Saturday, 26 April 2014

Alway walk towards the light: the evolution of a cathedral

We were back at Norwich cathedral today to continue our survey work after a break of some months. A windy cold day, with the rain showers driving mist and spray across the cloister garth to splatter messily against the weathered stones. Not a great beginning. However, in the months we’ve been away a transformation has taken place at the cathedral. On the north side of the building three very new, and very modern, stained glass windows have been installed. They are not quite what you would expect in a medieval cathedral I suppose. All bright oranges, blues, purples and geometric shapes. They flood the north side with colour, spreading strange glowing hues across the stonework, changing as the light changes throughout the day. They add a level of mystery and wonder to an area of the cathedral which was largely a featureless thoroughfare. They bring out the warmth of the stone and highlight details and features that, in the past, I and millions of others would have just walked past without a second glance. They bring the dead stones to life.
As you can probably tell, I rather like the new windows. Didn’t really expect to that much, spending most of my time staring at the wonders of the medieval church, but I do. I like them a very great deal indeed (those who know me will tell you that, for me, such praise is gushing! I haven’t been this enthusiastic since they announced the return of Dr Who – and I was prepared to hate that too). During the day I made a point of returning to walk past the area of the new windows on several occasions. Watching how the light subtly changed as the sun moved around and how it, in turn, changed how I viewed the stonework. It was like watching a small miraculous evolution move across the cathedral walls.

However, I soon came to realise that my love for the new windows wasn’t shared by all the visitors to the cathedral, and that my passionate liking for the way the light changed was just as passionately disliked by some. Overheard comments, snatches of conversation, disparaging remarks all made it clear that to certain visitors the new glass was as welcome as an unemployed Romanian migrant at a UKIP conference.
It was the change that seemed to cause most problems. One older male visitor was explaining to his companions (a couple of very long suffering women of a certain age and a very bored looking teen girl who was continually glancing down at the mobile in her hand – willing the signal to return) that it was almost criminal to have placed such modern designs into the medieval cathedral. It was making a mockery of the original building. He finished by asking his companions what the original builders of the Norman cathedral would have thought of the new glass?  Another visitor, a woman I recognised as a reasonably well known local ‘personality’, was overheard telling her female companion that the windows were lovely – but should be in an art gallery, or the forum, rather than in the cathedral. They were, in her words, “a bit much”. If there is a more a damning judgement to be handed out by the middle classes I’ve yet to hear it.
It was rather an odd experience really. A few years ago I’m pretty sure I would have been one of the ‘bit much’ brigade. Seeing the installation of the new glass within the medieval setting of Norwich cathedral as a ‘desecration’. The work of those who care little for our medieval past and wish only to memorialise themselves and their works in the present. But I don’t – and I began to wonder why?
I came to the conclusion that it was probably because I have come to know Norwich cathedral so very well over the last few years. In the last two years, whilst we have been surveying the walls for early graffiti inscriptions, I have come to know a very great deal about that particular ‘medieval’ pile of rocks – as have all the volunteers. We have peered, pried and poked around in areas that most people walk past without a second glance. We have followed fabric changes along lines of 500 year old mortar, compared masons finishing techniques from centuries past and numbered the very stones themselves. We have unravelled the story of Norwich cathedral wall by wall and stone by stone. And we have all come to realise that the story of Norwich cathedral is not the story I once believed it to be.

