Thursday, 19 October 2017

Taper Burn Marks: Fighting fire with fire...


 Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, men cannot live without a spiritual life.
                                                                                                                                 Buddha




As your drive eastwards from the Great North Road, now less lovingly referred to as the A1M, across the lower valley of the river Trent, you might be forgiven for being slightly unimpressed with your surroundings. The landscape is a little too flat, a little too Fen-like, to hold your interest for long. A place of massive concrete cooling towers and post-industrial decline, on the edge of the once prosperous Nottinghamshire coal field. I strongly suspect that nobody will ever describe this landscape as picturesque. A certain bleak grandeur perhaps, but it isn't an area that is going to feature strongly in major collections of picture postcards.

The town of Gainsborough hits you before you fully realise that it is a town at all. Crossing the river over an elegant nineteenth century bridge, you are quickly directed left, past a crowded and slightly jaded row of Victorian warehouses; a run-down hang-over from when this small settlement was England's most remote inland port. It surely can't be the most inspiring visual gateway to a town, cruising past tyre sales specialists and neon-lit car sales forecourts, before being directed into a large tarmac car park that seems to largely back on to pubs and shops that are trying to out-compete each other in their collections of old cardboard and scruffy wheelie bins. From here you must proceed on foot, and although it obviously isn't the up-market end of town, there are still a few architectural gems hidden away. The odd Georgian townhouse, complete with blue plaque reminding you that Gainsborough was once the centre of the known world. Or at least the bit of the known world that centres on this quiet corner of north-western Lincolnshire. For it was here at Gainsborough that King Alfred the Great married his lady Ealswitha, when the town was one of the capitals of the kingdom of Mercia. There are other blue plaques here too, affixed to the sides of buildings that fringe the car park, and each is worth a quiet moment to pause and read.

Then you turn a corner, and there it is before you, Gainsborough Old Hall, a picture in black and white. It suddenly appears, like a great half-timbered spaceship, unceremoniously plonked down amidst a mass of undistinguished Victorian and modern architecture. Three great ranges of late medieval craftsmanship that has few equals anywhere in England, and one of the best preserved and most beautiful manor houses to survive from the Middle Ages.
Gainsborough Old Hall
Over the centuries the house has been many things, and has suffered many fates. First built in the second half of the fifteenth century as a luxurious manor house for the aspirational Burgh family, it was the scene of many a distinguished visitation. In October 1483 king Richard III stayed at the hall, on his way from York to London, and the following century Henry VIII spent three days at Gainsborough in 1541, meeting here with his privy council. However, such high profile visits were not to last. By the end of the sixteenth century the house had passed into the ownership of the Hickman family, who had little use for a building of such antique style and uncomfortably monumental proportions. The family moved their main residence elsewhere, and the house fell into decline. In the following centuries it was used as a public meeting space, as a theatre, as gathering place for the local Freemasons, and even as a soup kitchen for the needy, until by the time of the Second World War large parts of the building were deemed to be in very serious danger of collapse. It was only then that its true significance was recognised, and local people banded together to form the 'Friends of the Old Hall', fighting to see that the house was preserved and restored.

Today Gainsborough Old Hall is run by Lincolnshire County Council's heritage service, but as soon as you walk through the door it becomes obvious that local people still play a very active part in its care and management - and clearly love the place. Now complete with gift shop and excellent cafe, the house has been restored to its former glory, telling its own story, but also the role it has played in the rise and fall of the town itself. The Great Hall is now much as it was when first built, with one of the most sumptuous medieval timber roofs that you will ever see. The old kitchen, with its two massive fireplaces, and covered servery, is probably the best preserved example of its type in England. You simply won't find better. All of the house, from the cosy wood panelled seventeenth century dining room, to the massive Tudor spiral staircase, simply oozes history.

Then, as you sit contemplating the beauty of the late-Tudor wall paintings over a cup of good coffee, your eyes may fall upon the ancient timbers of the wall. If you look carefully at the vertical timbers you will see a small teardrop-shaped burn mark, set right in the middle of the solid oak beam. Almost worn away during the restoration and cleaning of the medieval timbers, and the passing of five centuries, the little burn mark sits at eye level in splendid isolation. You would be forgiven for not noticing it, particularly when surrounded by other such obvious splendours, and if you did, for explaining it away as somebody long ago being careless with a candle. However, once you have noticed it, you begin to see other examples elsewhere in the house. The passageway that leads to the Great Hall, for example, appears to have burn marks on almost every timber, the buttery window is surrounded by burn marks, and the vertical timbers at the bottom of the second stairway are literally covered in dozens of such marks. A house packed full of hundreds of burn marks. And once you start to see such marks you just can't help seeing them everywhere; in just about every old or ancient house that you might visit. These strange markings are what have come to be known as 'taper burn marks', and the story behind them is strange indeed.
Taper burn marks, Gainsborough Old Hall
***
Many of these burn marks are so obvious, and appear in such numbers, that they couldn't help but be noticed by several antiquarians and writers. However, most of these observers were only seeing small collections of marks in isolation, rather than any larger grouping of material - and quite understandably passed the marks off as being the result of accidents. Made by the clumsy placing of a candle, or incautious children playing with fire. They most certainly didn't consider them to have been created deliberately. Even the prolific collector of country folklore and local history, George Ewart Evans, writing in the mid-twentieth century about a house he had once owned, saw them as inconsequential. Talking of the beam above the fireplace in his Tudor house, he stated that "there is a vertical scar that had obviously been burned into the wood. It is about three inches in length, and tapers towards its top, giving it the appearance of a candle flame". Ewart Evans then noted that "similar scars occur on the lintel-beams of many houses of this period, and they are sometimes explained as taper burn made by the flame of a wax taper that was fixed in brackets attached to the beam". However, not satisfied with such a suggested origin, he went on to propose that these burn marks were in reality the result of red hot pokers being applied to the timber, "not wielded though by irresponsible youngsters but by sober paterfamilias who mulled beer by heating a poker in the fire and plunging it into the copper beer muller, but not before he had first either tested or partially cooled the poker on the lintel beam".

