Medieval Graffiti

The medieval history we study is mostly that of the elite people of the time, because they were literate enough to leave records, or powerful enough to hire someone to leave records. We don’t know nearly enough about the commoners, and the vast majority of people were commoners. But a few years ago, a project was begun in England to seek out and record graffiti left on buildings that have survived for several hundred years, particularly churches.

To date, the Norfolk survey has recorded more than 26,000 previously unknown medieval inscriptions. More recent surveys begun in other English counties are revealing similar levels of medieval graffiti. A survey of Norwich Cathedral recently found that the building contained more than 5,000 individual inscriptions. Some of them dated as far back as the 12th century. It has also become clear that the graffiti inscriptions are unlike just about any other kind of source in medieval studies. They are informal. Many of the inscriptions are images rather than text. This means that they could have been made by just about anyone in the Middle Ages, not just princes and priests. In fact, the evidence on the walls suggests that they were made by everyone: from the lord of the manor and parish priest, all the way down to the lowliest of commoners. These newly discovered inscriptions are giving back individual voices to generations of long-dead medieval churchgoers. The inscriptions number in the hundreds of thousands, and they are opening an entire new world of research.

Some of the marks are the “signatures” of the craftsmen who built those churches. Others are “witch marks” that people left as prayers for protection from evil forces. Some are text marking left by the semi-literate. And many markings are pictures of what medieval peasants dealt with in their daily lives, which you can read about at Aeon. -via Metafilter 

(Image credit: NSMGS)


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