The problem I suppose is one of attitude and perception. To the average visitor, and even the regular churchgoer, the cathedral is seen as a vast and unchanging monument to the medieval religious world. Shades of Ken Follet’s grubby masons still haunt the darker corners, and each carved corbel and decorated niche reflect a medieval thought, idea and ambition. It is a grade 1 museum piece that is as it was – and as it ever should be. An aspic preserved, deep pickled, gherkin of the medieval mindset. The problem is that this perception, this idea, simply isn’t true. It isn’t true at Norwich cathedral - and it isn’t true of any other cathedral anywhere either.
What my close involvement with the fabric of the cathedral has taught me is that the building is a constantly evolving vessel of worship, practical needs and ambition. Whilst we talk of it as being one of the greatest surviving Norman cathedrals in England there are actually whole sections that you are rather challenged to identify even a single original Norman stone. It has been burnt down, struck by lightning, remodelled, rebuilt and re-shaped in just about every century since it was first built. Each new generation of custodians oversees an evolutionary process to match the building to the needs of their own times. The whole of the east end has been remodelled, the fa├žade has been replaced, the aisles altered and in the cloister it is actually quite difficult to even find areas of complete medieval stonework.
In the 15th century the spire collapsed, starting fires and bringing down the whole timber roof crashing into the nave and crossing beneath. The result was the new stone vaulted roof of Bishop Lyhart, with its world renowned roof bosses. Over 250 medieval roof bosses depicting scenes from the old and new testament that are unequalled anywhere in England. They are now one of the unique treasures of the cathedral, with visitors travelling from all over the world to crane their necks upwards and admire their painted beauty. Which is rather my point I suppose. Were there people in the 15th century who looked upwards at the new pale stonework in dismay? Where there those who felt that the warmth of the timber roof had been lost beneath the cold hard stone of the ambitious Bishop? Probably. There always are. But that new roof was simply one of many, many changes the cathedral has seen as it has evolved down the centuries. It is not, and never has been, a static building. It has never been finished and will never be complete. It will continue to evolve long after the teen girl gazing at her mobile has become a grandmother – and watched her own grandchildren wander through the soaring stonework of the cathedral.
And that is rather the point to remember here. The process is one of evolution – not revolution. The cathedral has changed once again. It will change again in the future. Long years after my dust has blown across the stones of a church somewhere in East Anglia, a new generation will be making changes to Norwich cathedral. Some people will love those changes; others will hate them. They’ll happen nonetheless and add a new chapter to the history of one of England’s finest buildings.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

"If someone uses the term 'medieval Banksy' ever again..." - The value of medieval graffiti

This week I went back to Lidgate. A gloriously sunny morning negotiating the winding byways of the Newmarket heath, dodging the early Easter get-away traffic, eventually found me at the church with a few minutes to spare. It makes a change. My normal motto, according to those who deal with me on a regular basis, should be “24 hours late – but moving fast”. However, this time I was on time – give or take – which was useful as I’d arranged to meet others at the church to show them some examples of the amazing medieval graffiti.
My guests were a diverse collection of lecturers and post-grad students from the University of East Anglia – my own former university. Although I used to be fairly firmly attached to the university, having studied there, lectured there and acted as an extra-mural studies tutor, these days I rarely get to cross the hallowed concrete. Indeed, rumour has it that my presence on campus causes certain academics to run screaming from the area, and the assistant dean to spontaneously combust. It’s a knack I have. Or is it the assistant Dean who runs screaming and the academics that spontaneously combust? I forget…
For most of the UEA this was their first visit to Lidgate church. For almost all of them this was certainly their first field trip to hunt for medieval graffiti. They were all there to see a certain inscription; an inscription that has rather made a few headlines in recent weeks. What they wanted to see was the tiny a discrete line of text, etched lightly into one of the stone piers, that may, or may not, have been created by the late medieval poet John Lydgate. A simple enough thing to see. Over with in five minutes. Well, it would have been if I’d taken them straight to the inscription itself. However, that’s not my way. That would be wayyyy too easy. Now this wasn’t just me being a stroppy git (although that has been known to happen upon occasion I admit). What I wanted was for my visitors to understand that this was just one single inscription amongst many, and that it was impossible to understand any single inscription without seeing them as part of the whole. Putting it into a wider context so to speak.

