I was introduced to church graffiti earlier this year when I innocently ‘discovered’ a number of scratched and incised images on the piers of St Bartholomew’s church, Orford. They were of course, so it transpired, well-known to local historians and the expert on such matters, Matthew Champion.* I attended a day-school he gave at Sutton Hoo which satisfied my curiosity about the ‘magic on the walls’, as he described it, and now, still full of wonder that I have spent my life visiting churches without seeing any of these images until this year, I look for them in every church I visit. Graffiti are in fact very common in churches and convey a great deal of information to those who can read them. I consciously stopped short at a ‘general knowledge’ level of interest so I am no expert but nevertheless find them intriguing and provocative.
*see Matthew Champion, Medieval Graffiti: the secret language of churches (Ebury Press, 2016)
This small sample of the many images in St. Bartholomew’s, Orford (first image), shows why:
A round-bottomed, single-masted ship under sail, perhaps with a fore-sail, is shown in the image below. This is one of dozens of ships illustrated in St. Bartholomew’s, perhaps not surprising in the parish church of an important medieval port on the east coast; but the ‘ship image’ also occurs well inland elsewhere and can apparently become a symbol with meanings other than just of a local activity:
A finless fish:
Stand-alone figures like the first two here are in fact comparatively rare; most tableaux are a mixture of images, often overlying earlier ones. Many of the graffiti occur in apparently preferred places, used time and time again. Here, below, a deeply-engraved circular image, top right, is probably a mason’s mark. It overlooks a palimpsest of slighter engravings and scratches including a flat-keeled, clinker-built ship with near-vertical bowsprit which cuts through a ‘ladder-like’ diagram and is itself cut, bottom right, by a discontinuous, probably compass-drawn semi-circle.
The photograph below is of part of a larger palimpsest, clearly created over a long period by serious draughtsmen as well as many idle hands, perhaps through boring sermons. Goodness knows how many individual pieces lurk here amid this graphic complexity but the sudden appearance of ill-formed but modern letters is a timely reminder that almost certainly previous inscribers, using marks, symbols, sketches and doodles to express themselves, were illiterate.