It is clear the Ewart Evans had noticed that there were some quite fundamental problems with the traditional interpretation of these burn marks. A candle could only be accidentally knocked over if there was a shelf or a bracket for it to sit upon. A wax taper could only leave a scorch mark where there was a bracket for it to be fixed in. In most of the cases he observed these fixtures were simply not present. There was no shelf, there was no bracket or taper holder, and the marks were to be found isolated in the middle of an otherwise plain lintel. However, his own ingenious response involving the red-hot poker and the mulling of ale by sober sturdy yeomen also failed to stand up to scrutiny. And whilst he had noted that these marks were not just to be found in his own Suffolk cottage, but were commonplace across the country, he really hadn't fully considered the implications of this. Whilst his sober 'paterfamilias' might be mulling their ale and testing their pokers across the length and breadth of the land, quite possibly for many, many centuries, they would most certainly be largely confining this activity to the general region of the fireplace.  The problem for Ewart Evans theory of course, is that when people began to look at these markings in a systematic manner, the burn marks began to be found all over the buildings.

There was certainly a marked bias towards the beam over the fireplace, at least at first glance, but these taper burn marks began to be recorded almost everywhere; and often in some very odd and unusual places indeed. Whilst shallow burns on door surrounds and doors could be plausibly explained away by the fumbling of a candle as the door was opened in badly lit conditions, it was less easy to explain the markings that were turning up on roof timbers, roof plates and even the treads of stairs. It was even more difficult to explain away a small number of markings that were actually horizontal across the timbers, rather than vertical, indicating that they had been made before the timbers were even incorporated into the structure. Close examination of certain buildings began to suggest that, whilst the markings on the lintel above the fireplace may have been the most obvious taper burns in the building, they were far outnumbered by the quantity found elsewhere.
Evidence of re-cutting. Gainsborough Old Hall
With the growth of interest in the study of early buildings, and the beginnings of large scale and systematic surveys, the number of these marks being recorded rose dramatically. It wasn't uncommon to discover thirty or forty such burn marks in a single building, and in one or two notable cases, several hundred. In fact, given the number of supposed 'accidents' that our ancestors had had with candles and tapers, it began to look rather surprising that any medieval, Tudor or Jacobean house had survived to the present day at all. The carelessness of people living in largely thatch and timber buildings appeared to be beyond belief. And that of course was the problem - it was beyond belief. The idea that all of these markings could be the result of accidents, and accidents in some very unusual parts of the buildings, soon began to appear rather unlikely.

However, it wasn't until the turn of the millennia that anyone seriously suggested that these marks could have been made deliberately. The idea appears to have been first seriously suggested in 1997 by Virginia Lloyd, who was then completing her studies on the idea of ritual protection of East Anglian buildings at the University of Durham. Although Lloyd's original work passed largely without comment, it was reintroduced in a more widely read paper in 2001, and the debate that followed can be described as sometimes intense and heated. Many people had been looking at old buildings in detail for decades, and the idea that they had all generally overlooked these markings, or simply misinterpreted them, didn't go down too well. However, pioneering research carried out by John Dean and Nick Hill was published soon afterwards; research that largely put an end to the debate. Dean and Hill had actually carried out a series of scientifically based experiments aimed at replicating these burn marks, and better understanding how they had been created. The results were most certainly surprising, and fully vindicated and supported Lloyd's idea that the markings might be deliberate. The experiments indicated that the creation of a typical taper burn mark wasn't actually something that could be achieved either easily or accidentally. In the first instance, the candle or taper had to be placed against the timbers at a very specific angle - about 45 degrees - and the creation of each mark could take anything up to fifteen minutes. If the angle is too steep the candle goes out, too shallow and the burn mark becomes too elongated. What is more, to achieve the distinctive hollow seen on many of the markings the flame had to be removed, the resulting charcoal scrapped away, and then the flame re-applied to the wood - a fact that neatly explained the tool marks seen on many examples. Whilst a few die-hard researcher still question whether these marks were made deliberately, they are now a very insignificant minority, with Lloyd's theory now being almost universally accepted.
***
Understanding and accepting that the markings were deliberate simply left the question of when the marks were created? Just because a mark was to be found on timbers in a medieval or Tudor building, it didn't necessarily follow that they had been applied in the medieval or Tudor period. Like the graffiti inscriptions found on an old castle or church, the burn marks could have been applied at just about any point between the construction of the building and the moment of discovery. An idea of exactly when the marks had been made would also, it was hoped, give a clearer idea as to why they were there in the first place. Initially a number of researchers suggested that the marks were all largely confined to the post-reformation period in England, beginning in the second half of the sixteenth century, and carrying on all through the seventeenth century. Jonathon Duck, who carried out a study of such markings in houses from southern Cambridgeshire, went as far as to argue that the burn marks were most probably a direct reaction to the religious changes associated with the reformation itself. However, as is so often the problem in the early years of any new field of study, the limited information that was available was really only showing one small part of a much, much bigger picture. Essentially, if you largely only look at post-reformation houses - then post-reformation houses is where you are going to find the markings.

As awareness of these markings grew they began to be discovered in medieval buildings as well. In fact, they were turning up in just about every medieval building that was being looked at in any detail. As previously mentioned, at houses such as Gainsborough Old Hall, they were literally being recorded in their hundreds. Similarly, at the remains of Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, now in the care of the National Trust and justly famed for the gardens laid out by the writer Vita Sackville-West, the remaining south range of the building contains several hundred burn marks laid across the timbers. Whilst much of the building certainly dates to the second half of the sixteenth century, an earlier core survives intact - encased within the later building. Taper burn marks are to be found on the timbers from both periods of construction. At Knole House, in Sevenoaks, Kent, a massive archaeological and conservation project being carried out by the National Trust also recorded burn markings high up in the late medieval roof structure, and on surviving medieval wall timbers now hidden behind a partition wall inserted in the early seventeenth century. The massive house once served as a palace for the Archbishop's of Canterbury, before passing to the Crown under Henry VIII, and burn marks have now been recorded on just about every building phase from the late medieval through to the early seventeenth century - where they were discovered on beams hidden beneath the floorboards. As further investigations take place, the older buildings are found to be just as likely to contain these marks as the later ones.

