Images produced by drawing around hands or feet appear to be a universal phenomenon, found in the earliest cave paintings, and, of all graffiti, they suggest perhaps the strongest personal link with the maker.
Inscriptions of hands and shoes are very common in churches and range in date from medieval to modern. Some churches associated with medieval pilgrimage have large concentrations of them.
There are likely to be different reasons why such images were made and these may have changed over time. Most may be simply marking an individual’s presence or pilgrimage to the church. There are, however, parallels with the votive wax images of body parts that were left at shrines in the hope, or thanks for a cure. Examples of medieval foot or shoe inscriptions have also been found on medieval bridges and wayside chapels.
In the post medieval period some inscriptions are undoubtedly memorial or commemorative in nature, appearing with names, initials and dates inscribed within them. Others, particularly among those found on the lead of the church roof, can mark works undertaken on the building.
It may be relevant that shoes also figure in folk belief, sometimes being concealed within a building to ward off evil.
In Devon many examples of hand and shoe graffiti have been found, especially on the lead of tower roofs. A few of these contain probable apotropaic marks, which suggests that the outline was seen to represent the maker in a spiritual way, and by protecting the outline one was protecting the person.