Saturday, July 25, 2015

Medieval Graffiti and Medieval Marginalia

  In the area of medieval studies it often seems that armies of scholars are marching in serried ranks over well trodden ground again and again and again. It seems the last drops of blood are being squeezed from the pallid corpses of Geoffrey Chaucer, Geoffrey of Monmouth, King John and the barons and all the other usual suspects. The vocabulary of the discourse becomes more obscure and dense, so that the conversation becomes incomprehensible to all but an inner circle.
  It is a rare and wondrous thing to find a whole area of study which is still begging for primary, grass roots research to be done, because even the basic field recording is hugely incomplete. Enter the wide green open pastures of medieval graffiti.

  Medieval Graffiti, by Matthew Champion (2015, Ebury Press: London) is a summary of the current state of this still largely unexplored area of study by its most enthusiastic protagonist. The book not only explores what is known, but why it is important to know it, as the scratchings and incisions on the walls of churches, and other buildings, give a different perspective on the use and life of the building to that propounded by the official church hierarchy. That's why he refers to them as the lost voices. 
 There is a current trend in medieval manuscript studies to investigate not only the formal text in the main central rectangle of the page, but the marginalia which has been added by readers, rubricators, editors, critics and occasionally bored scholars. The bit in the middle is the official version of the text, sanctioned by the author, compiler and in many cases the authorities of the church. The marginalia gives some clues as to how readers responded to the text. This study has been given the handle reception theory. Personally, I think there is no such thing as reception theory, but my background in the dim distant past was in science where the word theory had a particular meaning. There is such a thing as reception studies; the study of responses to a text, and the way readers made it their own.
  The marginalia in question can be part of the formal design scheme, as added by an illustrator. All those farting bishops, monkeys with urine flasks and the famous nun picking penises off a tree have been discussed as a kind of commentary on the text. Text marginalia can become a formal and approved part of the main text, as in the Bible gloss. Marginalia can also be doodlings, pen trials, ownership inscriptions, corrections, addenda and occasionally rude comments about colleagues. They can be partially erased, and even that poses questions. Taken together, they bring a range of readers and users into the story of the book, expanding the concept of the use of the text.
  Medieval graffiti is to church art and architecture studies as marginalia is to manuscript studies. Church authorities designed and approved the central scheme, but the buildings were part of normal social and religious life. In various ways people appropriated them and made their own comments, not necessarily church sanctioned, but not church disapproved either. It is both claiming ownership and revealing parts of medieval life not recorded in official accounts. It is reception studies for buildings.
  The book gives a broad overview of the current state of these studies, emphasising that there are many parts of England that have not yet been extensively surveyed and there is much basic data yet to be collected. It is divided into multiple short chapters (21 chapters in around 250 pages), each briefly examining a particular class of graffiti or general aspect of the subject. It is very much a general survey and written in an accessible style for any literate person who finds this kind of thing interesting. Nevertheless it is apparent that the author has done considerable background research in various historical sources to get the basic scheme in place.
  While it is clear that it is written in a popular history style, the trained academic in me itches a bit with a book that has no bibliography and also no citation of original historic sources. Where is the commonplace book of Robert Reynes? Which several sources? What authorities? Where could I get my hands on those records? No, you wouldn't like it to read like an academic conference paper, but I have satiable courteosity, like the elephant's child.
  By separating all the types of graffiti into different categories, the author emphasises that they may all have different functions and meanings, even if these are not well understood. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on mass dials. Apart from the fact that they should really be called divine office dials (They didn't say mass every time.), the priest would have known when to say his offices by looking out the window and the laity mostly didn't attend. The existence of multiple examples on one church would certainly seem to be extraneous. Makes you wonder whether the act of making one of these was a devotional act or process in itself. Like all the different types and styles of graffiti, there are more questions than answers.
  The amazing thing about these markings in a public space is that they have been so overlooked. I was amazed at the places where these things abound, and where I have been many times without the slightest awareness of them. I mean Beverley Minster for one. Must be blind as a bat. I even found one on an old photograph I took many years ago and hadn't even mentally processed it.

  There it is, on an alabaster tomb in Harewood church in Yorkshire.
  One of the most delightful things about the medieval graffiti projects is that they are genuine community efforts involving teams of volunteers who are doing the basic research. A very enthusiastic mob they are too. This has to be a credit to Matthew Champion himself, as director of the Norfolk and Suffolk Graffiti Survey. Volunteers are sometimes treated like odd job people on large projects, but this lot are clearly engaged with their work and self motivated to do their church exploring. When they find something good they are on Twitter, tweeting like sparrows. It can only make the cause prosper.
  The book is nicely produced and illustrated and largely free of typos, but .... well I shouldn't. I mean there's always one that gets through. But when it's a good one ... p.220 "Misericords ... often decorated with strange cravings ..." Sorry Matt. Done a bit of editing and I just can't help myself.
  So all power to the ongoing graffiti projects. It will be interesting to see continuing results. And next time I get to England I might find myself not photographing tombs but peering quizzically at walls.

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