So I gave them the tour. Starting in the tower we looked at the bell ringer’s graffiti, the memorial to J. W. Wiseman who “departed this life” in 1810, and the inscription made by the “Jacob ringer” in the early 18th century. Then we looked at demons in the nave, compass drawn designs, windmills and medieval text across the walls. They saw faces, stars, music, names and dates. They crowded into pews to peer at the walls, squashed around piers and peered through gaps in the screens. Only then, about forty minutes later, did I show them the inscription that they had come to see… (I know – I am a bugger)
However, by the time they actually came to look at the possible Lydgate inscription something had happened to them. I saw it gradually spreading across their faces as we moved around the church, from inscription to inscription; something I am privileged to see on a fairly regular basis. A new understanding had been born. They suddenly ‘got’ medieval graffiti. They understood that is was about far more than scratched and idle doodles on the wall. That is went beyond our modern ideas of graffiti as destructive vandalism. Suddenly they saw the bigger picture. They saw that these markings had a meaning and function that, as medievalists, could help shed new light upon the world they studied.
Now I’m not claiming any great miracles here. I’m not suggesting that it changed the way in which they view the medieval church (although it did for me). All I am saying is that, for most of them I believe, they will never quite look at a medieval church in the same way. Their attitudes and perceptions had changed.
This change in attitudes and perception isn’t just confined to studying medieval graffiti. It is happening all around us all the time. You need only look at the current arguments surrounding the latest piece of Banksy art work to have been removed ‘for the sake of safety’ from the walls of Bristol. Now just think about that. A few years ago Banksy was widely seen as ‘just’ a graffiti artist – albeit a damned good one with a cutting edge wit and acute insights into the modern condition. His work popped up all over the place. Some loved it. Some hated it. Councils destroyed early examples and murals were painted over. However, here we are a few years later and his works sell for tens of thousands of pounds and critics talk of his work in terms of fine art. Works that would have once been painted out are now carefully removed and flogged off for a huge amount of cash by unscrupulous property owners. Others try to protect and preserve those Banksy pieces that are still on the walls, covering them in Perspex sheeting to ‘protect them’ from more graffiti ‘vandalism’. Protecting something that was once considered graffiti vandalism itself from further graffiti vandalism.  Do they see the irony do you think?

My point I suppose is this. In the same way that attitudes towards Banksy’s work have changed in the last few years, so too have attitudes towards medieval graffiti. It is gradual – but it is happening. We are moving away from the time when medieval graffiti studies were considered so far out on the fringes of academia that it was often only published alongside articles on folklore. We are moving towards a time when it sits, perhaps not in the mainstream, but at least alongside the main flow of research. Although this is incredibly good news for those of us that study it, it doesn’t come without dangers as well. We must remember that these markings that we study are not just another sterile collection of artefacts. That they are not another lifeless museum exhibit. As the group from UEA discovered at Lidgate, these inscriptions had both meaning and function to those who created them. They were spiritually important to them. In short, we must remember to place a real value on what we find on the walls; a value that can be measured in meaning rather than in pound coins.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

You say graffiti and I say graffito… the tower of Babel.

So what’s in a name then? Apparently rather a lot. A few times recently I’ve been taken to task, albeit in a gentle way (I’m a fairly big lad, wear big boots and lots of leather… aggressive approaches tend to end badly…), about the use of the term ‘graffiti’. Apparently a number of ‘academics’ feel that it is wrong to describe the early inscriptions that we record as ‘graffiti’. They feel it is both inaccurate and carries with it many negative connotations. They feel that, by calling it graffiti, we are perhaps demeaning it as an area of study. Indeed, they have even come up with a couple of alternative titles…
Well, to be honest, they have a point. The term graffiti does have negative connotations. Today it is seen as both anti-social and destructive. The physical manifestation of a broken society (if you read the Daily Mail – although the word manifestation might cause a few of their reader’s problems). It is most certainly not something you would consider an area of serious academic study – except by criminologists. So… it’s rather a good job that I only very rarely take myself seriously then isn’t it.
It is also not a terribly accurate term either. In full agreement there too. Graffiti is understood to be something that lacks legitimisation; a creation of those on the fringes of ordered society (Daily Mail again). It is unacceptable in almost all its form – with the obvious exception of Banksy (who you’ll note they’ve now started referring to as a ‘street artist’ – or just plain ‘artist’ these days. Apparently, if what you create is worth shed loads of cash it can’t therefore be graffiti). It certainly isn’t something that you’d encourage within the local parish church; and isn’t something that the local priest would be expected to let pass unnoticed or unpunished.

