The Display of Writing in Romanesque Sculpture and Architecture: Inscriptions and the CRSBI
John Higgitt, History of Art School of Arts, Culture and Environment University of Edinburgh.
Why should inscriptions be recorded in the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland? To try to answer that question I would like first to look at some of the roles that inscriptions played in the context of eleventh- and twelfth-century sculpture and architecture. I will then turn to the question of how inscriptions should be recorded in the Corpus.
In a context of limited literacy the public display of writing in architecture or architectural sculpture was a significant statement and one that raises interesting questions about literacy and audience. Who is speaking through these inscriptions? Who supplied the texts? What language was used? Who designed their lettering and layout on stone? Who read them? The significance of displaying written texts would not of course be the same in a literate community, such as a monastery, as in the more secular context of a parish church with a secular patron.
The tympanum at Hawksworth, Notts. (see fig. 1) is an example from the more secular end of the spectrum. The inscription accompanying the cross gives prominence to the local patrons. Their names precede the dedicatees of the church: GAVTERVS ET VXOR EIVS CECELINA FECERVNT FACERE EC[LE]SIAMISTAM IN ONORE D(OMI)NI N(OST)RI E[T] S(AN)C(T)E MARIÆ VIRGINIS E[T] OMNIVM S(AN)C(T)ORVM DEI SIMVL (‘Walter and his wife Cecelina had this church made in honour of Our Lord and of St Mary the Virgin and of all the saints of God together’). This is very much in the tradition of late pre-Conquest vernacular inscriptions such as that on the sundial at Kirkdale, Yorks. NR (see fig. 2). Most viewers would have understood such assertions of patronage and status, even if they could not themselves read. The important names, those of Walter and Orm son of Gamal, are given prominence at the beginning of the inscriptions.
This can be contrasted with the inscription on the lost tympanum of the Temple Church in London, which laid an ecclesiastical emphasis on the dedication,recording the year in which the ceremony took place, the names of the dedicatee and the officiant, the date for annual commemoration and an indulgence. Here, the name of the Virgin precedes that of the officiant.
The inscriptions accompanying Romanesque architecture and sculpture in the British Isles were not all records of patronage and of church dedications. There are maker inscriptions, such as the Robertus me fecits of Romsey or St Augustine’s, Canterbury, important assertions of status by craftsmen, if taken at face value. There are doctrinal statements, such as the verses at Dinton (Bucks.) advising anyone despairing of eternal rewards to listen in the church to what was taught there and to remember it (PREMIA PRO MERITIS SI QVIS DESP(ER)ET HABENDA | A[V]DIAT HIC PRECEPTA SIBIQVE SIT RETINSND[A] (sic for RETINENDA)). There are funerary inscriptions, with striking examples at Lewes and Old Sarum.Another important category consists of inscriptions that identify or amplify figure sculpture by labelling or glossing figures or scenes. Sometimes figures are simply labelled, as at Stoke-sub-Hamdon or on the fonts at Stanton Fitzwarren and Southrop, with their virtues and vices. At Ipswich a text in Old English identifies the scene: HER S(AN)C(T)E [M]IHA[E]L FEHT WIĐ ĐANE DRACA (‘Here St Michael fights against the dragon’), a formula already found in the eighth century on the Franks Casket (Her …), and, in Latin (Hic …), on the Bayeux Tapestry. There is perhaps a suggestion in this formula of the sculpture, or a literate intermediary, addressing an audience. On the cross at Kelloe (Co. Durham), the Latin words IN HOC VINCES (‘In this [sign] you will conquer’) are those heard by Constantine in a vision and they turn the cross-head into the visionary cross seen by Constantine from his bed in the scene below.
