Medieval Graffiti & the Conquest of Bread

One of the many books I’m working on (will they ever be completed?) has a working title of Commuting and the Art of Revolution. Chapter five has the working title of Medieval Graffiti and the Conquest of Bread. The structure of the book is the commuting journey I did for several years and the stations along the way. It starts at Ramsgate (this is literary licence as my journey never started there) and continues all the way through to St Pancras. The basic theme of the book is to explore the concept of work and labour and how these have changed over time, particularly from the medieval period through to capitalism. And each station provides a hook on which to hang the tapestry of my story.

Ramsgate is a good starting point as Marx and Engels spent many holidays there, sometimes individually, sometimes together and at other times with their families. And Marx and Engels wrote a great deal about work. In Volume I of Capital there are chapters on The Working Day, Cooperation, The Division of Labour and Manufacture, Time-Wages, Piece-Wages, The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation (which is a result of the creation of surplus through the exploitation of the labour process). Engels wrote about the development of tool making, the influence of this on the development of the hand, and consciousness, language and society. Labour is essential in making humans; it is part of our species-being. If our labour is distorted and subject to oppression and exploitation and coercion then something will always not be quite right with us. And we will never be able to fully develop as people while these circumstances endure.

ANW Pugin lived in Ramsgate and while there designed and built his own house and church. He had ideas about art and craft and the relationship between machines and labour and the character of labour. He wasn’t against machines, he thought they were useful in providing power, in lifting large objects (particularly in construction) and so on. But he argued that machines should be tools of the workers and not the other way round. Pugin believed that workers should have skills and craft and that this should be the basis for a method of construction and design which was artistic and in which the building and its interior were harmonious and objects of beauty. He was a great influence on Ruskin, and therefore, indirectly but powerfully, on Morris, Lethaby, Voysey and so on.

There is a neat symmetry to Marx, Engels and Pugin all having associations with Ramsgate even if they were never there all at the same time. In 1848 Revolutions erupted all over Europe and Marx and Engels went to Germany to participate in the great struggles of that year. They also had a hand in stoking the initial fires through their extraordinary pamphlet The Communist Manifesto which came out in the February of that year. Pugin had elements of political reaction about him and feared what revolution might bring. While Marx and Engels called for ‘Workers of the World, Unite’, Pugin was drilling his servants on the lawn in preparation to fight on the opposite side of the barricades. But nonetheless, Pugin must be in this tale.

We shall skip Sandwich, Deal and Walmer for this brief essay and now get off this imaginary train at Martin Mill. It’s a walk of about 30 minutes from the railway station to St Margaret’s at Cliffe where the church is. One never shakes off the din and oily smell of motorism even if the detour across the fields is used.

St Margaret’s of Antioch is a large church of twelfth century origins. It’s possible it was built on a much earlier Saxon site and perhaps an earlier pre-Christian site of worship before that. There are mature yew trees in the church yard and as always the question is which came first – the trees or the building? The architecture and history of the church is well described elsewhere, but less well known, and more enigmatic, is the graffiti within.
There was a survey of the ships undertaken in the 1980s and there is a copy inside the church itself. Some of the graffiti appears to be relatively straightforward, for example several crosses carved into the stone. One would perhaps expect such markings in a church. But the why is more mysterious. Were they votive offerings? Thanks for a safe return after a long journey – perhaps a pilgrimage to Rome completed – or prayers at the beginning of a journey? Were they associated with the crusades?

The church has many detailed depictions of ships. Drawings of these were made and sent to the Maritime Museum at Greenwich as part of the survey. The museum staff confirmed that these were indeed accurate diagrams of particular types of ships of the 14th century. But ships and churches have many interfaces. The church is described at times as the ship which carries the souls to God. Were these diagrams painted by ship wrecked sailors? Or people who feared for their immortality?

There are at least two faint daisy wheels and another intricate patterned design. It is not clear whether they were the works of isolated individuals or created through a social process involving more people. These are symmetrical patterns with the sort of arcs and curves which are not the result of free-hand drawing. It was common in the middle ages for women to carry shears. These would be used for all sorts of things – including cutting the umbilical cord when a child was born. Do the shapes have any connection with childbirth, a dangerous event until quite recent times. The shapes are geometric so they could have been cut with shears. I wonder if anyone has ever tried to do this with a pair of shears – presumably made of iron – and some Caen stone.

Matthew Champion has written an interesting book about medieval graffiti and has done a great amount of work in helping to spark a nation-wide interest. There is graffiti in northern France and Asger Jorn wrote a book about it. But there is not that much else written about the subject and a great deal remains speculative. A personal theory is that some of the graffiti was done in times of great crisis, particularly during large plague epidemics. At such times perhaps the power of the church broke down, both physically (a lack of monks and priests who had died) and spiritually. And that these were relics of earlier, pagan times, or examples of folk-lore and magic, as opposed to religion. It’s a guess, but working on a guess is sometimes useful.

I was alone in the church for quite some time and became aware of the weight and mass of the building. The sensual character of the stone was intoxicating and sparked many thoughts as I ran my hands across its cool, rough surface. The stone is alive with the markings of chisels which turned the raw stone into clearly defined and measured objects. Here are the marks of those workers of 800 years ago. This is an excellent place to think about the labour process over time. In the stone, the wood, the glass, the way the roof has been constructed with different types of beams. The other question which has been puzzling me is whether capitalism might have started in the construction industries rather than within peasant farming?

I like the working title of Medieval Graffiti and the Conquest of Bread for it was a predominantly agrarian economy in the middle ages and the growing of food was the essential labour process for the whole community. But there were also skilled non-agricultural workers within that economy too. The conquest of bread is of course from Kropotkin who argued not for conquest of nature, but cooperation with nature. A process he describes as mutual aid. And there was a great deal of mutual aid within medieval production just as there is now. There has to be because nothing much would get produced at all without cooperation. It’s an inner contradiction of capitalism; a system based on violent competition which is completely dependent upon social cooperation. Therein lies a key; but how to use that key to unlock the door of the cage that imprisons us.

Cross on pillar inside St Margaret’s
Daisy wheel which needs to be re-photographed
Was this created by the use of a pair of shears?
Ship can be clearly seen – the platform at the front could be adapted for war purposes
Another ship with rudder clearly visible
Norman period door
Detail of door
The stone has an intoxicating quality
Stained glass window memorial to the Herald of Free Enterprise
House designed by Voysey in 1914 on top of the White Cliffs
It was over this area that the Battle of Britain was fought
Three ships owned by P&O Ferries who have just sacked 800 workers

It was a rewarding visit. And then at the end, as walking back across Fox Hill Down the three ferries in which 800 workers had just been sacked via a Teams meeting video link.

What we might think about England, and what England has become, are often conflicting things; yet another contradiction. And how might that be resolved?

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