In recent years (the last six years or so), the phenomena of medieval graffiti has become a prominent area of discourse for medievalists. Specifically, what graffiti can reveal to us of the largely mysterious epoch and how it can perhaps debunk some of our modernly prescribed myths (‘medievalisms’) surrounding the period as a whole.
Historian Matthew Champion writes “today, graffiti is seen as both destructive and anti-social. It is widely regarded as vandalism, not as something to be encouraged on ancient monuments and historic sites. That attitude is largely a modern one. Until recent centuries, people of just about every level of society carved graffiti into ancient buildings. It simply wasn’t seen as something to be condemned.”
shoes and hands
“Echoing the very earliest of cave art, these inscriptions perhaps give more of a feeling of real people having been present than any others,” writes Champion.
There is a kind of individuality in the art of drawing around a hand or shoe, and some believe that these notably personal drawings were used to mark pilgrimage or to ward off evil. In their individuality, they became a means to immortalise someone in a moment in time, in a far more personal mode than any other kind of graffiti, similar to the markings of initials, names and faces we often see in graffiti today.
animals and birds
Expectedly, some of the animals inscribed in medieval churches seem to speak directly to the culture in which they were produced, for example, farm animals and their role in the mercantile economy. However, wild forest animals, such as deer and birds, are more often seen inscribed on church walls. In a nod to chivalric romance, the animals most abundantly inscribed are majestic creatures, revealing a consensus of animalistic fantasy from their inscribers. As the romantic, courtly love poems and epic tales of knighthood were in circulation around the late medieval period, it is unsurprising that the animal iconography and popularity of these mythologies translated into graffiti. Perhaps people began drawing what they liked to read, as an early form of textual illustratation upon the walls of parishes.
In medieval graffiti, inscriptions were often of what was feared. For example, there are few etchings of Christ or angels but there are many demons, the believed puppeteers of ill-fortune, inscribed all over European churches and parishes. As demons were a very real part of the conception of morality and faith in medieval Europe, they are often seen alongside other symbols, such as compasses, in order to fend off bad spirits.
In the mystery of their existence, it is most likely that medieval graffiti is (or at least has the potential to be) the workings of a wide variety of individuals. With regard to music inscription, even though it is somewhat unexpected considering the period’s illiteracy and dominance of oral transmission, there is a small number of rural parishes inscribed with musical staves. Within their rarity, they seem to convey a form of communication that transcends symbolic graffiti and eradicates any clear identity of the inscriber. In their fascinating anonymity and peculiarity, they communicate something deeper than popular inscription: perhaps “the lost voices” of medieval history.