On Possession and Proof of Ownership
Updated: Jul 25, 2019
A child holds his father's hand under a night sky with a crescent moon high above. The child is pointing up at the moon. Underneath this drawing is a caption recording the child's words - "I want!" This illustration, which I once saw, but do not recall where, appears to have been modelled on a 1793 engraving by William Blake showing a small figure actually beginning to ascend a tall ladder that reaches all the way up to the moon, and making the childish declamation: "I want! I want!" The modern version seems to me to be even more effective than that of Blake, perhaps because the lack of a ladder shows the child's desire to be even more unreasonable. In any case, it sums up the very essence of what must be the most profound of human traits, the one that lies behind all human advancement, but also, behind most disputes and uncountable tragedies throughout history - the need to possess.
Crusader graves have almost no grave goods. The few fragments of pottery recovered in the cemetery at 'Atlit may have been bowls placed on the tombstones. It would seem that in Frankish society the realisation that "you can't take it with you" was well understood. But for the living, property was as highly regarded as in any society. Beyond chronicles and pilgrimage accounts, most written source materials that survive from the Latin East consists of deeds of purchase or sale, records of gifts and grants and notarial lists of possessions belonging to a particular institution. From such sources it is possible to observe the progressive expansion of military order holdings in the towns and countryside, and the vicissitudes of baronial land holding. We can follow the activities of the military and ecclesiastical orders and the crown, in establishing Frankish rural settlements, and we can observe in great detail the extent and nature of properties held by the Italian merchants in Acre and Tyre. We can also get a sense of the types of properties private individuals held, whether noble or burgess in a town, or peasant in the countryside.
There is also a physical manifestation to the possession of property that can be observed at various surviving monuments and archaeological sites. In the central market street in Jerusalem, a street with the illuminating name Rue Malquisinat - "Street of Bad Cooking" which was presumably where pilgrims purchased what today we refer to as "junk food", there are a number of shop facades that still display evidence of their twelfth century owners. Among these, perhaps the most interesting are inscriptions carefully carved in large letters at eye-level on either side of shop openings - on one side "SCA" (abbreviated for SANCTA) and on the other "ANNA". These shops were so marked in order to identify them as possessions of the abbey of St Anne. Retailers located here would pay rents and taxes to the abbey.
Remarkably, the ownership of these shops by St Anne was retained even after the fall of Jerusalem in 1187, when the abbey itself was converted into a madrasa (theological seminary) by Saladin and was renamed the Madrasa al-Salahiya. In the sixteenth century the Salahiya still possessed as wakf (inalienable charitable endowment) shops in the street which now went by a somewhat upgraded name - "Street of the Cooks" - perhaps by this time the cooking had improved? Four such inscriptions remain in their original locations, another one was found in the 1970s during the clearance of a shop in a market street to the south, and one, is on the tympanum above the door of the church of St Anne itself, over an inscription in Arabic that Saladin had inserted when the madrasa was dedicated. The latter is interesting. It might have been placed here during restoration work in the mid-nineteenth century, but alternatively, it might have been put in place when the Arabic inscription was inserted in 1192. If so, the purpose may have been to establish that shops bearing this Christian inscription should henceforth be regarded as possessions of the Muslim establishment.