Matthew Champion:
‘Mediaeval Graffiti: lost voices of English Churches’
November 2021


Matthew Champion embarked on this fascinating project in 2010. This survey is the first of its kind to identify and record medieval inscriptions in Norfolk churches*.


It was with great interest that 37 members and friends listened to Matthew explaining how the survey was conducted with (mainly) volunteers, and showing us some fine examples of these voices from the past.


They appear to be far more widespread than was first thought, scratched into the fabric of our churches by the people who lived and worshipped during this period.  Some 60% of the 650 churches studied in Norfolk, Suffolk and North Essex contain significant amounts of Graffiti.  The survey has perhaps created more questions than answers.  We will never completely understand why these inscriptions were created.  Most of the greatest treasures in our churches - the stained glass windows, monumental brasses, the magnificent buildings - only tell the story of the top elite parishioners of their time, their power and their riches.


The word Graffiti is a fairly recent description, being introduced in the 19th century.  Our modern perception of Graffiti has not always been about graffiti seen with positive acceptance, until perhaps this summer when Banksy clearly visited the area and left some very interesting Street Art/Graffiti, which is very acceptable. There are many different kinds of inscriptions hidden within our churches and it is because they are mainly hidden that they have survived through the centuries. By the year 1200 everyone would have known someone who could read.  By 1500 literacy among the male population was probably between 10 and 25 per cent.  With that in mind it seems obvious that you would want to perhaps express your thoughts in this way.


It is the Ship Graffiti which I find fascinating, especially as we have one in our church here in Martham.  These images are often found in churches around the coast but they have also been found inland.  The ships are shown as seagoing vessels, often called Cogs.  These were important trading ships and could carry 200 tons of cargo, widely used during the medieval period.  They were also built as warships.  Great Yarmouth supplied 43 of these ships in support of Edward III in 1340, so the relevance of these vessels were probably hugely important to everyone.  Again, we don’t know why they have been etched into the stone but I would like to think that prayers were offered for a safe return or a good luck prayer for an upcoming voyage.  Like today you draw what is around you and what is familiar to you.  It is possible that these scratched inscriptions were as familiar to medieval folk as 'Votive Ships', which were common place in churches as symbols of Christianity and thanks for deliverance.


The inscriptions the survey found included Christian symbols, ships, important dates, faces from the past - which indeed speak to us through the centuries of their everyday lives and the challenges they faced.  In a church in Cambridge there is an inscription of about sisters, Cateryn, Jane and Amee who all perished in the Bubonic plague outbreak of 1515. It is believed that they were children belonging to a tenant farmer who attended the church.  The parent's grief is a fraction of the ‘Lost Voices of English Churches’ which still speak to us today.


Janet Edwards

*Matthew's book, 'Medieval Graffiti' is published by Ebury Press (2015).

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Medieval Graffiti book

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