Demon Marks Lay Bare the Twisted History of Tattooing

Detail of man being branded.
Detail of thief being branded, engraving, ca. 1638

Story posted October 21, 2004

Nearly a century before the eruption of the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts, where a group of "possessed" girls caused 20 so-called witches to be hanged, "demonic contagion" began to spread among groups of nuns throughout France. Unlike their Protestant American counterparts, these young women received what was then a uniquely Catholic solution: They were exorcised.

Using the same Latin rites recited in the 1973 movie, "The Exorcist," priests would violently drive demons from the nuns' bodies, sometimes before throngs of curious onlookers. According to written accounts of the time, when the demons left the body, they became "tattoo artists" of sorts They carved signs on their victims' flesh - a cross on the forehead, a heart on the temple, a fleur de lys on the arm.

Whether they appeared spontaneously, or were in fact carved, was hotly debated, says Bowdoin College Assistant Professor of Romance Languages Katherine Dauge-Roth, but their meaning was clear: "These symbols and texts represented a desire on the part of the exorcists to make the demon's exit visible, to materialize the church's victory over evil."

Katherine Dauge-Roth
"There is something extraordinarily powerful about writing on the body," says Katherine Dauge-Roth.

Dauge-Roth has been tracking accounts of such possessions--and subsequent body markings--among nuns in 17th-century France as part of research for her upcoming book, "Signing the Body in Early Modern France." Poring over nuns' diaries, biographies, and exorcists' accounts, Dauge-Roth has pieced together a fascinating tale of torment, tattoos and devotion that details a range of 17th-century body-marking practices and sheds new light on women's spiritual traditions.

For some religious women, carving writing on the body was a way to signify their devotion, and to physically act out their desire for mystical union with Christ.

"In the seventeenth century you see women tattooing themselves with holy names and the sign of the cross," says Dauge-Roth. "One devout widow engraves the name of Jesus on her chest to avoid remarriage. It was a way of saying, 'I belong to God,' of affirming their spiritual commitment and identity."

Other women come by their inscriptions after a run-in with the devil.

Engraving of Jeanne des Anges
An engraving of Jeanne des Anges, ca. 1638, shows the nun displaying her signed hand.

Jeanne des Anges, an Ursuline nun from Loudun, France, experienced possession, exorcism and demonic "exit" marks that ultimately transformed her into a saintly character. "Jeanne reportedly had seven demons in her body," says Dauge-Roth. "When they exited they left several marks, including the inscription of four saints' names on her hand.

"What is fascinating about these marks is that, apart from their merit as Catholic propaganda, they bring a newfound sense of identity-- and even power--to the woman who bears them. They take Jeanne from being a marginalized demonic to becoming a figure who is re-embraced by her faith and made almost saintly."

Jeanne ultimately took her marks on tour, displaying her hand on a pillow to throngs of people in courtyards throughout France--earning financial support and prestige for her convent.

Tattooing was practiced among the ancient peoples of England, and later, by Renaissance pilgrims traveling to Bethlehem.

Until recently, it was largely thought that tattoos were brought to Europe by sailors in Cook's fleet, returning from Polynesia in 1774 with marks, or tatau. Research now shows that tattoos existed much earlier in Europe. Tattooing was practiced among the ancient peoples of England, and later, by Renaissance pilgrims traveling to Bethlehem, where they received tattoos of the cross of Jerusalem.

"The cross was not only a permanent souvenir of their voyage to Palestine and a way to show their religious zeal," notes Dauge-Roth, "but a sign that guaranteed their safe passage home. They write of experiences where, captured by bandits, they rolled up their sleeves and, once recognized as pilgrims, were set free, only having to pay a fee."

Dauge-Roth studied these accounts while scouring the archives of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris under a Fletcher Family Research Grant for research. There, she uncovered documents that showed not all body markings were religious in nature, but could also be used by the state.

Spaniard being branded, engravingEngraving of a criminal being branded, ca. 1638. His crime was the theft of radishes.

"In a time before photos and fingerprinting," she says, "people condemned for crimes like minor theft, begging, counterfeiting, and smuggling were branded with letters specific to their crime: for instance, V for voleur, or thief; M for mendiant, or beggar.

"The brand became the sign--the stigma--that simultaneously imprinted you with the mark of state authority and marginalized you within society. Wearing a brand identified you as a past offender, making self-reinvention nearly impossible."

The concept of body as cultural artifact runs deeply through Dauge-Roth's work, suggesting a wider examination of the body as a sort of tablature upon which the forces of the era left their signature.

"This was a time when the body itself became something to be read anew," she says. "Anatomists opened up bodies for the first time and began questioning the authority of ancient medical texts. Instead of turning pages, they cut and peeled away layers."

At the same time, she notes, the ancient occult sciences of physiognomy, chiromancy (palm reading) and astrology underwent a major revival, emphasizing the links between the human body and its surroundings and the ways in which individual character could be determined through the visible lines and marks on the body. "The body was thought of as a carrier of meaningful signs, " she says, "be they of the universe, of social status, or of one's very essence."

The rise of body markings coincided with the rise of print culture, the burgeoning concept of the individual, and a heightened desire for permanent signs in a period of increasing circulation of people and goods.

"Once written, you open yourself, like a book, to unforeseen readings."

"This was a time when the need for signatures was made official," says Dauge-Roth. "Passports and letters attesting to a person's identity became mandatory. There was great attention given to signing, sealing, and marking texts, goods, and possessions. By marking an object you are saying, 'this belongs to me,' or, 'this came from here' -- you are assigning it an origin, a way for it to be recognized."

What traverses all of this, she concludes, "is the intimate relationship between the body and text. By studying the importance of these body markings, you can trace, quite literally, some of the deepest social changes that occurred during this period. There is something extraordinarily powerful about writing on the body. It is intimate and yet public. And once written, you open yourself, like a book, to unforeseen readings."

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