That is, I suppose, the fundamental problem. In modern terms and to modern eyes most of the early inscriptions we record simply don’t fit into the category of graffiti. These inscriptions weren’t anti-social (except perhaps the odd curse or two – but what the heck!) and destructive. They appear to have been largely devotional in nature, and the evidence suggests that they were both accepted and acceptable. They were as much a part of everyday worship within the parish as the mass or the wedding ceremony. So, having agreed with all my critics, perhaps we should stop calling these inscriptions graffiti after all? And if we are to do so, what are the alternatives?
One of the most recent suggestions I have come across is that we should start to call these inscriptions ‘Calliglyphs’. The idea has certain attractions for academics. As the author of the article that proposed the adoption of the ‘Calliglyph’ term stated, it would allow these markings to be studied within their archaeological and historical context without carrying with them any of the modern negative connotations associated with the term ‘graffiti’. It would also lend to the study of graffiti… sorry, calliglyphs… a certain academic respectability that is already associated with terms such as petroglyphs and arborglyphs. Attractive…
Or maybe not. In fact, it isn’t a term I’ll be using any time soon. Apart from the academic argument that the term ‘calli’ is associated with the writing arts, and most of what we find isn’t, there are some pretty good reasons (for me) as to why I rather like the term graffiti.
In the first place, despite it not being wholly accurate, the term graffiti is one that is understood by the general public (whoever they are. Never met them. I do meet lots of fascinating individuals all the time – but never the ‘general public’). If I tell someone that I look for, and study, medieval graffiti then there is an instant understanding. They know what I am doing – and it is something that they can immediately relate to - without the need for three months of background reading. It is something that they often find of interest and, if they do, then I am more than happy to tell them about it. Indeed, lend them a torch, point them at a wall and let them make discoveries for themselves. Suddenly they too are looking for medieval graffiti. Granted, when the questions start, as they invariably do, I will have to explain the perceived differences between modern and medieval graffiti. I will have to explain about legitimate and illegitimate acts. I will have to talk with them about changing attitudes to church buildings and lay piety. And they’ll listen. They may even have insights of their own. Would the same happen if, when they approached me, I told them I was studying ‘calliglyphs’? I rather doubt it.
Academics might argue that such a term is about clearly defining an area of study. Putting aside ambiguities and using specialist language so that other academics will understand exactly what the subject of study is. To create common terms of reference. Whilst I have no objection to the use of specialist language in general, and am as guilty as the next author of academic journal articles (I did once even use the term ‘multi-vocality’ in an article. It hurt – but I did), there is the other side to the coin. A darker side that I am not only uncomfortable with – but will do my damnedest to stamp upon whenever I come across it. Sadly this is the habit of ‘academics’ (and I can say the word without sneering) to use specialist language and terms not to ensure inclusion and understanding, not to create common terms of reference, but to specifically exclude and alienate. To use words and terms that are deliberately impenetrable to the general public, thereby adding to the aura of elite isolationism that ‘some’ academics feel should be maintained. To keep the plebs out of the ivory towers by making them towers of Babel.

Whilst I’m almost sure that the author of the term ‘calliglyphs’ didn’t create it with the idea of exclusion and elitism I’m also pretty damned sure that others would take it up and use it to just such an end. Which is why you won’t be hearing it from me, or reading it in anything I’ve written, anytime soon. I’m a graffiti hunter – and the more people, from whatever background, that batter down the doors of academia the better.


Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Let's talk Lydgate...

