As some of you may know, for the past couple of years I have been engaged in a little project which has taken me around the churches of the Derbyshire Peak, the idea being to photograph in detail the alabaster tomb effigies that are unusually common in the region.
My notion was to create a visual record of the buckles and strap fittings depicted on the effigies, so as to help date comparable objects on the database – the effigies are usually dated and most would have been made either during the lifetime of the deceased or shortly after death, and several sources attest to their accuracy in depicting clothing and armour.
This is still a work in progress, and one that I really must get organised properly and figure out a method of publication or distribution! However, what I want to talk about here is not the effigy project but something I became aware of during my photography trips, which may be of interest to some.
I noticed to my surprise, and initially to my tongue-tutting annoyance, that most of the effigies were covered with graffiti.
On examination, it was clear that the majority was not recent, that the names, initials and symbols had been accumulating for centuries. I mentioned this in conversation to a curator at my local museum, who informed me that church graffiti, much of it medieval, was an interesting field of study in its own right and directed me to Matthew Champion’s excellent book on the subject.
In addition to centuries of variations on ‘Kilroy was here’ are older and more mysterious symbols. Crosses appear in abundance, some crude, some elaborate. Some were possibly carved to solemnise a vow or to mark the completion of an undertaking such as a pilgrimage; others may have had an apotropaic purpose, that is to ward off evil influences or bad luck.
There are shoes and ships, birds and beasts, shields and heraldic devices, houses and windmills. There are regular grids of lines which may have been for playing ‘merrils’, a form of nine men’s morris.
Two symbols in particular are so common as to be almost ubiquitous, and also hauntingly familiar to me, because I had seen them before – on the PAS database! The first is the “daisy wheel” or hexafoil, the geometric six petalled flower.
This design was once thought to be a mason’s mark, because it was assumed you needed a mason’s pair of compasses to draw it. You may have learned to make the design at school using a pencil and compass! But it is now realised that it is perfectly possible to construct the design using domestic scissors or shears, such as would have been readily available in medieval and post-medieval times.
This has led to speculation that the design was predominantly drawn by women. However I found a preponderance of daisy wheels and variants in a set of pews that I was told had been exclusively for male use. As for the significance of the design, there may be an association with the Virgin Mary or the cult of the Magdelene. This is suggested by the vesica shape of the petals. It is of course possible that too much is being read into this; the design may have been popular simply because it is so easy to construct. The consensus is that whatever its origins, the design became an apotropaic mark. The other very common symbol is the VV, two V shapes next to one another or slightly overlapping, to resemble a W.
This stands for Virgo Virginum (Virgin of Virgins) and is an invocation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Inverted, the shape forms M for Maria, hence one name for these symbols, Marian marks. They are also known as witch marks and are often found in old buildings, not just churches, as a counter-witchcraft measure.
These two symbols struck me as familiar when I started to spot them amongst church graffiti because, as I said, I have seen them quite often on objects recorded on the database. Coin-sized disks of lead or lead alloy bearing a daisy wheel design are quite common finds; hundreds are recorded on our database. Some are recorded as weights or gaming pieces, but most are described as agricultural tokens or tallies. Although the daisy wheel is recognised in the Baylis classification of tokens (as type 16), and in the Powell 32 type system ( type 1) it is acknowledged (by Edward Fletcher and others) that the identification of these disks as agricultural tokens is uncertain, in contrast with other designs such as the cross and pellet types or others depicting windmills or bags of corn. In his book, Fletcher actually poses the questions ‘who…will unearth the answer to those puzzling petal types?’ He goes on to ponder if they may be communion tokens, or guild membership tokens, but concludes that they remain enigmatic.
I am now indulging in pure speculation, but I cannot help but wonder if there is a connection between these artefacts and the near identical marks found in graffiti? We know that many churches had the facility to cast lead and some produced their own communion tokens.
Could the tokens perhaps have had a secular purpose, but with their manufacturers inspired by a design familiar in the fabric of their local church? Perhaps the disks are not tokens in the usual sense but some kind of talismanic object, bearing a familiar apotropaic symbol. Likewise, it is assumed that the W mark appearing on similar leaden disks is an initial (Powell type 2), but the similarity to Marian marks is, to me, quite striking. Are these also apotropaic objects, invoking the protection and intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Or is it the other way round, are the graffiti inspired by familiarity with the “tokens”?
I think this is an interesting area of research. Perhaps someone out there can shed more light?
Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches 1st Edition by Matthew Champion (ISBN: 9780091960414)
Leaden Tallies and Tokens by E Fletcher (IBSN-10 1897738269)