the Worcestershire Churches’
An Illustrated Talk. Church House, Evesham. 7th April 2022.
Hosted by: Simon de Montfort Society. Presented by: Wayne Perkins
The architectural remains at Evesham are referred to herein as the ‘former’ Abbey Precinct as almost all of the 8th century Abbey was dismantled following the Dissolution. However, there still remain a number of impressive buildings which include the two churches of St Lawrence and All Saints; the Lichfield (bell) Tower, the former Abbey Gatehouse (partially re-modeled in the 17th century) and the 14th century Almoner’s house – now the Almonry Museum. Stretches of the Abbey Precinct walls survive and the below-ground remains are now subject to further archaeological work by the Evesham Abbey Trust.
The talk for the Simon de Montfort Society was intended to complement a presentation last year given to the Vale of Evesham History Society. These two august societies have now been joined by the Battle of Evesham Society run by Mick Hurst who has brought to the town the spectacle of live –re-enactment. All of the societies are united in the same aim to promote and disseminate the history of Simon de Montfort, the Battle of Evesham of 1265 and to build interest in the ‘lost’ Abbey of Evesham now undergoing something of a renaissance thanks to the Evesham Abbey Trust. The archaeological riches of Evesham are held by the Almonry Museum which, having recently been subject to a full buildings survey, was found to contain many apotropaic marks and evidence for ritual building protection!
The talk opened with a history of research into medieval and historic graffiti and the paradigm shift that has occurred as a result of a renewed interest in a subject. A new ‘holistic’ approach to graffiti has led to new interpretative models that allow for a far more nuanced view of what the marks and symbols might signify. The talk outlined the general principles of ‘ritual protection marks’ (or more correctly, ‘apotropaics’*) and touched upon the phenomenon of ritual building protection. The latter segment made the link between the presence of apotropaic graffiti in medieval buildings and ritual practices which include intentionally concealed items such as old boots (and clothing), mummified cats, buried witch bottles and evidence for ‘intentional’ ritually-applied taper burns to structural timbers.
The author illustrated a number of new discoveries and has assembled a fresh corpus of graffiti from both churches and medieval buildings in the county. These in turn were then compared to regional, national and international examples
An interesting new corpus had recently been recorded at the church of St Nicholas at Pinvin in Worcestershire. The finds included (hand-drawn) protective circles, Marian Marks as well as abundant instances of initials, letters and dates concentrated within the porch. Further enquiries brought to light that the porch was added to the earlier church structure in the 16th century. It is believed that the stones had been sourced from Evesham Abbey which was being dismantled post-Dissolution. The author is now compiling a list of buildings which claim to possess stone removed from the Abbey. Some claims seem to have some credence whilst others are less convincing. See ‘Whither the Stones from the ‘Lost’ Abbey of Evesham?” on the RPM website.
The survey had recorded an example of shoe graffiti in the 16th-century Lichfield Chapel in All Saints church which was paired (pun intended) with examples of both shoe prints from St Giles at Bredon and the discovery of an intentionally-concealed shoe found under the floorboards during restoration work in the Abbey Gatehouse which dates to the time of its 17th century remodeling.
The talk was concluded with further discussion as to the motivation and purpose of the marks and concealed objects when viewed within their particular historical and cultural milieu.
Part 2: ‘Historic Graffiti & Ritual Protection Marks at St James’s Church, Badsey, Worcestershire.’
(An Illustrated Talk) St James’s Church, Main Street, Badsey, Worc’s. 8th April 2022.
Hosted by: The Badsey Society. Presented by Wayne Perkins.
The following day’s talk was one focused upon the corpus of graffiti recorded in the village church of St James’s, Badsey, Worcestershire. In this instance, the purpose of the talk was to focus upon the symbols found within the church itself then work outwards towards regional, national and international comparisons.
The preliminary survey at St James’s resulted in a corpus of medieval graffiti inscriptions which included some of the more common motifs; compass-drawn circles, Marian Marks, and crosses as well several more enigmatic carvings. Two of which appeared to represent a stylised ‘goblet’ or ‘chalice’ motif; this was to prove of interest when, after the talk, a small group ascended the spiral stair of the bell tower only to find a whole series of this particular motif. It can be the case that motifs within graffiti corpora will have been influenced by Christian iconography and symbolism regularly encountered either in religious houses or during religious services. The ‘classic’ form of the chalice would therefore something that could be invoked as it is charged with ‘positive’ symbolic meaning as it is considered to be one of the most sacred vessels in Christian liturgical worship and was blessed before use.
