On the Sincerest Form of Compliment
Updated: Nov 11, 2019
There was a boy in my class at school whom I held in great admiration. He was well-liked and got top grades, and he was always immaculately dressed. For a brief period, I attempted to emulate him, not very successfully. I tried to get my mother to do a better job on ironing my shirt collars and made some exasperatingly futile attempts at making a Windsor knot to my tie. I imitated his hair style and even tried to pick up on my efforts at schoolwork. It was to no avail, but the attempt was quite natural. Imitation is an important ingredient in human achievement. It is what enables science and art to develop and advance. All human accomplishment is built to some degree on imitation.
Imitation has a great deal to do with how the medieval Frankish enclaves established in the Levant managed to survive for two centuries despite their serious demographic handicap. Imitation, and advancements based on imitation may also be regarded as what made the Latin East an important contributor to scientific, cultural and economic developments in the West. In their architecture (particularly but not only in the design and construction methods of their fortifications), in their industry (most inventively in the refining of cane sugar), and in many other fields of activity the Frankish settlers observed, imitated and improved on what they saw around them. Examples are numerous, and I have discussed some of these in earlier posts. In the best examples the Franks took what they observed to a whole new level and developed what they had adopted into something either entirely new or so far beyond what it had been that they can be seen as real innovators. In other cases it was more a matter of appropriation; for example, in the straightforward imitation of Herodian style masonry in their buildings.
Somewhere in between lies a possible case of imitation involving not so much development and improvement as adaptation of something admired for an entirely different purpose. I am referring to the apparent imitation of designs on ancient stone burial chests in the Holy Land for the decoration of medieval wooden storage chests. In the Second Temple period Jewish burials often took place in two stages, at first in a primary burial in burial caves, and after a sufficient period of decay, secondary burial of the collected bones in decorated limestone ossuaries. In the medieval West wooden chests were the predecessor of the wardrobe or armoire. There are many examples of such chests found throughout Europe and in Britain where these are on occasion referred to as "Crusader Chests". The name, if it has any meaning, may perhaps originate in the possibility that some of them were used to contain the possessions of crusaders and had been taken with them to the East, or alternatively that they had been used to contain monies collected to fund crusading. However, it is possible that there is another reason for this name.
Examining some of these chests, such as those found in the counties of Surrey and Kent, one cannot avoid noticing the similarity of their appearance, not only the overall shape but more importantly the geometrically-decorated roundel designs carved on them, to the designs found on the Second Temple period ossuaries.* It may be merely a coincidence, but the possibility must be taken into account that chests like those from Kent and Surrey were constructed by artisans who had seen the ossuaries. They may have been made in the Latin East using oak timber brought to the Levant, or alternatively and more likely perhaps, they were made in the West by returning Frankish artisans who had observed and recorded the designs that they had seen while in the East.**
*The designs on the medieval oak chests in England were brought to my attention by Christopher Pickvance of the University of Kent who has studied and written extensively on the medieval wooden chests in England.
** Regarding the possibility that they were indeed manufactured in the East from imported material there is the case of Vassili Cassellario, a Greek casket and chest-maker in thirteenth century Acre who is recorded in a document of 1284 as having ordered from Venice a quantity of wooden planks, locks and nails for caskets, See D. Jacoby, ‘New Venetian Evidence on Crusader Acre”, in P. Edbury and J. Phillips, The Experience of Crusading, Vol. 2, Defining the Crusader Kingdom, Cambridge, 2003, p. 255.