Tuesday, 23 August 2016

The top 10 things I really hate about church top 10s...

There has been an article doing the rounds on the internet recently. An article written by a guy who spends a lot of time looking at medieval churches. A guy who is a bit of a bright spark; a leading light as it were. The article, set out in the usual 'top 10' style, lists the things that he has problems with when studying a medieval church. His 'top 10 wrongs' about the parish church. A 'top 10' that has, to be blunt, annoyed the hell out of me.

There is no denying that his article is amusing in places, and that he undoubtedly never expected the blog piece to be circulated quite so widely. However, I'm still not sure that even that can excuse his public attitude. He does use the blog to put across a couple of interesting points about his own research, which I suspect was the whole point of the blog in the first place. However, what he then goes on to do is, at best, ungracious - at worst it is simply bloody rude.

Now the author really isn't talking about anything that any of us who spend a good deal of time visiting churches hasn't come across before. He's simply come across the odd enthusiastic church guide or church-warden. Sometimes the stories they tell, repeated down the generations, aren't always entirely, 100%, historically accurate. Sometimes they are simply repeating what is in the church guide. We've all heard them. The stories of tunnels leading to the manor house, the 'weeping' chancels, and the leper squints. However, no matter how wrong you may consider them to be, they are sharing with you their love, passion and interest in the building. It may not come up to your own high standards in terms of referencing and accuracy but, here's the thing - it doesn't have to. They are there as volunteers, keeping the church open, and trying to ensure that the visitors who do venture through their doors get the most out of their visit. The author also apparently has a bit of a problem with modern items cluttering up the church, or to put it in his own words...

"The Church (big C) is the people, and the church (little c) is the building, I’m interested in both; but please don’t demean the latter as an object of aesthetic and historic interest by sticking this needlessly iconoclastic statement in Comic Sans MS font on a big ugly noticeboard right in front of some fascinating dado arcading."

The blog post goes on, and the author manages to make a few snide remarks aimed at church guides, local volunteers and the modern church.  There is undoubtedly a lot of reality in his comments. We've all seen it. However, it doesn't mean we all have voice our opinions to the Church and the people who look after the buildings which he studies - essentially making it possible for him to wander in to a church at will, take a few pics, and then post a selfie to his instragram account.

Now there are those who will say that by publicly attacking his blogpost that I am just as bad as he is. I agree in some respects. However, the fact that his post has been shared so widely means, quite simply, that it is now being read by the self same people that it has a public dig at. A victim, as it were, of its own success. The amusing post, no doubt meant to slyly and snidely titillate the jaded senses of humour of his friends, is now being read by the churchwardens, the sides-men, the vicars, the volunteer church guides, and the key-holders. It is being read by members of the mothers union, the flower arrangers, and by those who worked tirelessly on the raising of funds to keep the building open and in repair. And it is hurting them. It is demeaning them. It is insulting them. It's 'holier than thou' attitude, which condescends and demeans, comes across as the arrogant sniping of someone who, whilst claiming they themselves are a Christian (not something you will ever hear me claim), has rather missed the point about Christian values. Mostly the author missed the point about respect...

He also rather misses the point about the medieval church. The one thing that studying medieval graffiti has taught me over the last few years is the level of interaction, both physical and spiritual, that took place in these buildings. They were not simply places to be wandered into and prayed in. They weren't simply home to static images of the saints. They were dynamic and busy places, places full of people and things. They served as the parish armoury, as at Mendlesham in Suffolk, as the parish office, and as the parish meeting place. They were alive with activities - and groups like the mother's union and toddler's playgroups are simply continuing a long tradition. Their stories were static, but ever evolving.

And so the next time you wander in to one of our amazing medieval churches, and get slightly annoyed because the children's play area, or the prayer tree, are making it slightly inconvenient for you to see exactly what you want to see - just bear in mind that it is the playgroup, the young mums, the flower arrangers, church guides, worshippers and rectors who have made it possible for you to visit that building in the first place. It may be a medieval work of art, but it is also a structure built by the labour of man - and one that only remains whole and welcoming by the continued labour and devotion of many. In short - learn some manners...

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Waking the dead: peering up the bum-hole of the past...

Last week I went to a museum. No great surprise there really. I go to a lot of museums, and perhaps surprisingly not always for the cafe and gift shop - although I'll admit to buying a book. Again. In many respects it was a museum much like any other county style museum. A mix of everything from geology and rock strata, to displays of medieval arms and armour, and Roman sculpture. It was well presented, with fascinating displays, a good level of available information and, it must be said, brilliantly attentive staff. Truly lovely people. To be honest, despite it being a county museum, in a major tourist city, it really wasn't very busy - which rather surprised me. Outside in the museum gardens hundreds of people were sunning themselves, eating ice-cream, and eying up the sporty types in lycra jogging around the perimeter. However, inside was brightly lit, but cool, and largely empty. I suppose that's why the two little kids moving just ahead of me caught my attention.

The kids were having a whale of a time, and if their parents were around I didn't see them. They were loving some of the displays, enjoying the gallery by gallery trails that had been developed for just their sort of inquisitive minds, pressing as many brightly lit buttons as was humanly possible, and getting a real kick out of the whole thing. Obviously there were bits that left them cold. Areas where they quickly moved on, past yet another Roman sculpture with a broken nose, where I paused and lost sight of them. However, eventually we'd meet up again, as they were delayed by something that caught their interest, or detained by a particularly entertaining quiz where, they had discovered, if you pressed ALL the buttons at once you could get the whole screen to freeze for at least a minute whilst it worked out what the hell was going on. And so we progressed together, shadowed discretely by a member of staff, clearly intent on keeping the kids in line of sight, and making sure I wasn't pilfering any additional noses from Roman sculptures. After all, they'd clearly lost enough already...

