Saturday, 2 January 2010

The Margins of Medieval Art: Wiggenhall, Norfolk

Garogoyle, St Mary the Virgin, Wiggenhall

Medieval marginalia is an academic term for all the lude gargoyles, masturbating sheila-na-gigs and the everyday scenes depicted on the margins of medieval buildings, manuscripts and furniture. It is not a popular subject for serious minded medievalists, but there are many pioneers in the subject who every so often change the way we look at the past. One of those was Michael Camille. [1]

Camille revealed that marginalia wasn't simply 'unconscious scribbling', which had hitherto been thought, but rather a critical commentary on religious orthodoxy, social conventions, national politics and regional problems. Sometimes marginalia wasn't critical at all, but an 'aide memoire', by using rude puns to learn the lengthy psalms. Or marginalia could help the religious tone, reminding people what sin actually looked like. One of the most famous subjects of Camille's analysis was the Luttrell Psalter, which has some of the finest works of mid-late medieval marginalia.

Hybrid beasts from ancient Greece used for memorising text: The Menticorn and Cockatrice depicting the fear of lying tongues mentioned in the above Psalm 109, in The Howard Psalter - a medieval Wiggenhall book.

Historically, this was a new development and which presented the Middle Ages as something which could be culturally complex, humorous and really quite odd - almost totally foreign. So I wanted to find out what medieval life was like on the margins and how this was depicted culturally; in a book, building and on the furniture. I looked through various medieval manuscript directories to find a medieval book which had some marginalia and where the provenance was known.[2] I then flicked through numerous Pevsner guides to see if the original location of these manuscripts had something physically which matched the book roughly in date and aesthetics. This was a tall order as there is so much which is unknown and lost about the past - take the relative lack of medieval church relics in London compared to Norwich as an example. But I eventually found that the best location for this was the village of Wiggenhall, north west Norfolk - five miles south of Lynn on the Great Ouse. Here was a group of mid-late medieval churches (c13 - c16), with late c15 early c16 wood carvings, an early c14 manuscript and a set of early c14 documents.

Looking south along the Great Ouse from the tower of Wiggenhall St Germans - notice how the river is higher than the fields.

The small township of Wiggenhall St Germans

This is still today a very unique and marginal village, partly due to its location in the flat marshlands of the wash; an endless horizontal horizon where an overbearing sky meets a grid of black peat, green growth, drains, roads and more drains and more roads. In his novel Waterland, Graham Swift wrote a number of observations about the region:

"Every fenman suffers now and then that the land he walks over is not there"[3]

Maintenance work on a drainage sluice, Wiggenhall

Wiggenhall St Germans and the River Great Ouse from the North

For a complete history of the area there is none better than H. C. Darby's work, [4] as Darby carefully charted (and with good prose) how the region grew in the late Middle Ages after the land had been reclaimed from the sea. This process was accentuated in the seventeenth acentury when the region was drained and enclosed by the Dutchman Cornelius Vermuyden. This created an agricultural powerhouse for the monarchy and aristocracy but with a major environmental drawback: the flat fens were in constant danger. Firstly from freshwater flooding, which meant fresh water coming from the Midlands had to be pumped out to sea, which sinks the landscape to below sea level. This is dangerously exacerbated by the second problem: the constant threat of salt water flooding. On television, Jonathan Meades presented a contemporary vision of the location's clear relationship with the Netherlands: a modern depopulated and highly industrial agriculture sinking ever deeper and perhaps one day into the sea. But despite also being a byword for all that is backward and incestuous, this region is almost unique in the sheer number, scale and detail of its mid-late medieval architecture:

"The hundreds of churches are trying hard or not so hard to keep going. Churchyards grow crops of nettles unmatched in their profusion. Struggling vicars rush in their second hard cars from one of their churches to the other to arrive in time for the next service. Their congregations are small and scattered and often live away from when the church was built, long before the black death or an improving c18 squire had removed the original village. There is plenty of change and disturbing change under the grandiose, ever-changing and yet eternal East Anglian sky." [Pevsner]

Wiggenhall St Germans

Wiggenhall St Peter

Wiggenhall St Mary the Virgin

Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalen

Wiggenhall is unique in that it is a village with four large medieval churches; St Germans, St Mary the Virgin, St Mary Magdalen, and the ruin of St Peter. Medieval churches are a good barometer of town's wealth at that time; Norwich had about 30, London had nearly 100, while Nottingham had only 3 and Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester had even less. So for a village to have four medieval churches is quite something. Another barometer of wealth are tax records, which reveal that the Hundred of Freebridge Marshland was the most wealthy region in Norfolk, partly because this is a landscape which contains some of the most fertile soil in England.

A map of late medieval wealth in Norfolk , from H. C. Darby 'The Medieval Fenland'

According to Pevsner, the medieval benches of Wiggenhall St Mary and St Germans are the best in Norfolk.[5] Benches from this period are very rare, as most people in the Middle Ages would have experienced going to church while standing or sitting on a stoney cold (though straw strewn) floor. The weakest went to the wall. These benches are sometimes complete with central depictions of saints, though this is contrasted with the crude marginal carvings of beasts and medieval sinners.

