Medieval Church Graffiti

From the Guardian (see pix after article):

The message of love hidden in medieval graffiti
Striking discovery in a Suffolk church reawakens interest in the once-revered prolific writer and 14th-century monk
Robin Stummer
The Observer, Saturday 29 March 2014 08.08 EDT

Historians studying graffiti in ancient churches have found what they believe might be writing by one of medieval English literature's most extraordinary "lost" talents – including his signature.

Benedictine monk John Lydgate, a contemporary of Chaucer who wrote for three kings and the late 14th and early 15th-century social elite, was one of the most prolific English writers.

The finds made last week at a church in Suffolk also include words and a cartoon of a man, apparently by Lydgate, seemingly carved by his own hand. There is a hint of romance in a coded graffiti message, also in his hand, which has been deciphered as "Fare thee well Lady Catherine". Another carving, of a man in a distinctive, rare medieval head-dress, strongly resembles a character portrayed in an illuminated manuscript overseen by Lydgate.

More than 150,000 lines of verse are attributed to Lydgate, a vast output ranging from satires to histories, epigrams, romances and plays, many of them written in the late Middle English style pioneered by Chaucer. Lydgate idolised Chaucer, calling his fellow poet the "lodestar", and he befriended Chaucer's son, Thomas, and granddaughter, Alice. His work was hailed as among the finest in England and later writers, including Shakespeare, drew from it. However, until now there has been no known Lydgate signature.

The graffiti finds were made during a study of pillars and walls at St Mary's church at Lidgate, Suffolk, the village where Lydgate was born around 1370, and from which he took his name. Lydgate, who lived to around 80 and travelled widely in Britain and probably abroad, retained ties with the village. He later lived in Bury St Edmunds and Essex. The text on the pillar, just a few millimetres high and probably carved using the tip of a small knife, translates from the Latin as "John Lydgate made this on the day of St Simon and St Jude". That feast day is 28 October, with the year some time between 1390 and 1450. If the moniker proves to have been by Lydgate's hand – and experts say the lettering matches that of Lydgate's time – then this would prove to be among the oldest, if not the oldest, known signature of an English literary figure.

The finds have come to light as part of a social history project. The Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, now expanded to Suffolk, Surrey, Lincolnshire and East Sussex, is recording carved writing and artwork largely unnoticed for centuries. The volunteer-led NMGS, co-ordinated by the charity Art Alive in Churches, has identified tens of thousands of graffiti in East Anglia.

"It's almost a hidden language," says the NMGS project head, archaeologist Matthew Champion. "This is the work of the common people, the non-nobility. For centuries we have studied artefacts like memorials and stained glass, which record the lives of the wealthy, but graffiti have barely been studied. There will be millions of graffiti surviving across the country. It's of national importance."

Graffiti revealed by the survey include ships, prayers for good fortune, satirical cartoons, charms, curses, windmills, word puzzles, architectural plans and heraldic designs.

Lydgate – a self-confessed dissolute youth with a taste for wine who went on to devote himself to religious study and writing – has vanished from the literary canon. His decline began with the Reformation, when Catholic writers were shunned. Until then he was regarded as an equal to Chaucer. That changed. One 19th-century critic called him a "voluminous, prosaick, and driveling monk". In modern times there has been a gradual rehabilitation of Lydgate. "It was only with the Reformation that Lydgate stopped being read," says Helen Cooper, professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University. "That was in part because he was a monk.He did write one poem where he accuses himself of having had a wild youth, so that might have extended to writing on church walls. But he was well connected, if anything better than Chaucer."

The secret message to "Lady Catherine", a medieval rebus puzzle on a wall at Lidgate church, was found and decoded in the 1960s by historian Violet Pritchard, but the link to Lydgate's hand has only now been established. "To the left of the rebus is the word 'Well'," explains Matthew Champion, "followed by the musical notes C, A, B, E in modern notation – which are, musically, 'fa' 're' 'mi' 'la' – then followed by the letters 'dy'. So, the whole reads 'Well fare mi lady'. This is followed by a picture of dice and the letters 'yne'. In the middle ages a dice was known as a 'cater'. Therefore, the message reads 'well fare mi lady cateryne [Catherine]'."

Vox Wrote:See picture 12 below.

Lydgate was commissioned by Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI, and also wrote for London's mayor and aldermen, high-ranking nobles, most notablyHumphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and the Earl of Warwick. With his literary stature assured, he looked back on his dissolute youth with disdain. "I was frequently late," he wrote. "I lied to excuse myself. I stole apples … I made mouths at people like a wanton ape. I gambled at cherry stones. I was late to rise and dirty at meals. I was chief shammer of illness." And Lidgate village, he recalls, mournfully, was no place for boozing – it was a place, he complained, where "Bachus licour doth ful scarsli flete".