And so it was that I came across the two kids in the Roman archaeology gallery, squatting down beside a long glass case. As I got closer I could see that they were taking a great deal of interest, indeed taking turns, to put their heads down at the end of the case, so that they could stare up the entire length of it. In the case was a set of human remains - a skeleton - and the kids were taking it in turns to stare along the length of the bones. I wandered quietly over, wondering what it was they found quite so fascinating, only to hear one of them say - "if she was alive, you'd be looking right up her dress..."

Well, kids are kids, and I'm not one to judge. Indeed, it brought to mind a school trip I myself made to the British Museum somewhere back in the mists of time. Mostly I remember the train journey by modern diesel locomotive - a novelty for anyone brought up in Norfolk where 'historic' railways are the norm - and the early British gallery. Beyond the wonders of the Sutton Hoo treasure, and the shinning silver of the Mildenhall treasure, the most memorable display was of the bog body. I can't tell you exactly which bog body it was, not without looking it up, but it was fascinating. However, fascinating to a twelve year old may not be quite the same sort of fascination that an adult saw in it. From memory, most of my class, about thirty of us, spent a very great deal of time crouching by the glass case, drawn by the apparently irresistible urge to stare up the bog bodies bum-hole.

And here I was, many, many decades later, watching a couple of kids doing pretty much the same thing as I and my classmates had done, at a different museum, many years later. It must be a truly irresistible urge that, like nothing other than Dr Who, really does transcend time and space.

It was at this point that the member of the museum staff intervened. The kids were moved on - politely - and I did feel as though this was something that both sides were familiar with. A resigned sigh from the kids, and a rush towards the next quiz, information board, or dressing up stop. However, as I loitered, in an apparently obviously suspicious fashion, the staff member turned his attention on me. I got the full run down on the body that was before me. Not just the quick gloss of the interpretation labels, but the full and frank details. In short, the talk that he'd obviously tried to give the kids on more than one occasion, only to be met with the squeak of hastily retreating trainers on marble floors.

She was excavated nearby - or so I was informed. The remains of an apparently healthy (apart from the whole being 'dead' thing) young female who had passed away in her twenties. She dated to the Roman period, had a lovely collection of grave goods garnered from throughout the empire, and was probably north African in origin. She had, I was informed, most probably been born under dry African suns, before ending her short life in the glorious damp of Roman Yorkshire. A short, but undoubtedly eventful, life nearly two thousand years ago.

I was quick to thank the staff member for the time he'd taken to explain the display. He'd been very friendly, very informative, and clearly knew his exhibits in a great deal of depth. The knowledge he presented went well beyond the information contained on the display panels, and showed that he'd well and truly done his homework. Even better was the fact that he presented it in a manner that was both accessible and informative. However, I then made the GREAT MISTAKE. I happened to mention that I, as an archaeologist of sorts, actually had a few issues with the display of human remains in museums. I wasn't explicit - rather just highlighting the disquiet I felt when staring down at the dry conserved bones of this young woman. However, the change in attitude of the museum staff member was both instantaneous and undeniable. The warmth of the day dropped from the room. It became as cold within that gallery as it had been within the grave of the long dead African girl. "Oh", he said quietly, "you are one of the reburial brigade..."

Sadly, that really does define the limits of this particular argument at the moment. The side that argues that there is value in displaying human remains to the public, indeed making them the focus of supposedly educational and informative displays, seems to believe that if you don’t happen to agree with their view, to share it, then you must be one of the ‘reburial brigade’. That if you object to such displays, then you must be in favour of removing ALL human remains from public display and having them buried again – and, as they will undoubtedly tell anyone who cares to listen – lost forever to science.

The problem is – I’m not. I’m not in favour of the wholesale reburial of human remains currently kept in museum collections. Whilst I may believe that it is inappropriate to display many of them to the public, most particularly in the manner in which we currently do, I simply don’t believe that we should cast away the opportunities that such remains may present to science today – and more particularly to science in the future. Let’s be clear about this. Science today can and has learnt a massive amount about the past, past environments, and the people who populated that past, from human remains recovered by archaeologist and currently stored in museums. We have learnt about their lifestyles. We have learnt about their diets, the way and places in which they grew up, and how they eventually left this world. We have learnt what diseases they suffered from, who they were related to, and - if not the dreams that filled their minds - then at least the proteins and chemicals that made up the chemical balance of those minds.

That is really the main point here I suppose. Just because you object to the idea of displaying human remains to the public does not necessarily mean that you belong to the reburial brigade. Just the opposite in fact. You can actually find the display of human remains in a museum, with every kid able to stare up their bum-hole, actually distasteful without necessarily suggesting that we should immediately rebury every example of human remains currently held in every museum and archaeological store. It is possible. Trust me on this.

I suppose it is all down to the argument, and the terms in which it has been presented over the last decade or so. The middle ground has rather disappeared. You are either ‘for or against’. There is no box marked ‘hang on – lets think about this for a moment’. You either agree with the display of human remains in museums – or you are ‘one of them…’

The thing is, I think we need to change the points of reference here. We need to change the way in which this particular case is argued. We need to not just move the goalposts, but actually turn the whole field around. So here goes…

I am not in favour of the wholesale reburial of human remains currently in museums. I know that much can be learnt from them. No arguments from me there whatsoever. However, what justification can be possibly presented for those same human remains being on display, in a glass case, with every second kid staring up its bum-hole, like the star attraction in a Victorian freak show? And I do not use the ‘freak show’ comparison lightly. In an age of 3D printing and decent reconstructions, what can the visitor or viewer possibly learn from staring at the actual physical remains - the bones -  of a long dead individual that they couldn’t get from a replica or reconstruction? Indeed, surely they’d learn more, and perhaps gain a deeper empathy and understanding, from viewing a facial reconstruction of an individual rather than just their dusty bones? Of being able to stare at the face that was born under African suns, rather than the bleached bones in the glass case.

