For our reading group on 1 May 2020, we had the pleasure of welcoming Dr Katherine Dauge-Roth from Bowdoin College, who discussed her recent book, Signing the Body: Marks on Skin in Early Modern France. The session, which took place on Zoom in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, was attended by around 30 scholars from a broad variety of disciplines and generated rich conversation about early modern skin marking practices.
In Signing the Body, Dauge-Roth addresses the rich history of the marked body in the early modern period. Drawing on a wide range of sources, she investigates the meanings of tattooing and marks on skin in areas as diverse as demonology, jurisprudence, mysticism, medicine, pilgrimage, commerce, travel and colonial conquest. In our virtual reading group, Dauge-Roth focused in particular on the tattoos worn by European pilgrims returning from the Holy Land. Dauge-Roth also addressed this topic in one of our recent blog posts.
Through the lens of the pilgrim tattoo, Dauge-Roth offered insights into the meanings that skin and skin markings were ascribed within Christian context. The tattoos that European pilgrims brought back from the Holy Land, typically in the form of the Jerusalem Cross, provided material proof of their visit, permanently emblazoned on their skin. As an embodiment of the trials endured during travels and a sort of self-imposed stigmata, the pilgrim tattoo was understood as a form of imitatio Christi, or the quest for physical proximity to Christ. The Jerusalem tattoo therefore enabled pilgrims to inscribe both their physical and spiritual journey upon the flesh and, as such, served as a sign of devotion and distinction.
When describing the practice of tattooing itself, pilgrims commonly made use of language borrowed from printing and drew parallels between skin, paper, parchment and copper plates. Dauge-Roth therefore suggested that the practice of tattooing was understood by early moderns as closely affiliated with artisanal crafts. The practical dimensions of tattooing were extensively explored in the ensuing conversation, alongside questions concerning the origins, prevalence and mobility of pilgrim tattoos. Tattooing in Jerusalem had its roots in Coptic Christian tradition and infrastructure; the involvement of European pilgrims alone would not have supported its local economy. There is evidence, however, that the practice of tattooing pilgrims spread beyond Jerusalem to pilgrimage sites in Europe, such as Loretto. The designs used by tattoo practitioners in the Holy Land travelled even further, across the Atlantic, as the Jerusalem Cross found its way onto the skins of runaway slaves. Despite this cross-cultural and cross-continental mobility, evidence for tattoos on female pilgrims has been hard to find in European sources. The question of women’s participation in the culture of tattooing more widely would deserve greater attention.
Dauge-Roth’s work complicates long-standing ideas about the history of tattooing in Europe, which is typically associated with the voyages of James Cook or with penal purposes. The tattoo was neither an eighteenth-century import to Europe carried on the skins of sailors returning from the Pacific; nor was it a negative stigma that the Graeco-Romans and other European cultures used to brand the bodies of criminals and slaves. The practice of permanently marking the skin had a long and intricate history in Europe, as skin provided the space for inscribing signs of spirituality, piety and status as much as those of dishonour and punishment.
Therefore, before ever observing – and ‘othering’ – tattoos on indigenous bodies in the Americas and later the Pacific, early modern Europeans developed complex discourses of skin marking. Still, tattoo in early modern Europe held strong associations with travel. As a permanent reminder of the body’s passage through physical and spiritual landscapes, the pilgrim tattoo was a sign of its bearer’s displacement beyond the ordinary experience of everyday life. In the words of Dr Dauge-Roth, just “like the tattoo itself, inserted under the skin in a space in-between the body’s interior and exterior, the traveller occupies a space in-between.”