In terms of medieval graffiti there are certain churches that are simply legendary. Churches that are just so damned good that they have become a Mecca for graffiti hunters everywhere. Places where you would fight hostile churchwardens and evangelical happy-slappy guitar playing vicars simply to be allowed to step over the threshold. These are the GREAT graffiti churches. The churches such as Lidgate, Blakeney and Bedingham. However, all these amazing churches pale into insignificance at the mention of one particular church. It's very name makes graffiti hunters go weak at the knees and dribble to leak from the corners of the mouth in anticipation. It is the cream of graffiti churches, the best of the best. The one graffiti church that has been subject to intense study - and it is Ashwell in Hertfordshire.
I'm a contrary sod at the best of times. You say black and I will invariably say white. It isn't really just to disagree with you - more just to see what the reaction will be. A bit like licking you fingers and then sticking them in a power socket. You know it's wrong - but can't help wondering just what will happen (2nd degree burns as it turns out). Or the time I experimented with using gun powder as a deterrent for moles - all in the interests of healthy experimentation and being a contrary bugger. The mole experiment, just in case you want to try this at home, wasn't a great success. However, I did learn that it was possible to sleep through the night with your hand in a bucket of cold water. Right... where was I? Ah, yes, Ashwell church. Well, here's the thing, if somebody tells me that a church is THE greatest graffiti church in England then I will immediately take such a statement with a really, really big pinch of salt. I will, to be blunt, blow raspberries in their general direction and assume that they don't know what the hell they are talking about. Sure, Ashwell might be good - but have they been to Lidgate? To Blakeney? To Bedingham?
So, finally, this week I went to Ashwell. I have been before, but that was many years ago - before I really knew what I was looking at - so a return trip was in order. I had to go across to Oxford earlier this week to give a lecture at the university (I know, I know... it isn't Cambridge - but beggars can't be choosers etc) and Ashwell was sort of on the way. Give or take.
So there I was, camera and torch in hand, faced by what the world has come to think of as the 'great' medieval graffiti church. I had about an hour to wander round and, if I was lucky, should get in a good deal of sneering and bad comparisons in that time. I ventured inside...
Ok. So it is good. One of the best. Actually quite superb... Holy crap I was shaking after ten minutes of running a torch across the surface of the stone walls! It was, not to put too fine a point upon it, immense. Just about every single surface I looked at was covered in a mass of early graffiti. The tower, the piers, the western wall - everywhere. Layer upon layer of inscriptions and symbols. I was, quite simply, in graffiti OMG heaven. Here's the thing. Ashwell IS the best known graffiti church, and certainly the most extensively written about. It has been studied by Hine, Coulton and Sherlock, and had TV archaeologists and historians crawling through its nave. However, they've all been getting terribly excited for completely the wrong reasons.
Ashwell is really known for the massive number of medieval text inscriptions to be found in the church - and it does contain a really unusually high number of early Latin inscriptions. They range from the inscription in the tower, which records the arrival of the Black Death in this small Hertfordshire village, to a tiny inscription in the south aisle which records the peasants revolt. There are texts of moralising verse - and Latin insults describing the Archdeacon as 'an ass'. There are excerpts from the bible and comments upon the quality of the mason's workmanship. You name it - it's there - and they are wonderful. However, the text inscriptions, all of which are open to interpretation, are a tiny, tiny fragment of what else is there. Probably less than 1%.
Ashwell church is full of early graffiti. Images of people, faces, buildings, animals and ritual protection marks galore. 'vv' markings cover one side of the tower arch, compass drawn designs are everywhere - and a hand raised in the act of blessing adorns the pier at the eastern end of the south aisle. Wherever you look there are devotional markings; the hopes, fears and dreams of the medieval congregation etched deep in to the walls of the parish church. The text inscriptions are good too - but they are an embellishment. The gilding of the lily. Even without them, and their multiple and enigmatic interpretations, Ashwell would still be a jewel in the crown of graffiti studies everywhere.