Taper burn marks, Knole.
However, it is noticeable that it appears far more common to find good collections of these early marks on the larger surviving buildings, in manor houses and mansions such as Gainsborough, Sissinghurst and Knole, than it is in the smaller farmhouses and cottages. In part this has a relatively simple explanation. In general terms it is far less likely for smaller houses and structures to survive from the Middle Ages than the larger ones. Where they do survive these more modest structures are far, far more likely to have undergone extensive restoration and rebuilding, most usually on multiple occasions. The smaller buildings are often still lived in today, have invariably been modernised and extended, and many of the original medieval features, if they do still exist, may be completely obscured by later additions. In contrast, the original fabric of many of the larger buildings and manor houses is often far better preserved. Once finished many of them were simply too big to completely rebuild without massive expense, particularly if the original family fell upon less prosperous times, and they continued with only minor modernisation as and when resources allowed. Changing fortunes and changing times has left the nation many great medieval houses that were built at a time when labour was cheap, and raw material relatively easy to come by. As the houses have survived, often thanks to outside agency such as the National Trust or local preservation societies, so too have the beliefs of the people who made them or had them made - fossilised in the fabric.

However, there is one category of medieval buildings that have survived to the present day with often only minor changes and amendments, and the chances are that, wherever you are reading this, you are sitting quite close to one. There are over ten thousand surviving medieval churches in England, and limited surveys of just a small percentage have shown that here too the markings are present. The most common location of the burn marks would appear to be upon the church door, although examples have been recorded on East Anglian rood screens. It is also likely that there are many more out there awaiting discovery, as no detailed examination of church roof timbers has taken place specifically aimed at identifying such marks. The cases of these burn marks having been identified on church doors, largely internally but occasionally externally, are fairly numerous. Good examples are to be found at Bungay, Blythburgh (both discussed below) and Needham Market in Suffolk, Burrough Green in Cambridgeshire, Siston in Gloucestershire and Runwell in Essex. Although Timothy Easton suggests that burn marks are often to be found near 'peep-holes' in church doors, citing as an example that at Saxtead in Suffolk, it is not something that has been widely seen elsewhere. Jonathon Duck also suggests that such markings are largely to be found on the inside of the churches north door, but again far more examples have been located on the south doors than those of the north. As more are discovered our understanding of where they are to be found may change.

As well as churches there are also a few more modest medieval structures that have survived, and where taper burn marks have also been recorded. Appletree Cottage, on Bury Lane in Epping (Essex) was originally constructed in the late fifteenth century as a probable forester's cottage associated with nearby Waltham Abbey. Although the house was extended in the late sixteenth century, and suffered many not always sympathetic later alterations and subdivisions, the majority of the late fifteenth century timber frame survives pretty much intact. Recent large scale renovation by the owners, based around returning it to a single structure, was able to reveal many of the hidden timbers and noted a number of taper burn marks on the beams. In most cases these were single markings, locate in the centre of individual timbers, and despite extensive examination of the whole framework, it is clear that the marks appear only on the late fifteenth century structure - and not on the timbers of the later extension.
Taper burn marks above a C16th fireplace.

More recently, extensive renovation work on the Guildhall of the Holy Trinity in Finchingfield, Suffolk, revealed no less than thirty individual taper burn marks on a single bay of the original mid-fifteenth century timber frame - with the early sixteenth century gate-house at Lower Brockhampton, Herefordshire, and the similarly dated roof timbers of the long gallery at Layer Marney Tower in Essex, also both containing fine collections of multiple taper burn marks. Likewise, the timbers used to form the tower of Jericho Priory (Blackmore church) in Essex also have many taper burn marks on them, located especially near the joints. The tower timbers have been securely dated using dendrochronology (tree ring dating) to the late fourteenth century, with many of the individual timbers being felled in the year 1392, making these amongst the earliest dated examples to have yet come to light. However, it is possible that even earlier examples do exist. Ongoing work by researcher Alison Fearn on the medieval manor house at Donington Le Heath (Leicestershire) has examined two sets of taper burn marks on timber door surrounds, both of which have been dendrochronologically dated to the second half of the thirteenth century.

So it has become very clear that these markings are to be found on buildings probably going all the way back to the thirteenth century. Unfortunately, this still doesn't answer the fundamental question. Just because these markings are being recorded on dozens of medieval buildings, does this conclusively prove that the marks are medieval in origin? It must be admitted that it doesn't. It could still be argued that the timbers have been burnt at a much later date, and that the houses may already have been regarded as ancient at the time they were applied. In short, the age of the actual building is rather immaterial. It is the age of the burn mark that is important.

Whilst the actual age of many of the taper burn marks simply can't be proved one way or the other using scientific methods, there are examples that very clearly can be dated by other means. Rather than having an actual date inscribed next to them, as very occasionally happens with early graffiti and similar markings, these burn marks can be fairly precisely dated due to a natural quirk relating to the timber that they are burnt into. Almost without exception the timber used in early buildings was oak. Anyone who has ever tried their hand at oak carpentry will know that the wood is a real pleasure to work with when freshly felled - or 'green' as it is known. However, as oak dries out and seasons it becomes increasingly hard, and after several centuries will quickly blunt any axe, saw or chisel that is applied to it. However, oak also has one other very noticeable characteristic. During the seasoning process, and most usually during the first one or two years after felling, it cracks and warps. The warping is what is often responsible for many of the twisted looking walls and uneven floors in old houses, giving them much of their character. The cracks, however, follow along the grain of the wood, and can end up being quite wide, and it is these cracks that can be used to date some of the taper burn marks that are being recorded.

