Wednesday, 12 April 2017

The Voynich manuscript: medieval secrets left in plain sight

It is one of the great mysteries of the medieval world. A beautifully illustrated manuscript that has survived over five centuries of being passed from owner to owner, before finally ending up in one of the greatest university libraries in the world. It has survived wars, famines and natural disasters. It has at times been locked away from public view, and at other times pored over by the world's leading scholars. It has been the focus for academic debate, and heated controversy. It is, quite probably, one of the most studied medieval manuscripts in existence. It is undoubtedly one of the most frustrating. For even after almost a century of intense scrutiny, by many of the world's leading medievalists, nobody has yet been able to actually decipher the text. It is, quite simply, unreadable.

Today this book is usually known to academics by its rather clinical and wholly unremarkable library identification number - Beinecke MS 408. However, to the wider world it is known simply as the 'Voynich Manuscript', after the late nineteenth century eastern European collector, bibliophile and book dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich; the individual first credited with identifying the strange volume.

The manuscript itself is made up of 234 pages of high quality vellum, split into six very distinct sections. The first section is made up of 130 illustrations of plants, often referred to as being similar to a medicinal herbal manual. The strange looking plants are shown with their roots, leaves and flowers, but although a few vaguely resemble recognisable varieties, none have ever been positively identified. These crudely executed images are surrounded by sections of text in an unknown and unidentifiable language. The second section of the book comprises of a small collection of unusual fold-out pages showing circular diagrams that have been interpreted as astrological charts. The third section is perhaps more unusual still, being made up of quite poorly executed illustrations showing individuals bathing naked in a variety of ponds and pools, again accompanied by the mysterious and unreadable script. The fourth section contains further fold-out astrological charts, whilst the fifth section returns to the theme of the strangely unidentifiable plants. The final section contains no illustrations whatsoever, consisting of twenty-three closely written pages of the strange unreadable text. There is, quite simply, no other surviving medieval manuscript quite like it.
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript LibraryYale University

Although the manuscript is today clearly associated with W. M. Voynich, it has quite unusually been possible to trace its ownership back several centuries prior to his acquisition of the piece. It has been established that the book was once amongst the collection of the seventeenth century Italian Jesuit thinker, Athanasius Kircher. Kircher had in turn acquired the book from Johannes Marcus Marci, a physician from Prague, who had claimed that the whole manuscript was a 'lost' work of the English Alchemist Roger Bacon (1214/1220–1292?). Marci had also stated, according to a letter dated 1665 that Voynich had discovered tucked between the pages of the book, that the work had once been purchased for the library of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612), although Marci himself is believed to have bought the work from the alchemist Georgius Barschius, who we know was in possession of the manuscript in the 1630s.

The association between the manuscript and Rudolf II was an obvious one for Kircher to make, particularly if he was trying to sell the book and capitalise upon its strangeness. Rudolph II's interest in the occult, alchemy and the sciences were well known, leading to his court becoming the focus for numerous individuals involved in what might today be considered 'fringe' research, as well as more traditional forms of investigation. Alongside leading astronomers and mathematicians, such as Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, individuals such as Dr John Dee were drawn to  Prague to undertake their own research. Dee was resident at the court for some years, attempting via his 'conversations with angels' to establish the earliest language of creation, that would have been used by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Rudolph was a great patron on the arts and sciences, but was himself obsessed with the art of alchemy, and the search for the philosopher's stone; an obsession that led to him subsequently being dubbed the 'Alchemist Prince'.
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript LibraryYale University

If Kircher was attempting to sell the book as an ancient magical treatise then the court of Rudolf II would have be the most perfect of provenances. However, Kircher's attempt to link the Voynich manuscript with the court of Rudolf II might not have been entirely self-serving and spurious at it might at first seem. Although invisible today unless under ultra-violet light, a signature on the flyleaf has been identified as that of Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenee - official pharmacist at the court of the Emperor Rudolf.

To be able to trace the ownership of a single manuscript from the early seventeenth century to the present day is unusual enough, but to be able to trace such a manuscript through multiple owners and across several continents, is nothing short of a bibliographic miracle. However, by the time we first come across the work in the early seventeenth century the manuscript was already ancient. If this strange book was ever at the court of the strange emperor, then it was already well over a century and a half old. Recent examination of the manuscript involved highly accurate radiocarbon dating of fragments of the vellum itself, which revealed that the materials used to create the book all dated to around the third decade of the fifteenth century - incidentally ruling out the possibility that the whole was a modern forgery, an accusation that has been leveled at it more than once.

Today the manuscript resides in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, where it has become one of the most viewed of all the treasures within one of THE great treasure houses of medieval manuscripts. The mystery surrounding the work, and its recent exposure to public scrutiny, has meant that the lately digitised version of the book is now actually responsible for over fifty percent of all the on-line views of the whole library collection. It is even said that the author Umberto Eco, when lecturing at Yale and offered the opportunity to view any of its medieval riches, asked only to see this one manuscript. It has, in short, become legend.
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript LibraryYale University

It has also become the focus for intense academic debate, and perhaps more sadly, the centrepiece in numerous discussions concerning the 'lost' mysteries of the Middle Ages, ancient hidden 'secrets', and the 'truth' behind the manuscript. Since as far back as the seventeenth century some of the owners of the book have been convinced that the unintelligible text it contains is actually a devious code designed to disguise its true nature. Kircher himself attempted to recruit individuals to decipher the work, and centuries later even Voynich was convinced that the text was a cipher that could be broken. What lay concealed by the coded pages was anyone's guess - but it was certainly deemed to be both important and worth the effort of decryption. A hidden manuscript of lost medieval science was amongst the favourite suggestions, with Dr Dee's ancient language of the angels also a consideration. Whatever it was, the efforts made to conceal its true nature must, it was thought, reflect the value of the information it contained.