So there really lies the challenge. And it's a challenge not aimed at the likes of me - the people who find such displays distasteful and morally questionable - but at those who believe they are justified and justifiable. For that is what you have to do. You need to justify to the world exactly why you believe anything educational, anything fundamentally useful, can be gained from putting the earthly remains of a dead person on display in a museum. You need to explain why it is necessary to showcase the bones of a dead child to the public, and explain exactly why the public will learn more from those bones than they would from a competent reconstruction or replica. It certainly isn't the old, often repeated, story of 'authenticity'. After all, many of our most famous museum exhibits in the UK are also occasionally replaced by replicas, and nobody is any the wiser, nobody takes away anything less from the experience - so why not the human remains? If you can't fully justify it, if there really isn't a valid educational reason (and I've yet to come across one), then we really must simply accept the 'freak show' tag. We are displaying dead human beings - dead people - to attract others to come and gawp at them. They may not be 'half fish - half man', they may not be quite the 'bearded lady', but the motivations of both those who come to stare, and those who put them on display, are largely the same.

Whoever those people were, from whatever age, and of whatever religion or system of belief, we can be pretty sure of one thing. It is a simple and single tangible point in the morass of history. They and their loved ones believed, no matter what (if any) afterlife they were destined for, that their earthly remains would rest in peace. They believed that their mortal remains were being interred or disposed of in a manner that would ensure they were left largely undisturbed. They may have stripped the flesh from those bones, they may have hollowed out mighty logs to place them in, they may have carefully bound them in unbleached lined - but they believed that it was, quite simply, forever. This was important to them. It meant something to them. They respected their dead. Respected them enough to go, in some cases, to great lengths to ensure they remained undisturbed. We should perhaps learn to respect them, their beliefs, and their clear wishes also. After all, in a couple of thousand years, do you really want a bunch of sniggering schoolboys staring up YOUR desiccated bum-hole?

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Shattered and broken: the ungodly in the house of God...

The news these days seems just so full of horror. So full of terror, death and destruction. The temptation is to simply give up reading it at all. To close your eyes and your mind to the deliberate acts of wilful hatred, in the hope that they will simply go away. It is tempting too for us to look upon these acts from afar, condemn them amongst our friends and upon social media, and to simply refer to them as though they are the acts of the uncivilised, of the unenlightened. To take nothing away from the immense individual suffering and human tragedy of it all, for those of us who care about history and cultural heritage the news is bleak indeed. Historic sites are now, well and truly, in the front line. Sacred objects are smashed, museums looted, and entire historic cultures are being wiped from the archaeological map. A modern horror inflicted upon the ancient world. As ancient temples to long forgotten gods feel the bite of sledge hammers and cheaply bought western explosives, as four thousand year old statues are smashed and scattered, it is all too easy for the good people of Budleigh Salterton or Saffron Walden to pause over their second latte, and condemn these acts as the work of bigots, zealots and the uneducated. However, it is worth remembering that it was, in historical terms, only a very short time ago that the good burghers of Melton Constable and Bishop's Stortford were carrying out just such iconoclasm in their own local parish churches.

Most people who know anything of English history understand that there was a time when we attacked our own places of worship, stripped the images from the walls and woodwork, and smashed the splendours of the medieval church. However, when confronted with such destruction the most common reaction is to place the blame fairly and squarely upon the cropped heads of Oliver Cromwell's puritan soldiery. The parliamentary stronghold of East Anglia, swarming in our imaginations with bible-bashing puritans and roundhead ironclads, most certainly suffered such attacks during the period of the English Civil Wars of the mid-seventeenth century. However, in terms of the destruction of the artworks and glories of the medieval church the real damage had been done over half a century before Oliver and his shock troops had even been born. Whilst there are cases of such seventeenth century destruction, with the notebooks of the notorious iconoclast William Dowsing still surviving in witness to these acts, the churches that they entered had already been largely stripped of their medieval beauty. To place the blame upon the roundheads is, in some respects, to follow the easy route. It is simple to look at the itinerant puritan fanatics and the visiting rough soldiery and conclude that it was violence born of indoctrination and ignorance. It is far harder to accept that such wanton destruction, such an attack on beauty and devotion, was actually carried out by the parishioners themselves. That such iconoclasm was undertaken by, in some cases, the children and grandchildren of the people who made bequests and offerings to create such objects of beauty in the first place.

In 1530 the parish church was essentially medieval in character. A place of vibrant wall paintings, bright stained glass, luminous alabasters and gaudily painted statues. A place of imagery, angels and the saints. By 1550, only two decades later, almost all of this was gone. The statues had been taken down, much of the glass was gone, the rich embroidered vestments had been sold off, and the wall paintings lay hidden beneath coat upon coat of fresh lime-wash. Whilst the changes were monumental they were also incremental. While it may be true to say that the process was begun, as many people will undoubtedly assume, in the closing years of the reign of Henry VIII, the process was a relatively slow one. Many of the major changes, changes that we still see around us today, actually took place long after Henry's death, in the short but turbulent reign of his son Edward VI.

Under the influence of 'reforming' advisors, and brought up to be a devout protestant, Edward oversaw the deliberate and piecemeal destruction of the medieval catholic church. It was a targeted and sustained attack on the fabric, furnishings and social structure of the medieval parish. Whilst some have argued that these were changes welcomed by many at a parish level, as evidenced by the lack of resistance to the changes themselves, it must be noted that the reformation was a gradual process. It was a gradual chipping away at the foundations of medieval faith and belief, until the whole structure had been built anew. It was a series of small acts, each in itself largely innocuous, that taken together resulted in fundamental change.

