Do you time travel?
To some extent local history research can be like time travel. The twentieth century is not only very well documented but large chunks of it are still in living memory of course. Even the 19th century has a fairly wide range of information still available to us. We know who lived in the village, mostly, and what they did. We know where they lived and where they shopped, who they married and the children they had. We even know something about their schooling and their pleasure time activities.
Going back before the 1800’s the information is more patchy. There are pockets of resources that you can dip into and pull out, for example, some of the village inhabitants at the time of the hearth taxes in the 1600’s. And there are the church records recording most, we assume, of the births, marriages and deaths.
But back even before that? Well now you are really reaching into what used to be called the Dark Ages. Medieval times – ‘time out of mind of man’ in that lovely phrase.
But what if you could reach out, just reach right out, just with a finger and touch, say, a message from a village inhabitant from around 1500?…
Obviously graffiti in a church is not a good thing but if it’s very old graffiti that is a different matter. Certainly this is the opinion of Matthew Champion who has written a book on Medieval Church Graffiti and is the leading expert in his field. Matthew has done a large study of churches in Norfolk and you can see the results on their website here.
Matthew gave a talk at Saffron Walden Literary Festival in 2015 and much enthused, I then did a little research myself. I was delighted to discover Chrishall does indeed have some messages left by previous inhabitants of the village – and no, I’m not talking about bored school children making scratches in the pillars although I’m sure there are some of those too.
Some of the graffiti does have clear dates and these appear to be legitimate. Now is this JBP or FBP? And who were they? Well the Pigg family were living in the village in 1885 so maybe it was someone to do with them. There were also Pitches and Pottrells. Maybe we will never know but someone wanted to be remembered and it looks like an attempt to fill the letters in by some tidy churchwarden luckily failed!
Further back in time we have RB from 1605. Now we are beginning to move back into the time of fewer records. The church records do not start until 1661 although we can see from these records that there were families by the name of Browne, Brice, Bull and Blancks in the village at that time. The Browne family were quite large so is this a Browne ancestor leaving his initials for us to see? And what’s the significance of the box around the letters? It looks like a house and there appears to be a star on the very top. Was this something to do with his (or her?) trade?
The two previous inscriptions are near the pulpit but this last one is on a column at the back of the church.
With its clear, sharp lines I wasn’t sure that it wasn’t a modern scratching but the forms of the letters seemed old to me so I photographed it along with the others.
With the wonders of the internet I was able to get in touch with Matthew Champion, the writer of the Medieval Graffiti book, and ask his opinion about this particular piece of graffiti. Now obviously he has not seen this in person and has only seen my picture which you see here. However he was sure that this is medieval graffiti dating from between late 14th and early 16th century, so during the 1500s. And it says “Marchal” (or Marshall would be the modern name.) There is writing above the name Marchal which we have yet to decipher – it was only shortly after I took these photographs that the church was closed for renovation work so more research to be done on this!
However on going through the church records which we have in the collection the other day I was excited to discover mention of the Marshal family in Chrishall baptizing children:
1663/4: Baptism: Dorothy Marshall the daughter of William Marshall and Alice his wife was baptized – Feb 21
So did little Dorothy’s great-grandfather feel he wanted to leave his mark on a church he loved? And what was the village like in his time? Did he turn from his carving on the pillar, walk out the south door and see the village houses, or remains of the houses, spread out in the fields dropping down from the church towards the main road? Or had the village long moved up the hill and away from the church even then? More research to do!
But if you fancy a little time travel, you might only need to “travel” as far as the church…
D: 1880 D: 1600 D: 1500
C: 19th Century C: 17th Century C: 15th Century
1605, 1885, 1500