With the donation of the manuscript to Yale university library interest in the secrets apparently lodged within the pages of the book actually increased exponentially. Many of the world's finest minds, cryptographers and code-breakers, have set themselves the challenge of mastering its secrets. More recently still, supercomputers and code-breaking algorithms have been employed to attempt to decipher the mysterious text. All to no avail. A few have claimed success, but all such claims have fallen apart upon closer examination. Frustration has indeed become the key word associated with any studies into the manuscripts origins and function. If it isn't a code to be broken, then academia isn't quite sure what it actually is? The scientific analysis has generally ruled out the concept of a modern forgery, leaving scholars to grasp at terms such as 'hoax' and 'fantasy'. Indeed, one of the most popular modern approaches to the work is that it was created as an elaborate medieval hoax. A purely specious work that never really had any true meaning or function. As Eamon Duffy has suggested, a fraud designed by a swindler whose 'derisive laughter peals down the centuries'. A unique practical joke from the past. (For a fuller account of the ownership of the manuscript, and modern attempts at decryption, see Eamon Duffy's recent article in The New York Review of Bookshere)

With such a unique manuscript, and with no known parallels, what other interpretations are there? Excepting of course that there are parallels, and the manuscript is unique only in the fact that it is a book. A complete work. A closer examination of the world from which this mysterious work originated - the world of medieval magic - shows us that the enigma that is the Voylich manuscript actually isn't that enigmatic. It really isn't that strange. Indeed, when looked at in the context of late medieval belief and the physical manifestations of those beliefs, the work takes on a whole new meaning. The arcane becomes the mundane.

Examples of strange and unreadable text are to be found in several areas of late medieval and early modern studies, and in almost all cases are linked to the practice of what might be termed 'folk magic'. The contemporary attitudes to such activities were ambiguous to say the least, with the church officially condemning acts of what it termed 'witchcraft' on numerous occasions, whilst documentary records indicate that the populace as a whole took a far more ambivalent attitude. Magic that caused harm was to be protected against and condemned out of hand. However, magic and charms that came to peoples aid, cured illness and recovered stolen property were seen as just another aspect of everyday life. The magic of the 'wise woman' and 'cunning man' was, after all, simply a logical extension of the 'magical' protections offered by the Church. Indeed, in the relatively rare cases where the use of such low level charms and folk practices find themselves scrutinised in the law courts, a high percentage of those carrying out such activities are shown to be parish priests and those in religious orders.

Take for example the case of William Stapleton, monk of St Benets Abbey in Norfolk. In 1528 Stapleton took leave of his religious vocation, following a dispute with his Prior over his inability to get out of bed to attend religious services on time. Instead Stapleton decided to carve out a new career searching for ancient buried treasure, aided by magic books that had come into his possession, and the demons that he intended to summon using the secret arts detailed in the books. The magical books had come to Stapleton from their original owner, the vicar of Watton, and during his relatively short, and spectacularly unsuccessful, career as a treasure hunter he had interactions with a large number of other priests all involved in similar activities. The parson of Lesingham, we are told, had bound a spirit called Andrew Malchus into another magic book that Stapleton was keen to acquire.

The line between officially sanctioned magical acts of the church, and those of 'superstitions' was a fine one; and one that many a priest found it simply too easy to unwittingly cross. It was therefore totally acceptable to carry the consecrated Host around the parish to ward off thunderstorms, but apparently crossed the line if you scattered the Host across the village fields to drive off evil and ensure fertility. In 1564 the Reverend John Betson was ordered to hand over to the Church authorities certain magical books that were in his possession, and that he had been accused of using to help his parishioners recover stolen goods. And in one single year, 1586, no less than three individual Norfolk vicars found themselves charged with acts of 'conjuring', and in 1606 the Royal College of Physicians was forced to act against the Reverend John Bell for supposedly supplying 'cures' to his congregation in the form of written charms.

The use of written charms, by all levels of medieval and early modern society, was extensive and commonplace. Often written on small scraps of parchment these charms could take many forms and have many functions. In many cases they were designed to effect a cure, or protect from evil influences, and were as applicable to livestock as they were human beings. Some were designed to be worn, or secreted in clothing, whilst others were to be hidden away within structures such as houses, barns or stables. Their production most usually fell to the local wise woman or cunning man, and they could be purchased for a relatively modest fee, with particular individuals known to have specialised in charms for particular ailments and conditions.
Norfolk Record Office

The charms themselves often took the form of a mixture of symbols and text, such as the seventeenth century example designed to protect from witchcraft, and now preserved in the Norfolk record office. However, in many cases both the text and the symbols could be ambiguous. Many of the post-reformation written charms contained elements of medieval Latin, sometimes from orthodox prayers or the psalms, much of which had become corrupted by time and, in some cases, he obvious copying of ancient and faded originals. However, whilst many of the written charms follow clearly established forms and patterns, just as clearly many of the charms also contained text that had never made any sense, and was never meant to be intelligible. It was quite simply 'mumbo-jumbo' - nonsense phrases and sentences that were designed to look mysterious and magical to the intended audience, but which had no actual meaning at all.

