Mass Dials – a discovery of medieval graffiti in Stratford-sub-Castle
Whilst on a recording visit to an early-mid 18th century house in Stratford I came across a feature that I had not seen before, or to be clearer – I may have seen it before but presumed it was a faint daisy-wheel - an apotropaic mark seen inside and on the outside of houses throughout Wiltshire.
Daisy wheels are usually regularly divided with four or more pairs of petal-like scribed lines. They are thought to have been placed there to protect a building from bad luck and as a solar symbol, they ritualistically dispelled ‘darkness’.
High up on a corner stone of the building we thought we’d identified one of these daisy wheels when Peter Filtness, who had been recording the building with me, recognised it as a mass dial. I must admit I was completely mystified, not having studied churches much.
This was a scribed circle with what looked like a few randomly-scratched lines, not the chrysanthemum-shaped petals I was used to seeing. It was more like a sun-dial than anything, and in fact, worked in much the same way.
Apparently, without the aid of a clock, a priest was able to determine at what time to say mass from casting a shadow across the appropriate line with a straight rod acting as a gnomon in the central hole. Sounds simple!
The mass dial became known as a service dial after the Reformation, masses being Catholic. The principle of literally marking time was exploited generally and indicating mass times was only one of several uses of this clever device that was simply made up of a few scratched lines radiating from a central point. Obviously, they relied on daylight to cast the requisite shadow so had to be set on the south side of the church. They were also conveniently set at eye-level. Mass dials went out of use in the 16th century with the advent of the mechanical clock.
Some 3,000 of these dials have been recorded in the UK and no doubt there are others, like this one, which turn up in unexpected places on reused stone. The house we were looking at started life as a humble two- or three-cell farmhouse. There was an assumption that the very large and well-cut corner stones might have come from Old Sarum up the hill, but still, the haulage costs of such heavy stones would have been considerable. Why not use even more local material?
It was after a bit of research that it was discovered that St Lawrence church, just nearby, had its tower rebuilt in 1711. Was this after a collapse? It is not likely that we will ever be able to answer the question of where the stone might have come from except perhaps by divine intervention!
Wiltshire Buildings Record