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Ashwell, England

Medieval Graffiti of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin

Historical etchings such as “Miserable, wild, distracted 1350" and “The Archdeacon is an ass.” 

The beauty of its interior, its octagonal lantern, and its unusually narrow spire make a visit to the Church of St. Mary the Virgin worthwhile. But look beyond those exquisite features, and you’ll also find graffiti scratched into its stonework that is of enormous historical value.

Perhaps the most noteworthy graffiti in the church is what’s believed to be an image of Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, which sadly burned down during the Great Fire of London. It’s extremely rare to find such detailed depictions of medieval buildings, making this little bit of outsider art a true archaeological treasure. It was most likely etched sometime between 1340 and 1561, though it’s unclear exactly when the unknown artist decided to leave his or her mark.

On the north wall of the west tower, you can also see 14th-century graffiti scratched by survivors of the Black Death during the reign of Edward III. Written in Latin, it translates to, “1350 Miserable, wild, distracted 1350 / The dregs of the mob alone survive to witness.” There’s also a reference to a great storm that occurred in 1361, which supposedly cleared away any lingering remnants of the bubonic plague.

Further graffiti, again written in Latin, can also be spotted on the pillars in the nave. One of the entries rather rudely criticizes the quality of the building’s construction, saying, “The corners are not jointed correctly—I spit.” Another insults a woman named Barbara, calling her, “the daughter of a barbarian.” Just above it is another line of text, simply claiming that, “the Archdeacon is an ass.”

Apart from the graffiti, the interior of the church has some very interesting features, including important embroideries manufactured by William Morris and Co., a fantastic hexagonal wooden pulpit dating from 1627, and some great 19th-century inlaid marble.