And alongside the undecipherable and unintelligible texts, these written charms often contain symbols, amulets and imagery. In some cases the symbols are recognisable astrological or astronomical characters, carefully created or copied down from better known manuscripts. Complex astrological charts, set within compass drawn circles representing the celestial spheres. However, many of the amulets and sigils are from less traceable sources, and a large number of them appear simply to have been invented for the purpose. It was recognised that traditional ritual magic involved the use of outlandish sigils, so strange sigils there must be - whatever their source. This practice appears to have extended beyond the simple written charms into a number of well studied manuscripts on magical practices. Whilst many of the motifs, seals and amulets set down in Thomas Agrippa's early sixteenth century 'Three Books of Occult Philosophy' clearly have logical and classic antecedents, many other works include far greater flexibility when it comes to the origins of the material they included. The Tudor necromancers manual attributed to Paul Foreman (Cambs. Add. Mss. 3544) contains numerous seals, sigils and bizarre motifs that have no obvious provenance. And whilst many of them contain overtly religious imagery, such as the symbol of the trinity or the Holy Monogram, just as many of them appear to have devised by, or contain significant elements, that came from the author's own imagination.

Norwich cathedral graffiti curse
And such nonsense text and invented symbols aren't even solely confined to parchment charms and paper books, being also discovered in large numbers amongst the medieval and Tudor graffiti inscriptions in English places of worship. Such an association between aspects of ritual magic and church buildings can hardly be considered surprising, given the role priests and clerics appear to have played in popularising the activity, and the perceived enhancement of the power of any charm by it being associated with a spiritually significant site. Whilst some of these inscriptions follow the classical tradition, such as the graffiti 'curses' located in Norwich cathedral, or the 'magic square' on the walls of Alphamstone church in Essex, other are far more informal in nature. Strange pseudo astronomical talisman litter the walls at churches such as Worlington in Suffolk, unintelligible text snakes across the stones at Lidgate church in Suffolk, accompanied by images of devils and demons.
Worlington church graffiti, Suffolk

These are the everyday tools of the trade for the medieval and Tudor 'conjurer'. The overtly theatrical props of the wise woman and cunning man. Texts, symbols and documents that are designed to project an air of obscurity; a semblance of mystery and ambiguity. Their function was to hide the very greatest secret of all; the secret being that they had no meaning whatsoever - beyond being part of an elaborate set-dressing for the charlatan.

So perhaps that then is the answer? The indecipherable text of the Voynich manuscript was designed to serve one purpose, and one purpose alone - and that was to be indecipherable. There is no hidden message. There is no secret code. It was devised as a manuscript that was never meant to be read. The strange other-worldly text and ambiguous imagery were created to project a sense of mystery; a physical rendering of the arcane. The mysterious message of the manuscript is a simple one, and one that its audience throughout the centuries have never failed to grasp. Here, on these pages of creamy vellum, lies true mystery. No hoax - no fraud - and it does exactly what it was always envisaged as doing. It creates an air of the ineffable, an illusion of the unknowable. You, the audience, are not meant to understand this book. For understanding and interpretation you must look to the individual who possesses this work. Only they have the key to its secrets, and with it the secrets of the universe, which - undoubtedly for a price - they might share.

Was this manuscript then, like the nonsense text of many medieval and early modern written charms, and the inscriptions on countless church walls, simply an elaborate prop for the cunning man and public magician? A book of mystery and wonder, a blend of indecipherable text and astrological symbols, designed to gull even the most wary? Well, if that is the case, then it was certainly a most expensive prop. A valuable commercial tool for the mountebank of medieval mysteries. It is admittedly no great work of fine art, and yet its production cannot have been cheap. The quality of materials used is high, as is quantity of vellum used in its production, and it would have taken hundreds of hours to complete. It most certainly isn't the cut-price disposable written charm, scribbled upon a scrap of re-used parchment, but a major project undertaken by a single individual. Its creation must have been regarded as either a long-term investment, or aimed at a specific purpose. An initial purpose that we might never know.

Its connection with the court of Rudolf II, and his pharmacist's name that was once visible on the flyleaf, certainly support its links to the 'court of magic', but these links were only forged a century or so after the manuscript was actually created. The mysterious original maker of the book would have undoubtedly already been long dead. Returned to the dust from which the manuscript is even today so arduously protected in Yale University library. Indeed, perhaps the very reason the book eventually found itself at the court of the magic obsessed Emperor was that it was already being viewed as an object of mystery? A puzzle to be solved? A container that held the secrets of a bygone age?

And who then was this creator of one of the most elaborate magical and mysterious showman's props of the later Middle Ages? What can we say about he, or even she? In truth, very little. They were wealthy enough to have created the volume, and they were most certainly well versed in the writing arts and manuscripts, which suggests a relatively advanced level of education. They were also well enough acquainted with other 'magical' texts and herbals to have the knowledge to create their own pseudo version. However, beyond that the manuscript itself holds few clues, and it's early history prior to the seventeenth century is largely unknown. Without the discovery of parallel manuscripts, or elements of manuscripts,  their identity is unlikely to ever be firmly established. It would appear that the real mystery of the Voynich manuscript may remain forever unsolved.

(Further information and images from the Voynich Manuscript can be viewed on the Yale University website - here)

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The terror of technology...

This has been a week of technology. We are, the media tells us, on the brink of a robotics revolution (N.B. this does not preclude the possibility of other revolutions happening as well. Just saying...). A robotics revolution that will bring change to the human condition that is entirely unprecedented in our past - or at least since the discovery of fire - or the discovery that you can ferment grapes into a half decent Pinot Grigio. There is talk of 'robot rights', and the usual sound-bite backlash of the media hungry, or Daily Mail readers who didn't read beyond paragraph one in the first place. Science fiction is, almost, science fact. All a bit scary really. Technology moves on so very rapidly that who knows what will be invented in the next few years? Cold fusion perhaps? Electronic superconductors? Maybe we'll even get the long awaited hover-boots? They've been promised for long enough after all...

