Ritual Protection Scratch Markings on Walls
Picture of scratch marking graffiti on the stones below the tympanum.
And what might be the explanation?
It is a ritual protection mark, known as a hexfoil, and they do crop up everywhere. Ours is a particularly nice example and has now been added to the Medieval Graffiti Database by Matthew Champion.
The circular floral designs, turn out to be the most common motif, with several thousand recorded in Norfolk and Suffolk alone. The majority are quite small—less than four inches across—and are precise enough that they must have been drawn with compasses or other tools. “Originally, we thought these might have been created by the masons, perhaps to teach their apprentices the basics of geometry, or to create a guide for themselves,” [Matt] Champion says. Indeed, some of the larger compass-drawn designs are probably exactly that, but the small designs that Champion has found peppered around fonts would have been impossible to draw with the giant compasses that masons used. Rather, the clustering of the symbol on and around fonts is a crucial clue. Traditionally, baptism ceremonies were meant to cast out the devil, and Champion thinks that the marks served as ritual protection, brought luck, and protected the person being baptized from evil. “Christianity was not the warm and fluffy religion that it is today,” he says. “People believed in the power of evil, and would do everything they could to ward off the ill forces that lurked outside the church door.” Designs like this, intricate and mazelike, were thought to trap malevolent spirits, which would follow the lines and be unable to find their way back out.
Mark Gardiner, a medieval graffiti expert from Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland, agrees that the symbols were probably intended to ward off evil. “We also find an abundance of these kind of marks inside medieval houses, often close to fireplaces. This coincides with the interest in and fear of witches,” he says, “which grew markedly during the second half of the sixteenth century.”
So who could have made these marks? Compasses from this time are exceedingly rare in the archaeological record. Champion speculates that they could have been made using the little shears that women tended to carry around with them. “The shears would be about the right size, so we think it could have been predominately women making these protective symbols around the font,” he says.