History hidden in plain sight

Christopher Catling, Contributing Editor for CA, delves into the eccentricities of the heritage world: from the rise of medieval graffiti, to measuring our life satisfaction.

Lived experience

Last month’s Sherds column asked the question: how do we find some way of articulating the real value of heritage – that is to say, its intrinsic value rather than its supposed economic value? Put another way, technocrats can work out roughly how much wealth the Beatles have created directly and indirectly since 1962. They cannot explain the much more important point, which is why their music has enriched our lives and had such a lasting and universal impact (for the Beatles, read Shakespeare, Bach, Mozart, or whatever your favourite cultural phenomenon happens to be).

Sherds has since come across two possible alternatives to the pounds and pence approach. First, there is the concept of ‘lived experience’, which we are hearing increasingly these days in the discourses around social justice. The phrase is attributed to the German philosopher Georg Hegel (1770-1831), who wanted to distinguish between knowledge gained by being taught something (music or Latin, for example), and knowledge that comes through the vicissitudes of life. Google Books Ngram, a search engine that charts the frequency with which words and phrases occur in publications, shows that use of the phrase has been on the rise since Simone de Beauvoir used ‘lived experience’ (l’expérience vécue) in The Second Sex (1949) as the basis for her analysis of the constraints placed on women by ‘patriarchal social structures’; since then, the number of references has rocketed.

The concept is controversial, on the grounds that people who lack ‘lived experience’ cannot fully understand what it is like to be black, gay, a woman, transgender, a victim of sexual assault or racial harassment, to live with disability, and so on. Those who lack that lived experience, it is claimed, therefore have no right to argue with or contradict those who have, or even to frame public policy on these issues.

But perhaps, shorn of its political connotations, there is a concept here that could be used to argue with the economists. They like big numbers and trends, and they dismiss as merely anecdotal and undiagnostic what researchers call ‘qualitative data’. Wikipedia agrees: just try adding something to a Wikipedia entry based on personal knowledge and you will attract a swarm of comments from editors demanding independent evidence in the form of a published citation. But if ‘lived experience’ continues to gain traction in the political sphere, perhaps Wikipedia and the economists will have to adopt new measures and new modes of thought.

Gross Domestic Wellbeing

And if we must have numbers, then a second possible answer comes in the form of a report from the Carnegie Trust, called Gross Domestic Wellbeing (GDWe): an alternative measure of social progress, which begins with an apt quotation from Robert Kennedy. In 1968, the same year as he was assassinated, Kennedy famously said in a speech given at the University of Kansas: ‘the gross national product does not… include the beauty of our poetry… the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile’.

The Carnegie Trust report recommends using Gross Domestic Wellbeing (GDWe) alongside Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to measure cultural impact. For some time now, the Office of National Statistics has been conducting a Survey of National Wellbeing. Participants are contacted at regular intervals and asked how satisfied they feel about their life, relationships, health, work, living conditions, finance, the economy, education, cultural activity, and the environment. The survey is just five years old, but trends are already emerging and it shows that, in the period up to 2020, GDWe had begun to decline while GDP was increasing. But since pandemic measures were put in place in March 2020, GDP has suffered while GDWe has gradually increased and feelings of anxiety have diminished.

One could speculate about the meaning of these trends and the disparity between them, but the Carnegie Trust’s main argument is that the government should commit to putting wellbeing at the heart of post-pandemic decision-making. And one of the cornerstones of wellbeing is participation in arts and cultural activity – one indicator that has, by necessity, taken a battering as a result of lockdown. Governments are quite capable of ignoring think-tank reports of this kind, but GDWe does at least give us an alternative measure that heritage advocates can begin to build into their attempts to show a clear link between culture and social wellbeing – the measure of life satisfaction and the feeling that the things done in life are worthwhile.

Cultural graffiti

By ‘culture’, Sherds does not mean something external – high art packaged and promoted to us for our own good. Culture is simply the product of what we do, and nothing illustrates this quite so well as our attitude to graffiti. Some celebrate graffiti as a form of demotic culture, while others deplore the way graffiti disfigures buildings and objects targeted by spray-can-wielding taggers. Banksy has made himself very rich with witty examples of the genre, and both Historic England and the National Trust now conserve and celebrate historic graffiti.

Hundreds of ancient graffiti markings – including dates, initials, coats of arms, and caricatures – have been recorded in St Wilfrid’s Church in Kelham, Nottinghamshire. Photo: Jules and Jenny, Wikimedia Commons.

England’s leading expert on medieval graffiti inscriptions, Matthew Champion, has taught us all to look for examples around church doors, on arcade pillars and walls, and on pews and choir stalls, though Sherds doesn’t think that church graffiti have yet achieved the ultimate accolade of a mention in any of the Pevsner Architectural Guides. Still, that could change, because the BBC and the Daily Mail recently hailed as ‘nationally significant’ the discovery of ‘hundreds of ancient graffiti markings’ at St Wilfrid’s Church in Kelham, Nottinghamshire. These consist largely of initials, dates, coats of arms, and caricatures, the oldest dated example being of 1730. Dr Judith Mills, ‘resident and historian’, was quoted as saying that it was ‘the sheer quantity’ that made St Wilfrid’s graffiti special.

Another find worthy of inclusion in Pevsner is the fine series of graffiti inscribed into the lead of the roof of St Clement’s church in Grainthorpe, Lincolnshire, recorded during Lottery-funded repairs to the roof in 2017. They included the relatively common outlines traced with a sharp point around hands and shoes, as well as seven sketches of ships. Chris Marshall, who compiled the catalogue, has linked the dates and initials to local builders, carpenters, and servants who now lie buried in the churchyard. Alan Gardiner of the Humber Keel and Sloop Preservation Society has been able to identify the ships as typical trading vessels – schooners, sloops, and ketches – that would have plied their trade in the Humber and around the Lincolnshire coast, including one identified as a Dutch tjalk, or sailing barge.

Hidden histories

One might ask why nobody had spotted the Kelham graffiti before, and the answer is that they are located on the lead of the roof and on the stone walls of the stair turret, where few people ventured. In that sense the graffiti can genuinely be described as ‘hidden history’, a phrase whose meaning often verges on the political – meaning ‘suppressed history’ or ‘history that we don’t want to acknowledge because it puts us in a bad light’.

The medieval wall foundations of the Bishop of Bath and Wells’ palace at Wiveliscombe, Somerset, were revealed during a recent excavation in a pensioner’s back garden. Photo: South West Aerial Surveys.

In reality, most of what is described as hidden history is really history we have always known but that has recently gained new significance and relevance. An amusing example of this truth is found in a recent media report, which said that the remains of a ‘long-lost 13th-century palace’ had been discovered in the back garden of a pensioner’s house in Wiveliscombe, Somerset. Substantial wall foundations, floor deposits, and 13th-century pottery had been uncovered by archaeologists working for the South West Heritage Trust.

From documentary records, it was known that John de Drokensford, Bishop of Bath and Wells, built or rebuilt the bishops’ palace in Wiveliscombe shortly after 1256; Bishop Drokensford (1309-1329) and Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury (1329-1363) both subsequently undertook major building works here. Much was made in news reports of the fact that the whereabouts of the palace had been lost when the palace, much robbed by local people for building stone, finally disappeared from view in the 18th century. Apparently, historians had been ‘baffled as to the palace’s whereabouts for 200 years’. Only at the end of the report was it revealed that the site where the medieval building was found is called ‘Palace Gardens’. Another perfect example of history being hidden in plain sight?