However, technology is most certainly our friend. It allows us to actually do what we are doing. In fact the growth in the whole area of studying historic graffiti is all down to the advent of new technologies. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when Violet Pritchard was carrying out the research for her book, English Medieval Graffiti, she was essentially crippled by the technology available to her at the time. All of her recording was done by taking actual rubbings of the graffiti that she came across, in much the same way that people took rubbings of the monumental brasses. It was slow, it was inaccurate, and the results weren't brilliant. The rubbings only worked well on the most deeply cut inscriptions, leaving the more discrete inscriptions unrecorded. It also led to confusion. With thousands of individual pieces of paper, the odd mis-filed rubbing was fairly common place. Those who have gone to Marton in Lincolnshire looking for the amazing late medieval example of ship graffiti will actually find it at Bassingham, some considerable distance away. And to this day I am still picking small fragments of wax crayon out of the lines of numerous inscriptions across East Anglia - blue and green appear to have been favourites.

Today of course we use digital technology to record the graffiti. The advent of reasonably cheap digital cameras has completely changed the manner in which we carry out surveys. Had Pritchard tried to record the graffiti in a church like Lidgate in Suffolk using photography then the processing costs alone would have bankrupted her. Boots the Chemist would have made a fortune. However, today we can happily wander into a church and take hundreds of high resolution digital images, at almost no cost, even if half of them are subsequently discarded. Put simply, if it wasn't for the advent of the digital camera then the large scale surveys currently taking place across the country simply wouldn't be possible.

And technology has also be the driving force behind the spread of those surveys. The rise of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter has allowed individuals to share their findings, to enthuse others, and come together to form new area or county surveys. Some are more formally organised, through groups such as the Wiltshire Field Group or MBA Archaeology. Others are simply groups of like minded individuals gathering together to share an interest. Indeed, these days barely a week goes by without a new group appearing somewhere or other - the 'Dunny-in-the-Wold Medieval Graffiti Appreciation Society', or the 'Society for the Recording of Really Old Graffiti in Churches, but can't come up with a Good Acronym' (SFTROGICBCCUWAGA). There are graffiti groups springing up in places I wasn't even aware still existed - Essex for example. There are multiple graffiti groups on social media platforms such as Facebook and Flickr. Some with thousands of members, freely sharing images. Others hidden away in dark corners, lest prying eyes try and steal their mason's marks. Recording early graffiti really has become 'a thing' for many thousands of people. All brought together by the power of social media. All made possible by recent advances in technology.

However, before we become too complacent, before we become just too comfortable with these new advances, there is one BIG thing to bear in mind. Technology is also our enemy. It is as much our enemy as an over enthusiastic churchwarden with a REALLY big tub of lime-wash and a manic gleam in their eyes.

Now I'm not talking here about some dystopian future in which legions of robots suddenly take it into their shiny metal heads to start visiting churches and recording the graffiti. The dystopian present seems quite bad enough without even contemplating that sort of thing. No, I am talking about the way in which the technology that we are currently using can, in the long run, fail us. In the first place it is worth remembering that technology advances at a frightening pace. So posting graffiti pictures to groups on Facebook or Twitter really isn't a long term recording strategy. Pretty interesting I'll grant you, but hardly long term archiving of the material. Now, for those of you under thirty, this may come as something as a shock, and you might want to sit down for a minute, but it IS fairly likely that platforms like Facebook won't be around forever. I know. Scary isn't it. No more kitten memes. No more cyber-stalking old classmates, just to see which one DID actually end up in prison. However, in the big scheme of things it is pretty likely. These things happen. Platforms come, and platforms go. Anyone remember Friends Reunited? When these platforms go, they go quickly, leaving barely a ripple. And with them will go all of your images - unless you have them properly archived elsewhere. So suddenly the technology that set us apart from Pritchard and her crayon rubbings, may actually leave us with far less to show for it.

And then there are the moments when the technology simply gets the better of us, despite our best intentions and best efforts. The moment when the technology demon really does leap out of the box, grab you by the dangly bits, and bring tears to the eyes. And I've seen quite a few instances of this lately. Entire church surveys undertaken by dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers, recording the graffiti on their tablets. Tablets that, because of their image settings, downsized every picture. Downsized every image to the extent that they were absolutely no use as a formal record of the inscriptions. Great for posting to Facebook obviously, but no use as an archive. Hours and hours of hard work, in often chilly conditions, all to no end.

So the technology that has allowed us to come so very far in such a short time may also, in the longer term, work against us. No shiny headed robots with built in LED spotlights. Just our own fallibility. So back up those photographs, print out those recording sheets, and do your bit to ensure that what has been recorded, stays recorded. If you don't I'm sending the shiny headed robots round... and you won't get the hover-boots.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Archaeology volunteering v.2.0

( Over the last few months I've read an awful lot about volunteering in the archaeological sector. A lot of it has been interesting, but almost all of it has been written from an archaeologists perspective. It has also dealt with what you might call 'traditional' volunteering. Old school volunteering. A type of volunteering that is becoming increasingly far from the norm. A lot of it has, quite rightly, emphasised just how important volunteers are. How we can't do without them. How they add value to projects, and fill the gaps left by funding cuts and deficits. However, what many people don't seem to grasp is that perhaps the single most important thing volunteers can bring to any project is far less tangible. It isn't something easily measurable, and certainly not something that you can put a cash value on. And this elusive benefit is - Advocacy. The enthusiasm to talk about, and promote, the project within social groups that even the best PR machine or social media campaign may find hard to reach. The ability to create the goodwill and enthusiasm to ensure the project is a success - and the success of future projects too. Promoting your projects in unconventional, but far reaching ways. And so I asked some of our volunteers to write short guest blog posts on what THEY value about volunteering. The first is Jess, one of the more vocal volunteers for the NMGS - and I 'may' have edited out some of the swearing...)

