A good number of churches were recorded in 2020 between Covid lockdowns 1 and 2. Now we are in lockdown 3 we probably won’t be finding much new for a while – unless of course anyone spots anything on the outside of their local church on their daily exercise walk? Or even on another historic building – we could branch out a bit in casual reporting. I am always happy to see historic graffiti from any context! In the meantime I can rummage through the archive for things of interest.  Nice finds from 2020 not yet added to the Churches page include some from Torbryan and Littlehempston.

At Torbryan, on pieces of lead saved from the roof, there are a number of shoe/foot outlines, the ones with dates spanning from  the early 1700s to 1900. There are also, uniquely to us so far,  what appear to be two phalluses marked on the lead, one feint and possibly underlying a 1747 shoe outline.

Phallic graffiti may be due to no more than ‘schoolboy humour’, but unless the image looks fairly recent it seems worth considering an apotropaic function. In the medieval period sexual body part badges (male and female) were common and their possible meanings include protective properties. There are of course much earlier uses of phallic apotropaic imagery in the Classical world, as anyone familiar with the Roman city of Pompeii will know.

Torbryan. Outlines of a shoe and a phallus, on lead from the tower roof.

Other possible apotropaic marks on the lead include a V/inverted V symbol that we have seen in other churches, (see Beaford and Huntshaw on the Churches page) and may have originally been a Marian mark.

Torbryan. V/inverted V symbol (highlighted) & letter R, within shoe outline on lead from the tower roof.

At Littlehempston recording is still ongoing, but we found a strange little figure on a pier last time we were there, much to the surprise of the church warden. I don’t know if the lines on the body represent ribs, like a cadaver monument or a skeleton, or if it’s someone holding a shield that has chevron ornament – or indeed none of these.

Littlehempston. Figure on a pier.

On the base of another pier there are some carefully set out letters, V X Z, separated by pairs of drilled dots. The letters seem unlikely as personal initials, and too time-consuming to create to be a usual type of masons’ mark – also their position suggests they were probably carved when the pier was in situ. Ideas anyone?

Littlehempston. Letters V X Z on pier base.

Someone kindly sent me photos of some fascinating graffiti on a fireplace lintel in a late medieval/post-medieval private house in Gloucester. There are several hexafoils – the protective properties of one seemingly enhanced by the addition of an M/inverted W placed within it. Also visible are other partial circles, a number of lone W’s/M’s, possible other letters and marks. Apotropaic marks around fireplace openings are common, as they are around windows and doors, due to fears of evil spirits or suchlike getting into the building.

Gloucester, private house. Graffiti on a fireplace lintel.
Gloucester, private house. Graffiti on a fireplace lintel.

Keep an eye on the excellent Raking Light website for interesting graffiti, articles, book reviews, notes of events etc.

Pru Manning