Why have effigies and monuments to the dead historically attracted graffiti ? It is phenomenon that seems to be particularly prevalent during the 16th and 17th centuries. Although a range of apotropaic symbols are often present, the majority of the graffiti seems to consist of names and dates, often within cartouches. A good body of evidence now exists which supports the theory that such motifs are examples of ‘memorial’ graffiti.1
Does the graffiti represent an attempt by the bereaved to attach the name of a deceased person to a particularly ‘notable’ or ‘ennobled’ individual – one whom was possibly regarded as a ‘folk’ saint within the community – or was it simply the desire to be affiliated with the ‘symbolism of the ideal’ in the post-Reformation world? In the Medieval world, intercessors were sought in every avenue of life as a way to ‘fast track’ the soul to heaven.
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‘We pray not to instruct God but to get our will in line with Heaven’
‘In Christian cemeteries there was a strong tendency for graves to be clustered around the burial place of a particularly holy person, preferably a martyr, but failing that, a Church leader or someone well known for the holiness of his or hers life. These great Christians would act as patrons of the less perfect dead that surrounded them and ensure that they too shared the blessings of Paradise, as a powerful earthly patron could ensure that his clients received their share of worldly benefits.’
Ralph Merrifield, ‘The Cult of the Blessed Dead’ (1987:79).
Several studies have highlighted the phenomenon of graffiti concentrations on or around the effigies of notable local figures (Binding 2015, Perkins 2020). The latter concludes that the effigy may have been targeted and ‘adopted’ by the bereaved as a personal ‘guardian’ or intercessor for the deceased. If so, the practice may have been a post-Reformation resurgence of ancestor worship or veneration of the saints in a degenerate form. Those attempting to lead a pure life may have identified with the ‘ideal’ encapsulated within the effigy having not known the individual personally.
Far from being a simple burial marker, the tomb (and its monumental architecture) was a highly sophisticated form of display within the church and some examples filled a good deal of an already cramped Sanctuary. Often designed more to benefit the living than the dead, it was a social structure which expressed the ties of family, region and political allegiance. Tombs, then, were a medium through which the living and the dead could derive mutual benefit (Smith 2005).
A new cult of ‘ennobled’ figures may have developed among the laity seeking spiritual role-models and guides and to help alleviate suffering from a range of illnesses. Intercession for souls after death was not the saints’ only function; they were expected to cure earthly ills of those who visited their shrines (Merrifield 1987: 81). Additionally, it may be that these figures were seen as potential intercessors by the supplicants who believed that they were able to communicate with God on their behalf. Essentially, effigies of the notables may have become ‘folk’ saints to the congregation.
However – as is often the case – the acts of ‘intercession’ or ‘invocation’2 were often confused by the laity. The former was permissible but latter was considered unworthy except for those belonging to the Orthodox Church. In ecclesiastical usage, both words are taken in the sense of the intervention primarily of Christ; and secondly of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the angels and the saints on behalf of men. Prayers to the saints occur in almost all the ancient liturgies although the practice has always been open to abuse (Scannel 1910). Theologians reinforce the tenet that one should not enter into intervention, mediation, arbitration or negotiation with God (Sullivan 2022).
If access to authority-controlled intercession proved to be problematic there were a number of different strategies that could be adopted; seeking spiritual advice from an anchorite (although anchoresses were more common) was another way of short-circuiting the labourious route of a lifetime of prayer (Plate 1). Anchorites were sometimes referred to as the Medieval world’s ‘living dead’ (Hughes-Edwards 2012). Anchorites were subject to a Consecration Rite that closely resembled the Funerary Rite as they withdrew from society to their cell and were considered dead to the world, a type of ‘living’ saint. Through the squint (or hagioscope) they could dispense spiritual advice to the needy. They often ate frugal meals spending their day both in contemplation, prayer and interceding on behalf of others. Every tier of society from the peasantry to Royalty journeyed to rural hermitages for prayer, advice and spiritual instruction (Licence 2013).
In the church of St John the Evangelist, Ickham, Kent is believed to be the effigy of Willliam de Hegthresbury (Heytsbury), Rector of Ickham in 1354, Chancellor of Oxford University and professor of the ‘Sacred Page’ who died in 1372 (Plates 2 & 3). He is a prime example of a ‘notable’ figure, regarded locally as a particularly knowledgeable man and famed for having formulated the Mean Speed Theorem (offering a proper rule for uniformly accelerated motion) later developed by Galileo (Hanke & Jung 2018). Although his effigy lies in the north (Lee) transept, it may have been moved from elsewhere over the course of the last six centuries. Identification of the effigy as being that of Heystesbury is only tentative and has not been definitively proven. Many ‘unidentified’ effigies in the churches of the country may have transcended to ‘mythic’ status and become incorporated into the individual church’s (and communities) ‘foundation myth.’