Hello, my name is Jess and I’m an alcoholic. Sorry, wrong notes. My name is Jess and I am a volunteer for the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey. If you’re reading this, then you probably already know a fair bit about the survey, and what it’s aiming to achieve, so you can skip to the third paragraph, well done, you’ve saved yourself some time. If you don’t know about it, then read this bit: volunteers for the survey are responsible for an amazing and entirely new corpus of data relating to the understanding of medieval churches, religion, magic, belief, and the lives of the ordinary people in those times. Very simply, volunteers are attempting to go out to each little treasure of Norfolk’s medieval churches, shining light across the walls and recording the centuries old inscriptions left there, both photographically and on basic recording forms, detailing where each inscription is to be found within the churches.

It’s quite an undertaking. Hundreds of thousands of hours spent by people with little or no background in archaeology quietly undertaking a revolution in research and understanding. Hundreds of thousand of hours spent in chilly, damp churches, squinting at peeling lime wash, brushing aside cobwebs, smiling politely at other visitors as who try to nervously ignore the person with their nose pressed to the base of a font, wielding a £3 LED torch.

Yep, that’s what the marvellous, dedicated, and inspiring NMGS volunteers do. Visit churches, take photos, submit surveys. That’s it, that’s what being a volunteer is, no room for anything else, that’s what we contribute. My name is Jess and I’m a volunteer.

Except that I don’t own a camera, can’t take a raking light photo to save my life, and I have not, in my three years of being involved in the project, surveyed one church. I’ve never even made a single entry on a photo record sheet, still less actually held one (I don’t have a printer, which might explain that one). And yet, as far as I’m concerned, I am a volunteer, and I do contribute, in my own way. How? Erm. Well, I just sort of do… stuff. Usually sitting on my living room floor, ancient and creaking laptop on the coffee table in front of me, occasionally on my phone in the pub, sometimes I even do stuff in my fully 3D incarnation at Norwich Cathedral. Yebbut, what do I actually do?

I read, I write. I creatively google things. I enthuse to the point of banging on about medieval graffiti to the point where people start pleading with me to shut up. I spend an entire weekend trawling antique dealer websites to look for furniture that may or may not feature apotropaic markings. I am happily whored out by my mum to give tours of the graffiti at the cathedral to her friends (I always start these tours shy and halting, stumbling over my words, and quivering with nerves. By the end I have to stuff my tongue back into my mouth with both hands and need to be sat on to stop me racing off down the aisle again) I may also sometimes have a hand in being a spectacularly sweary first reader of certain articles, book chapters, etc, and provide my own rather personal form of feedback to the writer. Just be grateful you’re not the recipient of emails headed ‘that powercrazed fuckwit bunny’ or, possibly worse, ‘oh dear…’.

That’s what I do. For free, gratis, nada, nothing other than the promise of lemon drizzle cake that has yet to materialise two and half years later, not that I’m counting or anything, MATTHEW CHAMPION*. So I suppose the obvious question is why? Why have notebooks stuffed with lists of churches, notes in margins, a phone crammed with photos, and a head full of inconsequent ional information that may or may not be of use at some point in the future? Why would someone give up so much of their time to volunteering to a project, to something that is, whilst groundbreaking and important, relatively niche, even allowing for the specialisms of archaeology? We-elll… it’s simple really. I fell in love with medieval graffiti, head over heels, gazing at walls. It just bypassed any pretence at rationality I may gamely attempt, and connected. And when you feel that connection to something, then you want to explain it, you want people to understand, you want to grab people and squeal ‘Look at THAT! Isn’t it mindblowing???’ Essentially, you want to do what you can to help, too. And that’s where volunteering comes in.

I don’t have the skills, knowledge, or talent to be a traditional volunteer. My addition to the database of medieval graffiti is pretty much nil (Except for the DAYS she spent building a Google map of all the currently known graffiti churches in the UK - Ed). I’ve got no previous experience of history, archaeology, research or academia, so there’s no hope of me helping out there, either. But I do contribute in my own idiosyncratic way, I think (bloody hope so, anyway, or all of this is a waste of time). By bringing medieval graffiti to a wider audience who wouldn’t perhaps have heard of it before they read an article I write, or by a chance remark at a parent teacher evening that gets me invited in to talk to schoolchildren. Or perhaps by emailing a photo of an old bed, or getting inventively sweary about a first draft, or gabbling away to strangers in Norwich Castle.
I don’t fit the model of what a community archaeology volunteer should be. And yet, I know my contribution is valued, unconventional as it is. And because it’s valued, because I feel that I am helping, I want to do more, I want to continue to help, I am encouraged to do more. Any project that uses volunteers needs to think of them as individuals, not as one bland, faceless homogenous mass, to not assume that ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to volunteering, and that theories of how to appeal to more people are a relatively superficial way of engaging. Treat volunteers as individuals, play to their strengths, and you’ll end up with a group of fiercely loyal, enthusiastic, passionate people who will do their best to support your work. Oh, and you might end up with me too. Sorry about that.

*(I would point out, in my defence, that since the establishment of this agreement, Norwich cathedral refectory appears to have increasingly limited its production of lemon drizzle cake. Many, many alternatives have been offered. Many of these have involved chocolate in VAST quantities. None have apparently been acceptable. So if anyone knows of a good lemon drizzle cake mail order company - I'd be very grateful... Ed)

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Dead Saxons on your doorstep: the archaeology of the personal...

