Is it time for a break from all the serious discussion blog posts? I think it’s time.
So this week, we are talking about some of my favourite heritage-related things: inscriptions.* Gravestones and dates on houses, yes, but also the little notes added by people in the past that give you a glimpse into the past of someone else’s life.
First example! Witch marks: abstract symbols, or letters, known as ‘apotropaic’ marks because they were believed to provide protection against evil influences. They are usually found around the entrance points of old buildings in England, including doors, windows and, interestingly, chimneys – because why can’t evil influences get in with the rain and the odd lost bird?
In case you haven’t guessed by now, I like a bit of legend and supernatural history in my heritage. I love reminders that life has always been mysterious, that humans reach for small things to negotiate the illogical wilderness of fate: a horseshoe nailed over the door; touching wood; a geometric pattern so simple but so intricate that anyone could use it to confuse spirits that tried to enter their homes.
Want to know more? There’s a great blog post from the History Girls here.
Next up in the favourite inscription types? Graffiti on buildings **
Graffiti has a bad reputation – for vandalism, ugliness, and a general lack of middle-class respect for property. In the post-Banksy era, however, heritage and art scholars have taken an interest in the ways graffiti allows the residents or users of a space to renegotiate its ownership and control, and to express certain opinions or feelings through coded images. Famous graffiti works can even become tourist attractions, breaching the nebulous boundary between anarchic or anti-development action and popular capitalist accessibility – as in some of Berlin’s recently gentrified neighbourhoods.
Watch out for more on this coming up in heritage discussions in the next few years…
And last up, my favourite kind of inscription: book dedications!
For Christmas, for birthdays, school prizes, for yourself on a journey – is there ever a bad time to receive a book? And much as I love the crispness of new white pages, on of the great joys of second-hand books are the little insights into their past lives that come on the first pages, from the loving to the downright enigmatic. In the library at Hatfield House, a coffee-table book on Chatswork contains the lines ‘To Hannah and Robert, in memory of the extraordinary events of (a date in the noughties)’. It is signed off from Debo – author of the book, Mitford sister, and the Duchess of Devonshire who oversaw much of the restoration of Chatsworth – and Hannah and Robert are the Marquess and Marchioness of Salisbury. I have no idea what happened on that date, but I think we can agree that this copy of the book has developed a history of its own quite beyond its printed words.
What links all these three is that you get an insight into the thoughts and feelings of the people who held a book or stood in a spot before you. People the world over leave images or words on their surroundings as they make their way through the world, and generations later, their marks remind us of the wonderful complexity and similarity of the experiences we share with complete strangers.
* Yes, my favourite artefacts are words. I’m a historian, not a curator, ok?
** (And yes, I know that technically witch marks are a form of graffiti on buildings. Can we just agree not to mention it?)