Sissinghurst Castle
In a few cases taper burn marks have been found that cross over these cracks in the oak beams, leading to clear distortions in the usual teardrop  shape. Close examination also shows that whilst the surface of the timber is charred and burnt, the timber within the crack isn't - meaning that the taper burn mark can ONLY have been applied to the beam before it cracked. The burn mark must therefore have been applied to the timber when it was still 'green', either during the construction of the building - or very, very shortly afterwards. One of the very best examples of a taper burn mark being applied to green timbers is to be found on a late fifteenth century door surround of 26-27 Cornmarket street in Oxford. Although now a coffee-shop for a high street brand, the property was originally built as a wealthy merchant's house, most probably with integrated shop on the road frontage. The good quality door surround displays several taper burn marks, however, the seasoning timbers have cracked in such a manner as to totally distort one of the markings, splitting it into four separate pieces. The burn mark must, therefore, have been on the door surround when it was newly constructed in the later Middle Ages. Other marks distorted by seasoning cracks have also been found at Sissinghurt Castle and Gainsborough Old Hall, as well as at numerous other late medieval and Tudor sites - from Lyme Regis in Dorset, and Sutton House in Hackney, to Reach in Cambridgeshire.
Taper burn marks cross seasoning splits.

So, having established that these markings are to be found in very large numbers, on buildings dating all the way back into the high Middle Ages, and that they were deliberately applied to timbers sometimes during construction, it simply leaves the question as to why it was done? What was the perceived function of these markings that clearly made them so important to our ancestors. Why did they invest a fair deal of time deliberately scorching and setting fire to the beams in a newly built house? What, in short, do the markings mean? Well, given the relatively short time that such marks have been subject to scrutiny by archaeologists and building historians, and the fact that new examples are being catalogued almost every week, it is hardly surprising that there is more than one current interpretation. And all of the current interpretation centre not on the burn marks themselves, but upon the objects that created them - the candles.

***

The feast of the Purification of the Virgin, or Candlemas as it was more commonly known amongst the medieval congregation, was an important event in the church calendar. The celebration took place in early February, forty days after Christmas, and was regarded by many as marking the end of the dark winter season. Although not of the same official importance in the eyes of the Church as either Easter or Christmas, Candlemas was highly significant to all those taking part - as everyone was obliged to. As the name suggests, candles and light played an important part in the festival, and over time took on the central role in the events of the day. Eamon Duffy, writing upon the significance of the event in the minds of the medieval parishioners, notes that according to the legend of St Brendan, the feat of Candlemas was the one day in the year when the betrayer Judas "was allowed out of Hell to ease his torments in the sea".

Like so many medieval church festivals, the feast of Candlemas was preceded by a day of fasting, in which all but the old and infirm were expected to confine themselves to nothing but bread and water. The following day, on the feast itself, every member of the parish was expected to attend, when a great procession would take place around the church, and oftentimes the churchyard as well. Each of the congregation were expected to carry a candle, which records suggest were sometime bought in bulk by the parish in the weeks leading up to the event. The candles, which were then blessed, were expected to be offered to the parish priest, or laid before the altar or image dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, along with the gift of a single penny from each individual taking part. However, it is also clear that candles blessed during the ceremony were also taken away by the members of the congregation, and that these 'holy candles' were deemed particularly powerful. Such a belief in the power of these holy candles probably stemmed for the Candlemas prayers of the church itself. The very first of the five 'Candlemas prayers' unequivocally made clear the power of the candles, stating that "wherever it shall be lit or set up, the devil may flee away in fear and tremble with all his ministers, out of those dwellings, and never presume again to disquiet your servants". It could hardly be a clearer message to the medieval worshippers; the holy candles would drive away the devil and protect your home.

However, it wasn't only the Candlemas ceremony that would have linked the power of light and candles with spiritual power in the minds of the medieval congregation. There were many other areas of religion and church life that could also have influenced thoughts and beliefs concerning the power of the wax. The most obvious, and one that every churchgoer would have had a direct interest in, was that of the Paschal candle. This candle was the largest that would burn in any church or cathedral, and was part of the Easter ceremonies of rebirth and renewal. On the evening before Easter Sunday (or in some cases Maundy Thursday) the entire congregation would gather in the church and, as darkness fell, every light and flame would be extinguished, signifying the darkness of the world created by the death of Christ. Then, just as Christ was told of being resurrected, the light was kindled anew. The first flame to be lit was the great Paschal candle, and from this all the other candles and lamps were restored, flooding the church with light once more.  The Paschal candle itself varied in size depending upon the wealth of the parish, and was often paid for by public subscription. In 1483 the relatively wealthy parish of St Andrew in Canterbury paid for a paschal candle made of eight pounds of wax, whilst a few years later, in 1507, the parish of Mildenhall in Suffolk purchased a paschal candle of only three pounds in weight. Even these candles were modest compared to some, with records recording paschal candles that were of thirty or more pounds in weight, requiring special mechanisms to aid in their being lit. However, few could compare with that made for Westminster Abbey in 1557, which used no less than three hundred pounds (136 kilos) of wax.

The candles themselves were often decorated with ribbons or painted in coloured wax, and even the more modest examples could be made to look far more impressive with the addition of an elaborate candle-holder. In some cases these candlesticks were also decorated to look like the candle above, giving the impression that the whole thing was far bigger than it really was, and such candle extensions were known as a 'Judas'. The paschal candle itself was then used to lead a procession around the church and  to the font, where the waters within were blessed anew. The candle was lit during all services of the Easter season, and continued to be used throughout the year during baptism services, clearly linking it in the mind of the medieval congregation with birth and re-birth. Tapers lit from the paschal candle were believed to have particular power, and wax spilled from the paschal candle was regarded as a particularly potent charm for the protection of children and mothers-to-be.

