History

Medieval Graffiti Brings a New Understanding of the Past

Graffiti on the walls of Europe’s old churches reveals the real Middle Ages – a world far removed from knights and damsels.

A selection of medieval compass drawn designs from Belaugh church in Norfolk. Photo courtesy: NSMGS.

A selection of medieval compass drawn designs from Belaugh church in Norfolk. Photo courtesy: NSMGS.

All of us can imagine the medieval world. Our imagination was created by our upbringing, the books we read and the films we saw. Imagining the Middle Ages is an act that usually starts in childhood, and changes slowly as we grow older. From the brightly coloured pages of a child’s history book to the visceral panoramas of the latest season of Game of Thrones, how we see the Middle Ages changes. In most cases, however, the fundamental perspective remains the same: it’s an elite view of the medieval past, a Middle Ages composed of princes and kings, of knights and fair damsels in distress. It is a vision of the past that includes the splendour of great cathedrals and the brooding darkness of mighty castles. A past of banquets and battles. But it has little bearing upon reality.

The problem with our view of the Middle Ages is that it excludes the vast majority of people who lived in it, so it’s a highly partial and misleading picture of that world. Just like today, most medieval people did not belong to top 5% of society, they weren’t kings, princes, knights, or damsels. Most men, women and children were commoners. It is no coincidence that this other, everyday, 95% of the population was the one who did most of the work.

Putting aside farming, food processing and survival, it was these workers who were responsible for actually building most of what we think of when the Middle Ages come to mind. These are the people who built the magnificent medieval cathedrals, the craftsmen who constructed the dour and monumental castles. The workers whose blood and sweat bonds together the stones of every medieval church. They are the men whose deft fingers filled window spaces with blindingly bright stained glass. These are the people who built the Middle Ages. Yet we really know very little about them.

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This article was originally published in Aeon Magazine.