When surveying the church the author found several notes laid upon the effigy’s chest, along with three red roses (Plates 4 & 5). One of the notes thanked William for his ‘intercession’ whist the other looked like the writing of a child; furthermore, William’s name had been misspelt suggesting a degree of poor literacy.3
Elsewhere in the church, the effigy of Sir Thomas de Baa had been incised with several initials and symbols (Plates 6 & 7).
‘Because he is the only God-man and the Mediator of the New Covenant, Jesus is the only mediator between men and God’
From the beginnings of the early church intercessory prayer was practiced and openly encouraged – where one would pray to a deity or saint in Heaven on behalf of oneself or others. Such prayers could be directed at one’s friends, enemies, heretics or made for the dead. Intercessory prayer acted as a way for an Apostle to share in the Father’s redemptive love. A ‘charisma’ was a prayer specifically for healing or praying for the alleviation of other people’s illness. The Doctrine of requesting intercession from saints can be found in the Christian writings from the 3rd Century AD, such as those of Origen & Clement of Alexandria.
The author has recently recorded a high concentration of graffiti in and around the former shrine of ‘Maister’ John Schorn(e)3 at St Mary in North Marston, Buckinghamshire (Perkins 2021) (Plate 8). Both his shrine and holy well were said to have conferred miraculous healing powers. Legend had it that Schorn had ‘conjured the Devil into a boot’ leading to his wide renown – although that interpretation of the symbolism depicted on his pilgrim badge has recently been questioned (Merrifield 1987:135, Marks 2002). Schorn’s shrine became the third most popular site of pilgrimage in England after Thomas Becket at Canterbury and Our Lady at Walsingham, even though he was never officially canonised (Spargo 2020:4).
The locus of the Schorn cult focused upon a boot (or foot) ‘recess’ in the south aisle of St Mary’s, close to where it is believed his relics were displayed. (Plate 9) The space allowed for the pilgrim’s foot to be inserted, many of whom appeared to have been suffering from gout. Although it was E C Rouse who suggested the chapel (and its attendant side altar) which was the locus of the cult, it was Marks (2002) who noted the elaborate architectural additions to the south aisle which differentiates it from the rest of the church. Subsequently, the author has recorded high quantities of graffiti in the same locale and it seems certain that they are linked to the cult activity around the shrine (Perkins 2021).
Ancestor cults and ancestor worship had been officially subdued and suppressed during the Anglo-Norman transition. However, the evidence for the survival of devotional acts focused upon effigies is well attested to into the following centuries. It may be that the laity continued to believe that stone and alabaster effigies (which would have acted as a substitute for the original person) possessed extraordinary powers helpful to a particular individual (or family) (Smith 2005). This was true when, in 1519 after John Schorn’s relics were ‘translated’ to Windsor, a wooden effigy was erected as a surrogate. The Reformer Dr Stokesley (Bishop of London 1530-9) remarked,
” ..devotees were unable to distinguish between the wooden image and the saint and therefore perceived that the former had absorbed the virtues of the original body and (had) become a source of miraculous cures in its own right.” (Marks 2002).
The cult of John Schorn has continued unabated to present day – mainly through oral transmission. The church is bedecked with many fine examples of folk art (Plate 10).
Researcher Chris Binding studied the profligate graffiti cut into the effigy of Bishop John Harewell in Wells Cathedral (Plate 11). Of 534 marks he estimated that 135 were ritual protection marks (or apotropaics), representing, “a major ritual or folkloric focus….a ‘mother lode’ object” (Binding 2015).
The execution of one’s Christian faith required an intermediary between the subject and their God, which traditionally was the local priest. The pre-Reformation belief that, in heaven, saints’ possessed special intercessory powers because of their intimate relationship with Christ the King made them worthy targets of veneration (Mangan 2003). It may have led to the belief that one avenue of spiritual intercession with the Divine may have been to enlist a ‘folk’ saint. The theological preoccupation with death in the medieval period makes it clear that the fate of the soul after death was a central medieval concern (Daniell 1997).
The most highly-charged ‘power centres’ within a medieval church can be described as a series of interconnected ‘spheres of influence,’ with the most desirable location for burials being the Sanctuary. The ‘holiest’ area was around the high altar with the ‘zones of sanctity’ lessening towards the Nave and west end although the tower crossing was often favoured. It appears that age-old superstitions about the burial ground north of the church – believed to be always shrouded in shadow and reserved for the un-baptised- retained its aura of undesirability up to the 19th century. All holy areas were duly enclosed within the boundary of the cemetery wall to demarcate ‘consecrated’ ground (Daniell 1997). This created a tripartite division of cemetery, church and chancel with the altar at the centre, blessed with five crosses to represent the five wounds of Christ (Plate 13).
