The following interpretation of various graffiti types is largely derived from the Volunteer Handbook and online interpretation pages of the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, and Matthew Champion’s 2010 book Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches.
As the Devon project progresses we will be able to add our own examples to these and perhaps offer additional thoughts on what individual types of graffiti may mean.
There is almost no written or other evidence to tell us what people were thinking or hoping for when they scored a symbol, picture or other mark into the fabric of a church. The meaning or perceived function may have been quite specific, or more general, and could have meant different things to different people. Ideas about meaning may well have changed over time too – during a period of perhaps more than 500 years.
The interpretation of much graffiti should probably be seen as something of a useful ‘working hypothesis’ – an aid in trying to understand and categorise what we are finding and help us search more productively. The study of historic church graffiti is relatively new and it may be that our ideas about possible meanings will change with the discovery of new examples and contexts.
Ritual Protection Marks
The most common types of graffiti to be found in medieval churches fall into the broad category of ‘ritual protection marks’, and many of the motifs illustrated here can probably be seen in this context. These marks are defined as symbols that have an overt ‘apotropaic’ function, derived from the Greek, meaning ‘to turn away’ (evil). In simple terms they are believed to ward off evil or bad luck and promote good fortune. They are often found around doors, windows and other openings in an attempt to stop malevolent forces entering the building.
With our modern way of thinking, we may find it odd that such ‘superstitious’ marks were made on a Christian building. But for most ordinary people in the middle ages (and later) there was probably no inconsistency between using what they saw as traditional methods of protection, alongside more orthodox Christian practices, such as praying to a particular saint to keep them safe.