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Letter From England

Writing on the Church Wall

Graffiti from the Middle Ages provides insight into personal expressions of faith in medieval England

September/October 2015

St margarets Cley


Imagine walking into your local church, pulling a penknife from your pocket, and scratching a little drawing into the wall: a geometric design, a drawing of a boat, even a few meaningful words. Today that would be sacrilege, but a new survey of the walls of medieval churches in England is revealing that many of them are covered in riots of graffiti, scratched into what were once boldly colored walls. Furthermore, the practice appears to have been condoned, and sometimes even encouraged, by Church authorities. The finds are changing the perception of how medieval worshippers viewed religion and interacted with their churches.


Cley-Next-the-Sea, on the north coast of Norfolk in eastern England, is a well-heeled tourist village of ancient flint-walled houses and narrow streets. Situated far from England’s highways, it draws visitors—but only committed ones—year-round. Its harbor silted up in the seventeenth century, so the village is now separated from the sea by spectacular salt marshes that draw many bird-watchers. But 700 years ago, Cley-Next-the-Sea was at the heart of one of the busiest ports in England, the Glaven Port, where grain, malt, fish, spices, coal, cloth, barley, and oats were exported and imported. That period of prominence explains why the seemingly insignificant village sports a glorious church of cathedralesque proportions.



Letter From St Margarets FontAs the large wooden door shuts behind him, Matthew Champion, project director of the Norfolk and Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Surveys, proceeds to the ornate octagonal font that dominates one end of the nave of St. Margaret’s church. Its elaborately carved stone panels depict religious scenes, including a baptism and the ordination of a priest. Tiny fragments of paint in the crevices confirm that the font was brightly decorated in medieval times. “The blue color was made from lapis lazuli pigment,” Champion says, “which was very exotic and expensive then.”


Approaching what appears to be a bare patch of stone on one of the font’s panels, Champion illuminates it with his flashlight—at first from the front, and then from the side. As the panel is bathed in raking light, patterns come into view: a series of perfect circles, filled with six-petaled flower patterns, scratched into the stone.To twenty-first century eyes, the scratched designs seem incongruous with the magnificent setting, but Champion sees more than ancient graffiti. He moves quickly to the north side of the church and, this time, sweeps the beam of his flashlight down a column, where the raking light reveals repeats of this same precise geometric design. “In the past, fonts were usually situated on the north side of churches, close to the ‘Devil’s door’ [a door on the north, or ‘heathen,’ side of a church], and we find concentrations of these designs on and around the area where the font would have been,” he explains.