Guest Post: Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part One

Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a talk given by buildings archaeologist James Wright, of Triskele Heritage, on Medieval Graffitti. It was a fascinating lecture and thoroughly enjoyable – if you ever get the chance to go and hear James talk, I highly recommend you do. Anyway, chatting to James afterwards we got on to the topic of the many myths surrounding medieval buildings and James very kindly agreed to write a blog post for me. It is, in fact, a rather large topic – especially after James’ Twitter followers got involved – and so has turned into 2 posts. Part Two will be along next week, but here’s Part One for your delectation.

Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part One

James Wright, Buildings Archaeologist, Triskele Heritage

As a buildings archaeologist, I am very fortunate to have access to all manner of mediaeval structures, many of which are not open to the public. I feel a great affinity with these buildings, be they timber-framed houses, stunning parish churches or the castles of great lords, and sense a responsibility to let folk know about new discoveries using a wide range of media. There is simply no point doing archaeology unless you tell others what you have done!

Recently I met my friend, the author Sharon Bennett Connolly, after giving a talk on the mediaeval period. Whilst we were having a catch-up, the subject of popular myths about mediaeval buildings cropped up and Sharon asked if I would be interested in submitting a guest blog for this website.

During my visits to mediaeval buildings, the information relayed on websites, leaflets and guidebooks or by property owners, custodians and stewards is not always wholly precise. I want to use this blog to gently bust a few of the more common myths. There is rarely any malicious intent in such stories – they are usually the result of the misidentification of a structure by an early antiquarian, amateur or even professional historian. If something has been repeated enough times or put into print it becomes “real”. Once it becomes “received wisdom” the myth is widely taken as factual and repeated often.

So here are the first five of ten myths, associated with mediaeval buildings, and the (often more interesting) realities hiding behind them…

  • Secret Passages
Secret Passages, Ashby

Tales of underground secret passages are so common that almost every village and town have their own version. Usually the tunnel connects two rather contrasting, and faintly scandalous, locations such as the manor house and the nunnery or the priest’s house and the local pub! In my own home town of Stone, Staffordshire, there is a persistent rumour that a passageway linked the site of the twelfth century priory to Aston Hall.

The fact that the two buildings are over one and half miles apart, and that the intervening land is on the flood plain of the River Trent, never seemed to raise any scepticism when the locals of various pubs were discussing this! How would the presence of the passage be kept secret? Who paid for it? Why was it constructed? Where was the spoil put? How was it kept drained? The practicalities all seem rather insurmountable.

Although some sites do feature genuine tunnels, such as Strelley Hall in Nottinghamshire or Ashby Castle in Leicestershire, they tend to be both post-mediaeval in date and are relatively short in length. In both cases they offer access for goods and connect different buildings within a single complex. The vast majority of tunnel myths turn out to be simple drains when investigated. The origin of the story at Stone is probably related to the survival of a small section of a storage undercroft, from the priory, which is now the cellars of a much later house.

  • Spiral Staircases
Spiral Stair, Newark

Go and visit any castle in the land and you will inevitably find a guidebook, audio-tour, interpretation panel or tour guide stating that all spiral staircases twist clockwise to provide a swordsman’s advantage for the right-handed defenders, who were able to easily wield their weapons, whilst attackers would be at a disadvantage. I’ve spotted this being presented to visitors recently at both Arundel, Sussex and Colchester, Essex.

A brilliant survey of castle staircases, by Neil Guy of the Castle Studies Group, has demonstrated that, contrary to the myth, anti-clockwise spiral staircases were incredibly common. We can find them in the eleventh century at the Tower of London; twelfth century at Newark, Nottinghamshire; thirteenth century at Conwy, Gwynedd; fourteenth century at Carisbrooke, Isle of Wight and fifteenth century at Kirby Muxloe, Leicestershire. Many of these castles were built during periods of military activity such as the Norman Conquest or Edwardian invasion of Wales – yet they still feature anti-clockwise stairs.

Some castle gatehouses (for example, Tonbridge, Kent) feature two staircase turrets, one clockwise and one anti-clockwise. They seem to relate to a similar pattern of access in monastery and cathedral towers (such as St Alphage Tower, London) which may be “up” and “down” routes to avoid collisions and jams. Many castles, such as Richmond, North Yorkshire, even feature straight stair passages. Finally, sieges rarely ended with fighting in the interiors of castles, let alone on the staircases – if the enemy was on your stair the battle was probably already lost!

  • Burn Marks
Burn marks, Gainsborough Old Hall

Huge numbers of timber-framed buildings are littered with curious tear-shaped burn marks which are often over-looked by custodians and visitors alike. However, when attention is drawn to them, as in the kitchens at Haddon Hall, Derbyshire or on an upper floor at Tudor House, Southampton, Hampshire, they are usually interpreted as being scorch marks left by unattended candles, rushlights, tapers or lamps. Many buildings, such as Gainsborough Old Hall, Lincolnshire, are so riddled with burn marks that their occupants must have been so careless that it is astonishing they are still standing!

Instead, a great piece of experimental archaeology, undertaken by John Dean and Nick Hill and published by the Vernacular Architecture Group, showed that these marks were deliberately created. A tear-shaped burn mark is almost impossible to replicate by leaving a light unattended. They found that the only way to leave such a mark was to hold a taper at a 45 degree angle, a few millimetres away from the timber, for between 5 and 15 minutes. Many marks are also found in locations unsuitable for supporting lights – the backs of doors and window shutters – and few had associated evidence of how lights would have been supported.