Bressingham, Norfolk

It was the statute against the veneration of images that left such a trail of obvious destruction that can still be traced through almost every East Anglian church. The act was uncompromising, with orders being given to ‘utterly extinct and destroy’ images ‘so that there remain no memory of the same’. It was this act that led to the covering over of wall paintings, the dismantling or defacement of rood screens, angel roofs and stained glass windows. At Bressingham in south Norfolk the masterpieces of carving that decorated every bench end were attacked with chisels, with each human face hacked from the timber. At North Elmham the world class painted panels that formed the rood screen were removed from their frames, turned upside down and used as floor boards. At Colkirk the beautiful late medieval glass panels were smashed from the tracery, only for fragments to be recovered from the churchyard centuries later. At Houghton St Giles the parish chose to leave the magnificent rood screen in place, but instead roughly gouged out the complete faces of every individual saint, whilst at mighty Attleborough church the multi-tiered doom painting above the chancel arch disappeared for centuries beneath layers of whitewash. It was, quite simply, an attack on medieval art of a scale never seen before or since; destruction on a truly horrific scale.
North Elmham, Norfolk

What is perhaps the most surprising thing is just how much beauty has survived in East Anglia's churches. Given the periods of destruction and unrestrained iconoclasm, the fact that almost every church, almost without exception, contains at least one noteworthy survival is something of a puzzle - but something also to be endlessly thankful for. It is clear that in some cases, as at North Elmham, the survival of such rare beauty was simply a matter of chance. In other cases though it must have been a matter of deliberate choice. A parish that saw those objects of, now unorthodox, beauty and chose to defy or ignore directions for their destruction. A congregation for whom the links created by such objects to their own parish past, and their own ancestors, was far too strong to simply be put aside on the orders of a distant authority.

It would, however, be wrong to assume that such objects were destroyed without thought and without care. At the tiny parish church of Wellingham in central Norfolk can still be seen one of the very last medieval rood screens made in East Anglia prior to the reformation. The upper section has been long gone for centuries, but the lower section still survives - and it is a rare survival indeed. Images of St George and the dragon, St Sebastian, and Christ accompanied by the instruments of the Passion, are almost as fresh today as on the day they were first painted. The screen was a gift to the church in memory of Robert Dorant and his wives, with the dedicatory inscription dated 1532 - a bare few years before the first stirrings of the reformation that would lay waste hundreds of screens just such as this one. However, in Wellingham, the parish appears to have taken a different approach. The parishioners chose to follow the injunction against imagery, but in the most half hearted way possible. Many of them would have undoubtedly still remembered Robert Dorant and his wives, and so the action they took was barely action at all. Although some of the faces are gone from the screen, St George's horse being one puzzling example, many of the other bear only the very lightest of scratches. A few neatly incised crosshatched lines made with the very sharpest of knives. The screen had been defaced - but you would have had to get pretty close to it, as you do today, to even notice the markings. They had done their duty by the law, the church, and the king - but more importantly done their duty to the memory of old Robert.
Wellingham, Norfolk

Such restraint wasn't just to be found at Wellingham. The stunning screen at Thornham on the Norfolk coast, donated to the church in the late fifteenth century by the wealthy local merchant William Millar, suffered similarly half-hearted scratchings - leaving us, thankfully, with another medieval jewel in the crown of East Anglian churches. Such restraint, particularly under pressure from both church and state, must have been by parish-wide agreement. A tacit understanding to do only the very minimum that was required. Whilst the fundamentalists may have held sway within the administration what occurred at a parish level was, quite frankly, the business of the parish. Sadly such cases were not the norm.

Thornham, Norfolk

At Binham priory, a few miles south of the north Norfolk coast, is perhaps one of the most poignant reminders of the destruction caused by the fundamentalism of the English reformation. Encased now behind perspex is the forlorn remains of what must have once been one of the most beautiful rood screens in the region. The upper section, undoubtedly once filled with delicately carved timbers and fine tracery, has long since gone; recycled, destroyed, or simply crumbled to dust by centuries of woodworm and rot. However, part of the lower section, the dado, survives. During the reformation, as most of the priory was dismantled around it, leaving only the nave to act as the parish church, this section was redecorated. In line with the official policy of the day, the images of the saints were lime-washed over. With a new emphasis being placed upon the word of God, rather than elaborate imagery, the screen was covered instead the excerpts of religious text. This seemingly wanton destruction was also one of the most beneficial acts of the whole reformation, for instead of being defaced and destroyed, the images of bright faced saints were preserved fully intact beneath the later paintwork. Now, nearly five centuries later, the lime-wash of the reformation has begun to peel from the surface of the screen. The panels of text are literally falling away from the woodwork, and the faces of the golden robed saints, are once more being revealed in all their original glory and splendour. So here, at least at this one special site, the effects of a small part of the English reformation were only temporary, and the saints are once more returning the Binham...

Binham Priory, Norfolk

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Phantoms in the sky, and fear on the walls...

If you want to take a decent photograph of the west front of a medieval abbey, priory or cathedral then the only time to do it is on a long summers evening. When the sun dips low, shines directly onto the stone face of the building, chasing away all the oblique shadows of the day. To capture all the details of the architecture, to pick out all the tiny nuances of the medieval masons, it has to be a long summer evening. Which is why, a few evenings ago, I was to be found at Binham priory in north Norfolk.

