Valuing Vandalism

Appropriately enough, the first person to introduce me to medieval graffiti was named Mark. A school friend and son of the Sub-Dean of St Albans Abbey, he had been shown the ancient grafitti there and in turn became my personal guide.

I remember two in particular: one showing what appears to be a medieval knight, armed and armoured, the other a drawing of the Abbey itself. Curiously the latter made the stronger impression because it showed the Abbey tower topped by a spire that no longer existed - indeed was dismantled after a damaging storm in the 1830s. I had been sensitised to absence of a spire by the sitcom 'All Gas and Gaiters' which was being filmed around the Abbey at that time and whose opening sequence featured the tower in the background with an added (bent) spire.'

The word grafitti was less commonly used in the days before cheap aerosols. Brought up to believe such things were simple vandalism I felt and, to an extent, still feel a bemused sense of irony that such 'scrawlings' should now be valued as historic artefacts. It is undoubtedly true that some church graffiti have clear religious meaning - rather than many contemporary self-publicising tags. I do wonder, though, if the medieval priest might have given an adolescent Abelard a kick in the rear when he caught him carving 'P. loves Heloise Tru'. But, as so often, I have had to remind myself not to judge the past with the social values of the present. After all, the Norman tower of St Albans Abbey - 'a particular triumph'- was built with bricks appropriated from the Roman town of Verulamium, just down the hill...

If anyone can clarify my confusion over all this it is Pat May. I'm looking forward to her illustrated talk 'Voices from the Past'. As her title suggests, our church graffiti mean we can reach out and listen to the hopes and fears of ordinary people from the a time far from the present...

Wish us