Once it was realised that the marks were created deliberately, archaeologists mapped their locations and found that the vast majority were on timbers near doors, windows and chimneys. In the mediaeval period, these areas were widely believed to be vulnerable to malicious fires and invasion by evil spirits. Therefore many of the marks were possibly created as part of a tradition of magical house protection. By burning the timber a little bit it would drive away the threat of more significant damage. Equally, there may be other ritual purposes associated with burn marks that may be connected to prayer, devotion, healing or purification.

  • Leper Squints
Leper squints, Lewes

Many parish churches feature curious holes penetrating their walls which are sometimes identified as windows through which sufferers of leprosy (now known as Hansen’s Disease) could observe services. Considered to be contagious and deformed, lepers were literally suffering purgatory on earth, and were therefore discouraged from mixing with the congregation.

Although lepers were considered to be outcasts, they were regularly provided for in charitable hospitals (such as St Nicholas, Harbledown, Kent) which were located on the edge of towns or at crossroads.  Ultimately, they were not encouraged to enter regular communities and the provision of squints at parish churches is unlikely.

Location and form is key here. A number features identified as leper squints (for example at St Cuthbert’s, Aldingham, Cumbria) are very small square holes, on the exterior of the church, capped by a thin lintel stone. These are relict putlog holes – left behind by builders whose mediaeval timber scaffolding was physically bonded into the masonry of the wall during construction. At the end of the work, carpenters would saw off the timber flush with the wall and over time the wood would rot away to leave a hole. Alternatively, small, low down windows like the one at St Leonard’s, Wollaton, Nottinghamshire (which usually have evidence for shutters) were probably built to allow ventilation rather than cater to lepers.

Holes found internally, such as that at St Thomas Becket, Lewes, East Sussex, are usually at an oblique angle through the wall separating the aisle from the chancel. These are formally designed, sometimes elaborately decorated, hagioscopes. This feature enabled priests officiating at side aisle altars to be able to simultaneously engage with the main celebrant, at the high altar in the chancel, during the Elevation of the Host – indicating that the ritual bread was now the body of Christ.

  • Mason’s Marks
Masons marks, Warkworth Castle

Stone buildings were constructed by masons – often considered to be a secretive bunch given to various arcane practises. One tradition states that masons had their own individual symbol (such as the illustrated example from Warkworth Castle, Northumberland) which they would chisel onto a piece of stone, once it was finished, so that they could be paid for it. By finding these marks we may be able to trace the career of a mason as he travelled from site to site.

Although there are definitely marks on the walls of mediaeval buildings which can be attributed to stonemasons, the reasons for their presence has become a little scrambled. Firstly, masons were very rarely paid per stone (i.e. piecework). Mediaeval building accounts (such as those for Caister Castle, Norfolk) indicate that masons were paid weekly wages. Secondly, the simplicity of masons marks means that they get widely repeated. Identical examples to those recorded in the early sixteenth century Hospital of the Savoy, London, were also found in fourteenth century Strasbourg Cathedral, France; seventeenth century Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire and nineteenth century Canton Viaduct, America.

The marks left behind by masons were not necessarily specific to an individual. There was no register of such things and it is likely that they were assigned to either individuals or entire work-gangs just for the lifespan of the building project. When they moved on to a new site, new marks were distributed. On a particular project the marks would be used by foremen to account for productivity, ensuring that the required number of stones were cut during set time periods.

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I hope that you enjoyed this blog and that it will prove useful in trying to fully understand mediaeval buildings on your own visits. Part two of this series will discuss subjects including crusader graffiti and ship’s timbers in mediaeval buildings.

Should you wish for more information on this subject, please feel free to tweet me on @jpwarchaeology or email on james@triskeleheritage.com

I have to extend a huge ‘thank you‘ to James for such a fabulous article. Can’t wait for Part Two!

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©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly

8 thoughts on “Guest Post: Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part One

  1. Vivien Crooks 09/10/2019 / 09:17

    Thank you for James’ blog. I lived in Newark, Nottinghamshire for 28 years, used to visit Tattershall quite often too. I know live in a glorious medieval town in the heart of the Limousin, France. , called Le Dorat. Our house is 600 years old, with many quirky mediaeval features.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ky White 09/10/2019 / 13:05

    Really fascinating. Debunking the spiral staircase myth which I believed wholeheartedly was logical and fascinating. Looking forward to Part 2.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jean Setering 09/10/2019 / 14:20

    Thank you. Very interesting.

    Sent from my iPad

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    Liked by 1 person

  4. simplicity200 09/10/2019 / 16:44

    I have heard of several of these myths when visiting historical places. Thanks for the clarification!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Jacquelyn Carrell 11/10/2019 / 03:43

    I enjoyed this article very much. When we were at Conwy, I actually noticed the stairs and brought that very thing up to Mike about it’s direction! Love learning about the architectural archaeology of these medieval buildings. One reason I love Lincoln Cathedral so much. Thanks so much for allowing him to teach all of us, I gratefully learn something new everyday.

    Sent from my iPhone

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    Liked by 1 person

  6. David Cant 11/10/2019 / 09:36

    How about dealing with ‘ships timbers’ next time – plenty of scope? Thanks for an enlightening posts.

    Like

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