The west front of Binham priory, for all its faults, is absolutely sublime - and by far and away one of my favourite medieval buildings anywhere in England. The design is massively important in the history of English medieval architecture, for reasons that I simply won't bore you with here, and it really was, for its time, utterly revolutionary. However, as you will see, today it is far from perfect. The great west window, designed as the centrepiece of the whole priory, eventually failed - leading to it being bricked up in several stages in the late C18th and early C19th. Having said that, what is left today is still a masterpiece. The detailing of the arcading, the crocketed capitals and the dog-tooth decoration, are some of THE very best examples of the Early English style to be found in the country - and it was these I was there to photograph.

As the sun behind me sank lower and lower in the sky I took picture after picture, watching as the light changed as it played across the stone. Finally, as the light turned to an orange glow, I called it a day, packed up my camera equipment, and turned around to face the setting sun. Or 'suns' rather. For there in front of me, instead of one great orange sphere, there were two. Two suns in the sky. Quite unmistakably. For a few seconds I simply gazed in absolute wonder, faced with this strange, alien, reality. Two suns hanging low in the west...

The two suns in the sky is a rare atmospheric occurrence, or so modern science tells us, known as 'parhelion'. It is caused by the refraction of the sunlight in ice crystals or water droplets high in the atmosphere, and most usually occurs when the sun is low in the sky - at either dawn or dusk. In many cases the full effect is seen as three suns - with a 'copy' either side of the actual sun itself. The phenomenon is sometimes known as 'phantom suns', 'mock suns' or 'sun dogs'; the last term perhaps relating to Norse mythology, where it was thought that they were the dogs of Odin riding through the sky with their master. And these 'phantom suns' most certainly turn up throughout folklore, superstition and mythology all over the world, and throughout history. Though rarely seen their appearance was most certainly noteworthy, and like many celestial events, their appearance is linked to great and momentous events.

Perhaps one of the most famous instances of this phenomena appearing in English history dates back to 1461, and the Battle of Mortimer's Cross during the Wars of the Roses. As the battle began the troops of Edward of York were reportedly terrified by the apparition of three suns hanging in the sky, taking it as an omen of ill fortune. However, Edward convinced his men that, rather than predicting their doom, the three suns were a symbol from God. The three suns represented the holy trinity, and were a sign that they were blessed by the Lord, and about to win a great victory. Heartened by his words the Yorkist troops hastened into battle and, just as Edward had predicted, routed the Lancastrian forces. Edward himself, it was said, was so deeply moved by the three suns in the sky that he later adopted the sunburst symbol as part of the Yorkist livery.

The English have, it has long been reported, always been a nation that put great store in such signs and omens. Writing in the seventeenth century Bishop Sprat noted that belief in such omens and portents was something that the English, in his opinion, were more than usually vulnerable to. The English were, he believed, a superstitious and credulous nation. And the omens were many and various. Putting aside the celestial phenomena of parhelion, eclipses and comets, there were strange sightings of battles in the sky, great swarms of unusual birds , earthquakes - and even, according to  the report of two country women in 1651, flights of angels of 'a blueish colour and about the bigness of a capon'. The medieval and early modern world, it would appear, was a world of omens and portents - and none of them were good.

That is the thing about omens and portents. No matter whether they are blue-chicken-sized-angels or multiple suns in the sky, the chances are that they are going to be interpreted as the harbingers of doom. None of these omens ever appear to have been interpreted as foretelling 'a reasonably nice day next Wednesday', or even 'generally pleasant things will befall the beholder'. Oh no, that just won't do. Instead all of these omens are clear signs of extreme displeasure by (insert deity of choice), who is sending this sign as a way of informing the world that it is very shortly in for a damned good smiting... and no mistake.

And this is the thing about the medieval ideas of faith and belief. Whilst there are the little things that can be beneficial - the charms, talisman and just plain 'lucky' objects - all backing up the unquestionably beneficial prayers of holy mother Church - the large portents and omens are concerned with ill fortune and disaster. Whilst the successful harvest and good health can be ascribed to general good fortune and the rewards of a devout life, the all too common disasters and setbacks, the unexpected floods and the sudden onset of disease were there as a punishment. A punishment for a life lived not as it should be. As Keith Thomas highlights, many people prayed regularly out of fear for what would happen to them, or their loved ones, if they didn't. Therefore, with fire, robbery, tempest, death or fearful accidents an all too common occurrence the medieval church, and the faith of the parish community, was one underpinned by fear.

And it is this fear that we find on the walls of our churches, laid bare in the graffiti etched deep into the stones. We don't find the angels, but we do come across the demons. We find the marks of protection. The physical symbols that hoped to reinforce the prayers of the church, in an all too often vain attempt to keep away the forces of ill fortune. We find the marks of desperate hope. A hope that briefly burned in the breasts of an entire community; all of whom are long since turned to dust. A community for whom two suns hanging in the sky before the west from of a priory were something to be dreaded and feared rather than gazed upon in wonder...

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Lies and Damned Lies: why the average size of an erect penis is getting smaller...

This has been a week for statistics. Actually, it has been a month for statistics. Just about everywhere you turn someone in a suit is throwing some statistic at you. Statistics, we are meant to believe are, if not solid facts, then the building blocks for truths. They are the foundation of our learning, the cornerstones of our studies. For me too this has been a week of statistics - medieval graffiti statistics - and I have come to hate and mistrust them. I have come to see them as the shallow things that they really are, designed to mislead, designed to delude. They are, if I'm honest, a bit of a bugger...

You see, the thing about statistics is that, used selectively, they can be used to back up and legitimise just about any argument you want. And I really do mean just about anything. Don't believe me? Well try this one for starters.

'It is the opinion of this house that the average size of an erect penis for a western European male is actually diminishing over time'.

