Medieval graffiti reveals how ordinary people practised their faith


Whether you consider graffiti an eye-sore or an art form, scholars at this year’s International Medieval Congress will debate the use of graffiti as an historical source.

Matt Champion of the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey will identify graffiti as a normal practise, he said: “Many of the graffiti, far from being hidden away in dark corners, was not only highly visible but was tolerated and an accepted and acceptable part of the medieval Christian experience within the parish church.”

Matt Champion describes graffiti as “lay piety”, as it represented a method of devotion and spirituality that did not require the intervention of clergy men.

Dr. Sarah Duffy will argue that as an object of study, medieval graffiti is unique as it is both a text and an artefact. She explained: “Issues of access to space; choices concerning position, orientation, material and subject; and method of execution are all important and act as carriers of meaning.” This will help to show how and why graffiti was permissible in Durham Cathedral.

Rebecca Williams will emphasise the fact medieval graffiti can help us understand the common person. She said: “Much graffiti are the workings of the churchgoer, the everyday medieval townsperson, whose voice so often remains unheard in study of the medieval world.

“Yet before us, on the walls and pews of almost any medieval church that has not been subjected to severe damage and/or restoration, are a wealth of images that may provide a glimpse into the thoughts, hopes, prayers, and interests of those people.”

Matt Champion will present his paper, ‘For those in peril upon the seas: the graffiti of the churches of the Norfolk Glaven ports’, on Monday 11th July at 1115 in the Cookridge Room of Weetwood Hall. He can be contacted at matt.champion@tiscali.co.uk

Dr. Sarah Duffy will present her paper, ‘The medium is the message: lessons from graffiti in the Durham Prior’s chapel’, on Monday 11th July at 1115 in the Cookridge Room of Weetwood Hall. She can be contacted at sd570@york.ac.uk

Rebecca Williams will present her paper, ‘Filling the gaps: the importance of medieval graffiti as an historical source’, on Monday 11th July at 1115 in the Cookridge Room of Weetwood Hall. She can be contacted at r.j.williams@liv.ac.uk

This summer’s International Medieval Congress begins today at the University of Leeds. More than 1,600 experts on the Middle Ages will gather at the academic conference, which is the biggest of its kind in the UK, and the largest medieval themed conference in Europe.

Source: University of Leeds

Sharan Newman