Signs of Sailors: Ship Graffiti In Medieval Churches

Medieval Ships graffitiThe 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.

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.

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.

Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey



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