First of all we have to start with the irrefutable facts. Today, according to a study published in 2016, the average size of an erect penis for a British male is 5.16 inches. That's right everyone. Nor six inches - but 5.16 inches. This figure appears to be a fairly constant, with another study published in the 1940s also coming up with a figure of between 5 and 5.3 inches. However, due to the benefits of a better health care system, better education amongst parents and far better levels of infant nutrition, the average overall physical size of the British male is increasing. In 1954 the average British male was 5ft 7inches tall, and weighed 11st 6lb. In 2016 that has increased to 5ft 9inches, with an average weight of 12st 6lb. So, in the intervening six decades the average British male has become 2 inches taller and a stone heavier in weight, but the size of their erect penis has remained roughly the same. Therefore, in terms of penis to body mass ratio, the average size of average erect British penis is proportionally smaller.

Now if I really wanted to add the air of authenticity to this argument I could fall back on the art historical evidence - very selectively obviously. First of all there is all the Roman art and artefacts - many showing certain Roman individuals with incredibly large erections - implausibly so in some cases - but who are we to argue with historical 'fact'. Then you can bring in a whole series of C18th engravings and prints, in which the average sized penis appears to be well over 9 inches. Bringing it even further up to date, you can show images of the amazing graffiti at Bempton army base, itself now a matter of historical record, which indicates that 8-10 inches was the average during the Second World War and immediate aftermath. No wonder Hitler lost...

Okay, okay... you will all have noticed by now, I hope, that the above argument is based entirely upon either the selective use of evidence, or the manipulation of certain statistics; statistics that were never really meant to be comparable in the first place. In a debate relating to penis size it is really pretty easy to spot the flaws in the argument. However, such misleading and manipulative use of statistics can be found around you just about every day - perhaps more so given the recent political climate. In the last few weeks I have heard both politicians and respected political commentators using terms such as 'the majority of the British population voted for Brexit'. Last week it was a senior politician on the BBC using those exact words.

Frankly they should all know better - and so should we. What they are TRYING to say is that the majority of the people who could be bothered, or were allowed, to vote in the recent referendum voted to leave the EU. Seventeen million of them. However, as any politician and political commentator should know, the population of the UK is approximately 64.1 million. So, all politics aside, and with the very best will in the world, I still can't get 17 million, as a proportion of 64.1 million, to be any more than about 27% - and that's allowing for my poor level of education in a state school obviously. Lies, damned lies - and statistics.

The problem of course is that the study of history, be it political history or archaeology, is utterly devoted to the use of statistics - even the study of medieval graffiti. Rarely a day goes past without me being stopped in the street and asked 'what proportion of ritual protection marks are made up of compass drawn designs'? Okay... maybe not - but you get the idea. So imagine my interest then, when an article landed on my desk last week dealing with medieval graffiti - an article that, based upon certain statistics, had drawn some very, very interesting conclusions. Obviously I'm not going to mention the author - because we have already discussed the matter at length, and the article is currently being heavily revised. However, it is worth looking at the two main conclusions of the original article.

1. That the majority of medieval church graffiti is found on the pillars and exposed stonework of areas such as door surrounds, thereby indicating a deliberate choice and placement of those areas by the authors of the graffiti. Such a choice of these harder stone areas strongly suggests that the author associated permanence with an enhanced potency in regard to devotional inscriptions.

2. In light of the findings of Easton and Champion there are strong indications that the early modern period saw a shift away from the creation of graffiti inscriptions in churches and towards vernacular buildings. There is little evidence for ritual protection markings in pre-reformation domestic properties and, as Easton suggests, these appear to be largely confined to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Both of these arguments were backed up with lots and lots of lovely data and statistics - some of which were actually drawn from this survey - and both conclusions appeared superficially reasonably compelling. Difficult to argue with. Except that, in reality, and exactly like my argument above, they are both complete cock!

In some respects the first conclusion is slightly more difficult to question, largely because it is entirely true. In 80%+ of churches this is exactly where we do find the graffiti - on the exposed stonework of pillars, door surrounds, chancel arches, etc. However, this is to take the known statistics in isolation. To just deal with the figures and completely ignore the wider picture - the context from which those statistics were drawn. And the context is this. In almost all churches, even to this day, the internal face of the walls was plastered. Today very little of this medieval plaster survives, particularly not in the lower areas of the walls; the areas in which we normally find graffiti inscriptions. However, at sites where medieval plaster does survive, such as in areas at Swannington or Troston, then these too are covered in early graffiti. Therefore, the distribution pattern that we see in the graffiti is a false one. It is NOT a distribution pattern of medieval graffiti, but a distribution pattern of 'surviving' medieval graffiti - and the two are very different things.

The second conclusion is, it must be said, on the face of it, based upon good data. We do find most ritual protection marks in a domestic setting on buildings that post date the reformation. Easton's conclusions ring true. However, once again, we are looking at data and statistics that are, at best, incomplete - and as a result just as misleading. Put it this way, if you are mainly looking at post-reformation buildings then that is where you are going to be drawing your data from. Medieval domestic buildings are far rarer survivals, and those that do survive have, like all older houses, suffered restoration and renovations beyond count. In essence, we simply don't have the surviving medieval housing stock available to survey in the same way that we do have from the post-reformation period. However, in the few cases we have been able to look at such structures, then ritual protection marks ARE present - but the overall number of sites examined to date means that these sites barely dent the statistics. They may be all we have - but statistically they don't really count.

So what then is the lesson from all this? Is there indeed a lesson at all? I suppose it is simply to urge caution. To always question every statistic that is thrown at you, whether to do with medieval graffiti or politics, and look more closely at both the data itself, and the context in which it was created. Statistics alone are rarely meaningful, particularly in relation to historical research. They are, quite simply, lies, damned lies, and statistics - and nine out of ten cats agree with me on this...

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

The death of heritage (part 2): playing in the ashes of the past...

