”Graffiti” and the importance of wall marking in early modern England.

It is almost guaranteed that graffiti and the early modern period is the last thing anyone would think of associating together, let alone being forced to juxtapose. It is therefore quite an eye-opener when we establish that the practice of this literary art dates back much further than was previously understood and that our modern assumptions of what literacy compromises have simply limited our understanding of early modern history and practices.

Graffiti, the art of writing or drawing on surfaces, is beautifully explored in detail by Professor Juliet Fleming [1] or within J. S. Warren”s article [2], playing its solo role in helping 21st century us understand them. As touched upon in my previous blogs (see letters and petitions), although print and manuscripts are often sifted through by the receivers and institutions such as historical archives centuries later to ultimately only record the ‘best’ and often least ‘controversial’ of them, writing etched on walls was not so lucky in its preservation. Engaging with the available sources we can come to the conclusion that the said graffiti is often predominantly of secular origin [3]. From burial records to registers of important events that are primarily all located within the walls of past parishes or Churches, contemporary research such as that of Violet Pritchard tells us that in reality, the English were not afraid to use their literacy skills to draw and write within the walls of their own homes either [4].

Wall graffiti within the ‘painted room’, Ledbury UK. The painting illustrates floral and fruit symbols tied closely to the Virgin Mary in her Biblical interpretation and Queen Elizabeth I. C.1600s

Having said this, the photograph that has fueled the topic of this blog is a great example of this, showcasing a domestic setting of a 16th century ‘painted room’, located in what is now a museum [5]. The heavily painted plaster walls within, (all four of them!) present an array of symbols, portraits, signatures and writing, many of which had been drawn to depict Elizabethan era objects and places such as the knot gardens [6]. Upon carrying out a cross-comparison we can actually infer that many of these were an impressive attempt at an imitation of the wall hangings and tapestries that would be found in the homes of the aristocracy. This, by no means, implies that written expression of this kind was solely pinned down to a certain social division as, arguably, wall writing was recorded among the unleisured across a spectrum of social classes who would turn to chalk, charcoal or marking stones as a tool [7].

This brings us to a very important point over literacy within this period as it initiates the question of just how accurate the literacy statistics are, particularly given that they assume everyone wrote their signatures using a pen when some groups could do so with chalk rather than pen ink, completely diminishing them [8]. This opposes the view of historian David Cressy and many others who assumed that only one type of literacy was measurable and that was this ability (or inability) to write a signature, creating a limitation that overshadowed the reliability of any image of the early modern literacy [9].

Furthermore, it is important to also discuss the type of literacy that written graffiti such as the one at our focus within this blog, the photograph of the painted Ledbury office walls, goes to fall within. There are many categories early modern literacy splits into yet passive and pragmatic are the big two and most useful. With passive, meaning those who were able to repeat phrases learnt from the bible but who had little conception of what was meant by them, and pragmatic, with a range of literacies and the ability to write petitions or read letters. The writings on the wall in Ledbury could very well be pragmatic and link substantially to the research done by Professor Malcom Parkes who investigated how far early modern people used their literacy ‘outside of professional activities of everyday life’ [10].

The existence and preservation of early modern Graffiti, although an unconventional form of written expression to this day, helps us as 21st-century historians and scholars understand just how widespread the ability to write was but also opens up a debate on the true definition of literacy as well as the problems associated with wanting to measure and assess it, as pointed out by Roger Schofield [11]. I would like to argue that the ability to sign one’s name is not truly reflective of one’s education levels nor literary abilities because along comes what was coined as ‘functional literacy’ and suddenly comprehension of text and engagement are also included in the equation [12]. Furthermore, looking back at the Psalm 15 painting present among the others in that Ledbury museum, we can only assume that the inhabitant truly understood what he preached and that although he could sign legibly he was yet to be able to coherently express himself on paper [13].



[1] Ledbury Town Council ”Painted Room | Ledbury town council’‘ Ledburytowncouncil.gov.uk. Available at: https://www.ledburytowncouncil.gov.uk/en-gb/what-we-do/16th-century-painted-room [Accessed 5 January 2022].

[2] J. Scott-Warren,. ‘Reading Graffiti”. in The Early Modern Book. Huntington Library Quarterly, 73(3), (2010), pp.363–381. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1525/hlq.2010.73.3.363 [Accessed 5 January 2022].

[3] B. Stock. ”The Implications of Literacy. Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and twelfth Centuries”. Princeton University Press, (1983), pp. 80-89.

[4] V. Pritchard,. ‘English Medieval Graffiti.” Cambridge University Press, (2009).

[5] https://www.britainexpress.com/attractions.htm?attraction=3822

[6] D. Moss, n.d. ”16th Century Painted Room”. Ledbury | History, Photos & Visiting Information, Britain Express. Available at: https://www.britainexpress.com/attractions.htm?attraction=3822 [Accessed 6 January 2022].

[7] H. Adlington, D. Griffith, & T. Hamling,. ”Beyond the Page: Quarles’s Emblemes, Wall-Paintings, and Godly Interiors in Seventeenth-Century York’. Huntington Library Quarterly, 78(3), (2015), pp.521–551. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/hlq.2015.78.3.521. [Accessed 6 January 2022].

[8] Manyheadedhailwood, WordPress,. ‘The Rabble that Cannot Read’? Ordinary People’s Literacy in Seventeenth-Century England.‘ (October 13 2014) Available at: https://manyheadedmonster.com/2014/10/13/the-rabble-that-cannot-read-ordinary-peoples-literacy-in-seventeenth-century-england/ [Accessed 8 January 2022].

[9] D. Cressy, ‘Levels of illiteracy in England, 1530-1730’, Historical Journal, 20 (1977), pp. 1-10.

[10] M.B. PARKES, “The literacy of the laity”, in Literature and Western Civilization. The Medieval World, ed. D. AICHES and A.K. THORLBY, London, (1973), pp. 555.

[11] R. Schofield, “The Measurement of Literacy in Pre-industrial England,” in Goody (ed.), Literacy, pp.312.314

[12] W. FORD,. “The Problem of Literacy in Early Modern England.” History, vol. 78, no. 252, Wiley, (1993), pp. 22–33. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/24421790. [Accessed 8 January 2022].

[13] Ibid. pp.36

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