April 3, 2014

Newly uncovered signature links medieval graffiti to a monk & prolific writer


Historians believe that graffiti on the walls of an English church was inscribed by a Benedictine monk. ©Titanchik. Via Shutterstock.

Historians believe that graffiti on the walls of an English church was inscribed by a Benedictine monk.
©Titanchik. Via Shutterstock.

A signature discovered accompanying graffiti on the walls of a church in England is now thought to have been carved there by a 14th-century monk, Robin Stummer writes for the Observer. A group of historians has been studying graffiti on the pillars and walls of St. Mary’s Church in Suffolk, and believe that a few cartoons and words were signed by a Benedictine monk who was “one of the most prolific English writers.”

John Lydgate was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, as well as an admirer, calling him the “lodestar.” He’s credited with more than 150,000 lines of writing, for which he was hired by the medieval social elite, including the Duke of Gloucester, the Earl of Warwick, and Kings Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI.

The carvings at the church in Lydgate’s hometown (Lidgate, from which he took his name) include a coded message of romance, which the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey (NMGS) believes reads, “Fare thee well Lady Catherine.” There’s also a cartoon of a man, and another drawing that seems to depict a character who also appears in an illuminated manuscript that Lydgate worked on (recognizable by his distinctive head-dress).

What makes the graffiti notable is that Lydgate appears to have signed his name to it, not only identifying it as his, but providing the only known signature of his. The NMGS places the carvings at some time between 1390 and 1450, which as Stummer points out, would make it “among the oldest, if not the oldest, known signature of an English literary figure.”

The head of the NMGS project, archaeologist Matthew Champion enthused about the value of such discoveries, “It’s almost a hidden language. This is the work of the common people, the non-nobility… graffiti have barely been studied.”

While Lydgate’s signature was only discovered recently, the other carvings were known already, and the code behind the “Lady Catherine” message was deciphered in the 1960s by historian Violet Pritchard. Champion explains the process:

To the left of the rebus is the word “Well,” followed by the musical notes C, A, B, E in modern notation – which are, musically, “fa” “re” “mi” “la” – then followed by the letters “dy.” So, the whole reads “Well fare mi lady.” This is followed by a picture of dice and the letters “yne.” In the middle ages a dice was known as a “cater.” Therefore, the message reads “well fare mi lady cateryne [Catherine].”

Lydgate’s reputation has had its ups and downs. Once hailed as “the finest in England,” from whose work writers including Shakespeare drew, he fall into disfavor during the Reformation, “in part because he was a monk,” per Professor Helen Cooper of Cambridge University. Now, experts think he could be poised to rejoin the canon of literary greats, graffiti and all.


Nick Davies is a publicist at Melville House.