It is a recognised historical fact that there are times when people are more likely to create graffiti than others. Times when society is under stress, when things are going wrong, and the people feel helpless to do anything about it. They are invariably times of conflict, either physical or social, which we term 'chronological hotspots'. Just as there are places and locations that are more likely to attract graffiti than others, there are also period of history too. You'll recognise the dates in many cases. 1939-45, 1914-18, the middle of the seventeenth century, the middle of the sixteenth century - and of course 1349. Put simply, when things go bad, when chaos comes knocking, people start writing on the walls.

I'm expecting a really good crop of graffiti from the last week. A large and REALLY good collection.

The last week has been... interesting. Interesting from many perspectives. From an outside historical perspective it has been totally fascinating. Watching a society once known for its tolerance and pragmatism collapse in on itself; the very last act of a dying empire. Once the empire is gone, as history invariably shows, the centre-point upon which it was built will implode like a dying star. The last days of Rome played out on the world stage.

But leaving aside the politics, the blatant lies and the deceit, what will this actually mean for history, heritage and archaeology in England (and you'd better get used to calling it England rather than the UK)? Well, all the experts have spoken. Obviously there are many of you out there who won't be interested in hearing. You've heard enough from the 'experts' after all. However, for those that are interested, for those that aren't trying to drown out the surge of rising choas by sticking their fingers in their ears and chanting "we won our country back" (contrary to the evidence), then it makes pretty interesting reading.

Firstly there are the effects on commercial archaeology. Less work and cancelled contracts. Simple as that. As construction and house-builders have already taken a massive economic hit contracts are being put on 'Brexit-hold'. This may of course just be temporary. It may not. However, it doesn't really make a lot of difference for the diggers who don't know if they'll be working next month, or the month after that, or the month after that. They will suffer or they will be gone. The likelihood is they'll suffer AND be gone. And this isn't a prediction for the future here - it's already happening. It's been happening since last Friday morning. And that isn't even touching upon the archaeological protection currently being offered by EU legislation...

Then there are the academic projects. Those projects based on universities and institutes of higher education. Well they've already spoken about this. They are devastated. With a massive proportion of university project funding either coming directly from the EU, or using EU monies as match funding, the impact is going to be significant. Project are already being cancelled - and you don't have to take my word for this. Over the weekend the Society of Antiquaries of London, one of the foremost historical institutions in the country, asked its Fellows for their opinions. You can find the results here - and it doesn't make pretty reading. So what you might think. What's a few less academics to the world? Who needs more experts?

And then there are the projects like this one. The medieval graffiti surveys. The 'peoples' projects that have jogged along with minimal funding, and certainly nothing from the EU. Trying to help real people get involved, discover their own history, and do 'real' archaeology.  Surely they'll just carry on. Business as usual. Thing is, it isn't as simple as that. What little funding we do receive comes from the Heritage Lottery Fund (God bless 'em), and as EU funding drains from elsewhere then there are going to be significantly more calls on the HLF for funding. Calls from big, high profile organisations, with whole teams just dedicated to writing funding bids. The trickledown effect simply won't trickle down to many of the smaller community based projects. To an extent this was already beginning to be the case. Austerity had seen to that. Now it is going to be even more difficult for those smaller projects.

I'm really only just touching on a very few obvious areas here. There are so many more consequences - many of which will only become apparent over the coming weeks. This is going to impact on county heritage service, on museums, on libraries and art galleries. So, all in all, it isn't looking great for heritage and archaeology. It'll be great for historians in the future obviously. Those who sit down to write the books about what just happened, what is still happening, what is still to come. They will have a great time. They can talk of 'a country rudderless and adrift', the rise of xenophobia and the far right, and talk of 'history repeating itself'.

I suppose this should at least then leave us with one clear lesson from all of this. History is great to study - but really rather crap to actually live through. You might want to ask the Polish checkout girl in Fakenham Tesco's some time. The girl whose family fought alongside the British in the darkest hours of 1940, and who has been told no less than six times already today to "go back to where she comes from". As for me? I'm still angry at the moment. Angrier than I have ever felt before. Angry at a future stolen by a couple of Eton schoolboys who got ambitious, and went from pig screwing to screwing a whole nation. Angry that a schoolboy spat has torn a country apart to the extent that the words 'civil war' are not being used to describe a historical event. Angry at the stupid baby-boomers - who were given everything by the generations that came before them - and stole everything from the generations yet to come. I'm angry at a system that can spend months pedalling lies - money for the NHS, reduced immigration, free trade - take your pick - and then simply laugh at the voters and say it was all a mistake.

So, if you do see any really good referendum graffiti, or anything really good on the walls over the coming months (apart from the blood obviously), then please, please feel free to drop me an email... 

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Marking the stones: medieval mason's and a bunch of bankers...

The marks left by medieval mason's are invariably the very earliest markings that can be found on any medieval structure, and can tell us a great detail concerning the medieval design and construction process. The traditional view of mason's marks is somewhat simplistic, albeit useful in terms of interpretation, and states that each mason who worked on a structure had their own individual symbol with which they would mark the individual stones, or area of the building, that they had worked on. These marks were then used by their employer or the 'master mason' to work out exactly who had done which piece of work, and how much each mason was to be paid. Although useful, such a narrative is both overly simplistic and in many cases just plain incorrect. Wrong. However, if it helps you to think of them in this way then please feel free to do so. You'll be wrong, but have a nice cosy warm feeling inside - which has to be worth something after all.

There are three main types of mason's marks that can be found on medieval stonework, all relating to different types of stonework and construction techniques.

