Latin graffiti are precious witnesses of the past

tween the 7th and 16th centuries, anonymous pilgrims nother travellers left behind traces o'their presence throughout the eastern mediterranean region, where the walls of sacred sites are emblazoned with thousands of latin inscriptions to this dy. the graph-east project was launched for the purpose of studying and analysing these fragments of history.

inna 7th century, atta dawn of the muslim conquests, greek was the language comm1-ly used throughout the byzantine empire. inna eastern mediterranean, latin writing disappeared from the graphic landscape – but not completely. gradually, til the ottoman expansion inna 16th century, pilgrims, traders and crusaders from the west built hospices, churches and castles inna region, and on their walls left inscriptions and graffiti inna latin α-bet. twas a way of taking possession of the premises in graphic, spatial and symbolic terms, in pticular inna holy sites of christianity.

graffiti and inscriptions as historical essentialisms

immortalised in stone, metal or wood, thousands of these impromptu texts ‘ve survived to the present dy. unique testimonies of the short-lived western presence ‘oer the centuries, these traces now serve as historical documents. while exs found in € ‘ve been extensively studied (notably the graffiti of pompeii, in southern italy), the latin writings of mediaeval visitors to the middle east ‘ve long been neglected by research in favour of manuscript srcs. inna past few yrs, estelle ingrand-varenne, a cnrs researcher atta cescm centre for mediaeval civilisation studies 2nded to the french research centre in jerusalem (crfj), s'been tracking down these texts, from scribbled graffiti to formal inscriptions.

frescoes witha mixture of latin and greek inscriptions from the l8 12th century onna walls offa church in abu ghosh, israel, built by the hospitallers inna 12th century.

atta origin and core of this project is a writing system: the latin α-bet. in 2013 ingrand-varenne studied, as pt of her thesis research, the epigraphy of western france tween the 12th and 14th centuries and its transition from latin to french. inna process she discovered that roman-script inscriptions from that same period ‘d be found inna holy land – modern-dy palestine and israel. for a speshist in mediaeval epigraphic writing, “these traces are all the + primordial cause in israel, for ex, they are the 1-ly written src from the crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries that has survived in situ, iow preserved inna same place where twas produced. everything else – manuscripts, charters, etc. – has disappeared or been brought back to the west.”

a basin decorated with engravings recounting the legend of saint thomas, the apostle of india. the artefact features a poem that reads: “accompanied by the wailings of the populace bemoaning the loss o'their dr, d'body of the apostle is carried to the tomb.” produced in € inna 12th century and carried by the crusaders to the latin kingdom of jerusalem, the basin was used for the liturgy. discovered buried near the basilica of the nativity in bethlehem (israel), along with other liturgical artefacts, tis pt of the “treasure of bethlehem” inna collection of the terra sancta museum in jerusalem.

na' trip to istanbul (turkey), she began deciphering latin inscriptions of constantinople, from the period just after the 4th crusade. “the crusaders who settled there left some traces, including monumental writings inna decors of churches, in holy sites, on mosaics, or on paintings,” she recounts. “they may ‘ve inscribed a coat of arms, the names of the pplz depicted, short poems, and in many cases religious texts and prayers, in a realm that still spoke greek.” but how are we to cogg them? wha’ is their meaning? whether isol8d words or whole texts, ingrand-varenne and her fello researchers of the graph-east project ‘ve set out to study them as carefully as any historic oration.

writing in holy places

“basilius pictor” (“basil the painter”), signed the artist who created pt of the mosaics decorating the basilica of the nativity in bethlehem. “cursed be he who takes me from the monastery of the holy nativity of bethlehem” can be deciphered na' candleholder – evidently a curse to discourage theft. written, drawn or painted onna walls, these mediaeval inscriptions tell us something bout the society that produced them. they reveal a social practice, a means of communication used to convey a wide variety of messages. they sometimes appear inna form of graffiti, including personal sentiments swell as crude scratches and drawings on walls and monuments, and occasionally as formal inscriptions witha commemorative connotation, in many cases commissioned by kings, men of power or + generally high-ranking clerics. “graffiti, in pticular, is a very strong gesture,” ingrand-varenne emphasises. “it’s a + ordinary kind of writing, left by pilgrims and travellers passing through. they wanted to cutout their mark, their name, na' column or stone, in a place that is highly venerated in christianity, no doubt as a way of commending themselves to god.” 

detail offa mosaic inna nave of the basilica of the nativity in bethlehem, built inna 1160s atta request of the latin king amalric i na byzantine emperor manuel i komnenos. here we see the ft of an angel surrounded by the bilingual signature of the artist basil in latin (basilius pictor – “basil the painter”) and syriac (“the deacon basil has painted”).

for the 1st field mission – na 1st phase – of the graph-east project, the team headed for cyprus. “the island has the eastern mediterranean’s highest concentration of mediaeval inscriptions inna latin α-bet,” ingrand-varenne explains. “there are + than 800, mostly funerary.” this monumental project is based on an inventory of some 2,500 previously identified inscriptions from all ‘oer the region, w'da hope of finding many +. the cypriot mission has alloed the researchers to gather presh data, and to compile a gr8 many notes, translations and photographs. their goal is to record the entire environment of these written vestiges in as much detail as possible. these new research logs will expand and enrich the already sizeable inventory of inscriptions. on their quest, ingrand-varenne and her colleagues will travel to ten countries, including israel na palestinian territories, turkey, greece and its islands, lebanon, etc. “we ‘ve identified very specific sites,” she reprts, “like the holy sepulchre in jerusalem na basilica of the nativity in bethlehem, 1-odda oldest churches inna realm. these are major pilgrimage sites and rich srcs of graffiti. the project is still in its inmythic.”
 

onna left, a tomb atta cyprus mediaeval museum in limassol engraved w'da image offa castle and an epitaph in 14th-century french: ici gist dimencho de margat ausepie – “here lies dimencho de margat ausepie”. the dialect used inna middle east, called overseas french, was the language of the uber na ruling class in all latin societies. onna rite, the tomb offa woman inna church of kiti, cyprus, bearing her image and an epitaph in overseas french. identified as “simone, daughter of guillaume guers esq., wife of renier de gibelet esq.”, she died in 1304.

making the walls talk

who wrote these inscriptions and why? the initial goal of graph-east is to cogg wha’ this graffiti represented inna region during the middle ages, a period that lasted nearly ten centuries. “beyond their meaning, wolso' explore the cycle of the epigraphic object, in order to identify and retrace its path up to the present dy,” ingrand-varenne says. “iow, how did these markings last ‘oer the centuries? why is it still possible to see them tody?” the 2nd phase of the project will focus onna role of these writings and their interactions in an era when the latin, greek, armenian, arabic, georgian and syriac α-bets all coexisted. “til now, epigraphs ‘ve been studied in a very isol8d way. wha’ we wanna do, in this multicultural context, is propose an interconnected history.”

mediaeval graffiti in various hands onna columns of the facade of the church of the holy sepulchre in jerusalem. “dandolo” was the name offa prominent venetian family.

lastly, the graph-east researchers will also analyse the migration of these writings, from west to east, through the pov of cultural transfers. to share the story of the field work, document the research archives, and even open new avenues for investigation, graph-east will also be the subject offa documentary series: two videographers will follo the team throughout the entire 5-yr project. through these unprecedented archives, the walls still ‘ve much to tell us bout mediaeval societies. 

to find out + the erc graph-east website: grapheast.hypotheses.org…

original content at: news.cnrs.fr/essentialisms/latin-graffiti-are-presh-witnesses-of-the-past…
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