The power of candles may have been associated with the protection of children and infants, but they also played an important role at the other end of life's journey. The burial service was one of the most important ceremonies that any medieval individual would be involved with, albeit the last one they would personally take part in, and candles played a central role. Even the name for the ceremony itself - funeral - is supposedly taken from the Latin 'funeralis, in turn derived from the Latin term for a torch or taper (funis), and referring back to a period when burials took place under cover of darkness - following a torch-light procession to the place of burial. The planning of the ceremony was certainly not something left to chance, with many medieval wills very clearly stipulating what was required as to where the person wanted to be buried, what was to take place at the funeral itself and the commemorations that followed, and offerings were made to the church to ensure that this took place.

The will of Richard Lynne, of Bassingbourn in Cambridgeshire, was made in his lifetime and is particularly detailed with regard to his wants and requirements. As a man of means, and a gentleman, he requested that he be buried in the church itself, beneath a 'convenyent marbill stone' with a brass of himself laid into it. However, after dealing with his family and personal possessions, much of the rest of the will is taken up with issues surrounding candles. Richard required, as was traditional, four wax tapers or candles burning around his body within the church, each of which was to be a pound in weight. He was also unusually specific about what would happen to the remains of the four candles once he was buried. These were to be gathered together and reformed into one new candle, which was then to be placed before the altar of 'Our Lady there to be spent'. Lynne also left a generous bequest of candles to the church. Each year the churchwardens were to have made twenty one pound tapers, to be burnt before the rood screen upon all the principal feasts of the church - with additional wax to ensure that they were 'new made' for the great festivals. What is particularly unusual about the will of Richard Lynne is that he specified what should happen to the four 'burial candles' after his funeral was over.

Within a year of making his will Richard Lynne was dead. Even seen through the relatively clinical lens of the parish churchwardens accounts, the story of the Lynne family of Bassingbourn is a tragic one. In 1507 Richard and his wife Alice had paid for the burial of three of their children, together in the parish churchyard. All three are likely to have been victims of the first major recorded outbreak of the 'sweating sickness'; a usually fatal and fast acting disease, whose cause is still something of a mystery to this day. It was said that the victims could be 'well at dinnertime and dead by suppertime', and that children and young people were particularly vulnerable. Sadly, only two years later the same parish account books record the further deaths of three members of the Lynne family, again all buried at the same time, suggesting another epidemic of some sort had struck. This time, along with at least one other of their children, Alice was left to also arrange the burial of her husband Richard. In common with other funeral services of the time, and in spite of Richard's generous requests to the church, the churchwarden's account note that Alice was charged the sum of eleven shillings and four pence for the torches used at the funeral.

No matter what your status within the community, candles and torches were expected at any funeral, and in most cases these were organised by the church itself.  However, this was no simple act of charity, and surviving members of the family, such as poor Alice Lynne, were expected to pay for them, sometimes over a number of years. Indeed, even after the reformation the funeral right was one that stuck very much to tradition, despite the best efforts of the church to change it. It was a time for the ringing of bells, for solemn procession, for the distribution of money and bread amongst the parish poor - the Dead Man's Dole - and for candles, torches and tapers. Whatever other changes the reformation tried to make to the services of the church, the candles of the funeral service appeared largely sacrosanct, whether you could afford them or not..

In a time before any form of social care beyond the alms of the church and generosity of your neighbours, an individual could make provision for their funeral by becoming a member of a 'Guild'. Although trade guilds existed, there were just as many guild organisations that were purely religious and social in nature. Some were open only to certain types of people, such as single men or maidens, whilst others were open only by direct invitation of the members - and tended to be fairly aspirational in nature - and by the later Middle Ages the city of London boasted almost two hundred such guilds. In addition to the membership fee, the guild members were expected to undertake particular religious obligations, such as the repair and maintenance of a particular chapel or altar, or paying for the upkeep of a light or lights before a particular image. However, as well as financial costs and spiritual benefits, there were also clear potential secular benefits to membership. For example, the Guild of St Katherine, based at St Botolph's church in London, not only paid out 14d a week to guild members who found themselves in 'unmerited poverty', but also allowed members to borrow from guild stocks on giving certain sureties for repayment. More importantly guilds would often offer to pay for the burial of members who had died in poverty, and even members who passed away in reasonable financial conditions could expect the all important lights, candles and tapers to be provided for from guild funds. The burial of guild members could be elaborate ceremonies, with the richer guilds expecting everyone to attend in full guild livery. The Guild of St John the Baptist, in Spalding (Lincolnshire), also stipulated that every members funeral was to be accompanied by 6 wax candles, 'to be carried either by poor men or boys', and that their own bellman would announce the death throughout the town. The Guild of St Anthony, based at St Margaret's church in Kings Lynn, stated that the Dean of the guild was to supply the candles for each burial of a brother, but each member was bound to pay half a penny towards their provision.

The candles used in the funeral service were seen as particularly powerful, burning around the body until the moment of burial, and whilst they were a powerful emblem of the flickering fragility of the human condition, it was also believed that they 'put all the powers of darkness to flight'. In Ireland until very recent centuries it was believed in some areas that a minimum of five candles was required around a corpse as protection against evil spirits and the devil. After the burial the candles that had been set around the body were removed. However, in many cases they were preserved, to return to the church for the "month's mind" - a service of commemoration designed to hasten the journey of the soul through purgatory, that took place a month following the burial.  These candles were particularly associated with the spirit of the departed, and what happened to them in the month between burial and the month's mind service, and what happened to them subsequently, is unclear in many cases. Like the 'holy candles' of Candlemas, perhaps these too were taken home by the individuals family and close friends?