Banker's/Quarry marks
These are the marks applied by the lower standard masons who were simply roughing out the stones for use in the walls of a building. The masons doing this work may have been apprentices, but just as likely were skilled men used to working large stones very quickly. In some cases, particularly where the majority of the stone was locally sourced, these marks may have been applied as the stones were quarried and cut to rough size - or could have been applied after they were cut to exact size in the mason's lodge on site. Such marks are usually fairly large in comparison to internal mason's marks. They are fairly crudely formed, but created using mason's chisels or punches, and in shape often take the form of a crude representation of mason's tools, such as the set square The fact that many of these marks often appear at angles, or even upside down, indicate that the marks were applied to the stones prior to them being inserted in the wall.

The presence of lots of these banker marks at a site is usually an indication that the rough masons were being paid on a piece work rate; a set rate for every finished stone. However, at many sites existing documentation suggests that individual masons could and were paid by the yard of finished stone. A surviving document for work at Lincoln cathedral in 1308, made between the cathedral administration and the mason Richard of Stow, indicate two different rates of payment - one for plain walling and the other for carved work. Those undertaking the more skilled carved work were paid a daily wage, whilst the less skilled 'walling masons', were paid by the amount of work they produced. If the rough masons were paid by the yard then there was no need for them to mark so many stones, just to indicate the general areas in which they worked - and less banker marks will be visible.
Fine mason's marks

The second type of mason's mark most usually encountered are those located on the higher status fine stonework. These were made by the expert masons undertaking the detailed carving and forming of the moulded stonework, such as arcades, fine finished walls or moulded stones. Such markings are invariable smaller and more precisely cut that the banker marks found on the general walling stone, and are usually formed of straight lines cut with a selection of mason's chisels. As a general rule, if it isn't precisely cut with a chisel - it isn't a mason's mark - no matter what some archaic Victorian text book may tell you. Not chisel cut - NOT A MASON'S MARK. Are we all clear on that bit?

Many examples show evidence of having been created in situ once a particular piece of work was completed. In this respect the finer mason's marks can also be seen as  a form of quality control mark, being applied to an area of work upon satisfactory completion of the set task. In normal circumstances only one mason's mark would appear on a single stone - but there are recorded exceptions to this. Exactly why this is the case I am happy to report - we don't actually know as yet. A master and apprentice perhaps? Really friendly mason's who shared their work? No idea as yet - and it is REALLY rare.  In contrast to modern masons, who hide their own marks on the rear of stones or within bedding joints, the medieval masons had no qualms about leaving their marks in plain view on the surface of the stones - a practice that is believed to have changed only in the seventeenth century. It is generally understood that the mason's were less concerned with their marks being on the visible face of the stone as the surface was most usually then painted or decorated, which would have obscured the markings.

Tradition also states that each mason had his own mark which he would use throughout his career, and in some cases would 'pass on' the mark to an apprentice or son. However, this interpretation is not really standing up to scrutiny (a rather polite academic term for stating that it is complete bo**oxs). There are certainly cases of the same mark appearing on buildings constructed several centuries apart, which obviously led to the idea of generations of the same family continuing a tradition. Either that, or we had some REALLY old masons. However, with there only being so many different marks that can be made using straight lines and a set of chisels, duplication over time is pretty much inevitable. There is also very clear evidence of masons changing their marks for particular projects, most probably the result of two or more masons being contracted for a job and discovering they have very similar marks. Therefore, just because it is the same mark on two structures doesn't mean it is the same mason.

There is also the traditional idea that the mason's mark was meant to operate as some form of tally system, allowing the master mason to work out who had done what work, and therefore what they were to be paid. Leaving aside the fact that it would have been a pretty poor master mason who didn't know what each of the half dozen masons under his control was actually working on, this interpretation also fails to explain the marks found at numerous sites. Whilst some churches might have as many as half a dozen different mason's marks (and worth bearing in mind here that the whole of Bodiam castle appears to have been constructed by only nine masons and their apprentices in under a decade) others are found to contain many dozens of marks - that are all identical. How is that meant to work then? The mason is marking his stones to prove he did the work - when he's the only one employed there? I think not.

So what are mason's marks for then? Well, put simply, a number of things. In some cases they probably are actually being used to mark out an area where a specific mason worked, but this most likely has little to do with how much he was getting paid - unless it's a banker mark. Instead they were applied to finished pieces of work, in some cases as a form of quality control, marking out an area that was 'completed'. In others it appears to be a craftsman signing off his own work, in the same way a proud artist signs his own masterpieces. In many instances it is a combination of things - the end of a section, a quality control mark AND the mark of a proud mason. Put simply - there isn't a simple single answer.

However, and this is where it might just get a tad confusing, some masons used as their marks symbols that have become associated with apotropaic functions, or ritual protection marks; in particular here I am talking about the VV symbol and the pentangle. Yes, these marks are undoubtedly ritual protection marks - but they are also used as mason's marks. Just because you find a structure covered in pentangles or VV marks doesn't necessarily mean they are witch marks. It is a little more subtle than that. A little more nuanced. If they are repeated throughout a structure, as at churches like Loddon in Norfolk, and if they are chisel cut in a neat and precise manner - then they are MASON'S MARKS. Now here's the thing, just to really annoy you, it is worth bearing in mind that the masons may have chosen those particular marks simply because of their recognised protective function...

And then there are the third type of mason's mark - those created by the Master Mason.... but I think I'll leave that for another time...

So, when looking at/for mason's marks here are a few simple rules to bear in mind...

Rule 1 - if it isn't cut with a chisel it isn't a mason's mark. Simples.

Rule 2 - just because you see the same mark on two different buildings does NOT necessarily mean they are the mark of the same mason.

Rule 3 - just because it looks like a witch mark doesn't mean that it can't be a mason's mark.

Rule 4 - all the above rules are subject to variation and change without written notice (please see Terms and Conditions)