I always thought graffiti was a modern day curse – but no, it’s been around for years but we just hadn’t spotted it! Apart from the surprise of discovering so much of it in our ancient churches, it is also fascinating as it is the ‘voice of the people’ – it’s not the expensively carved monument of the landed gentry, it is often the only record of ‘ordinary’ people, many of them children, who lived and died and completely disappeared.
A project to record the graffiti, which began in Norfolk churches, is gradually spreading across England. Medieval graffiti of pentagrams, crosses, ships and ‘demon traps’ have given historians a fascinating glimpse into England’s past. Armed with just a torch and a camera, a team of volunteers has recorded more than 28,000 images from churches in Norfolk alone! Although the graffiti discovered so far offers an insight into the minds of some (possibly bored!) churchgoers in the Middle Ages, the meaning of the scratched images is not always clear.
However, other graffiti is easier to interpret. Heart-breaking graffiti uncovered in a Cambridgeshire church has revealed how three sisters from one family died in a plague outbreak in 1515. The names Cateryn, Jane and Amee Maddyngley and the date were carefully inscribed on stonework in Kingston parish church.
The graffiti project had shown that church plague graffiti was far more common than previously realised. The Maddyngley family lived in Kingston, seven miles from Cambridge, and were tenant farmers who, in the way of things, would rarely turn up in parish records.
Archaeologists believe Cateryn, Jane and Amee must have been children because their names are not found as adults in any of the records. The Maddyngleys had lived in Kingston since at least 1279. In 1515, there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in London which spread across south east England.
In times of plague, children were particularly hard-hit and usually hastily buried in unmarked graves, their little lives lost forever. The carving of the sisters’ names, who archaeologists believe died in the plague outbreak, has created a lasting memorial to them.
The project has confirmed more graffiti was created during times of pestilence such as the Black Death of 1349 and subsequent outbreaks of plague. Was it a way of remembering the dead, or commending them to God, or what? One can only imagine what it must have been like in those far off dark days to lose your children and have no memorial to them. I know lives were shorter and children often died through all sorts of ‘natural’ causes, but I found the image of a heartbroken father standing there and diligently scratching his dead daughters names and the date they died into the fabric of the church deeply touching.