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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Marking and Remembering

Border stone in France between the communes of Nages, Murat-sur-Vèbre and Fraisse-sur-Agout - Fagairolles 34 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

My mother had a beaded belt, which I think she came into possession of during a childhood holiday in New Mexico. It was quite a beautiful thing, not very wide, with a simple bronze buckle, its edges bordered with entwined strips of pale leather, and its entire exterior decorated with an elaborate pattern of Native American motifs formed from tiny, colourful glass beads. It was an object that I loved for its beauty and feared for its use. I do not recall ever having seen it serve as a piece of apparel. Rather, it was the implement by which punishment was occasionally meted out. By the time I last saw it, I suppose around the time my mother died, it was no longer quite so beautiful. As a result of the function it had been given, not a single glass bead had survived.

In western society today, corporal punishment of children is condemned, and time will tell whether modern methods of parenting are better than those of the past. From my personal experience I would at least say that on the occasions that I received it, it was both well-intended and well-earned, and it was generally effective as a reminder of the possible consequences of inappropriate behaviour.

A ceremony known as “beating the bounds”, still occasionally observed in England, was conducted annually in the Middle Ages on Rogation Week (the week in which Ascension Day falls). It was important as a means of recording boundaries. It consisted of the parish priest, church wardens and the parochial officials making a formal perambulation of the parish boundaries leading a group of boys. Birch or willow boughs were carried with them and used to beat the boundaries, and on occasion the boys also were whipped or even violently knocked against the boundary-stones. The aim behind this last curious act was to traumatise the boys to the degree that they would never forget the experience and would never forget where it had occurred. Such a ceremony recorded in north Dorset in 1747 included cutting a great “T” on the principal parts of the boundaries and whipping of the boys "by way of remembrance".* This custom illustrates not only the sometimes callous use of children in medieval and post-medieval society, but the importance of identifying boundaries in an age when maps of the countryside, if they existed at all were inaccurate and lacked detail.

In 1212, King Leon I of Cilician Armenia granted the Hospital of Saint Mary of the Germans property in the Armenian kingdom around the fortress of Amouda, including villages and farmlands. The grant is not untypical of many land grants in the Latin East, the details of which are preserved in documents, but it is particularly rich in examples of the various objects that were used in order to identify property boundaries. Among the markers that it records are such items as an old water-trough (aquarium), willow trees, a rocky platform (rostrum de rocha media), caves, a tree called chaisne spinosa, vineyards (ager vine), meadows (pastores), a hill before which are 2 red bushes (rubi salvatici) a mulberry tree (arbor morarius) and a forked mulberry tree (arbor morarius furcate), a black stone, a fox hole (pertusus vulpis), a river named Iohan (Ceyhan), a church, a flat topped hill (turonum platum), a black stone, a ruined vault (arvoltus), a lake, a house, cross roads where there is a stone cross, stones resting on charcoal (mete petrarum fixe at subter carbones), a marble column and boundary stones with a stone crosses.**

Almost anything, it seems, could be put to use as long as it had a reasonable degree of permanency (one wonders, however, about the fox hole). Even where a physical marker could not be placed, a method was found to record a more-or-less precise boundary. A grant given in 1174 by the lady of Tiberias and her son to the Hospitallers, included ownership over water along the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee near Tiberias: “ far from the land as can be reached by throwing a small stone, weighing the equivalent of 20 besants (gold coins).”***

* W.E. Tate, The Parish Chest. A Study of the Records of Parochial Administration in England, Cambridge, 1946, pp. 73-74.

** E. Strehlke, Tabulae Ordinis Theotonici, Berlin, 1869 (reprinted in Jerusalem, 1975), pp. 37-9, no. 46; Reinhold Röhricht, Regesta Regni Hierosolymitani, Innsbruck, 1893, no. 859.

****Delaville Le Roulx, ed., Cartulaire générale de l'ordre des Hospitaliers de Saint-Jean de Jérusalem (1100-1310), vol. 1, Paris, 1894, no. 459; Regesta , no. 522.

A boundary marker near Tarphile in the western Galilee - photograph by Rabei Khamisy

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