The 17th century Rampston Memorial inserted into the wall of the 13th century Sanctuary at St Clement’s church, Sandwich, Kent assuring proximity to the altar and God (Plate 14 – 16). Below the carving of a Death’s Head can be seen the letter ‘H’ which is just one of a plethora of names, dates and initials that have been cut or scratched into the alabaster. It has been suggested that these additions may represent ‘informal’ memorials for those too poor for a headstone or grand memorial of their own (Champion 2015: 187-196). Then there is the possibility that the piety and standing of one Frances Rampston may have raised her to the level of a ‘folk-saint’ who may have been viewed as a potential ‘intercessor’ for those seeking spiritual succour. Her monument and its location – high up on the wall within the ‘holy of holies’ – would have only added to her gravitas and standing within the lay community.
The effigy of a knight in St Paul’s church, Ightham is believed to be that of Sir Thomas Cawne (d. 1374), the second owner of Ightham Mote medieval moated manor in Kent. He was an MP for the county in 1368 (Garnett 2005). A recent survey by the author has recorded acorpora of graffiti that ranges from incised initials (and dates) through to a number of known apotropaic symbols (Perkins 2020). The location of the Cawne effigy within the chancel of St Peter’s, Ightham, placed it amongst the holy of holies (Plates 17 – 19).
Cawne’s effigy is an ‘idealised’ representation of a knight, conceived to embody all the merits and positive characteristics of a chivalric figure. By the time many of the marks were carved into the stone in the 17th and 18th centuries, it would have already have been of a venerable age – around 400 years old. By this time, the true identity of the effigy was likely to have faded after some eight to ten generations. However, its imagery may have continued to carry religious, ideological and theological concepts attractive to those seeking succour. The identification and targeting of an idealised image may have worked in the same way as graffiti known as ‘faux’ heraldry functioned – it is believed that the ‘generic’ depictions of coats of arms found among graffiti corpora were meant to evoke the ideals associated with knighthood, chivalry and nobility (Champion 2015: 115).
This fascination with the ‘cult of the ancestor’ (and how to honour those ancestors) had continued to resonate into the 16th century, as Queen Elizabeth is quoted as proclaiming against the destruction of funerary monuments, “not to nourish any kynde of superstition but so that the honor of one’s ancestors might not be extinguished” (Atreed 2005).
There was a belief that burial within a church gave the deceased a ‘beneficial proximity’ to the holy, the closer the burial of the body to the chancel and the high altar and to the Body of Christ reserved in the hanging pyx, the better. Both the proximity to the holy and the possibilities for memorialisation had spiritual benefits for the soul of the deceased, trapped in the pains of Purgatory (Barton 2013). Taking this concept of magical thinking another step, it may have been that the act of memorialising the dead upon these highly-charged objects was intended to ‘attach’ them to the folk-saint or ennobled person. Historical sources show that ecclesiastical artefacts such as wafers and altar cloths were thought to posses special powers and used for magical purposes (Eilola 2003 quoted in Herva & Yimmaunu 2009: 238). The daily act of petitionary prayer continues unabated in the Catholic world and indeed it is taken as a sign of piety (Plates 20-22)
Reviewing the evidence, it seems that many of the initials were carved into the stone and alabaster effigies during the Early Modern Period c. AD 1450-1800 (which covers the time from the Reformation and Counter-Reformation to the Enlightenment) the period is characterised as being one still functioning in a pre-scientific, pre-‘mechanistic’ understanding of the world. It was a time of intellectual ferment with several intellectual belief systems jostling for supremecy. From the 15th century onwards Neo-Platonism had flourished during the Western Renaissance. Neo-Platonism was a major influence upon Christian theology throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages in the west (SL 2022). Neo-Platonic theory saw the world as a ‘pulsating mass of vital influences and invisible spirits’ (Thomas 1971: 266). The Universe was believed to be peopled by a hierarchy of spirits and it manifested occult influences and sympathies. The cosmos was understood to be an organic unity of which every part bore a sympathetic relationship to the rest (Thomas 1971: 265). Three types of magic were practiced –
- Natural magic – which exploited the occult properties of the elemental world
- Celestial magic – which involved the influence of the stars (astrology was believed to have a scientific basis)
- Ceremonial magic – which appealed to spiritual beings (rituals multiplied during the Renaissance)
Magic was not a medieval survival but a Renaissance discovery of a Classical tradition. In the intellectual climate of the day, magical activities gained plausibility and the ‘Doctrine of Correspondences’ was believed to exist between each part of the physical world (Thomas 1971: 265, 326).
