This month sees the publication of Matthew Champion’s Medieval Graffiti. The book is a fascinating tour through the centuries of hand-carved writing and art that adorns the walls of churches across the country. One of the key themes that emerges is an apparent lack of clear delineation between official and unofficial – in thought, word, and deed.
Below is an extract from the book, in which Champion discusses that most lingering of phenomena: the curse.
Magic on the walls: charms and curses
Witches and their curses have filled centuries’ worth of our literature, folk tales and fairy stories; everything from Macbeth’s three witches on the blasted heath to the evil witch who can send an entire castle full of people to sleep for a hundred years. Curses are seen as being from the unacceptable side of faith and belief and should really have no place in a house dedicated to God and prayer.
It is a distinction that carries on to the present day, with the magic presented in modern stories such as the Harry Potter books falling into the two very distinct areas of ‘spells’, which are thoroughly acceptable, and ‘curses’, which are seen largely as the domain of only evil practitioners. As a result, the finding of apparent curses among the medieval-graffiti inscriptions in our churches leaves a bad taste in many people’s mouths. Indeed, the fact that such finds often lead to them being ascribed to modern Wiccans, devil worshippers or hoaxers is a sign of just how mentally remote we are today from the commonplace beliefs of the medieval church.
The medieval church was not just an institution that believed in the efficacy of curses – but one that actually made use of, and approved, its own curses. While the church may have had the standard weapons and threats of the church courts and, in extremis, excommunication in its arsenal, it was obviously felt that there were times when a more direct approach might be needed. For certain crimes – most particularly those that were aimed at the church itself or its property – the church was more than willing to offer up curses upon the guilty party. It is commonplace to find medieval manuscripts, once among the most precious of all church belongings, actually inscribed with individual ‘book curses’ against those who would steal or deface the work.
The church also entered curses into the formal litany of everyday service, most particularly with the reading out of Chapter 28 of the Book of Deuteronomy. The chapter specifically deals with blessings and curses, including such delights as, ‘Cursed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy land, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep.’ In 1549, with the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer, the reading of Deuteronomy was replaced with a specific service, known as the Commination, that was to be read upon the first day of Lent and ‘at other times’. The service of Commination was essentially a summary of all the curses contained in the Bible, not just within Deuteronomy, that were to be laid against those who did not respect God’s commandments. The curses ranged against all sinners, from those who had ‘moved his neighbour’s boundary stone’, to the ‘fornicators, adulterers, covetous persons, idolaters, slanderers, drunkards and extortioners’. Indeed, it left little room for doubt. If you sinned against the church in word or deed, you were, quite simply, cursed.
The dividing line between ‘magic’ and the formal devotions of the church was a distinctly hazy one.
The church could also, upon a very few significant occasions, actually fall back upon using the General Great Curse. The ceremony was usually only performed by those of the rank of bishop and above and was carried out using ‘bell, book and candle’. The ceremony is thought to date back as far as the ninth century and appears to have developed out of the elaborate excommunication ceremonies of the church, when individuals would be formally denied the comfort of the sacraments and Christian worship. However, the General Great Curse took this a large step further, stating that they were to be ‘accursed of God, and of his church, from the sole of their foot to the crown of their head’.
One of the best recorded examples of this formal curse being actually carried out took place in Westminster Hall in 1253, when no less than thirteen fully robed bishops cursed the violators of the Magna Carta and all transgressors of the liberties of the church. At the end of the ceremony, the bells were rung, the book closed with a sound like a small thunderclap, and the candles were extinguished and cast aside – at which point the bishops cried, ‘So let them be extinguished and sink into the pit of hell which run into the dangers of this sentence.’
Given the church’s enthusiasm for curses, and the fact that many of the ritual protection marks and devotional graffiti appear to have been both accepted and acceptable to the everyday officers of the church, it is hardly surprising that members of the congregation didn’t feel prohibited from adding their own curses to the church walls. With the dividing line between what may have been considered ‘magic’ and the formal devotions of the church being a distinctly hazy one – if recognised at all – it is rather unlikely that those creating these curses saw them as very different from the votive markings and prayers that they sat next to.
What, after all, was a curse except a prayer for divine retribution to be called down upon those who had sinned against them? The idea was even supported by the Old Testament, which promised that God would listen to the beseeching of the unjustly wronged. Indeed, if certain signs, sigils and symbols could be relied upon to ward off the evil eye and trap demons, then could not other signs and symbols be used to attract those very same demons towards specific individuals? The logic was undeniable; it was basic common sense. And that is exactly what we are finding on the walls of our churches all over England.
This is an extract from Matthew Campion’s Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches, published July 2015 by Ebury Press.