Searching for the Invisible Past in the ‘Vivid Present’

Searching for the Invisible Past in the ‘Vivid Present’

“That vivid present of theirs, how faint it grows! The past is only the present become invisible and mute; and because it is invisible and mute, its memorized glances and its murmurs are infinitely precious. We are tomorrow’s past.” Mary Webb, (Precious Bane, 1924)

Horse & riders scratched into wooden screen in the west gallery, St Catherine’s, Tugford, Shropshire.

I am interested in the social and historical context of folk traditions. This may be difficult, if not impossible to determine yet the history of people who kept tradition alive is an integral part of my folklore research. Over the centuries generations of ‘ordinary’ people, the commoners, peasants, craftspeople, singers, storytellers, everywoman and everyman, left little evidence of their life’s passage. Just occasionally, if we look very hard, it is possible to find a few traces of them and one of the best places to discover these ‘authentic remnants’ (apart from archaeology, of course) is in our ancient churches. It should be born in mind that war and demolition, rebuilding and, more recently, ‘renovation’, have obliterated much original structures taking with it any evidence such as early graffiti or ‘protection marks’.

Why churches? How can these buildings relate to our understanding of people and their traditions?

Greatly. The local church is the most common survivor of medieval architecture and most likely to contain evidence, however small, of the people who worshipped and worked there.

They are a time capsule.

Our distant medieval ancestors left little behind, especially those without title or connection. Many couldn’t write but we may catch a glimpse of an individual through a carving, a symbol, an initial in wood or stone. Each mark had a significance to its creator, referencing trade, war, grief, joy, death, prayer, a protection against evil or a memorial to a loved one. Or maybe they were bored. Maybe they were just passing time like perhaps the person who scratched into life the horse and riders pictured at the top of this page. These fabulous images appear randomly in the west end gallery of a Shropshire hill church.

C12 Heath Chapel, Shropshire. This tiny chapel stands alone, in a field, its village long gone. A favourite of Prof Mary Beard it has remained largely unaltered for centuries

The church is also usually the oldest building in any settlement. It had to roll with many changes, adapting accordingly for a thousand years, sometimes more. As the heart and centre of village society it was linked to a large creative hub pertaining to the great ecclesiastical institutions which exerted influence over the populace but who, nonetheless, found other ways to express themselves throughout the turning year.

Many ‘folk’ traditions were, and still are, linked to seasonal changes along with spiritual hope and need. The importance of weather, a healthy mind and body, food and fertility are reflected in customs that rolled with the passage of time under the watch of old gods and later saints who mediated between heaven and earth.

Written works by scribes capturing accounts tales of land won and deeds well done now rest in our great libraries, the traces of the laity rarely survived the ravages of time and intolerance. Those that do are subtle, whispering amongst the tombs, carved into the wood, scratched onto stone.

Dissolution and Reformation had a massive effect upon church and culture. Inevitably they had a lasting impact upon customs with associations to religious festivals and celebrations. With the symbolism and ritual of the medieval period altered or redundant, the church no longer held power and awe over the local populace. Subsequently most traditions either adapted or died out.

Lych Gate, C15th, St Michaels, Bockleton, Worcs

For example, even the act of entering the grounds would have been loaded with meaning and anticipation. To enter the churchyard involved crossing a physical boundary from a secular into a spiritual place. This boundary was marked by the ‘lychgate’ (lych, from Old English for corpse). Here a body would rest waiting for burial, being watched over until the priest came to take it for burial along the ‘lychway’. Some ‘lychgates’ survive today, a reminder of different times and experience of past belief.

Reminders of earlier churches may be found incorporated into existing structure: a piece of Romanesque sculpture, a mass dial etched in stone, a faded wall painting of saints and sinners or an ancient stoop at the entrance, once blessed with holy water. A church in Wiltshire is built on an ancient site thousands of years older endorsed by ancient sarsens still visible through trap doors in the floor boards.

While landowners and gentry left behind their grand tombs, records of almsgiving and so on, the ordinary people with little material wealth had little to leave. Every time I pass through a lychgate, walk over a common towards a chapel, a church, a ruined monastery, I look for them. And, just sometimes, I find them in a symbol carved into a pillar, a drawing or date carved into stone. This is why churches feature strongly in this blog: the congregation and workers are a very ‘present’ connection to a very ‘invisible past’, a connection, if somewhat flimsy in part, to early keepers of tradition. A moment in time is encapsulated in that ‘vivid present’ when a person made their mark and again when we encounter it centuries later for the first time.

‘W’,’W’ & ‘I’, ‘K’, 1700, carved across a beam at Clee St Margaret’s church, Brown Clee, Shropshire; initials or protection marks.

Boats, horses, windmills, initials, protection marks, ‘Marian’ marks, imps, demons, gameboards, memorials, masons marks and more may be found in the naves, bell towers, pews and especially around doors and windows in the parish church. Much has been damaged or painted over. That which does remain should be treasured as a viable connection to the voices of the past even if we cannot fully understand meaning or relevance.

Like so many I am horrified at the war against the land and people of Ukraine. I visited the Ukraine almost forty years ago and it had a lasting impression on me. Churches figured highly on our itinerary, almost overwhelming in their opulence and beauty whilst exuding a sense of the land and its peoples history. Sadly my photographs of the churches didn’t come out (it was the 1980’s; for those of you not around then photography was a very hit and miss affair). So, I am posting my photograph below of the WWII War Memorial in Kiev in tribute and in hope for the people of the Ukraine.

How will history judge our turbulent times? With the present recorded, bound in film and newsreel, our descendants will face the challenge of interpreting and determining fact from fiction as todays historians sift through the dust and grime, physically and metaphorically, of the past. How will the physical remains we leave behind tell our story? Today the present becomes the past in lightening time as we leave our ‘mark’ using technology and social media. Truth, and untruths, spread rapidly. They can be saved and stored, often very publicly, sometimes with devastating results.

Ancient stones may hold clues but they also hold secrets never to be told. I wonder, will the future be able to understand us anymore clearly than we do ancestors, when we have become ‘tomorrows past’ ?

War memorial Kiev, Ukraine 1982

(All photos my own)

For more on church graffiti visit

Medieval Graffiti by Matthew Champion, Ebury Press, 2015

Magical House Protection by Brian Hoggard, Berghahn Book, 2019

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