Pagan Traditions: Mysteries of medieval graffiti in England’s churches
2014-07-30 0:00

By Neil Heath | BBC

Medieval graffiti of straw kings, pentagrams, crosses, ships and "demon traps" have been offering a tantalising glimpse into England’s past. What do the pictures reveal about life in the Middle Ages?

A project to record the graffiti, which began in Norfolk, has now been rolled out to other areas and is gradually spreading across England.

Armed with just a torch and a camera, a team of volunteers have recorded more than 28,000 images from churches in Norfolk alone and are a third of the way through searching Norwich Cathedral, where there are many more examples.

Although the drawings discovered so far undoubtedly offer an insight into the minds of some - possibly bored - churchgoers in the Middle Ages, their precise meaning is not always clear.

For instance, on the walls near the entrance to Cranwell Parish Church, in Lincolnshire, there is a figure identified as "the straw man".

Brian Porter, Lincolnshire’s medieval graffiti project co-ordinator, believes the figure to be a pagan fertility symbol, possibly etched before a May Day celebration.

The "straw king" (left) was possibly a pagan fertility symbol while medieval graffiti artists also made use of other figures (right)

In pre-Christian tradition the "straw man" was made out of the previous year’s crop and then eventually burned, with the ashes scattered across the fields.

Mr Porter said he believed the church "couldn’t stamp out" the Pagan traditions of parishioners and probably grew tired of rubbing the graffiti away.

It raises a tantalising prospect. Could it be that beneath the Christian veneer, an older tradition was still being actively pursued, perhaps in a deliberately subversive way?

Matt Champion, a medieval archaeologist who began the project in Norfolk in 2010, says there are a variety of different theories and care is needed when interpreting the drawings.

"Brian could be right," he says.

"But we have different perspectives. To be honest, I’ve yet to come across a genuine pagan symbol. Not all [Christians at the time] were closet pagans."

Mr Champion said he was surprised by how much graffiti had been found so far and the way in which the project had caught the public imagination.

Churches are being searched by volunteers in Suffolk, Kent, East Sussex, Surrey and Lincolnshire and the scheme is set to move into Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire in the near future.

"[Medieval graffiti] was believed to be rare - turns out it’s not," he says.

"It’s a fairly new area of archaeology and it’s like discovering a medieval library buried in your back garden."


Mr Champion said the medieval church was incredibly superstitious.

"They believed evil floated around you and demons were waiting to latch on to your soul," he says. "The evil eye was something real."

He explained that some circles could have been drawn to act as "demon traps".

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