In search of the supernatural: recent and current Malefic Midlands research

The previous post outline how my previous work, and that of others, might inform this project; this post introduces some of the research that I’ve begun for MM.


Graffiti within the porch of an early 17th century house, South Derbyshire[i]

When visiting historic houses (including public and institutional housing) over the last few years,[ii] I’ve found occasional graffiti – a form of epigraphy that I find particularly interesting due to the reflection of attitudes surrounding both personal and community identities, and as a significant category of evidence that relates to childhood, poverty, and gender in the past.[iii] Most of this corresponds to personal identification (which seems to increase from the 16th century onward, particularly from the 18th century) – as seen with the initials found within the porch of an early 17th century yeoman’s house shown in the photo above. I’ve also come across markings on timber inscribed by carpenters to inform the building process – as shown in the photo below, from the same house.


Carpenter’s construction (or ‘assembly’) marks, used to aid the construction process, from the same house illustrated above.[iv]

But in addition, I’ve encountered the material traces of practices that on reflection do not correlate easily with the prosaic explanations for their presence – mainly particular forms of graffiti; and what burn marks, commonly in groups, made on house timbers. While it has previously (and is still by some) argued that such marks represent accidental burning (by candle or taper placed carelessly close to the wall), this seems unlikely, considering the length of time it would take to make such marks in hard wood;[v] and the smell that such a process would cause (and thus alert householders). Risk of fire (with fatal consequences) was very real within timber-framed buildings, and attributing previous residence with prolonged lack of attention to such risks perhaps belies the imposition of modern day attitudes onto those of people in the past. Furthermore, burn marks are frequently located where there is no evidence (in the form of nail holes or abrasion to surfaces) that might indicate the presence of wall sconces, and where no table or other form of stand would likely to have been placed, particularly near floor level, and on timber lintels above fireplaces.[vi]


Burn marks upon timber interior partition frame within the early 17th century yeoman’s house discussed above.[vii]

During my frequent trips to explore memorials and graves of churchyards, I’ve also come across graffiti on the walls of church buildings.[viii] As with much of the graffiti associated with houses, most inscriptions represent the initials of personal names, sometimes accompanied by a date. They are often grouped with similar inscriptions; are typically either on the exterior walls of entrances (where people might wait to enter a building); and are at a height above the ground conducive to production by children or adolescents. Those on the porch at St Andrew’s church, Radbourne (Derbys.) are a good example of such epigraphy.


Graffiti on the porch at St Andrew’s church, Radbourne, Derbys..

One postmedieval church located just outside the region contains a multitude of inscriptions. I’m currently conducting research on this building with a view to publication (so shall present here when I’m more certain of what will be included in the publication).[ix] But in the meantime, I can show some of the interior examples of personal graffiti, inscribed on the pews (see below). As with many other churches, this building also bears numerous inscriptions that like some of the marks evident on domestic timbers, used during the construction process. These markings on building stones – referred to as ‘mason’s marks’ – might employ a broad variety of symbols, as can also be seen in this chapel.

pew graffiti

Graffiti on rear pews (above); Mason’s marks (below); postmedieval chapel in the Midlands.[x]

mason marks 2

However, as with graffiti associated with housing, some inscriptions seem to fall outside those that are clearly the illicit incision of initials as expressions of personal identity, or the legitimate marks made by masons for the purpose of construction, or to denote their identity as craftsmen. These alternative marks correspond to a relatively narrow range of inscriptions, many of which were evident within the medieval period.[xi]


‘Marian’ mark, on the interior wall behind the porch door to the chapel mentioned above.

Some of the more common symbols occur within both churches and domestic contexts. The most frequently recognised types include the ‘double V’ / letter M or W, or as either turned 90 degrees known by some as ‘Marian’ or ‘Virgo Virginum’ (‘Virgin of Virgins’) marks, due to their suspected evocation of the Virgin Mary; compass-drawn markings (usually circles, often containing compass drawn patterns to form ‘daisy wheels’ – or multifoils, commonly hexafoils); series of rectangles or squares – referred to as ‘Merels’ marks, due to their similarity to board games of that name (aka ‘Nine Men’s Morris’); interlaced loops known as the ‘Solomon’s knot’ ; and pentagrams.[xii]

circles door

Compass drawn inscription (above) on the door to the organ loft, and adjacent pentagram (below), within the entrance to the above-mentioned chapel.


Other churches outside the region provide interesting case studies for comparison with sites within the study area. Another particularly intriguing building provides links between domestic ritual practices, and church graffiti; as I’m also conducting research with the intention of publication, for now I’ll just display the most tantalising inscription found within the church: of what appear to be a pair of mid 17th century shoes.


