Hidden Histories

16th Century carvings, Gazeley Church

In Gazeley’s All Saints Church, highly rare and unique wooden carvings survive in the chancel wagon-roof dated to around 1530 A.D. [1] Hidden out of sight, too small and far too high to be seen from the ground, they escaped Henry VIII’s iconoclasts who rejected images or objects of veneration as forbidden in the Bible. In fact, it was only during the extensive refurbishments in 2008-2009 that many of the mythical beings, animals and objects were clearly photographed for the first time. There are approximately 150 lozenge shaped panels butted up against each other forming a wooden patchwork across the chancels wagon-roof.

Mouth Puller. © Simon Johnson – Men Myths and Monsters.
A Satyr. © Simon Johnson – Men Myths and Monsters.

The recording of the creator’s great works in the book of beasts or bestiaries as they were known at the time in the Middle Ages was among the most popular illuminated texts in northern Europe. The bestiary’s images were the medieval equivalent of today’s memes, serving as “snapshots of particular animals that ‘went viral’ in medieval culture” according to Elizabeth Morrison, senior curator of manuscripts at the Getty [2]. The bestiary’s stories and images were so popular that medieval artists readily adapted and adopted them, building on its predecessor the Physiologus written in the 2-3rd C, a Christian text telling stories about the nature of 48 real and mythical animals and plants [3]. It was an opportunity for the reader to reflect, decode and understand God’s great work, where nothing had been created without purpose, with each creature supporting “the edification and instruction of sinful man” acting as “a kind of moral entity, bearing a message for the human reader.” [4]

Wyvern. © Simon Johnson – Men Myths and Monsters.
Sciapod. © Simon Johnson – Men Myths and Monsters.

The etymology of a word revealed something of its nature, therefore the terrestrial world offered an analogy of the heavenly, if one could understand this mystical correlation between the earthly and its divine archetype, between the created and the creator [5]. A good example of this is the ape, and there are two examples of this in the roof at Gazeley. Described in the Bestiary [4] the ape “are so called because they ape the behaviour of rational human beings. They are very conscious of the elements… however his backside is… horrible and disgusting… the devil has the same form” [4]. Whilst we might understand the narrative above, it can be more of a struggle when trying to interpret some of the mythical creatures depicted in the roof of Gazeley Church, such as wyverns which were two legged dragons, the satyr that was half man half goat, or the Cynocephali, a human with the head of a jackal. Similarly, the surreal sciapod, an unusual man-like creature that had only one ginormous oversized foot which is often depicted in use a sunshade (which no doubt came in very useful in their originating habitat of Ethiopia or as Pliney the Elder, the Roman naturalist (23 – 79 A.D.) believed India) and is one of only two examples recorded in the whole of Suffolk.

However, the image of an apes head may also be that of a Panotti [6], a race of monstrous people with oversized ears that covered their entire body and were used as clothing as well as supporting them in flight. Similarly, the image of what was considered a bird may also be interpreted as a Peridexion Tree [7], a popular image in medieval bestiaries that attracted doves who gathered for the trees sweet fruit where they were also safe from dragons.

Bird / Peridexion Tree? © Simon Johnson – Men Myths and Monsters.
Internal roof-space. © Simon Johnson - Men Myths and Monsters. 
The chancel wagon-roof. © Simon Johnson – Men Myths and Monsters.

Photography courtesy of Simon Johnson, and with thanks to Rob Pilsworth.

We highly recommend Simon Johnson’s excellent book about the medieval roof carvings of
Gazeley’s All Saints Church
‘Men, Myths and Monsters’.

Church of All Saints Gazeley. © Creative Commons.


1. Russack, R. (2019) The Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World.

2. Russack, R. (2019) Ibid.

3. Bond, S. (2019) Interpreting the Beasts of the Middle Ages.
4. Barber, R. (1993) Bestiary: MS Bodley 764: The Boydell Press, Woodbridge.
5. The Medieval Bestiary

6. Private correspondence, Prof. of Medieval English.

7. Johnson, S. (2021) Men, Myths and Monsters book. https://gazeleychurch.org/men-myths-and-monsters/