Bench ends from the front showing various creatures from the Greek Bestiary

Bench ends from the back - you can just see a sinner in the mouth of hell

Ibis and Dragon

Many of these mythical beasts were taken from the bestiary - a series of ancient animal tales which originated in ancient Greece, but were often appropriated by the medieval church to interpret Christian stories which may have had a relevance to certain parishes. Take the above image of the Ibis, a creature which appears three times in the Wiggenhall churches. This was a creature that was given a mythical story about how it lived close to the water's edge and fed on dead creatures and eels because it was afraid to enter the water.[6] In the late Middle Ages Wiggenhall was frequently flooded by changes in the course of the Great Ouse.

Old course flowed past Wisbeach - new 14th Century course flowed past Wiggenhall and Lynn. From H. C. Darby 'The Medieval Fenland'

That diversion from Wisbech to Lynn in more detail

In the Norfolk archives are a series of fourteenth century records for the draining and embanking of the Great Ouse at Wiggenhall.[7] This was a place which like the Ibis lived dangerously close to the water's edge, with frequent floods and a constant need to embank and create new drains to control the flow of water. Beasts in the Middle Ages were often used to personify weather and landscape.[8]

St Germans butresses: supporting a church built on reclaimed land

In the Howard Psalter - a manuscript which was made for use in the church of St Germans in Wiggenhall - there is a more 'everyday' graphic interpretation of life in the late medieval marshlands.[9] This was religious book commissioned by Lord Howard (a descendant of the infamously powerful Dukes of Norfolk) - for the religious well-being of his church, which as Lord of the Manor, he was expected to maintain.

The Howard Psalter f.14

The Howard Psalter f.14 (detail)

The above image shows a fowling scene, which was a major industry in medieval Norfolk and an important part of the local diet. Thomas of Ely wrote in the twelfth century:

"At mid winter, or when the brids moult their quills, I have seen them caught by the hundred, and even by the three hundreds, more or less. Sometimes they are taken in nets and snares as well as by the bird-lime."[10]

The fowling scene in the Howard Psalter shows the use of birdlime which lured the birds in to sticky pole using an owl as a decoy. This is mentioned in the thirteenth century English poem, 'The Owl and the Nightingale':

"In woodlands where the boughs grow thick
To help hunters lure, then snatch,
The little birds they like to catch" Lines 1625-1628 [11]

Why a local bird hunting scene? Birds have a long association with thoughts and memories because it was believed that birds like memories, needed to be hunted down and stored in a cage or a coup.[11] The Middle Ages was a highly mnemonic culture. The Bullfinch and the Jay illustrated on the right of the page are 'notable and ear deceiving mimics',[12] who like the medieval reader learned their psalms through imitating songs and the chattering of others. It is interesting that the very locality of the reader was also seen as an important aide memoire.

The Howard Psalter f.40 v (detail)

Another important local connection is the dipiction of an ape with an eel spear on folio 40 v. There are a number of different eel speers in the Wisbech museum with a similar design. Eels were another important part of the local diet and the area is synonymous with the creature, Ely taking its name from the Old Anglian language meaning 'Eel district'.[13] In the English vernacular 'apes and owls' was a common analagy for the absurd and is featured in medieval literature such as Chaucer's The Nun's Priest's Tale:[14]

"For visions are but fantasies and japes.
Men dream, why, every day, of owls and apes"


[1] M. Camille, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (London, 1992).
[2] L. F. Sandler, Gothic Manuscripts. A Survey of Manuscripts illuminated in the British Isles 1285 - 1385 vol. II (Oxford, 1986).
[3] G. Swift, Waterland (1983).
[4] H. C. Darby, The Medieval Fenland (Cambridge, 1940). See also, H. C. Darby Draining of the Fens (Cambridge 1969).
[5] N. Pevsner, North West Norfolk (London, 1962).
[6] M. W. Tisdall, Gods Beasts: Identify and understand animals in church carving (Plymouth, 1988), p. 148.
[7] Owen, A. E. B., The Records of a Commission of Sewers for Wiggenhall 1319 - 1324 (Norwich, 1981).
[8] W. Cahn, 'Medieval Landscape and the Encyclopaedic Tradition', in Contexts: Styles and Values in Medieval Art and Literature (Yale, 1991), p. 13.
[8] The Howard Psalter British Library MS Arundel 83 I (c.1310)
[9] Thomas of Ely, 'Liber Eliensis, p. 232, cited in Darby The Medieval Fenland, p. 36.
[10] B. Radice, (ed.), The Owl and the Nightingale / Cleannes / St Erkenwald (London, 1988), p. 238.
[11] M. J. Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge, 1992), p. 246,
[12] R. Jellis, Bird Sounds and their Meaning (London, 1977), p. 179.
[13] The English Place-Name Society A Key to English Place-Names (Nottingham, 2009).
[14] C. L . Shaver, 'Chaucer's "owls and apes"', in Modern Language Notes (Oxford, 1943, p. 105 - 107.


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