There is the moment. The few seconds that drag out to last a thousand years, and in which time piles up against the gates of reality. Held there. It is 'the' moment. The moment you are standing in a muddy field, up to your knees in brown slime, with the incessant drip, drip, drip of the rain sneaking down the back of your neck, and with a biting January wind emasculating you far more effectively that a butcher's cleaver - that you realise that it has all gone wrong. That everything has gone, not to put too fine a point on it, completely and utterly tits up. That the straightforward has suddenly become immensely complex, and that the future now looks anything other than clear. Whatever that future is, it will invariably involve mud; mud in magnificently, crevise-findingly, impressive proportions. And paperwork. Lots of paperwork. This is field archaeology in Norfolk in January...

In front of you the JCB driver can be seen through the glass of his cab, slowly easing back the throttles, as he leans back in his seat, reaches for his baccy tin, and grins out at you in the rain. He knows we aren't going any deeper. From his birds-eye view, and with decades of experience on sites just like this, he knows he's going to be doing a lot of sitting around for the next few weeks. Sitting around in a warm cab, idly making rollies, content in the knowledge that he'll still be getting paid his two-fifty a day - and all the sport that archaeological mud wrestling has to offer.

You glance to your left, at Jim, the site supervisor, who is reaching the exact same conclusions in his head as you are. You can see the deadpan expression begin to diffuse his young face. This wasn't meant to happen. This wasn't meant to be here. We are both, quite literally, up to our knees in the shitty mud, have just watched the mother of all archaeological headaches unroll before us, and both know that the JCB driver (now reaching for his flask and newspaper) is actually getting paid far more for this than we are. In the warm, with the radio on... Indiana Jones it certainly isn't.

But there is the magic too. The other moment. To watch as, inch by inch, the dark, loam and silt rich topsoil is stripped away. Each dark inch revealing nothing out of the ordinary. And then, as the digger inches one tiny level further down, the curtain of black earth is drawn back. The last topsoil slides away to reveal the perfectly planned archaeology. It doesn't happen often. A few times in a lifetime. But when it does there is a feeling of watching a small miracle take place before you. One moment there is nothing. The next, a ground-plan that no drawing or drone image will ever fully do justice to. And the feeling that you are the very first to see this. The one that the dark earth has revealed her secrets to. The miracle of archaeology in wet ground.

The scene shifts. A few days pass and the site become home to a high-viz convention of hard-hats and archaeological endeavour. The news is out, and eager troops of senior archaeologists converge on this pile of mud and history, all eager to establish their own credentials; their own place in the pecking order that will evolve. Each trying to hide the excitement, remain utterly professional, and objective. Mostly they fail. Above our heads drones do flypasts that wouldn't be out of place along the Mall, whilst tablets, computers and high tech cameras jostle beneath them. All trying to capture the moment of discovery. The moment that a 'nationally significant' site has appeared, out of the blue, beneath our very noses. Things that nobody has ever seen before. Fully intact plank-lined burials dating back over 1200 years, the outline of timber structures preserved in the wet sand and mud, and over eighty burials. Anglo-Saxons from the old kingdom of East Anglia, buried with reverence, at the very time the Venerable Bede was recording the seismic shifts in old England. Each one a clearly Christian burial, with no gold and silver placed in the graves to see them through the afterlife - leaving this world as poor and naked as the day they arrived in it. No treasures of coins and jewellery, but instead the treasure of knowledge; an insight into the possible beginnings of Christianity in England. A snapshot of a community at one of the most fundamental turning points in this nations past. The children and grandchildren of economic migrants who embraced a new god and built a nation.

All there before us. The mud oozes, the whine of the drones increases, and the JCB driver, content at the spectacle, rolls another fag...

What happens now is the science bit. The bit that really separates modern archaeology from the treasure hunters of yesteryear. Each burial is painstakingly excavated, photographed and planned. Multiple environmental samples are taken from each grave, which will later tell us details we hope of the flora that once grew here. Each timber is sampled for tree-ring dating, which will tell us the exact year the tree was felled and, if we are really lucky, perhaps even the season. And once the bodies are in the lab then the real miracles of modern science begin. DNA will be looked at, telling us perhaps whether some of these are family groups, and isotope analysis can tell us even where they grew up. Where they 'locals', born and raised in this river valley, or were they perhaps first generation immigrants from across the North Sea? And yet, as each individual is meticulously uncovered and removed from the site by dedicated professionals from Museum of London Archaeology, I cannot but help feel some disquiet.

You see, the thing is, this is 'my' village.  This chance discovery has come to light a bare few hundred meters from where I live, in the very heart of my own community. It isn't just some fascinating and distant piece of archaeological science, but rather something close and very real. These people from a lost past knew this valley that I stand in today. They walked by this same slow river, worked these same fields, and looked up at the ridge-line to view the very same ancient barrows silhouetted against the sky. In fact, this Norfolk village with a Saxon name simply wouldn't be here if it hadn't been for them. They chose this place, and settled here by the river crossing, between the dark woods and the road that leads to the sea. They knew this place, and like my own family, called it home. And that changes things.

The science has to go ahead of course. There's simply too much that we can potentially learn from these people. Details from a time still referred to as the 'dark ages', that is now showing itself to be anything other than dark. But it was most certainly a time of change, a time of transition - when a new wave of immigrants adopted a new religion. A religion whose very early years in this country we really know very little about. Perhaps these quiet people from the dark silt and sands hold the key to understanding that process of transition? Perhaps they witnessed it first-hand, or were instrumental in it taking root? Without further study we will lose that information forever. However, what then? What happens once the scientists have completed their tests, and we have learnt all that we can learn? What happens then to these people of my shadow village by the river?