There is also one particular 'folk' practice associated with candles that may have a very direct bearing upon the taper burn marks found all over historic buildings. These are the activities that took place in the home and are associated with yet another Christian festival - that of Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night was the last day of the twelve days of Christmas, and marked the official end of the festive season, and has many traditions and customs associated with it to this day. In many areas it is considered incredibly unlucky to have any Christmas decorations still hanging after Twelfth Night has passed, and particular cakes and foodstuffs were shared with family and friends. The festival is also strongly associated with the driving away of demons and evil spirits. In parts of Germany it was a tradition until well into the seventeenth century for children to run room door to door, beating them with sticks, to drive out any evil spirits that might be lodged inside. In England the festival was marked in a more sedate manner. Several sources recount the practice of householders moving from room to room with a lit candle, to drive away evil spirits, and the marking of a cross with the candle flame on each ceiling as a deterrent to witches. It is only a small step, albeit one without a clear documentary source, from marking crosses on the ceiling to marking the house timbers themselves.

Although such an act does appear to have strong links to the practice of applying taper burn marks to house timbers, there were also other times when candle flames came into direct contact with a building, and very strange time they were too. The act of 'candle writing' is little known about, and knowledge of this strange and eerie phenomenon tends to be limited to only a very few specialists. It was first highlighted by historian Timothy Easton, who was called in to examine a number of very unusual markings that had come to light on a ceiling in a Suffolk farmhouse. What Easton came across was a plaster surface that had been extensively and elaborately marked using the flame of a smoky candle, which left dark lines, shapes and dots of soot on the pale plaster. Some of the marks created by the soot were clearly recognisable as quasi religious symbols, and have been recorded elsewhere amongst more formal written charms and acts of folk magic. Names are also present amongst the soot writing, and Easton has been able to date some of them back to the seventeenth century. To date only a few dozen examples of such candle written ceilings have been discovered, most usually again in larger properties, and it unclear whether the marks were intended to remain on show, or were to be concealed beneath distemper or lime-wash.

The use of recognisable symbols that turn up elsewhere in folk magic has led to the suggestion that candle writing was the work of the local wise man, or 'cunning man', and Easton has argued that they were created as a form of written charm; but a charm that was written onto the very fabric of the building. Combined with the fact that such markings are only usually found in the upper areas of each house, most usually attic rooms and bedrooms, has also led to the suggestion that the charms may well be linked to sleeping disorders, nightmares and sleepwalking - acts that were often believed to be caused by evil spirits. However, such an interpretation may be over complex when discussing such candle writings, and it is clear that not all such examples had anything to do with folk belief or charms, but were rather acts that may be considered akin to vandalism. A character in Thomas Herrick's play Hesperides, published in 1648 - at about the same time Easton's candle written ceilings were created - lists everything that was required of a house for a happy retirement. His needs weren't great, needing but a small house and watertight roof, 'and seeling free, from that cheape Candle Bawdry'.  Nearly four decades earlier Ben Jonson's comic play 'The Alchemist' premiered in London performed by The Kings Men. Towards the end of the play the character Lovewit returns to his London house, which in his absence the Butler has turned into a den of iniquity. "Here I find", states Lovewit, "the emptie walls, worse than I left them... the seeling filled with poesies of the candle; and Madame, with a Dildo, writ o' the walls".

Although the role of candle writing may still be ambiguous, it is also clear that wax had an ambiguous place in the medieval mind, and that its association with candles - be they those of the Candlemas ceremony, Christmas, or the great Easter Paschal candle - led to it having a spiritual value far above what was warranted by its actual cost. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than amongst the offerings made by pilgrims to the great shrines of medieval England.

In the fifteenth century it is recorded that sailors who had survived a life threatening experience near the Lincolnshire port of Skegness made a pilgrimage of thanksgiving to the relatively minor shrine of St Edmund located at nearby Wainfleet. Here they presented the saint with a ship modelled of wax and a generous offering to provide a candle to burn each day during mass. In similar vein, a group of fishermen from the Suffolk port of Dunwich presented a great anchor made of wax to St Edmunds shrine at Bury St Edmunds in thanksgiving for their safe deliverance from a great storm.  Such models in wax formed only a very small percentage of the votive, or ex-voto, offerings made at shrines and parish churches throughout England. By far the most common form of offering, still seen in catholic countries to this day, were images and models of parts of the body – often of the area that had been cured, or for which a cure was being sought. Eamon Duffy, giving numerous accounts and instances of these ex-voto items, describes them as "a standard part of the furniture of a shrine". As well as acting as offerings and prayers of thanksgiving, these items acted to advertise the particular saints efficacy and power, and even as a visual reminder of the specialisation that individual saints offered to certain maladies. As Thomas More recorded in his accounts of the shrine of St Valery in Picardy, who was regarded as being particularly efficacious in matters relating to the sexual organs, “all theyr offrynges that honge aboute the walles/none other thynge but mennes gere and womens gere made in waxe”.

Contemporary accounts make it clear that the ex-voto offerings at the shrine of St Valery were unusual only in respect of what they depicted, although other recorded offerings were also perhaps a little out of the ordinary. In 1285 it is recorded that King Edward I had made an offering of wax candles at the church or St Mary, Chatham, of a total length equal to the combined heights of the royal family, and the following year sent a wax image of a sick gerfalcon to the shrine of St Thomas at Canterbury. More common though were the ex-voto offerings recorded as being present at many of the major shrines of Europe. Alongside the numerous chains and shackles of freed prisoners and crutches from healed cripples were many hundreds of wax models of hands, feet, limbs and heads given by those who had received or were seeking a cure for their ailments. The numbers present at some shrines was so great that at least one pilgrim, visiting the popular shrine of Rocamadour, accused the monks of actually making them themselves. Whilst images and presents of wax from poor pilgrims might be expected, being all that they could afford, the fact that such wax images were also presented by kings and nobles indicates that there was a clear importance attached to the material itself. Much of this wax would eventually be converted into candles, the burning of which would carry the prayers of the benefactor straight to heaven. Indeed, such was the power associated with candles that they could become holy relics in their own right. The 'holy taper' of Cardigan Priory in Wales was reputed to have burnt constantly for a period of nine years, without ever diminishing itself. It was only finally extinguished when someone forswore over it, and thereafter refused to light ever again. Despite perhaps being one of the less impressive of medieval relics, the unlit taper became an object of minor pilgrimage throughout the later Middle Ages, netting the priory a reasonable annual income, and with numerous miracles ascribed to its power.