Even when he joined the Benedictine monastery at nearby Bury St Edmunds, Lydgate confessed to preferring "good wyne that was clere" to holy studies.

Revered, then reviled, Lydgate is set for a reappraisal that could restore him to the literary pantheon. "Lydgate was around a lot of very interesting people," says Linne Mooney, professor of medieval English palaeography at York University. "He is one of the forgotten greats." As Lydgate put it: "It may wele ryme but it accordith nought" – just because something rhymes doesn't mean it makes any sense, or has any value.

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Many East Anglian churches are so heavily covered in early graffiti inscriptions, such as this example from Troston in Suffolk, that individual inscriptions are difficult to decipher. Although there is a clear depiction of an early 15th-century woman, wearing a distinctive 'butterfly' headdress, a deer and other portrait heads – close examination will reveal many dozens of other inscriptions

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While individual portraits and faces are commonly recorded by the surveys it is unusual to be able to identify anything else about the individual. In this example, however, from Scole church in Norfolk, the portrait is depicted wearing what looks to be a medieval bishop's mitre

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Late medieval North Sea trading vessel from the ancient church at Cley next the Sea on the north Norfolk coast. While ship graffiti is found in English coastal churches it has also been recorded as far inland as Leicestershire

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Compass-drawn designs are among the most common of all graffiti motifs recorded in English medieval churches. Many of these are believed to have acted as ritual protection markings – to ward off the 'evil eye'. Various ancient churches in East Anglia

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A complex knotwork design, known as a 'Solomon's Knot', from Lidgate church, Suffolk. The intricate designs are believed to be 'apotropaic' in nature, and had the specific function of warding off demons and ill-fortune

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Pentangles and demons are also commonly to be found within English churches – and quite often in association with each other, as shown in this fine example from Troston church, Suffolk. Although the pentangle has grown to be associated with dark magic it was, during the middle ages, an overtly Christian symbol; and a symbol that was specifically associated with protection from demons

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These enigmatic little motifs, which take the form of initials and dates within a house-shaped structure, are common finds from the post-Reformation period. These are from Norwich Cathedral. However, despite their large numbers, the exact meaning or function of the design remains unclear

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An inscription found this week in St Mary's church, Lidgate, Suffolk. The text on the pillar, a few millimetres high, translates from the Latin as 'John Lydgate made this on the day of St Simon and St Jude'. That feast day is 28 October, with the year some time between 1390 and 1450

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Not all of the early graffiti inscriptions recorded in churches are devotional in nature, and many are a good deal more playful. This fine example, from Stoke-by-Clare church, Suffolk, shows a musician playing upon a simple pipe

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Obviously created by the same person that inscribed the pipe player, this individual might well be a person singing – suggesting that the 'artist' was drawing the medieval church choir or musicians. Stoke-by-Clare, Suffolk, 15th century

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The vast majority of early church graffiti inscriptions are generally devotional in nature, such as this pre-Reformation probable prayer from All Saints church, Litcham, Norfolk

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Rebus coded message, possibly also in the hand of John Lydgate, which decodes as 'Fare thee well Lady Catherine'. Lidgate church, Suffolk

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Although heraldic inscriptions are commonly recorded as church graffiti they are notoriously hard to pin down to any one family. The simple and straightforward reason behind this is that heraldry is largely relient upon colour – which isn't present with the graffiti. This clear example, from Troston church in Suffolk, may well have belonged to any of half a dozen different families none of whom have a known connection with the parish

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A late medieval caricature portrait, from All Saints church, Litcham, in Norfolk. Positioned on a pier near the pulpit it is believed to represent one of the pre-Reformation vicars of the parish

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Windmills were an import part of the East Anglian landscape until the recent past, and played a key role in the agricultural year. This example, from Dalham church in Suffolk, depicts a post-mill and most probably dates to the 17th century.

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Although little is known about many of the lower classes that formed the majority of the medieval congregation they do sometimes appear on the church walls. This example, from Swannington church in Norfolk, shows a late medieval woman wearing a long, laced gown and a fashionable hood with long liripipe ornament.

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This fine example of 15th-century 'ship graffiti' was recorded in Norwich cathedral and is so detailed that it can be identified as being a particular type of North Sea trading vessel, often used by the Baltic-based Hansa trading league. Such vessels would have been a common sight all along England's east coast.

This is fascinating, Vox! Thank you so much! I love the way in which this shows how "human" people were back then. It's very easy to imagine them as living in some perfect, stultified fantasy world of knights and castles... but they were just schmoes and gals like us today.  :grin: What amazes me is the idea that we might just meet the people who created these things, but in Heaven. We might even meet those who are depicted. Everyone will have a good laugh. :)

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