miércoles, 18 de diciembre de 2013

Signs of sailors: Ship graffiti in medieval churches (United Kingdom)

The last few weeks have once again shown us all exactly how vulnerable those living near the coast are to the power and force of the oceans. In East Anglia the North Sea smashed through sea defences, ate away whole chunks of cliff face, tumbling houses into the water, and inundated vast areas of land – and yet we were very lucky. It could have been far, far worse.
Had the storm surge arrived an hour later, when the tide was at its peak, more defences would have failed, more damage would have been caused and, in all likelihood, lives would have been lost. As an old friend, a retired skipper, said at the time – they ought to add ‘water’ to the game ‘rock, paper, scissors’ – it trumps everything.
An ambiguous relationship
Seeing the destruction caused by a single event it isn’t difficult to understand just how ambiguous the relationship between the sea and coastal communities must have been throughout the Middle Ages. On the one hand those communities relied upon the sea for their very existence. They fished its waters, harvested the seashore and sailed across it to find markets for their goods. On the other hand it could swallow their loved ones, destroy whole economies and wipe entire villages from the face of the earth in the space of a few hours – and often with only the briefest, if any, of warnings. Each day, each voyage and each life a gamble, with the odds, eventually, stacked heavily against you. In a single storm in the 17th century the growing coastal settlement of Sheringham lost almost a quarter of its houses, scores of its people and dozens of its boats in a single savage, storm swept night.
This ambiguous and volatile relationship between the medieval coastal communities and the sea must have had a profound spiritual impact upon the individuals who placed their lives, and those of their loved ones, into the fickle hands of the ocean. It must have been one of the most significant single influences in their everyday lives. It was inescapable. However, the physical evidence of that relationship, the scars that it left across these communities, are hard to see. Beyond the fleeting glimpses of ships lost at sea that appear in the documentary record, or the countrywide appeals for aid for a stricken coastal community in time or dire need, the relationship is largely mute. Men died, ships failed to return and whole communities were ripped apart – and the records of their passing are few and far between. It is, perhaps, only on the walls of those coastal churches that a tangible link to this turbulent, fickle and violent past may be revealed.
Ship graffiti
The first time I came across medieval ship graffiti was with John Peake up at the churches of the Glaven ports – Blakeney, Wiveton, Cley and Salthouse – in north Norfolk. Hundreds of little ships carved into the screens, piers and stonework of the churches. Each one different. Each one unique. Some were crude and simple outlines etched in the stone, whilst others showed masses of detail – rigging, anchors, banners, flags and planking. Each one a vessel of the port etched into the parish church. Many were so detailed that to the medieval inhabitants of those villages many of these would have been distinct and recognisable ships, identifiable by a name that we no longer know. Belonging to people they shared their lives with, crewed by friends, family and neighbours.
What struck me then, as it still does today, is a complete lack of understanding as to why these images had been created. The general idea, that they are found mainly in coastal churches, appears no longer to be the case. The graffiti surveys currently being undertaken across England have found almost as many examples inland as they have by the coast, with some now coming to light as far away from the sea as it is possible to get in places such as central Leicestershire. Only a couple of weeks ago a very unusual painted and incised example, probably dating from the sixteenth century, was discovered at a church in Hertfordshire. Also noteworthy is the fact that all the examples I have come across, either on the coast or far inland, appear to show ocean-going ships. Not river craft, but fully equipped seagoing vessels.
A deeper function and meaning?
Why then are we finding images of sailing ships all over our English parish churches? Are they simply local people doodling images on the walls of the everyday items they see, or is there a deeper function and meaning to them? Well, at a couple of sites that I have looked at there are a few tantalising clues that these images of ships may have had a far more devotional and spiritual aspect than we have previously given them credit for.
Blakeney church on the north Norfolk coast is packed full of early graffiti inscriptions, which include dozens of examples of ships. However, although the early graffiti is to be found all over the church, the ship graffiti is all heavily concentrated in one area, the easternmost pier of the south arcade. This pillar is literally covered with little images of ships, each respecting the space of those around them and not crossing over each other. According to maritime historians the ships depicted were created over a period of at least two centuries. Intriguingly, the pier in question sits facing the south aisle altar and is exactly opposite a now empty image niche.
Even more intriguing is the fact that this very same distribution pattern appears elsewhere. Whilst surveying Blackfriars Barn undercroft in Winchelsea for the National Trust (also full of ship graffiti) I took the opportunity to go and look at the remains of St Thomas’ church in the main square. Here again I discovered early graffiti all over the church, and a good number of ships. However, as with Blakeney, all the ships were focussed upon one area in the church – the side altar and associated chapel. According to the church records that chapel was dedicated to St Nicholas, the very same dedication as the church at Blakeney. St Nicholas, as well as being associated with children, had a distinct maritime association and, for many centuries, was looked upon as the patron saint of ‘those in peril upon the seas’.
It is also worth remembering that, at the time these ships were created, they would have been far more visible than they are today – when powerful lights shone across the stones’ surface are they only way to truly make them out. During the Middle Ages the vast majority of churches were painted. In the case of Blakeney church the surviving fragments of pigment suggest that the pier upon which the ships were inscribed was painted a deep red ochre – and that the ship graffiti had been scratched through the paint to reveal the pale stone beneath. The whole pier would have look like a deep red ocean covered in a fleet of tiny ships. Indeed, far from being hidden away in dark corners, these little white ships would have been one of the most obvious things a visitor saw upon entering the church. And yet they were not defaced, they were not covered over, and each respected the space of those around them – despite being created over such a long time period.
Devotional in nature
So what are we really seeing here? It would appear to me that these images of ships are far more than idle doodling. Their distribution patterns and their apparent association with a maritime saint would suggest to me that these inscriptions are actually devotional in nature. That they are literally prayers made solid in stone. They may not have had the formality of the mass, or been an accepted part of the everyday church service, but they most certainly had a place in the belief system of the commonality. They are perhaps a fundamental part of lay piety that reflects the ambiguous relationship these coastal communities had with their erratic and temperamental neighbour.
Such an interpretation certainly doesn’t account for all the examples I come across, particularly many of the post-medieval examples, but it certainly appears to hold good for many of those medieval examples found by the coast. The last question I suppose must be what type of prayer are they? Are they thanksgiving for a voyage safely undertaken, or a prayer for safe passage on a journey yet to come? As several people have pointed out, some of these ship images appear to show deliberate damage, begging the question as to whether they are prayers for long overdue ships? Vessels that never quite made it back to port, family and friends. The answer to that question, I guess, we will probably never know.

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