And the power of candles and wax wasn't always limited to beneficial effects. Early written texts of more formal magic, such as the 'Key of Solomon' and  the Tudor necromancer's manual attributed to Paul Foreman (now preserved in Cambridge University library), all emphasise the use of candles and 'holy candles' in the ceremonies to summon spirits and demons. Once summoned, such spirits they believed could be bound to do one's bidding - for good or ill. Paul Foreman goes further still, when he writes of making a candle 'of virgin wax, or wax which was never wronged before', into which the spirit itself is conjured and constrained. It was also widely believed that if a witch dropped wax from a burning candle into someone's footprint upon the ground, then the victim was likely to have their feet rot off - although it must be admitted that no actual cases of this occurring, or claiming to have taken place, have so far come to light. However, that didn't stop the accusations. In 1490 a woman by the name of Johanna Benet was called before the Commissary court in London accused of attempted murder of a neighbour. She had, it was alleged, named a candle after her victim and then  as the candle slowly burnt down "the man must waste away". Half a century later, in 1543, Canterbury resident Joanna Merriwether was accused of attempting harm to a young woman of her acquaintance called Elizabeth Celsay. Joanna was reported to have "made a fire upon the dung of the said Elizabeth: and took a holy candle and dropt upon the said dung" which would, she had assured her neighbours, result in the buttocks of "the said maid to divide into two parts".

Wax in all its forms was also used to form into dolls and images of individuals which, once deformed and concealed, or injured with pins or iron blades, were believed to cause illness or harm to the person whose likeness they bore. Although traditions vary from region to region, these dolls, often know as 'poppets', were also believed in extreme cases to be able to bring about the death of the subject. That such beliefs were widespread is attested to by a number of surviving examples that have been discovered hidden away in old buildings. The fascinating Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, in Boscastle, Cornwall, is home to the world's biggest collection of artefacts relating to European witchcraft and related folklore, and has a large number of these wax dolls and images amongst its many strange and curious artefacts. Although the provenance of some of the items has been lost, it is clear from the diversity of the collection that the creation of these unusual objects continued until very recent times indeed. However, such maleficent use of wax, like so many other forms of supposedly harmful charms and curses, was simply an inversion of recognised beneficial charms and beliefs. A corruption of the power that both the church and congregation believed were contained within the holy candles.

Perhaps more importantly, and fundamentally, candles brought light into darkness; they drove away the uncertainties of the night, and cast away the shadows from the dark corners of the house - and the mind. Their link with the most holy ceremonies of the church, and the fact that the church itself even linked the wax with the power to drive out the devil and his minions, would have simply reinforced the concept that it was the flame of the candle that held real and tangible power. This was a power that the church also linked to individual dwellings, not just to protect them from evil, but notably to be drawn upon at specific times. Holy candles were directed to be lit at times of illness and, in a well attested practice that continued in some areas until the early years of the twentieth century, during thunderstorms. It is this linkage between the candles and thunderstorms that has suggested the second possible interpretation of the taper burn marks that are being recorded all across the country.

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With fire being one of the greatest threats to communities prior to the modern period, and most major towns and cities in England suffering at least one major catastrophe between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, it is easy to understand why people wanted to protect their homes from uncontrolled outbreaks. In some cases it was believed that disastrous fires had been the result of supernatural acts, most specifically malevolent acts of witchcraft. The links between witches and fires was a strong one, as is clearly shown in the background of the late sixteenth century woodcut 'Hort an new schrecklich abenthewr Von den unholden ungehewr', where a burning house is shown surrounded by gleeful witches. The addition of the burn marks to the timbers may have been regarded as both denying witches entry to the building via the portal onto which the marks were scorched and, at one and the same time, inoculating the timbers from further burning. However, as with most ritual protection markings, such a single interpretation may be too simplistic an approach. Whilst witchcraft may have been seen as 'a' possible fire-creating threat it was by no means the only one - and most certainly not the best documented.

The natural phenomena of lightning strikes was feared throughout the Middle Ages, and the effect of a direct hit on a tall church tower or house could lead to devastating damage and the outbreak of a major fire. Whilst traditional weather lore may have contained a great many truths the arrival of a great storm, the sudden gathering of storm clouds upon a day that had otherwise been clear and fair, was still regarded with apprehension and suspicion. Once again witches were sometimes blamed for such extreme weather, acting as conduits for devilish or demonic powers, and physical measures were sometimes taken to counteract such apparent evils. The sound of the ringing of church bells, themselves having been blessed when first installed, was believed to drive away demons, and the storms that they brought with them. The practice of ringing away the storm is widely documented until relatively recent centuries, and wasn't undertaken without a certain element of risk. Gathering together in the tallest building in the area during a thunderstorm, and then grasping wet ropes that were attached to large metal bells suspended high above, was fraught with obvious dangers. In France the practice was only finally outlawed in the eighteenth century, but only after over one hundred deaths had been recorded between the years 1753 and 1786.