In the Renaissance world, it was believed that networks of sympathies, analogies and correspondences linked everything in the cosmos together and enabled other than purely mechanical means of manipulating the world. They believed that a variety of things from artefacts to landscape elements had special properties such as agency, consciousness and personality (Herva & Yilmaunu 2009: 234). People’s lives unfolded in relation to a richer ‘enchanted reality’ where the material and the spiritual were inexplicably intertwined. Spirituality was about recognising the richness of the rationally-constituted world and people’s deeply reciprocal relationships with that world (Herva 2012:76-7, 83).
In 17th century, Paracelsian movement saw nature working through the laws of sympathy and antipathy – of imitation and correspondence – which we understand today as the way sympathetic magic functions. One of the most famous examples of this application was the ‘Weapon Salve’ (also known as the Powder of Sympathy) whereby a salve (or ointment) was applied to a blade that had caused a flesh wound – not applied to the wound itself (Hood 2009). The belief was that it exploited the invisible ‘effluvia’ and influences within which the world vibrated (Thomas 1971: 266).
It was believed that, ‘one could assist the vital spirits of the congealed blood to reunite with the victim’s body and thus heal the wound even at a distance of 30 miles…‘ (Thomas 1971: 225).
The cure was supported by such leading thinkers as Robert Fludd, Jan Baptist Helmont & Wilhelm Fabry who attributed the cure to ‘animal magnetism.’4
However, even by the late 17th century, this magical tradition had hardly made any substantial impact upon the population at large yet simultaneously was beginning to lose its intellectual repute (Thomas 1971: 268).
From the Renaissance and until the later 17th century , it was believed that material things had properties which in today’s terms would have been understood as ‘magical.’ Renaissance Hermeticism was a crucial factor in the development of modern science (SL 2022). The study of magic was not separate from ‘rational’ and ‘scientific’ pursuits because the difference between the natural and the supernatural was differently understood at the time (Herva 2012:73). Meanwhile, the practice of folk magic persisted and ran alongside Christian practice and scientific enquiry at the same time. During the period, neither Catholicism nor Protestantism had single-handedly eradicated popular folk beliefs as they were inextricably embedded in the local mode of perceiving and engaging with the material world in everyday life (Herva & Yilmaunu 2009: 234). In Finland, for example, folk beliefs were;
- Neither religious nor scientific
- They involved a belief in supernatural powers
- They presupposed that there were other than purely ‘mechanical’ ways of manipulating the world – Folk beliefs were fused with Christian religion in the medieval and (early) modern period comprising a syncretic belief system.
(Herva (2012), has pointed out that it is only now that researchers are applying anthropological methods to this period to better understand the thought processes and beliefs of the day. In recent years, researchers have been applying these methods to the EMP in Sweden & Finland with enlightening results (Herva & Yilmaunu 2009, Herva 2012).
The emergence of post-Reformation Protestantism brought with it the modernist (capitalist) tendency to objectify the world. Protestant reformers rejected magical powers and supernatural sanctions (Thomas 1971: 78). It was this new line of thought which was intended to change the way in which common people perceived the world and how they engaged with it (Herva & Yilmaunu 2009: 238).
It is therefore possible that the graffiti-covered effigies in our churches were subject to devotional acts and once carried the hopes and dreams of those unable to praise the glory of God through elaborate monumentalisation and grand memorials themselves. Via the act of carving the initials of the deceased onto church monuments the less fortunate may have believed that the effigies of notable (and pious) individuals possessed an innate power and, through association, they were able to intercede on their behalf.
- This has mainly been through the pioneering work of Matthew Champion and the English Medieval Graffiti survey (2015, 2017).
- Intercession; we are prayed for by the departed saints and angels
Invocation; asking or praying the departed saints and angels for their prayers
3. In older historical texts Schorn’s name was spelt with an ‘e’ but depictions of the saint on Suffolk Rood Screens omit the ‘e’ and this spelling seems to have been adopted by most academics recently such as Marks (2002). Further, John Schorn has been addressed as ‘sir’ or ‘maister’ dependent upon context.
4. Animal magnetism, was believed to be an invisible natural force (Lebensmagnetismus) possessed by all living things, including humans, animals, and vegetables
Animal Magnetism https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_magnetism#cite_note-wolfart-1
An interesting corpora of graffiti was collected from the church of St John the Baptist, Ickham including dot designs, crosses, compass drawn circles and a smattering of mason’s marks. Initial spatial analysis of the survey suggests a concentration in the north aisle but with most of the graffiti focused upon the north side of the transept crossing opposite Heytesbury’s tomb. However, further work is required to understand this apparent spatial patterning (to see if it is a real phenomenon) and will be dealt with in a separate article on R.P.M&R.P.
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