On the Use and Abuse of Written Words
Updated: Jun 8, 2020
This post is dedicated to my son Amir on his wedding day
Arborglyphs, dendroglyphs and,silvaglyphs - three terms for words and symbols (initials, hearts and arrows) carved on a tree. Why do people write on things? A child carves graffiti on a school desk, much more easily done in my schooldays when desks were of wood rather than formica (my cousin was once punished for carving her name on a desk although she was not to blame. The real culprit was our aunt, who shared the same initials and surname and had attended the same school a generation earlier). We write on everything. There are inscriptions on buildings and inscriptions marking historical sites: M. AGRIPPA. L. COS. TERTIVM. FECIT ("Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, consul three times, made this"), "Karl Marx 1818-1883 lived here 1851-56", “From this place on 28 June 1914 Gavrilo Princip assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia”. There are those endless lists of gilded names of donors on public works, futile attempts at purchasing a tiny bit of immortality, more pathetic perhaps, but not so very different from the monumental inscriptions of a Marcus Agrippa or an Ozymandias. We write our names over businesses and on the products we produce. Manufacturers write on objects identifying where they were made, "Made in China" being today the most ubiquitous, or what they contain. There are inscriptions on ancient objects, magic ceramic bowls with curses inscribed in Aramaic, blessings in Arabic, a simple potter's mark made so that purchasers would know its manufacturer, a humorous and sagacious warning inscribed on a medieval glass beaker - DON'T BREAK IT, a tombstone inscribed - “To Helena, foster daughter, incomparable and praiseworthy soul” (actually the epitaph inscribed on the stone of a beloved Roman dog in c.200 A.D.). There are inscriptions declaring possession on books - ex libris and personal dedications like P.G. Wodehouse's - "To my daughter Leonora without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time", and warnings against theft - MALADICATUR QUI ME AUFERT DE LOCO SCE NATIVITATIS BETHLEEM ("Cursed be he who removes me from The Church of Nativity in Bethlehem" - a curse on bronze candlesticks that may well have been fulfilled as they indeed were removed from the church) or “Do not grab this book my friend, or a hangman's noose will be your end”. One of my favourite inscriptions, as an incurable cat lover who frequently finds it necessary to delete uninvited lines of text from his laptop, the outcome of the feline art of keyboard-walking, is a delightful drawing, curse and warning written by a fifteenth century Dutch scribe on a volume left open at night - "Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer, and because of it many other cats as well. And beware not to leave open books at night where cats can come".
There are a hundred reasons why we write on things - to enlighten, to remember, to be remembered, to promote, to express love or hatred, to inform of ownership. As a child I wrote my name on the shell of a pet tortoise along with our phone number so that the next time it wandered off there would be a chance that some kind soul would return it. It was ineffectual.
Sometime between 1106 and 1109 the Genoese had an inscription placed in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre recording the privileges and possessions they had been promised by King Baldwin I. Known as the Golden Inscription, as it was written in golden letters (perhaps gilded mosaic), it has been a source of dispute among historians regarding its authenticity and wording. The inscription is known through a narrative source and a record of it is preserved in the archives of Genoa, but certain scholars have suggested that it was a forgery intended to gain for the maritime republic extensive rights to which it had no genuine claim. Forgeries in medieval texts are certainly not uncommon, in particular when properties and privileges were involved, but the arguments in favour of the inscription’s authenticity are persuasive.* According to the sources it was prominently located in the choir of the church. The arguments supporting the Genoese claim suggest that this would have been in an eleventh century chapel directly opposite the entrance to the Edicule, a chapel that was in use until the completion of the new, Frankish choir that replaced it towards the middle of the twelfth century. When the new choir was completed the inscription could have been relocated into it.
There could hardly be a more prominent location in the church unless it were to be placed on the Tomb itself, which of course was not an option. Placed as it was in the most prominent possible location in the most important building in the kingdom, a place frequented by royalty and nobles, by clergy and citizens alike, this was certainly the ultimate in public relations and a huge coup for the Genoese. We know of nothing comparable that was achieved by the other maritime communes, or indeed by any other institution in the kingdom. It is a powerful illustration of the status that Genoa held in the early years of the kingdom, and also of the degree to which Baldwin and his kingdom depended on Italian maritime aid.
*On the debates see Hans E. Mayer and Marie-Luise Favreau, "Das Diplom Balduins I für Genua und Genuas Goldene Inschrift in der Grabeskirche", Quellen und Forschungen aus italienischen Archiven und Bibliotheken 55/56, 1976, pp. 22-95 and Benjamin Z.Kedar, "Genoa's Golden Inscription in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: A Case for the Defence", in G. Airaldi and B.Z. Kedar, eds., I communi italiani nel Regno Crociato di Gerusalemme, Genoa, 1986, pp. 319-335; Benjamin Z. Kedar; "Again: Genoa's Golden Inscription and King Baldwin I's Privelege of 1104", in D. Coulon, C. Otten-Froux, P. Pagès and D. Valérian, eds., Chemins d'outre-mer: Etudes d'histoire sur la Méditerranée médiévale offertes à Michel Balard, Paris, 2004, pp. 495-502.