A recent blog-post from Triskele Heritage’s James Wright debunks a widely circulated piece of lazy ‘common sense’ interpretation regarding the proliferation of carved grooves found around the cills and jambs of windows, on the walls, or in the porches of medieval churches. It is part of his ‘Mediaeval Mythbusting’ series: check it out here. It’s a great read.
Synopsising his argument, Wright notes how these grooves – long and thin and found in clusters upon the outside of medieval church buildings – have frequently been interpreted as incised whilst sharpening arrows for archery practice. Church guides often cite King Edward III’s command to bowmen to regularly practice in 1363. Local sources and ‘folklore’ are evoked in many guides that archery practice took place within churchyards.
Wright presents serious doubts regarding this hypothesis as follows:
- churchyards were almost always too small for archery practice;
- where records and place-names survive, there seems no close spatial association between archery butts and churchyards, so bowmen would not be necessarily practising close by;
- archers would carry a portable whetstone as an integral part of their kit;
- sharp arrows were not used in practice as they would damage hempen butts, so there would be no need to sharpen arrows repeatedly before, during or after practice;
- the geology of most church architectures makes them too soft, and thus impractical, for honing;
In search of alternative explanations for ‘arrow stones’, Wright look to evidence beyond England and Wales where different folkloric explanations are ventured, including ‘Devil’s claw marks’ and the marks of damned souls scratching, or bow-drills to light flames used in church rituals. Other sources suggest they relate to Christian magic, carving holes to expiate sins or extract stone dust with which to facilitate cures for ailments. Wright cites medieval devotional practices linked to the shrines of saints and the tombs of the holy where dust would be collected by pilgrims. Yet, as consecrated buildings, all church stones might be considered to have curative and other powers, Wright argues.
While some examples of ‘arrow stones’ are found on secular buildings and these traditions might survive beyond the Middle Ages, Wright argues such instances needn’t discount their association with medieval Catholic ritualised practice linked to the sacrality of the building and/or the perceived sacrality of the dust extracted in the process. So rather than folklores linking these grooves to patriotic and nationalistic military training, which Wright suggests convincingly might be a concoction of recent centuries, he therefore proposes a link with ‘ritualised folk medicine’.
What remains unresolved about Wright’s account (and is a subject demanding further research), is why ‘arrow stones’ are positioned around windows and doorways and not randomly distributed all over the church? In other words, I’d like to learn more about, is precisely where these grooves were carved, and whether some parts of church architecture were indeed more prone to use in this regard.
Moreover, how were they carved in relation to each other? If presumably the work of multiple generations of parishioners, are they simply imitative or is there some other significance to their proximity with each other?
Put together, I would suggest that if we wish to refine our understanding of the significance of arrow stones, we need a series of comparative surveys that identify patterns in their distribution as well as detailed analysis of their placing in clusters, plus their orientation, length and depth. Experimental work might also help to refine the range of possible acts and implements causing such marks.
Unless I’m mistaken, such work has yet to be done but it would make another fine topic for a pilot study for an MA/MRes student followed by a larger investigation by an MPhil/PhD student.
In short, if there are spatial patterns in where and how groups of grooves are laid out, and specific patterns in their scale, depth and orientation, this might help us build on Wright’s excellent critique towards a more specific interpretation. Let’s not discount this as incidental; these grooves are relatively commonplace but significant instances where we can access material traces of iterative (and imitative?) ritualised practices associated with the use of medieval churches by parishioners.
I haven’t visited sufficient churches to take forward these suggestions myself, and I’m happy to be corrected if I’ve missed research that has already explored the points I’ve made. Yet, as a humble addition to this discussion, I’d like to present an example I’ve long been familiar with, the church of St Michael, Shotwick, in Puddington parish, Wirral, Cheshire.
Now, in the porch there are a series of prominent vertical incisions into the stonework which are described as ‘knife-mark’ slots or ‘knife sharpening slots‘. The southern door is late 11th or early 12th century, and it seems that the porch is indeed considered to be contemporary or built not soon after. See the Historic England Grade I Listed Building entry here.
The New Red Sandstone of the building means that it was unlikely to be used to hone iron weapons or tools and so in this regard, this example bears out Wright’s arguments.
But what of the spatial arrangement? Nowhere else outside or in, except the porch, has traces of this practice. For the porch, no examples are know outside the porch and none appear to break or damage the elaborate Norman doorway, with its chequerwork, zizags and scalloped corbels. They are instead tightly concentrated on the stones above the benches on either side (west and east) of the porch.
From this we can conclude this practice was localised and specific for the church as a whole and within the porch in particular. Why might this be so?
First, if we take Wright’s route towards seeing this as linked to Christian ritual practice specifically, might it be worth musing of the somatic connection folks would have with such specific situations: the act of sitting in a sheltered place? If the act of carving and/or the extraction of stone dust for healing rituals was significant, does the choice to focus on low-down stones beside the back of seated persons have significance? In other words, was this location selected not only at a point of transition between the churchyard and church but also because these particular stones were physically proximal to particular elements of human anatomy for which curative stone-dust was sought: Bad backs!?
Second, we might think of the porch as a ‘liminal’ space in broad terms, sometimes a place of burial, and also a place of transition upon entering and leaving. This applies not only to casual visits and regular worship, but also liturgical processions and rites of passage including baptism, weddings and funerals. Might it also relate to its use as a space of repose: benches where folk might shelter from the rain or snow, talk and wait for services and rituals to begin? As such, long-term iterative practice which Wright suggests can be joined with a less ritualised interpretation: they relate to sitting and place-making: a simple form of graffiti that is neither religious not identarian; rather than a signature, motif or symbol, the grooves augment the stonework, recall your former presence and those of previous ‘waiters’, but merge your action with those who came before?
Third, might this relate less to the act of carving itself, but to the fact these are outside the main church door? Are these the acts of children or adults excluded from the building? So example, might certain people excluded from worship and Holy Mass (such as lepers and those suffering other ailments) find alternative ways to interact with the sacred building?
Fourth, there’s a further point to observe: whoever made them and why, the grooves do not intercut whatsoever; they are each separated by a clear distance and are of very similar length, suggesting a similar motion with whatever tool was used to carve them. I’d suggest this implies that they might have been created incrementally and in secret, but they were intended to be seen, witnessed subsequently by all entering or leaving the church and each mark to be discrete from the other. Rather than marks of repose or linked to curative ritual practice linked to extracting stone dust, do these marks relate to the specific actions of individuals or families, marking their church visits, almost like a tally chart for generations of families each with their own ‘mark’? In this scenario, everyone (or every family) had a discrete, adjacent groove that marked their visit or specific act.
A fifth possibility which also takes account of their discrete placement leads from this: might these be oath-stones? Were the church porches used as places where legal contracts and the exchanges of goods and services were agreed? If so, might the groove relate to the act itself by both sides of the agreement, ‘sworn’ on the church’s porch stones?
I leave it there, and while I’m sure some of these ideas are worthy of rapid dismissal, I raise them merely to identify how Wrights incisive critique leaves us with new lines of enquiry.