What was the impact of the Norman Conquest on the form and content of inscriptions in England? That must have depended to some extent on where and who you were. Two inscriptions from the reign of Edward the Confessor make an interesting contrast, reflecting diverse regional and social backgrounds in the years immediately preceding the Conquest. The Latininscription commemorating the dedication in 1056 of Odda’s Chapel at Deerhurst (Glos.) is sophisticated in its ‘classical’, perhaps Ottonian-influenced lettering and its use of the centre of the inscription and symmetries of layout to emphasize key names and words. The name of Aelfric, brother of the patron and the person for whose soul the church was founded, is at the exact centre of the panel and other key names and words are disposed symmetrically about the centre. This follows a rare and prestigious tradition used for the Carolingian court and harking back to the time of Constantine. I have picked out the key words in bold in the following transcription:
+ ODDA DVX IVSSIT HANC REGIAM AVLAM CONSTRVI ATQVE DEDICARI IN HONO RE S(ANCTE) TRINITATIS PRO ANIMA GER MANI SVI ÆLFRICI QVE DE HOC LOCO ASV(M)PTA E(ST) ALDREDVS VERO EP(ISCOPV)S QVI EANDE(M) DEDICAVIT II IDI BVS AP(RI)L(IBVS) XIIII AVTE(M) ANNO S REG NI EADWARD REGIS ANGLORV(M)
(‘+ Earl Odda ordered this royal hall (i.e. church) to be built and dedicated in honour of the Holy Trinity for the soul of his brother Ælfric which was taken up from this place. And Bishop Aldred [or And Aldred [is/was] the bishop] who dedicated it on the second day before the Ides of April (12 April) in the 14th year of the reign of Eadward King of the English.’)
The vernacular inscription around the sundial at Kirkdale (see fig. 2) is less cosmopolitan in lettering and design and, although far from hick, more representative of what survives. There is a similar emphasis on secular patronage and authority at the beginning and end of the inscription, the main part of which can be translated as follows: ‘Orm the son of Gamal bought St Gregory’s Minster when it was utterly ruined and collapsed and he had it built recently [or had it rebuilt] from the foundations (in honour of) Christ and St Gregory in the days of King Edward and in the days of Earl Tosti.’
The pre-Conquest traditions represented by Kirkdale did not die out overnight in 1066. The Old English text commemorating the building of the tower of St Mary-le-Wigford at Lincoln (see fig. 3) is probably to be dated after the Conquest. This is not as rustic as it seems. The text (‘+ Eirtig had me built [and endowed with property?] to the glory of Christ and St Mary.’) is set in the pediment of a Roman tombstone, a spolium perhaps symbolising Lincoln’s Roman origins. The text starts at the bottom of the pediment and ends at the apex, so that Eirtig’s name is, perhaps in humility, at the bottom and Mary’s at the top.
[MA]RIE O[F]E  S(AN)C(T)E N [C]RISTE TO [L] —V [.F]I[O…T.]— [+] EI[R]TIG [M]E LET [W]I[R.E]—
The tradition of setting building inscriptions onsundials seen at Kirkdale and elsewhere in Yorkshire survives into the early twelfth century at Weaverthorpe, although here the text is in Latin. The use of English, which was common before the Conquest, becomes rare after 1066. The dating of the St Michael panel at Ipswich is controversial but may be as late as the early twelfth century. On the other hand, two vernacularinscriptions in Cumbria certainly date from the twelfth century. These are, however, both in Norse runes and seem to reflect a strong sense of local identity and a pride in Scandinavian origins. The text on the Bridekirk font is in an early form of Middle English and has been translated as: ‘Rikard he made me and ... brought me to this splendour.’ Rikard is unambiguously the sculptor and depicts himself at work. At Pennington, the inscription around the angel with a cruciform nimbus on the tympanum is in a linguistic hybrid of Norse and English and may have meant something like: ‘Gamal built this church. Hubert the mason carved ...’ If so, it probably commemorated both patron and sculptor.