An initial exercise in spatial patterning had shown two major trends in St James’s; that the graffiti, in general, was almost exclusively restricted to the pre-19th century components of the medieval building and that, secondly, around 30% of the marks could be considered to be apotropaics which were focused on and around the main thresholds.
Of interest was the (blocked) Norman-era north door that bore four crosses in all; one of which was an unusual ‘cross patée’ (footed cross) which appears in very early medieval art as well as in heraldry c. AD 1200 in the arms of Baron of Berkeley. The cross is often associated with the crusades and sometimes used by the Teutonic Knights – quite what the connection with St James’s is has yet to be ascertained! This was accompanied by two ‘cross pommées’ (crosses with arms of even length terminated with a ‘dot’ or hole) and one Latin-style cross composed of drilled dots. A rich concentration which appears to have been so placed to protect this particular doorway.
The talk included a segment on the phenomenon of intentional taper burns as the original oak south door bears multiple tear-shaped burns over and around a large fissure that had opened in a split plank on the inside of the door. In brief, these marks are now understood to represent the vestiges of ‘sympathetic magic’ whereby a flame had been ‘presented’ to the door (possibly accompanied by prayer) in an effort to avert a future fire or lightning strike. Sympathetic magic works through emulation and correspondence. These burn marks had been made to both ‘secure’ the building from fire as well as unwanted influences that may have taken advantage of the break in the building’s fabric. A more pragmatic repair had subsequently been made whereby putty had been applied to the crack AFTER the burns had been made – presenting some interesting ‘vertical’ stratigraphy. A number of comparative examples of taper burn marks on church doors were presented by way of illustrating the ubiquity of these marks within 16th/17th century buildings.
At the end of the talk a number of enthusiastic volunteers scaled the bell tower’s internal spiral staircase and the results found therein were a great surprise. The stairs let onto two floors by way of separate doorways at each level; at the first it was found that a deeply-etched compass-drawn circle (Type 1a with a central compass hole, EMG) had been cut opposite the opening; at the second door – which let onto the roof – were found six or more small depictions of the ‘chalice’ design which had been recorded on the west tower arch in the Nave – but in this instance each had been crowned with a small cross. These have now been added to the corpus from the church and bolster the argument that apotropaics are designed to block, divert or bless thresholds in an attempt to counter any supernatural threat that may be assailing the building.
Part 3a: ‘A Guided Tour of the Medieval & Historic Graffiti within Evesham Abbey’s Former Precinct’
Guided Tour, 9th April 2022
Hosted by: The Simon de Montfort Society. Led by: Wayne Perkins
After meeting in a local coffee house, the group moved through Abbot Reginald’s Gateway first to admire the carpenter’s marks on one of the flanking timber buildings before making its way to the former Abbey Gatehouse. This building has been re-modeled and modernized several times. We were informed by local historian Stan Brotherton that its Blue Plaque declaring it as such has been sited closest to an area of public access rather than on the original gate structure itself. Stan has written widely on Evesham and on its churches so he was a valuable addition to the group!
The building had been subject to a historic buildings survey by the Worcester Archaeological Service who had recorded a substantial daisy-wheel inscribed into the internal masonry, whilst building work in the 20th century had discovered a 16th/17th century shoe deliberately concealed under the floorboards. A small (but perfectly formed) and heavily weathered daisy wheel has been recently recorded on the left hand side (as you enter) of one of the smaller doorways to the rear.
Next to the Gatehouse is the 14th century Almoner’s house, now the Almonry Museum and Tourist Information Centre. A recent archaeological buildings survey in advance of repair work has brought to light several examples of apotropaic graffiti around the fireplaces both on the ground and first floor as well as numerous intentional taper burns on the exposed timber elements of the building. They are currently undergoing study by local historian & reseacher Brian Hoggard.
The tour returned back through the precinct to Clement Lichfield’s Bell Tower (or Campanile) built in the early 16th century in the Perpendicular style.