Lightning strikes could do far more than cause fatalities amongst unwise bell ringers, and numerous city, town and village fires in the medieval and early modern period were believed to have been the direct result of lightning strikes. Few such strikes however were more devastating than that which hit a church in Brescia, Italy, in August 1769. The strike ignited over 200,000 pounds of gunpowder that was being stored beneath the church, killing over three thousand people and destroying over a sixth of the city in a matter of seconds. Even in recent years the threat caused by lightning strikes to churches has not been entirely removed with the installation of lightning conductors. The great fire at York Minster in 1984 was, according to the subsequent investigation, 'almost certainly' caused by a lightning strike.  The result was a massive fire amongst the roof timbers that left much of the Minster in ruins. The need to protect a building against lightning strikes during the Middle Ages was therefore a matter of greatest importance, and whilst prayers may well have been employed there could be no possible harm in enhancing that protection with the addition of ritual markings and objects.

The building into a structure of a piece of timber from a lightning struck oak tree was traditionally carried out in many rural areas, in the belief that lightning would never strike the same place twice, and using oak in general was seen as an effective defence against fire. Charlotte Burne, writing in 1896, tells of an oak tree located near Hanbury that had been struck by lightning some three years earlier, "and people came from all around to get pieces of the injured wood, to keep as charms to preserve their houses from a similar misfortune". Whilst this might have been due to the tree's long-standing association with lightning, perhaps initially derived from its association with Thor, the Norse god of storms, it is just as likely to have been the result of the green timbers general resistance to fire. An oak framed building that caught light may have devastated the superstructure, but the frame itself was likely to remain intact and standing after all but the most intense of conflagrations, with only the thin outer layer of the frame timbers having been reduced to charcoal. The fact that some of the burn marks and inscribed designs were created when the timber was green might be significant in its own right, coupling the idea of the sympathetic magical inoculation of the building and the use of green oak from a lightning blasted tree.
Black Shuck (print by Tim Fox-Godden)


Many of the examples of burn marks on church doors are so obvious as to be easily seen by even the most casual observer and, perhaps as a result, have become associated with a number of myths and legends that may contain more elements of truth than may at first appear. Amongst these legends is  that of the burn marks on the original medieval gates of Balliol College, Oxford, said to have been scorch marks created during the execution by fire of the Protestant martyrs Litimer, Ridley and Cranmer that took place nearby.  Perhaps the best known of the legends relate to events that reputedly took place on the Norfolk and Suffolk border in the second half of the sixteenth century. According to a pamphlet published shortly after the events, a great storm arose on the 4th August 1577, leading the inhabitants of the town of Bungay to seek shelter in the church. During the height of the storm, with blinding flashes of lightning crashing around the town, a great black dog was seen to bound into the church. The beast tore down the length of the aisle, passing between two people who knelt in prayer, both of whom immediately dropped dead. Another member of the congregation was "drawen together and shrunk up, as it were a peece of lether scorched in a hot fire" but apparently lived. As the storm reached its zenith the black beast bolted from the building - leaving only it's paw print scorched into the church door. That same day the storm had badly damaged the church at nearby Blythburgh, with lightning bringing down the whole tower onto the congregation beneath - killing many. Again a great black dog was seen to enter the church, bringing down the rood beam in his fury "and there also, as before, slew two men and a lad, and burned the hand of another that was there among the rest of the company, of whom divers were blasted". Again the great beast left only his claw marks burnt into the timbers of the door.

Seen through modern eyes the events at Blythburgh and Bungay, with their references to the burning of victims sheltering from the storm and sudden deaths within the church, are wholly consistent with a lightning strike or strikes upon the buildings. What is especially interesting is the association made, albeit subsequently, between the probable lightning strikes and the ritual burn marks upon the church doors; markings that were specifically intended to protect against just such an event. If such markings were applied to the church doors when the timber was green then, in at least these cases, it would appear clear that at least some residual memory of the purpose of the markings remained within the local community decades, or even centuries, after they had been created.

Although both interpretations show marked differences, they share many features in common - being the ability for the candle, whether it be from the Candlemas ceremony or otherwise, to add a layer of protection to a place, space or building. Eamon Duffy relates the story from the Tudor joke book, 'A Hundred Merry Tales', which clearly highlights how such candles were viewed in the minds of the everyday folk. The story states that, following the performance of a religious play in an unnamed Suffolk settlement, John Adoyne went on to terrify the community by walking the streets wearing the demon costume he had worn on stage. On hearing that the devil was walking abroad in his own town, the local squire "called up his chaplain and made the holy candle to be lighted" to drive away the evil spirit. Although the story was told in jest, perhaps even poking fun at the superstitions of the 'dim' country folk, it clearly demonstrates that the belief was widespread and fundamental. And what was the churches attitude to such beliefs and practices? We have little in the way of direct evidence to suggest it was proscribed or officially frowned upon, and the existence of such burn marks on church doors may even suggest that it sometimes had a blind eye turned towards it. Essentially, if the church suggested via its own prayers that a candle could drive away the devil, then it could hardly be surprised if people started to take them literally.

So which of the interpretations is more likely? Are these taper burn marks designed to drive away evil spirits, keep witches at bay, or protect a building from lightning and fire? The evidence would seem to suggest that all three answers may well be the case. Marks applied during the construction phase of a house may well have been put there by the builders to inoculate against fire, whilst marks applied in later years, or re-applied year upon year, may have been the householders themselves, following the direction they believed had been laid down by holy mother church, to drive out evil spirits. In all cases the markings can be seen as 'warding off' evil - the non-specific and spiritual evils that threatened the peace of the household, and the very real evil of fire and thunderstorm. When the darkness came, and the peace of home, hearth and family came under threat, then the people of medieval England turned towards the light. The sought refuge in the power of the blessed light of the holy candles, and drove away the shadows. In the dark of the night, and in the heart of the storm, they fought fire with fire.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this thought-provoking article. It makes me curious, as you noted some examples from East Anglia, whether any historic 17th century structures in New England might bear taper burn marks, since the muddle of superstition, religion and belief in witchcraft of that time period and region is well-documented. I am not aware of any but the next time I have the opportunity to tour one of these buildings I will keep an eye out!

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