Post-medieval graffiti incorporating the shoe motif on windowsill (above); compass-drawn motif, in porch; medieval English church (see above).[xiii]


There are numerous markings on the stones of this building, some of which may be personal graffiti, and others, something else – including the shoes and circular marks illustrated above; most belonging to the latter group are located in the area of windows and doors. The shoes are especially interesting, as they compare with the deposition of shoes during the 17th century and later, alongside other deliberately concealed artefacts, typically within or adjacent chimneys; furthermore, the combination of ‘W’ and ‘P’ while perhaps initials, might alternatively represent combination of the frequently seen Virgo Virginium mark, and less frequently seen (in this case, in partial form) Chi-Rho symbol.[xiv] The significance of these motifs will be considered in brief in the following post, ‘Magic and Meanings

Pulling Together

I’ve been recording these remains and traces in very simple form as and when encountered – usually informally, when visiting properties on open days and on family days out, which generally precludes recording to the standard required for detailed archaeological study (being often surrounded by members of the public, and unable to carry or use the necessary equipment). But these simple photographic records (some of the photos available to view here) may be used for reference, to inform more systematic study if and when I am able to return to these sites. Due to current limitations and commitments, systematic recording may not be possible in short-term, although I’ll continue basic recording as I go.

I’m making a start in organising the relevant material that I’ve encountered so far by establishing Malefic Midlands, through which I might collate and share discoveries. This work at present primarily focuses on Derbyshire in the 17th and 18th centuries, but also examines material from different locations that are situated within the Midlands region (in the broadest sense), including Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire, and Staffordshire. But, although my interests in the topic are long-standing, I am only at the beginning of this research, and have much reading up on the subject yet to do. I’ll post information and records of finds when possible on this dedicated website; and perhaps on my personal blog (Notes of an Antiquary), and possibly occasionally on my freelance website.

I hope to devise systems through which members of the public might easily report finds. In the meantime, if anyone has encountered material within the study regions that might be of interest to the project, and wishes to share this information, please use the contact form to let me know.

The next post considers in brief how the above practices might be interpreted.


[i] With thanks to the owner for granting permission to display photos of the property on my websites; please respect the wishes of the owner that images from this property are not copied, or published elsewhere.

[ii] I primarily conduction investigation of housing through the project Living in the Past Community Archaeology Project (‘LIPCAP’), which I direct.

[iii] I was particularly enamoured by the graffiti on the exterior walls of a late 19th century industrial terraced house, found during basic surveys conducted as part of LIPCAP (some of the photos from these surveys are available here), the drawings of what appear to be earlier industrial housing, similar to that (mostly now demolished) within adjacent areas, being particularly interesting. The inscriptions I encountered at Southwell Workhouse (Notts.) were no less poignant, the limited expression of personal identity through the incision of initials perhaps indicative of the power held by staff over inmates, and the numerous incised lines possibly to be read as tallies (seen in one of my LIPCAP albums here). A possibly similar oppression might be indicated by the form of graffiti at an Edwardian children’s home (now a private residence) that I was able to visit (photos here)

[iv] See note i.

[v] For a discussion of this issue, see in Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain, ed. Ronald Hutton, 2016 (London: Palgrave Macmillan): Timothy Easton ‘Apotropaic Symbols and Other Measures’, pp. 39-67, especially pp. 56-9; Matthew Champion ‘Magic on the Walls’, pp. 15-38. Also, Matthew Champion’s blog, here, and the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey; and Brian Hoggard’s blog.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] See note i.

[viii] My collection of graffiti photos on Flickr can be found here.

[ix] Please contact me through this website if interested in more information on this building.

[x] Ibid..

[xi] See Matthew Champion ‘Magic on the Walls’, in Physical Evidence op. cit. (note v), pp. 15-38.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] See note ix.

[xiv]  For studies of deliberately concealed objects see in Physical Evidence (op. cit., note v): Brian Hoggard, ‘Witch Bottles: Their Contents, Contexts and Uses’, pp. 99-105; ‘Concealed Animals’, pp. 106-17; June Swann, ‘Shoes Concealed in Buildings ‘, pp. 118-30; Dinah Eastrop ‘Garments Concealed within Buildings: Following the Evidence’, pp. 131-46;  Timothy Easton ‘Spiritual Middens’, pp. 147-63. Also June Swann, ‘Shoes Concealed in Buildings, Costume no.30, 1996, p.56-69, re-published here; and see Ceri Houlbrook’s website, here, which discusses concealed objects in general; and Dinah Eastop’s website, which discusses concealed garments in particular. Also, Ralph Merrifield The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic (New York: New Amsterdam Books).



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s