So, shall we talk Lydgate then? Probably about time we did really – before the myth completely overtakes reality. So, where to begin…?
Firstly, I suppose, it must be pointed out that we – that is the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey or Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, depending upon how conflicted I am feeling of an evening – are not the first to survey Lidgate church. We are not the ‘discoverers’ of much of this graffiti. It has indeed been known about for over four decades. The church was first looked at by Violet Pritchard in the 1960s, and published in her book English Medieval Graffiti. If you haven’t read it – do. Available now from all good bookshops and re-issued by Cambridge University Press. Violet was the one who first identified the rebus inscriptions and, with help from a couple of Cambridge dons, deciphered them. Pretty good going back in the dark ages before God had invented google. Actually, having looked at the rebus inscriptions in detail now, I am absolutely amazed at what Violet achieved. If I have ever, in the past, made any disparaging remarks about her book and her work (to my shame I have) then they are withdrawn. It was, without doubt, an achievement. I’m impressed.

However, Violet’s recording techniques were pretty basic. All she really had to work with was the technique of taking rubbings, much as you used to do with monumental brasses, of the walls themselves. Whilst this was great for the deeply incised inscriptions on a smooth surface, much of the rest was simply too discrete to be recorded. The rubbings would pick up the surface of the stone – but not the lightly etched markings. All her rubbings are now lodged with the Cambridge record office if you feel like going and taking a look for yourself.  Please do. Indeed, tell them I sent you. They’ll be very welcoming and undoubtedly glad of the business – but (foreign scholars take note) it is still bad manners to try and tip the archivist. A simple card at Christmas and the occasional bottle of port usually suffices.
Where was I? Ah, rubbings… well, to be honest, it is probably the reason that Violet missed the inscription we recently found. It is very lightly inscribed compared to some of the others and has, for the past few decades, been partly obscured by a picture frame. Nice print of the church itself, if memory serves. It is in fact too lightly inscribed to come up as anything other than a jumble of markings on even the most precise of rubbings – and Violet was pretty precise (see earlier reference to Cambs Record Office).
So… what does it say? Well actually it is pretty simple – and not terribly remarkable compared to the other inscriptions in the church. “Johannes Lydgate fecit hoc licencia in die sancti Symonis et iude” (John Lydgate did/made this by licence on the day of Saint Simon and Jude [28 October]). Simple really. What are perhaps more fascinating are the rebus inscriptions. The puns played out across the walls using a mixture of letters, musical notation and images. Each rebus (there are at least three) uses a slightly different musical notation – and all are in the same hand (as much as the term ‘hand’ can be used for writing on stone) and appear to date to the first half of the fifteenth century. They also appear closely associated with the ‘Lydgate’ inscription and the text appears so similar as to suggest they are by the same person – although with all the usual archaeological/historical caveats, etc, etc.

So the question remains? Is this the work of John Lydgate? Did he write this? Well, all I can really say is this. It is the work of ‘a’ John Lydgate – he tells us that much himself. But is it Lydgate the poet, Lydgate the writer, Lydgate the friends of Queens? That I am afraid I can give you no 100% answer to. However, what I can say is this…
The right name is in the right place, at the right time and in the right hand – written by someone from the right social and educational background who was more than used to the writing arts. If the rebus inscriptions are also their work, which looks reasonably likely, then they had an in depth knowledge of music, language and classical cryptography. All in all I’d say I was 80% happy to suggest that these are likely to have been the work of John Lydgate. However, I’m an archaeologist with a grounding in medieval studies. To go above 80% I’d want an entire biography (illustrated for preference), written on the wall and independently witnessed by three contemporary scholars – and their mothers. Probably their grandparents too. Now you can’t say fairer than that surely….
What is clear, from whatever perspective, is that the inscriptions in Lidgate church are pretty damned special. I’ve seen nothing quite like them anywhere else – and I’ve looked at a few hundred churches in ways most others haven’t. Not boasting or bragging – just saying. In all that time, through all those sites, Lidgate threw up more surprises than I could have imagined possible. We still have a lot of work to do at the site and I’m sure that there are many other surprises still in store for us…