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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Vocations and Labels

Updated: Apr 1, 2019

First floor hall in a house in the Genoese quarter of Acre

We tend to identify ourselves with our professions. If somebody asks you who you are, after stating your name your first reaction will generally be to say that you are a used car salesman, a shopkeeper, a clerk, a doctor or a plumber. You might also think of yourself as a decent person, a loving parent, an avid reader, a friendly neighbour, a nature lover or a sports enthusiast, but you are less likely to refer to any of those as what defines you. The fact is that many people regard their professions as who they are, rather than as merely one of many facets that compose the whole. This is not an ideal state of affairs, but it is not a surprising one, as so much of life is spent at work.

In the past this led, in many societies, to the adoption of a person's profession as the family name: Carter, Smith, Potter, Baker and so on. Often, even slaves and servants came to bear the title of their master's occupation as their own name. Later generations might, and usually did possess entirely different vocations, but the name would be retained, so that the descendent of a carter might be a peanut farmer and politician, that of a bookbinder might be a famous pianist, and a cook's descendant might be a naval captain and discoverer. (My mother's maiden name was Schmidt, but I certainly do not know my way around an anvil. Nor, I believe, did my grandfather - I cannot say for certain, further back.) It is fortunate that today most people already have a surname. Otherwise, we might find ourselves running into someone named Samuel Statistician, Dave Computer-Analyst, or Helen Neurosurgeon.

In 1249, two brothers, James and Thomas, are recorded as having rented a house (or houses) in the ruga Cooperta (Covered Street) of the Genoese quarter in Acre (perhaps the very house shown in the photograph above). A property list recording Genoese possessions in the town refers to the brothers as soap-makers (sabonerii) and a tombstone, now in the Louvre Museum, records a certain Iaque le saboni[er], James the Soap-maker, who died nine years later.* The many surnames that appear in medieval documents and on tombstones reveal a broad range of trades that were to be found in the towns and countryside of the Latin East. They enlighten us on the types of professions that were current at the time. A fragment of a tombstone found in the church of Gethsemane in Jerusalem preserves the name Lamberti Coriparii de Acon, Lamberto the Leather-worker of Acre. Records of grants and deeds of sale include the names of parties to the transactions, or people who served as witnesses. Among these are such names as Petrus cementarius (Peter the Builder), Stephanus carpentarius (Stephen the Carpenter), Henricus tanerius (Henry the Tanner), Robertus porcarius (Robert the Swineherd), Guido camelarius (Guy the Camel-driver) and Giraldus caprellus (Gerald the Goatherd). Witnesses to Genoese notarial deeds from Cyprus include a variety of professions, among them doctors, court officers, artisans, coopers, barbers, candle-makers, cutlers, furriers, caulkers, carpenters, painters, drapers, skinners, tailors, and tavern keepers.** A Greek in Acre named Vecili (Vassili) Casselario was, as his surname (kasselarios in medieval and modern Greek) reflects, a casket and chest maker He was also apparently a cobbler, a second profession, and though he chose not to take that as his name it seems to have been rather more than a sideline. He is recorded in 1284 as having ordered from Venice, along with a quantity of wooden planks, locks and nails for caskets, a huge consignment of 1,000 pairs of thick wooden soles for clogs, enough to keep Acre's inhabitants well-shod for some considerable time.***

* In the past he had been identified with the brother James from Acre, but more recently as an Eastern Christian soap-maker named Yaq‘ūb al-Saboni. See Pierre-Vincent Claverie, "Les difficultés de l’épigraphie franque de Terre sainte aux XIIe et XIIIe siècles", Crusades, XII, 2013, pp. 74-75. ** Nicholas Coureas, “The Structure and Content of the Notarial Deeds of Lamberto di Sambuceto and Giovanni da Rocha, 1296-1310”, in, A.D. Beihammer, M.G. Parani and C.D. Schabel (eds.), Diplomatics in the Eastern Mediterranean 100-1500, Aspects of Cross-Cultural Communication, Leiden and Boston, 2008, p. 227. *** David Jacoby, "New Venetian Evidence on Crusader Acre", in Peter Edbury and Jonathan Phillips (eds.), The Experience of Crusading, vol. II, Defining the Crusader Kingdom, Cambridge, 2003, pp. 254-55.

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