In some cases such remains simply end up stored away from view for many years to come. Catalogued and concealed in museum archive boxes. Held in trust for future scientists and future techniques which may tell us even more than the science of today. However, with the people of this village, the village on the river crossing, between the dark woods and the roads to the sea, there is only one option. Only one option that the modern village wants; and that is to bring them back here for reburial. To bring them home to the river valley, and the landscape that they'd undoubtedly still recognise as their own, and commit their remains once more to the earth.

Dedicated to Jim Fairclough - a truly dedicated archaeologist - generally muddy, but dedicated.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Why Witch Marks aren't just for Halloween...

So all the signals are telling me that Halloween must be fast approaching. How can I tell, you might well ask? Is it the sudden proliferation of bright orange and totally inedible pumpkins wherever you look? Perhaps it's the sudden filling of every available supermarket shelf with cheap bags of high-sugar-content snacks and sweets - only available in day-glow colours and in sizes that scream 'MEGA', 'BARGAIN' and 'Fun-Sized'. Could it perhaps be the grins on the faces of the manufacturers of cheap glow-in-the-dark costumes, designed to last for one evening only, and invariably shed more glitter around the house than you thought humanly possible? All subtle hints that Halloween might be approaching it must be said. However, for me, the sign that Halloween is upon us once more is the sudden deluge of media enquiries and requests for images. interviews and articles on... yep, you guessed it, 'Witch Marks'.*

In the last few years it would appear that the linking of witch marks and Halloween has become almost as commonplace as Christmas and Coke adverts, Boxing Day and the DFS sales. They have become the fallback of any journalist who wants a bit of a heritage twist to a story, and can't find a good killer clown exclusive. They'll be the usual 'Witch Marks Discovered in (insert building here)' story. The heritage organisation asking the public to 'Record their own Witch Marks'. The tabloid double page exclusive on how 'Immigrants stole my Witch Marks', or how 'Hexfoils mean Hexfoils' (nope, I've no idea what that means either - but it looked really good when I wrote it...)

However, the thing is, that Witch Marks, otherwise known as 'Ritual Protection Marks', have absolutely nothing to do with witches per se, and certainly nothing at all to do with Halloween.

Ritual Protection Marks are symbols that were applied to buildings and objects, and were deemed to be 'apotropaic' in nature (it's from the Greek - go look it up). In essence, they add a layer of spiritual protection to a physical object, and are designed to 'ward off' evil. In some respects it can be easiest to think of them as acting as the opposite of a curse. Whereas a curse is designed to bring down misfortune, a Ritual Protection Mark was designed to do just the opposite - and keep an object, space or individuals safe from harm. Exactly what the harm these marks protected you from is open to question. In many cases it appears to be a non-specific evil, such as the ever-present 'Evil Eye', in others there are clear links to the activities of Demons, whilst certain symbols in certain specific locations 'may' have been to deter the activity of witches.

The ancient origins of many of these symbols are very unclear, and there is most certainly evidence that their meaning and function changed or evolved over time. Take for example the 'Hexfoil', one of the most common type of compass drawn designs that we come across amongst medieval church graffiti. Some claim, albeit without much in the way of evidence it must be said, that the symbol was originally a symbol associated with the sun. What we can say for certain is that, during the Roman period, the symbol was in popular usage - and it is the single most common symbol found amongst the ancient graffiti at sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum. Exactly what it's meaning was to the Romans is unclear, but from its usage on items such as altar stones it most certainly appears to have had a spiritual significance. What is also not disputed is that, by the late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman period, the very same symbol had become very clearly linked with the Christian rite of baptism, with the hexfoil motif being the most common single symbol found on early fonts in English churches.

It also appears that this early association with baptism, and perhaps the spiritual safeguarding of the font and the infants baptised within, continued well into the later Middle Ages. In terms of church graffiti there are a number of sites where mass concentrations of compass drawn designs are to be found solely in the area around the font, and in cases like Bedingham, Wighton and Tittleshall (all Norfolk) where the designs have been etched into the font itself. In the post-medieval period these designs continue in use, and commonly appear in a domestic setting. Whilst it's often said that they are generally located around entranceways to a structure, such as doors and fireplaces, lending protection to areas that might be considered 'vulnerable' to evil, there is virtually no surface or object to which they were not applied. Furniture, in the form of chests, coffers and beds, were liberally decorated with these designs - echoing what we see on parish chests with the medieval church - and where early plaster survives in a structure then they can be found there too.

And they continue in use long, long after the more general fear of witchcraft had all but died out (except in Suffolk obviously... but they've always been a bit odd) - and once again their meaning and function appears to evolve. Whilst they are still regarded as symbols of protection, any direct links with formal religion and baptism appear to vanish, leaving them just to be regarded as symbols to 'avert evil' or even simply bring good luck. It can even be argued that their continued use owes more to habit and tradition than to a belief in any spiritual protection they might offer.

What is very obvious is that all these ritual protection marks have a long history of belief and use associated with them - stretching back over two thousand years in some cases. They didn't always mean the same thing, they weren't always used in the same way, but they continued in use as 'spiritually significant' motifs. Some of them, such as the 'VV' symbol, crossed over into more orthodox usage within the lexicon of church symbolism, whilst others, such as the early christian symbol of the pentangle, fell away to become only associated with the 'dark side' - much to the love of young Goths and manufacturers of cheap silver jewellery everywhere. However, the fact that they were such a universal belief throughout the Middle Ages and beyond means that we cannot treat them lightly. They were the physical symbols of people's belief and fears. They marked the boundary between the everyday reality of the physical world, and the potential harms and evils of the realm of spirits. In some cases they were the first line, perhaps even the only line, of defence against the unexpected, the malign and the malignant.

