For centuries, medieval people were etching faces and human figures into the stone walls of their churches. Thanks to the work by the Norfolk Graffiti Project Survey these images are being seen again.
The Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey is a volunteer led project established in 2010 as the first large scale survey of early graffiti inscriptions in English churches. When the project started it was believed that early graffiti inscriptions were relatively rare, but the research has already uncovered over 27,000 images just in Norfolk county.
Faces and human figures are amongst some of the most common finds in medieval English church graffiti, with many hundreds discovered in Norfolk and Suffolk alone.
Matthew Champion, Project Director for the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, explains that “the faces we come across are the really magical images. You can be shining your light across the surface, recording numerous graffiti inscriptions, and then, all of a sudden, the wall is staring right back at you. Many of these faces simply haven’t been seen since they were lime-washed over nearly five centuries ago, and we may be the first people to have properly noticed them in all that time. When you find yourself face to face with a representation of a real person, a long dead parishioner or parish priest, the hairs really do go up on the back of your neck.”
A number of the images of faces appear to be exaggerated to become almost caricatures of real people, such as the bulbous nosed individual from All Saints, Litcham, Norfolk. It has been suggested that this particular face may even be a caricature of one of the late medieval vicars of the parish, as it is located directly opposite where the pulpit would once have stood. It is all too easy to imagine a bored member of the congregation, during a particularly tedious sermon, etching this humorous little face into the stonework. If this is the case it may well be that the vicar got his own back, for on the other side of the pillar can be found a small figure of a grotesque demon – perhaps the vicar’s response to the original inscription.
“We obviously can’t be certain as to exactly why many of these images of people were created,” says Matthew Champion. “Some are clearly devotional in nature, others may have been made for comic effect, but the vast majority of them appear to serve no obvious function. They may well just have been rough sketches of the people who made them, medieval selfies carved into the stones, or they may have had a deeper spiritual significance. So very much has been lost with the passing of the centuries that we may well never know.”
Medieval church congregations were divided by sex with the women most often occupying the north, or dark side, of the church. The survey teams have begun to identify faces and full length figures on the chancel arches of a number of churches, with female figures occupying the north side of the arch, perhaps reflecting that physical divide within the church.
Many of the faces would appear to be randomly placed across the stonework, with no obvious religious or cult associations. Some are simply stylised images, but others are detailed enough to suggest that they once represented real people within the congregation.
Matthew Champion adds, “What makes these images special is that they aren’t like the alabaster images that lie on marble tombs, or the cold dark faces on the memorial brasses. These are not the faces of the great and the good; the knights and their ladies, but of the real people. The faces that peer out from the walls as our light slides over them are the faces of the medieval commoners – those who lived out their entire lives within the same parish, leaving barely a mark on history. The only mark that many of them have left are these few simple scratch marks in the stone.”
As with all early graffiti, the dating of the inscriptions can be particularly difficult as written dates are unlikely to be present. However, in some cases, such as this face of a medieval woman in Norwich Castle keep, the inscriptions can be quite precisely dated from the style of their clothing.
“Some people may argue that these simple inscriptions can’t tell us a very great deal about the past,” Matthew explains. “They don’t have the same significance as a written Latin text, or a prayer for the dead. I would argue strongly against that. It is images such as these, of simple common folk, that people today can relate to. They see their own lives mirrored in the stones, and it is this affinity that, I hope, will ensure that those stones are protected in the years to come.”
You can learn more about these images at the Norfolk Graffiti Project Survey website.
Matthew Champion’s book Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches, is being published next month. Click here to learn more about it on Amazon.com