The Earliest Known Graffiti Tagger? A Medieval Poet

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Tagging prominent buildings is something of a tradition among British literary giants. Lord Byron’s name, carved with typical Romantic flair, graces the Temple of Poseidon’s ruins in Cape Sounion, Greece. Both Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott reputedly scratched their signatures into the glass windows of William Shakespeare’s birth home in Stratford-upon-Avon. And now a recent survey of ancient graffiti places medieval poet John Lydgate among the elite taggers.

Inside St. Mary’s Church in Lidgate, England, historians with the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey have possibly discovered the earliest known tag in English literature (see image here). According to BBC News, the Latin inscription translates as “John Lydgate—made on this day of St. Simon and St. Jude.”

Lydgate, who approximately lived from 1370 to 1450, was a devotee of the great Middle English poet Chaucer and a prolific verse-writer himself, receiving patronage from three successive kings of England. Lydgate also was a Benedictine monk and later a vicar of St. Mary’s Church. This motivates historians to speculate that Lydgate is responsible for other graffiti in the church, including a clever—and possibly romantic—rebus puzzle referring to a “Lady Catherine.”

According to the Graffiti Survey, authorities surprisingly tolerated graffiti on church walls at the time, and many surviving churches are loaded with it. Though it’s impossible to confirm that Lydgate created the St. Mary’s carvings, the circumstantial evidence is plenty strong.

Interestingly, Lydgate’s words definitely appeared on church walls in a different form. An artistic trend at the time involved incorporating poems into wall paintings or tapestries, and Lydgate provided verses for several such projects. Stanford University doctoral student Jennifer Eileen Floyd wrote her 2008 dissertation about Lydgate’s involvement in such “architectural verse.” The dissertation’s title? “Writing on the Wall.”

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