Many of the ashlar blocks of the walls of the crossing beneath the tower are peppered with letters, initials and possible Marian Marks although the heavily weathered surface does not allow for a confident interpretation. These were noted by Brian Hoggard a few years ago (2019:88). What it does possess is a beautifully rendered compass-drawn circle located c.3m above ground level on the interior wall. It is clearly not a mass (or scratch) dial. It is more likely to be a ‘protective’ compass drawn circle with both an inner circle as well as radial ‘spokes.’
The tour then moved onto the remains of the Clositer Arch which would have once led to the Chapter House. Very little remains to be seen although a small (but deeply incised) Marian Mark can be found in one of the sculptural recesses which has subsequently filled with lichen suggesting that it is of some antiquity.
To aid visitor interpretation of the former Abbey Precinct the outline of chancel and east end of the dismantled church has been picked out on the ground by paving slabs.
The location of the High Altar is marked by stone brought from Simon de Montfort’s castle of Montfort-Laumbary in France and was laid on 700th anniversary of his death at the Battle of Evesham. According to the legend, Simon de Montfort’s dismembered remains were interred by the monks at the base of the High Altar and almost immediately miraculous cures were recorded at the site. It soon became a site of pilgrimage much to the chagrin of the Crown and the authorities removed his relics to another location to dissuade the establishment of a Cult.
From here the tour then moved on to St Lawrence’s church, the older of the two within the former Precinct. Although re-built several times and ‘vigorously’ restored in the Victorian era, a few fragments of graffiti survive. At this point, the team armed with torches were sent out to search for themselves the compass drawn circles and saltires known to exist in the west porch. During the Victorian restoration the beautiful (if heavily worn) 15th century font was cast out of the church to become little more than a garden feature. Thankfully, in the 1980’s the congregation restored it to the church in a somewhat battered condition. The font is of interest as the rim bears an impressive Marian Mark (a cipher for the Virgin Mary) alongside a crossed ‘I’ or Sacred Monogram composed of the first two letters of the name of Jesus in Greek, formed from iota (Ι) and eta (Η). Some of these marks had been noted by researcher Brian Hoggard a couple of years ago (2021).
A search of the chapel by the group resulted in the discovery of new inscriptions in the Chantry hitherto not observed by the author during the initial survey. It is pertinent to note that often surveys in old buildings benefit from repeated study as often lightly-incised motifs evade the human eye. As the sun shone through the stained glass and shifted across the walls in the chapel so the marks came to light.
The team discovered several examples of the ‘Dagaz’ rune ‘ᛞ’ situated just above head height on the west wall of the chantry. In this instance, one of the closing strokes was very light indeed almost making the design an open-ended form.
|Rune Poem:||English Translation:|
ᛞ Dæg byþ drihtnes sond, deore mannum,
mære metodes leoht, myrgþ and tohiht
eadgum and earmum, eallum brice.
Day, the glorious light of the Creator, is sent by the Lord;
it is beloved of men, a source of hope and happiness to rich and poor,
and of service to all.
The symbol has often been referred to in graffiti studies as a ‘butterfly’ mark or ‘sand-timer’ design but these designations seem irrelevant; the design more properly resembles two opposing triangles. Opinion is now moving back to an interpretation of the symbol as a relict re-use of the Dagaz rune. It is a powerful symbol associated with light; it is true that many are located in dark recesses of church buildings (but not exclusively so).
The tour concluded in All Saints church where the graffiti ‘mother –lode’ resided. The 16th century west porch contains a whole series of single and multiple compass drawn circles of which the latter form a classic Hexafoil/daisy wheel design on the west wall (see main photograph above). In the Nave, many of the piers of the south aisle possess either (possible) Mason’s Marks or Dagaz symbols.
The best was saved for last, and in the south Chantry Chapel (also built by Clement Lichfield) we examined a palimpsest of initials, letters, dates Marian Marks and two ‘shoe’ designs that have been cut into the east wall. The shoe graffito is of a type with a ‘rounded’ point (or toe) to the sole. This example was used to open up a discussion about shoe outlines’ sometimes found in churches and how they may relate to shoe outlines made in lead sheets on church roofs (often a later 18th/19th century phenomenon). Finally, we discussed the symbolism and mythical attributes of the shoe (or boot) within the context of intentionally concealed shoes – such as the example from the Abbey Gatehouse
Part 3b. ‘A Guided Tour of the Remediation Work taking place by the Evesham Abbey Trust.’
