Whilst church-sitting for the Heritage Open Day on 8th September, my thinking was drawn to St James' font and its curious blend of thirteenth century bowl and fifteenth century stem.
It was the end of the day and shadows were starting to appear and then, to my amazement, I noticed that one of the flanges of the stem, and then another, had perceptible traces of mediaeval graffiti.
An unusual survival
Mediaeval graffiti varies in its quality and visibility. Hertfordshire as a county possesses a number of churches with magnificent examples of mediaeval graffiti. in particular Ashwell and Anstey. Whilst St James's church isn't of the same quality as either, it is interesting notwithstanding.
In the first instance, we know that the graffiti is fifteenth century or later (on account of the style of the font stem).
Secondly, some of the graffiti is upside down. This unusual element suggests that the stem may have been placed here from some other part of the church, possibly when the old North chapel was replaced by the Baeshe Chapel in the Tudor period.
Flowers and forms
The graffiti takes a number of forms. One of the sides of the stem features a flower which at first glance appears to be a traditional hex motif, common on fonts. However, unlike such motifs, the petals are not uniform and nor are they surrounded by a circle. There is also a distinct centre to the flower.
On another side of the stem, we encounter further flora. These are not of high quality and are barely visible yet they show a three-stemmed flower in one instance and, elsewhere, smaller representations of blooms. It is unclear whether these features represent graffiti or are in fact markings for some kind of painting of the font stem itself.
People and devils
Perhaps most fascinating of all are the images of people. On three separate sides of the stem are different images: one which resembles a woman's head (possibly a witch) but which also has a slight resemblance to the heraldic "sleeve" device of the Hastings family; one shows the form of a man looking at an angry face which may represent the Devil; the final one (upside down) is a man in late mediaeval dress with knobbly knees and wearing a belt and dagger.
Ageing the graffiti
As stated above, the pillar of the font dates from the 15th Century so we know that the work is not younger than this. The flowers and forms are difficult to date but the figures, in particular the man, point to a dress style of the mid fifteenth century (c.1450).
The figure looking at the Devil has similar knees so may have been drawn by the same artist. I envisage the Devil himself being possibly earlier on account of his style although it is difficult to be confident.
The "witch" figure is curious. The "eye" of the witch is only visible at extremely high resolution although the general configuration of the markings do point to the shape of a face with some form of head dress or "tressoir" as the Gawain-poet puts it. The woman appears to be emerging through a doorway and there is a cross on a hill in the background. It is possible that this image is later than the others on account of its unusual style but it is hard to say.
It is not known whether these graffiti have been recorded previously or are a new discovery. Certainly when sharing the information with the Friends of St James', no one was aware of their existence, despite being involved with the church here for many, many years. It was truly exciting to uncover these graffiti but even more exhilarating to share the thrill of the Friends in seeing them for the first time.
About the author
Michael Smith is one of the Friends of St James's Church. His translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was published in July 2018 and he is now working on an illustrated translation of the fourteenth century Alliterative Morte Arthure (more information here)