The lettering of inscriptions cannot normally be used to date them at all closely but it can be an interesting source of information on cultural contacts, as well, of course, as being crucial to the visual effect. Two of the earliest stone fonts in England are inscribed and there have been arguments about their dates since the nineteenth century, if not earlier. The splendid Latin inscription on the Little Billing, Northants. (see fig. 4) font commemorates the craftsman, WIGBERHTVS ARTIFEX, as well as referring to the use of the font in baptism. Its lettering would seem to me to fit a date around the middle or second half of the eleventh century, either side of the Conquest. The more refined lettering on the font at Potterne, Wilts. (see fig. 5) is probably, in my view, rather earlier, perhaps of the tenth century. Here, the Latin text quotes the baptismal liturgy: ‘As the hart panteth after the fountains ofwater; so my soul panteth after thee, O God. Amen.’
The lettering of some inscriptions, on the other hand, is clearly twelfth-century in date and can be thought of as ‘Romanesque’ in the stylistic sense. I am thinking in particular of inscriptions whose lettering shows close analogies with the display script of certain manuscripts. These use devices such as ligatures, the placing of smaller letters inside larger ones, and the interweaving of letters. Sometimes at least, such lettering may have been designed by a monastic or professional scribe. It is interesting that two English examples are on the tombs of patrons of Cluniac houses. One is the tomb of Ilbert de Chaz at Monkton Farleigh (Wilts.) and the other the tomb of Gundrada at Lewes (Sussex). Both are datable to around the second quarter of the century. We are dealing in these two cases with very high class lettering, finely designed and skilfully cut.
It would be good to be able to match up manuscript display script and inscribed lettering from the same monastery in order to test whether some inscriptions were designed and perhaps also cut by monastic artists. It may be possible to do this in the case of the Augusti-nian priory of Great Bricett (Suffolk), which preserves a battered inscription on its door-jambs and one of whose scribes tried, not very successfully, to write a fancy titulus into the mortuary roll of Abbot Vitalis of Savigny in about 1122. This, however, is not much to go on.
All the lettering we have seen so far, with the exception of Dinton, has been incised but I cannot omit a much discussed example of relief lettering on a small tympanum at Castor. What gets discussed is the date of the dedication that it records. Is it 1114 or 1124? I think probably 1124, with a ligature of two Xs. But I am not sure that the year-date is an original part of the inscription and the use of AD would be an oddity in the twelfth century. The year date, whatever it is, looks very much like an afterthought, although it was there by the time of the 1607 edition of Camden’s Britannia.
I have only touched on one or two aspects of eleventh- and twelfth-century inscriptions in England. I have said nothing about the very interesting Irish inscriptions of this time or the small number of examples elsewhere in the British Isles. But I hope that I have said enough to show that inscriptions were an important contributor to the meanings of the monuments on which they appeared and, similarly, that they contributed to the visual effect. A sculptural corpus that did not take account of inscriptions would be incomplete. It is particularly important that we take the opportunity provided by the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture to record eleventh- and twelfth-century inscriptions in the British Isles because, for most of the British Isles, there is no corpus of inscriptions covering this period. We have no equivalent to the volumes of the Corpus des inscriptions de la France médiévale or Die deutschen Inschriften, covering Germany and Austria. Many of the inscriptions in the British Isles are therefore little known and, like the sculpture, under threat from weather, vandalism and theft. The Corpus can play an important role in preserving inscriptions through recording them.
At the end of this article there is some adviceon how to record inscriptions for the CRSBI withconventions for transcription, which follow the conventions used by the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture. This is followed by a short bibliography of books and articles which may be helpful.
In recording inscriptions it is also important to give references to early photographs and drawings of the inscriptions, which may well show more than now survives. The Corpus should also note lost inscriptions, such as that at the Temple Church in London or the fine lettering of an inscription found in Southwark in the eighteenth century.
In some cases recording the inscriptions will be straightforward. In others, it may be more problematic. I am happy to try to offer advice. Your record of inscriptions in your area does not have to be the last word in epigraphic description. Even a partial record, with photographs, and a basic description will be extremely valuable.
Recording inscriptions in the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland
The record of an inscription should consist of the following: photographs – and side lighting usually produces the best results; a transcription of the text as it appears on the stone; an edited version of the text (with abbreviations expanded etc.); a translation; description including:
- location (position on monument, ormuseum accession number etc.)