Guided Tour, 9th April 2022.
Hosted by: Evesham Abbey Trust. Led by: Carmel Landridge.
Following lunch a guided tour of the vestiges of the demolished Abbey Nave was given by Carmel Landridge of the Evesham Abbey Trust. After decades of the Abbey ruins often obscured from view and little examined in recent years, the building is finally being brought back to life by the trust who have secured the land within the Abbey walls and have been permitted to carry out a limited programme of excavations.
Carmel was able to point out the sections of the original outer wall (now being repaired and re-sown with turf and wild flowers as a binding material) and differentiate late, post-Medieval wall divisions composed of masonry robbed from the original Abbey. The clearance work has also brought to light many worked and shaped masonry components that now await recording.
The regeneration programme includes plans to open up the area to create a green space (and wildlife haven) which will further enhance the calm oasis created by the Abbey Precinct away from the shops and traffic of the town.
Part 3c: ‘Recent Discoveries at The Almonry Museum, Evesham’
Almonry Museum, Merstow Green, Evesham, Worc’s.
For those with a strong constitution the Almonry Museum made itself available for the graffiti enthusiasts as the staff had been briefed on the new discoveries which have been recently made within the building. As stated above, several examples of apotropaic graffiti and intentional taper burns have been found throughout the building. Unable to waive the admission cost, all funds were going towards the building repairs within the museum which require attention as a matter of urgency.
I think that it is fair to say that Evesham’s first ‘Graffiti Fest’ was deemed a success and hopefully it will set in motion further work and a more thorough recording of the graffiti corpora by local history groups and/or individuals. The author has only set out the bare bones of the possibilities based upon the preliminary surveys of the buildings listed above. The guided tour illustrated the way in which the public can be engaged and through participation and new discoveries were made which provided valuable additions to those marks already recorded.
Acknowledgements & Thanks
Susan Campbell of the Simon de Montfort Society for setting the ball in motion and for supporting the idea of the guided tour.
Mick Hurst for organizing both the Medieval Market in May and Battle of Evesham Re-Enactment in August in a sterlingv attempt to put Evesham on the map!
Maureen Spinks and Shirely Tutton of The Badsey Society for organizing and arranging the talk in St James’s church.
Carmel Landridge for presenting the work of the Evesham Abbey Trust and so judiciously pointing out all features of interest.
Stan Brotherton for his advice and comments on the walk which made for a richer experience.
Ashleigh Jayes, manager of the Almonry Museum.
supposedly having the power to avert evil influences or bad luck.
late 19th century: from Greek apotropaios ‘averting evil’, from apotrepein ‘turn away or from’ + -ic.
Simon de Montfort, the 6th earl of Leicester is of interest to medievalists as the 13th century French nobleman who led the baronial opposition to the rule of King Henry III in England.
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Brotherton, S (2018) A Guide to the parish Church of All Saints, Evesham. Friends of Evesham Parish Churches & Bell Tower.
Champion, M (2017) ‘English Medieval Graffiti Survey: Volunteer Handbook.’
Churches Conservation Trust ( 2010) St Lawerence’s Church, Evesham, Worcestershire: A Walk Around Guide. Churches Conservation Trust, London.
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Perkins, W (2020a) ‘Sealed Against Spirits: The Strange Case of Ritual Protection Marks & Practices at Ightham Mote, Kent.’ A Treadwells Bookshop Talk.
Perkins, W (2020b) ‘Mummified Cats in the Walls & Old Shoes Up the Chimney: the Ritual Concealement of Magical Objects within Medieval Buildings.’ A Treadwells Bookshop Talk. https://www.treadwells-london.com/lectures?fbclid=IwAR35viRHvnc0QJWKO6Hc5KUUgMQyI8W0HHM_ne-k7p6o13le6IMQtJGd9X4
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Perkins, W (2020d) Marks Against Evil: Ritual Building Protection. A Treadwells talk
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