Strange medieval graffiti in an English church

windows in church cloister

St Mary’s church in Ashwell in the English county of Hertfordshire is one of those beautiful medieval churches that dots the countryside.  You can access its website here.

The tower is unusually thick, built in the fourteenth century, with a stone passage built in to the walls.  There were originally battlements on top of the tower (expecting trouble?) but these were removed about two hundred years ago.

The most interesting feature of the church for me is the graffiti.  Written at a time of huge upheaval in England with plague and revolt, it’s a great insight in to what people were actually thinking seven hundred years ago.

The church website argues that the scrawlings were most likely made by outsiders like architects, penitents and even priests.  But one piece of graffiti suggests to me that a local hand might have been involved.  It’s likely to have been carved during the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 and is in Latin:

penta miseranda ferox violenta   superest plebs pessima testis in fineque ventus validus   oc anno maurus in orbe tonat

Don’t put that through Google Translate because you get total gibberish.  The translation I have obtained from another reputable source is:  The people who remain are driven wild and miserable.  They are wretched witnesses to the end.  A strong wind is thundering over the whole earth.  Written on Saint Maurus’ Day.

The church website translates it slightly differently and includes a line above:

There was a plague
1000,three times 100, five times 10,
a pitiable, fierce violent
(plague departed); a wretched populace survives to witness and in the end
a mighty wind, Maurus, thunders in this year in the world, 1361

On the pillars in the church are other bits of graffiti which vary from popular sayings to pithy comments.  One of the latter was written by an irritated architect:

Cornua non sunt arto compugenta sputuo
the corners are not jointed correctly. I spit on them

Another is a less than flattering view of one of the clerics:

Archi(di)aconus Asemnes
The Archdeacon is an ass

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