Thursday, 13 December 2012

Medieval Graffiti - The Common Folk Will Yet Speak

Please click on the photo in order to enlarge it

I had noted the presence of sets of parallel lines scratched in the wall of a pier in Norwich Cathedral when I first began the preliminary survey of the cathedral for the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey well over a year ago now. Indeed, I have subsequently returned a number of times to this graffito and wondered... is it a musical stave? However, every time I looked, it seemed to be inconclusive. My problem, with hindsight, was twofold: on the one hand, perhaps my 'eye' (by which I mean, my brain!) hadn't attuned itself to the subtleties and nuances of the tantalising nature of some earlier 'graffiti'; on the other hand, the light was simply too clear and bright. That latter point was confirmed for me yesterday evening as I, once again, shone my light on these enigmatic lines - and suddenly I saw! The first thing I noted, was the consistent height of the faint vertical lines that intersected the stave. In these more favourable conditions I then began to discern the outlines of notes that, both, sat in the spaces between the lines, or, were drawn over them. 

"By jingo!" I cried. I had found it. 

Now, we're a good way from being able to establish a date range for this at present, but, intuitively, I know it to have some age. As with so many stone surfaces in Norfolk's churches, this section of wall has been sanded back at some point (oh the folly of 'sanitised' spaces!). This makes our task of 'reading' this archaeology all the more challenging. 

As the pioneer of medieval graffiti archaeology, Violet Pritchard, notes in her seminal - though flawed - work ('English Medieval Graffiti', p144), although examples of musical graffiti do exist, good examples are rare. However, I think that most members of the Norfolk survey would agree, that - from the evidence of our work thus far - in our county any examples of musical notation are extremely unusual. 



Indeed, the only other confirmed example is the one you see here at Horning church (one that several of our 'experts' - including me! - missed). 

So, piece by piece, material emerges. The archaeology of medieval graffiti is still very much in its infancy and, therefore, the field is necessarily kaleidoscopic. Our statements about the interpretation and meaning of much of the material we are finding have to be prefaced with disclaimers and qualifications. However, in an area where the 'ground rules' and assumptions have not - to use a terrible pun - yet been set in stone, it is exciting to be play a small part in beginning to establish the evidential basis of this surviving material culture. 

On occasions, I can see people smiling patronisingly as I attempt to explain why I'm shining a torch and photographing apparently featureless walls. I think that they, perhaps, value the high culture of the monuments and other such legacies of the wealthy few who traditionally command the attention of historians. Our meagre scratchings don't carry the kudos and cultural authority and status of medieval church art. However, our focus will necessarily lead to a corrective vision (so to speak). The skewing of the evidence towards the legacies of the wealthiest 5-10% will be challenged and changed by our findings. Piece by piece - without the picture on the lid to guide us - we are beginning to assemble the puzzle. It's the old, 'who's story is it' scenario. For the record, the common folk will begin to speak - in time... 


Wall painting of St George and Dragon high
on the wall at St Gregory's Church, Norwich


Graffito, found low on a pier, at Marsham church, Norfolk.
A possible George & Dragon, inspired by a Mummers play
(note 'tassles'/fringe on base of 'dragon')

10 comments:

  1. An audio clip rendition of the toon would be nice. My assistant (who is a highly skilled stucco expert) told me yesterday - funnily enough - of a 17th century ceiling he restored for the head of a television company. He found the broken fragments of a tune in one section of the ceiling, and when he restored it, somehow it miraculously notated the theme from 'Coronation Street'. It has yet to be noticed by anyone.

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    1. Hi Tom,

      Funnily enough, I think we're going to see if the cathedral organist would have a go at playing this piece for us, so that we can record it and embed it on the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey

      Huzzah!

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    2. Update: although by no means substantiated, we are currently dating this to the immediate post-Reformation period. That could change, but not by much I suspect. It's definitely written for the keyboard. Interesting!

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  2. Hello. I am a hanger about who completelly enjoys (most) your posts about old church finds. I'm almost afraid to leave a comment after Tom's; his knowledge can be intimidating and his wit cutting. That said, while I never will be crawling about in search of finds I enjoy adding yours to my repetoire of archeological stuff I know.

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    1. Hi Joanne,

      Well, being a reader of our qwork, you should have no fear that of, either, cutting wit or intimidating levels of knowledge. It's really lovely to have you comment here. Thanks.

      Huzzah!

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    2. I'm not that bad (or knowledgable), am I?!

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  3. Beautifully noticed and described with panache Colin. Love it

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    1. Roxanne, I believe you are confusing me with my dissolute younger brother, Colin Tweeder-Harris (formerly Esquire). Although capable of florid flourishes, he is essential a dullard and could never have produced such a piece as this. However, I really do appreciate your kind words. I must now go, as I have a glass of Taylor's 1945 port to cherish and a slice of delicious Fickle Cake to savour.

      Huzzah!

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  4. Replies
    1. Dear The Silence of Mandy,

      Thank you for not commenting here. Your silences are always most appreciated by Members of the Ragged Society of Antiquarian Ramblers.

      Huzzah!

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