Tattoos II

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Following on from a post on holiday tattoos in Jerusalem I’ve come across an interesting reference to tattoos and conversion in Nabil Matar’s article ‘‘Turning Turk’: Conversion to Islam in English Renaissance Thought’, Durham University Journal, 1 (1994), pp. 33-50.

Matar talks about the phenomenon of Christians in the Ottoman Empire tattooing their children with a cross. This provided an indelible mark of faith as permanent as circumcision, and as the tattoo was commonly placed on the hand, arm or face, it was a visible reminder of the individual’s religious affiliation (pp. 38-39). Matar argues that the use of such bodily markers was designed to counteract the attractions and habits of the cultural and religious environment of the Ottoman Empire and prevent conversion to Islam.

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Holiday Tattoos: Wearing the Mark of Jerusalem

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While it was traditional for medieval and early modern pilgrims to acquire pilgrim badges commemorating their journeys — individuals who completed the journey to Santiago de Compostella in Spain, for example, would wear the mark of St. James in the form of a clam shell — travellers to Jerusalem occasionally acquired more permanent mementos of their journey to the Holy Land.

Edward Terry, Chaplain to Sir Thomas Roe, Lord Ambassadour to the great Moghul, describes a traveler getting a tattoo in Jerusalem in ‘A Voyage to East-India’, published in 1655:

At Jerusalem this our Traveller had made upon the Wrists of his left Arm the Arms of Jerusalem, a Cross Crossed, or Crosslets; and on the Wrist of his right, a single Cross made like that our Blessed Saviour suffered on; and on the sides of the stem or tree of that Cross these words written, Via, Veritas, Vita· some of the letters being put on the one side of that stem or tree, and some of them on the other; and at the foot of that Cross three Nails, to signifie those which fastned our Saviour unto it: All these impressions were made by sharp Needles bound together, that pierced onely the skin, and then a black Powder put into the Places so pierced, which became presently indelible Characters, to continue with him so long as his flesh should be covered with skin: And they were done upon his Arms so artificially, as if they had been drawn by some accurate Pencil upon Parchment. This poor man would pride himself very much in the beholding of those Characters, and seeing them would often speak those words of St. Paul written to the Galatians, Gal. 6. 17. (though far besides the Apostles meaning) I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.

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Conversion in the Vatican secret archives: Lux in Arcana

During a recent trip to Rome I had the chance to visit the exhibition ‘Lux in Arcana’ (light in secret matters) at the Capitoline museums, an unprecedented collection of 100 documents from the Vatican secret archives brought together to celebrate the 4th Centenary of the archive’s foundation. The exhibition incorporates a rich spectrum of previously unseen documents charting the Vatican’s role in epochal moments in religious and political history. Continue reading

Conversion and Cake

The symbolic importance of food and food practices (or ‘foodways’ in academic speak) to religious culture is readily apparent at this time of year. During Lent it is traditional for Christians to fast, marking the beginning of the Lenten period by using up fat, eggs and flour in pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. At Easter we consume chocolate eggs  – a pagan fertility symbol hijacked by Cadburys – and hot cross buns – a reminder of the crucifixion. A recent lecture by Eric Dursteler (Brigham Young University) at the University of York on food and conversion in early modern Spain brought to the project’s attention the complex role played by foodways in cultures where large numbers of people converted – willingly or otherwise – from one faith to another. Continue reading

Staging Conversion in the New World


The conquering of the Mexican mainland by Hernán Cortés was accompanied by a systematic programme of conversion of the native peoples undertaken by the Catholic Church. This began in 1524 with the arrival of 12 Franciscan friars who self-concsciously styled themselves as the descendants of Christ’s 12 apostles. The theatrical nature of their efforts to convert the Aztecs began with Cortés’ initial greeting upon their arrival in Tenochtitlán (Mexico City). He kneeled to kiss their hands and garments, immediately signalling his subservience to the friars, a powerful image for the native peoples who had ascribed to Cortés the role of Quetzalcoátl, the feathered serpent god who had a close association with the Aztec priesthood.  Continue reading

Economies of faith: The Eurozone crisis and religious history

In a recent article on the Guardian website the deputy director of Warwick’s Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy Dr Sascha Becker suggested that the current turmoil in the Eurozone has been shaped in part by religious history. He argues that a noticeable north-south divide to the economic collapse, with Northern European countries such as Germany weathering the storm, while southern countries such as Spain and Italy flounder, follows Max Weber’s theory that the Protestant work ethic helped to further the cause of capitalism. Becker’s research has focused on a greater emphasis placed upon education by Protestants, arguing that this has led to more economic cohesion in Northern European countries. Continue reading

Augustine and Islam

Saint Augustine has always had a close relationship with North Africa: he was born in Thagaste (now Souk-Ahras in eastern Algeria) and later became Bishop of Hippo (modern Annaba). A little known legend however claimed that Augustine had been born in Tagaoust, Morrocco (perhaps a confusion with the similar sounding Thagaste). One tradition identified Augustine with Abu-l-‘Abbas Sabti (d. 1204), a Sufi saint, ascetic and teacher famous for caring for the poor. After his death the saint became associated with providing protection for all the unfortunate, including Christians and Jews who were able to approach his tomb without prior conversion to Islam. Continue reading