- dimensions of inscribed area (if accessible)
- height of letters (if accessible)
- technique of cutting (incised or relief lettering)
- style of cutting (modelling of letter strokes, serifs etc.)
- condition (evidence of recutting?)
- a bibliography.
The best way of preparing a transcription and of noting letter forms is to make a sketch of the inscription with notes of condition of damaged letters etc. The following conventions will be used in transcriptions (if, as in about three cases, the inscription is in runes, I can advise on the system of transliteration to be used):
|AB||letters legible and undamaged|
|[AB]||letters damaged, reading certain|
|[AB]||letters damaged, reading uncertain but probable|
|[.], [. .], [. . .] etc.||one, two or three letters damaged and illegible|
|[—]||uncertain number of letters damaged and illegible within line of lettering|
|—||gap of unknown length at start or end of line|
|– — A, AB||abbreviation marked by bar etc.|
|:||mark of punctuation; point or points used to separate words|
|A/B||letters linked in a ligature|
|<AB>||letters omitted in error andinserted by stone carver|
|║||interruption of inscription by zone of ornament|
- Bond, F., Fonts and Font Covers (Oxford 1908, reprinted London 1985), 107–17.
- Favreau, R., Epigraphie médiévale, L’atelier du médiéviste, 5 (Turnhout, 1997).
- Higgitt, J., ‘Recording inscriptions on stone’, Newsletter of the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Bri-tain and Ireland, 5 (1994), II–IV.
- Higgitt, J., Forsyth, K. and Parsons, D.N. eds., Roman, Runes and Ogham: medieval inscriptions in the Insular world and on the Continent (Donington, 2001).
- The Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, general ed. R. Cramp (1984– ).
- Higgitt, J., Odda, Orm and Others: Patrons and inscriptions in later Anglo-Saxon England, Deerhurst Lecture 1999 (Friends of Deerhurst Church, 2004).
- Okasha, E., Hand-List of Anglo-Saxon Non-Runic Inscriptions (Cambridge, 1971).
- Okasha, E., ‘A supplement to Hand-List of Anglo-Saxon Non-runic Inscriptions’, Anglo-Saxon England, 11 (1983), 83-118.
- Okasha, E., ‘A second supplement to Hand-List of Anglo-Saxon Non-runic Inscriptions’, Anglo-Saxon England, 21 (1992), 37–85.
- Page, R.I., An Introduction to English Runes, 2nd edn. (Woodbridge, 1999).
- Nash-Williams, V.E., The Early Christian Monuments of Wales (Cardiff, 1950).
- Macalister, R.A.S., Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum, 2 vols (Dublin, 1945, 1949; 2nd edn of vol. I, Dublin 1996).
- Okasha, E. and Forsyth, K., Early Christian Inscriptions of Munster: a corpus of inscribed stones (Cork, 2001).
- Corpus des inscriptions de la France médiévale (1974– ). Die deutschen Inschriften (1942– ). Letter Forms
- Deschamps, P., ‘Étude sur la paléographie des inscriptions lapidaires de la fin de l’époque mérovingienne aux dernières années du XIIe siècle’, Bulletin monumental, 88 (1929), 5–86.
- Gray, N., A History of Lettering: creative experiment and letter identity (Oxford, 1986).
- Higgitt, J., ‘Epigraphic lettering and book script in the British Isles’, in Koch, W. and Steininger, C., eds., Inschrift und Material/Inschrift und Buchschrift: Fachtagung für mittelalterliche und neuzeitliche Epigraphik Ingolstadt 1997, Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Klasse, Abhandlungen, neue Folge, Heft 11, Munich, 1999, 137–49.
- Kingsford, H. S., ‘The epigraphy of medieval English seals’, Archaeologia, 79 (1929), 149–78.
- Okasha, E., ‘The non-runic scripts of Anglo-Saxon inscriptions’, Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, 4 (1968), pp. 321–38.