Take a look at any pre-20th-century wooden beam, doorway or fireplace, and chances are you’ll see some form of markings. Most of these markings will have served practical functions, carved by carpenters, hewers, or merchants. Others may simply have been carved by idle hands, not unlike many of the initials scratched into school desks today: markings essentially serving the inclination to declare ‘I was here’. But there is another body of markings which are believed to have fulfilled a different function: the apotropaic mark.
Apotropaic markings, believed to protect buildings from evil or misfortune, can be seen in a variety of buildings and in variety of symbols: compass-drawn circles; VVs; hearts; diamonds; grid patterns; x-forms; and burn marks. These have been extensively surveyed by Timothy Easton and Matthew Champion (e.g. in Timothy’s article in the Weald and Downland publication (p.22ff); on the Medieval Graffiti website; and in their chapters in Ronald Hutton’s excellent book Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain), and I’d refer anyone with an interest in these markings to their work. But here are just a few examples that I came across while in Suffolk, arguably one of the most ritually-marked counties in Britain.
The first stop on my tour of Suffolk timber markings was the ‘Laxfield Door’: a barn door from Michaelmas Barn, Laxfield, kindly showed to me by its owner Michael Cole.
Again, this has been written about in detail by Timothy Easton (who very kindly referred me to it), but in brief it is a 19th-century barn door containing numerous compass-drawn circles, which Timothy describes as hexafoils. Why might these geometric patterns have been considered effective at warding off evil or misfortune? There’s no way of knowing. But clearly a lot of effort went into their making, so surely they must have served some function.
I interviewed the door’s finder and owner, Michael, and will publish this online soon, but for now it’s interesting to note that the perceived efficacy of these timber markings continues today: Michael’s wife is reluctant to let the door leave their home in case it does actually work.
The second stop: another 19th-century barn door at a farmhouse close to Laxfield. This one, which currently acts as an internal bathroom door, is described by its owner as ‘the witchcraft door’, and consists of a cluster of integrated circles.
Interestingly on the other side of the door there is some (probable later) graffiti: carved letters within frames. These look more akin to the graffiti we witness today: people leaving their marks by carving their initials.
The third stop, just up the road: The Royal Oak, a 15th-century inn.
Around the wooden fireplace are several markings, which an information panel outside describes as ‘witch marks…carved to keep witches away’. These markings are a little more ambiguous: two half-circles and two possible saltires. They may or may not have served any protective function but, looking at the fireplace, I spotted something else that has definite apotropaic origins. Can you see what I’m talking about?