Medieval Graffiti

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Medieval Graffiti at New Shoreham 

By F. C. WOOD

NEW Shoreham Church (St Mary de Haura) contains a number of medieval graffiti and masons' marks, most of which have already been more or less adequately described and figured in various publications. The majority of the incised markings chiefly consist of pilgrim's crosses, masons' marks and merchants' marks and with these I do not propose to deal in this short article. Instead I should like to draw attention to the two most interesting and unusual sets of markings in the church. The first will be found at the west end of the original chancel (now the nave) on the respond of the northern series of arches, on the sixth course from the moulded base, and consists of a group of incised figures of men arranged on either side of an animal, with a deeply cut pilgrim's cross surmounting the whole scene. The graffito is about 4 ft. 6 in. from the floor. The second set of graffiti will be found on the same northern series of arches on the second pillar from the east on the second and third courses from the moulded base.

The series of figures on the west respond is rather faint and should be examined in a good light, preferably when the sun is shining outside. It will then be seen that there are at least two figures grouped on either side of a running animal. The pilgrim's cross, while serving as an aid to finding the group, is not, in my opinion, contemporary with the rest of the figures and has been cut in at a later (medieval) date. From left to right there is a figure carrying an axe (?) and holding a hunting horn to his lips; then follows a figure carrying a short-bow,1 an arrow is on the string, and the bow is bent and drawn to the chest. The central figure is a deer in full flight, its neck being transfixed by an arrow. On the right hand side is a second archer carrying a drawn long-bow, an arrow is on the string and the bow is drawn back to his ear; following him a fourth figure carries a spear (?).

In the Sussex Archaeological Collections, XLVIll, p. 145-149, E. F. Salmon, in his article "Masons' and other Incised Marks in New Shoreham Church," states, " Lastly there remains for notice the remarkable grouping of figures shown in Fig. K. They are incised on the W. respond of the N. series of arches. The only interpretation the writer can give is that it is intended for St Julian and the hind. When one knows that the neighbouring church of Kingston-by-Sea is dedicated to St Julian the reason is apparent . . ." Salmon's figure given with the article is even more remarkable than his interpretation. It consists of one figure only, in a recumbent attitude; the pilgrim's cross; and the deer and even these figures bear little resemblance to the parts of the graffito they are supposed to represent. One has a feeling that Salmon has reconstructed the graffito to fit his theory of St Julian. It is difficult to understand how the rest of the figures in the scene were either not recorded, or deliberately omitted by this writer, since once the graffito has been found they are all equally distinct and fill up a space. measuring about 24 in. by 7 in. My own opinion, based on the examination and recording of hundreds of medieval graffiti from all over the country, is that the pictorial, graffiti seldom had any esoteric meaning attached to them and were usually concerned with everyday scenes with which the medieval artist was familiar. Hence the Shoreham graffito suggests nothing more than a hunting scene, the figures at each end probably being beaters who have driven the game to be dispatched by the archers., It is probable that there were originally many more figures in the complete scene as the courses immediately below all bear faint indications of figures and animals2 and even on the sixth course just described anew piece of ashlar has been built in in recent years beyond the right hand figure so that much more of the scene may be irretrievably lost. Dr G. G. Coulton of St John's College, Cambridge, who is an authority on medieval graffiti and to whom I submitted rubbings of the Shoreham graffito, kindly confirmed my suggestions as to the meaning of the scene.

Points that are worthy of note are:
(a) The costumes.
(b) The accuracy of detail in the manner of handling the old Hastings short-bow and the newer long-bow.
(c) The remarkable contrast between the grace and proportion of the central deer and the almost grotesque human figures.

The graffiti on the second pillar of the north series of arches consist of three designs composed of interlacing lines on a swastika basis. Salmon records only one of these designs which he describes as a "Knotted Cross." Actually there are three designs as already stated, two being on the second course from the base and one on the third course. The two lower designs are very faint and much worn while the upper design, probably a later copy, is much better preserved. The symbol is very ancient dating back to Sumerian times. The same design will be found in the beautiful mosaic floor patterns of the Roman villa at Bignor; it is employed by the natives of Nigeria as a common design in their rush mats and basket work; it will be found as part of the designs used by Mexican natives in their woven mats; and I have recorded similar figures, though smaller in size, from Rye church and Steyning church, though this latter example has been so badly scraped that it is barely visible. The design was probably brought to this country by Crusaders returning from the East and though I have seen many suggestions as to its significance I must leave this aspect to those more qualified to pronounce a verdict.

1 This may possibly be a crossbow according to how one interprets the many scratches on the stone. I prefer short-bow.
2 The faint markings may also have been copies of the original.

 

 

 

Copyright Martin Snow 2002 All rights reserved
Revised 10 July 2002