So just remember folks, like puppies and Christmas, Witch Marks aren't just for Halloween...

*and if you think I get grumpy about Halloween - just wait until Christmas...

Friday, 28 October 2016

Where is all the smut? The tricky questions about medieval graffiti...

So I'm standing before the audience, lecture over, trying to answer the questions posed by the audience. Some are brilliant questions - things that hadn't even occurred to me. Others are more expected. The questions that get asked almost every time. So common indeed that I don't even cover the subject in the lecture. I know it will come up later on. However, there is one question that I am never quite prepared for, particularly when it comes from a respectable looking, tweed clad, little old lady in her eighties. It is a question that keeps getting asked, again and again. Where, in the collection of medieval graffiti that we keep recording, is the smut? Where are the 'naughty' images - the phallus inscriptions, the smutty jokes, the sleazy graffiti? "Where", cackles the old lady, long past caring what others think of her, "are all the cocks"?

Well, it is actually a legitimate question. It's also a question that has been asked before in many different ways and in many different forms. Where, in short, is the subversive graffiti? Very recently I was contacted by the author of an American publication on graffiti through the ages - focussing upon graffiti as an act of political dissent or rebellion. Very nicely they asked if I had any good examples of medieval political or subversive graffiti, that they could add to their work? I had to decline - politely - and explain that we simply don't come across any. There are no "King John smells of wee" inscriptions, and most certainly no graffiti expressing such sentiments as "Down with the feudal system!", and "Peasants arise!". It just isn't there.

Well the American author obviously thought I was just being coy. He found it hard to believe that there simply wasn't anything like that amongst the medieval church graffiti. Perhaps he thought I was just being a wee bit staid, a wee bit English, and ignoring the graffiti that was deemed unseemly. Not the case I can assure you.

There are those who will argue that the political graffiti isn't present because the levels of literacy during the Middle Ages was so low. That the lack of political graffiti is simply the result of only the upper orders of society - the 'establishment' for want of a better term - could read and write. Now I'm not going to get in to that debate in too much detail, but suffice it to say that literacy levels in late medieval England are now considered to have been far, far higher than many of our Victorian historians would have us believe. Depending upon which 'authority' you happen to side with, current estimates for basic literacy sit at between 40% and 60%. However, that still leaves a bias towards the upper and clerical classes, making any analysis ambiguous to say the least. Indeed, if you want to study graffiti types that fall outside what may have been considered 'acceptable', it is far easier, and far more entertaining, to look instead at the area of good old fashioned, down to earth, smut! A form of inscription that, to put it bluntly, more often than not relies completely upon imagery. Words are not required...

The thing is, when you view graffiti as a whole, throughout history, smut is one of the key elements. It is one of the key features of continuity from the past to the present. Although as a recent article in the magazine Current Archaeology made clear, the symbol of the phallus was regarded by the Romans as both a mark of fertility and good luck, anyone studying Roman graffiti inscriptions will soon come to realise that it also went far beyond this 'formal' attribution. A quick glimpse at the graffiti inscriptions recorded at sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum (available in plain brown covers) will soon convince you that sexual graffiti was far more than a projection of fertility cults. There are numerous depictions of various sexual acts, alongside the usual "get it here" type inscriptions, and many linked with innuendo or downright smutty inscriptions. Similarly, just the same sort of depictions are found in seventeenth and eighteenth century graffiti - and a quick wander down to the local bus shelter or busy city underpass will soon convince you that it most certainly continues to this day. Although compared to some of the Roman inscriptions today it may even be considered a little 'tame'...
Roman graffiti from Pompeii

So, taken as a whole, sexual graffiti of one form or another can be found in graffiti inscriptions pretty much throughout history. Surely then it must also be turning up amongst the medieval inscriptions we are coming across? That other images and graffiti types continue without a fundamental break down the centuries is unquestionable. The compass drawn designs, or 'hexfoils', that we come across in such massive numbers are also the most common single motif you will find amongst the Roman graffiti at Pompeii - so why then does not the smut also continue? Well, the answer most probably has to do with location and function. Probably...

In terms of the church graffiti that we are recording the vast majority of identifiable inscriptions appear devotional in nature. From the ritual protection marks found in most churches, to the more formal devotional imagery of blessings, saints and Latin phrases, the inscriptions we are coming across are, as I have said many, many times before, simply prayers made solid in stone. They are expressions of faith; expressions of belief. Whilst there are most certainly secular inscriptions alongside them, the devotional graffiti forms the bulk of the material we record. They are located in and on a building of spiritual significance, and as such their location may indeed be a reinforcement of the potency of the prayer itself. They are site specific - and are therefore unlikely to represent the whole corpus of medieval graffiti. They are a representation of church graffiti only - and church graffiti appears to be, almost without exception, smut free!
Medieval 'festival' badge

So what about the rest of medieval graffiti? Does that contain the 'interesting' stuff? Is all the smut to be found in the medieval houses and barns, much like it is two centuries later? Were medieval cottages full of flying cocks and ribald imagery? Well, the rest of informal medieval decorative arts certainly had their fair share of such images. One need only look at a selection of the small leaden 'festival' badges in various European museum collections to realise that the medieval world had perhaps more than its fair share of such (sometimes surreal) imagery. However, in terms of the graffiti we may never really know. There are so few medieval vernacular buildings that survive without having undergone numerous restorations and renovations, that most vernacular graffiti has simply been lost. Wiped from the walls by generations of people actually living in these buildings. If such imagery was there, it was lost centuries ago. The smut, if it was ever present, has long since gone the way of the people who carved it... to dust.

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...