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A VANISHED COPTIC CULTURAL PRACTICE FROM THE 13th CENTURY: THE BRANDING OF CHILDREN WITH HOT IRON TO MAKE CROSSES ON THEIR SKIN: BISHOP JACQUES DE VITRY’S EVIDENCE

August 19, 2012

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Please, refer to note at the end of this article for another relevant article!

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Instead of tattooing a cross on their right wrist as many Copts do today to distinguish themselves as Christians, the Copts of the 13th century used to brand crosses on the forehead, temples, arms and knees of their children using hot iron. It was a sign of defiance as tattooing is today.

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Before I leave Jacques de Vitry (or James of Vitry), the Crusader and Bishop of Acre at the time of the Fifth Crusade (1213 – 1221 AD), I use a passage in his Historia Orientalis, which he wrote in 1220, to highlight a Coptic tradition which is now extinct and been replaced by something new.

As we have seen in two previous articles, de Vitry saw the Copts as heretics, and regarded some of their practices as repugnant and un-Christian. He was particularly critical of three Coptic practices of the times, which he called errors:[1]

  1. First, circumcision.  He writes: “Ever since the Enemy sowed discord in them [the Copts], and blinded for a long time by a lamentable and miserable error [by which he means the schism of Chalcedon, 451 AD], most of them practice the circumcision of their newborns of both sexes, in the manner of the Saracens. They do not wait for the grace of baptism to make the circumcision of the flesh unnecessary, just as in the blossoming of the fruit the flower fades.”[2] Jacques de Vitry was right in his observation that Copts at that time practised circumcision, although it is doubtful that they practised it on girls. What he was wrong about was the assertion that the practice appeared in Coptic society at an early stage after Chalcedon. We have written about this topic in our articles “The Copts and Circumcision – A History: Part I, II and III, and explained that circumcision was an innovation introduced into Coptic society starting from the 12th century; that it was not original in Coptic society or Church; and that many Copts resisted it.[3]
  2. Second, confession over the censer.  On this, de Vitry says: “Another of their errors is that they do not confess their sins to the priests, but to God alone, in private, placing incense near themselves in a heath, as if their sins could rise toward God along with the smoke. The wretches! They are mistaken and are ignorant of scripture. They risk perishing through lack of doctrine, in thus hiding their wounds from the spiritual doctors, whose duty it is to tell leprosy from leprosy, and to impose, according to their estimation, penances appropriate to the sins committed.” The subject of confession at the hands of a priest had recently been discussed at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), and the text of Canon 21 reads, “All the faithful of both sexes shall after they have reached the age of discretion faithfully confess all their sins at least once a year to their own (parish) priest and perform to the best of their ability the penance imposed, receiving reverently at least at Easter the sacrament of the Eucharist, unless perchance at the advice of their own priest they may for a good reason abstain for a time from its reception; otherwise they shall be cut off from the Church (excommunicated) during life and deprived of Christian burial in death.”[4] Jacques de Vitry’s outrage at the abandonment of the practice of auricular confession (at the hands of a priest), which was new to our Coptic society being introduced in the 12th century, and particularly during the pontificate of John VI (1189 – 1216), was actually shared by many Copts – in fact it has been a bitter bone of contention in Coptic society and Church for over seventy years before de Vitry wrote his book, and since the days of Mark ibn al-Kanbar and Abu Yasir ibn al-Kustal,[5] and would continue to cause disagreements at the lengthy patriarchal elections that followed the death of John VI and then during the patriarchate of Cyril III (1235 – 1243), and even after, until auricular confession was reintroduced again in the Coptic Church in modern times. We shall come to discuss auricular confession in more detail in the future.
  3. Third, the practice of branding newborn children, before baptism, with hot iron to make crosses on their foreheads, temples, arms, and knees. Jacques de Vitry writes on the subject: “The third error of these Jacobites, in their ignorance as thick as dense fog, is that many among them brand and mark their newborn children, before baptism, with a hot iron, with which they mark their foreheads. Others mark their children with a sort of cross on the knees and temples.” And he criticises the Copts for it, “They think by this means, erroneously, to purify them with fire…but it is obvious that for all the faithful it is the spiritual fire, or in the Holy Ghost, that the remission of sins takes place, not in natural fire;” then, as if in regret for his harsh criticism, he hastens to add what might have altered his understanding, and explained to him the proper meaning behind the Coptic practice: “To tell the truth, we have seen some of them living among the Saracens…bearing on their arms crosses tattooed with a hot iron, who told me that they had marked themselves with the sign of the Cross in this way to distinguish themselves from the pagans and out of respect for the Holy Cross.”

Jacque de Vitry then realised that the practice he has described wasn’t meant by the Copts to purify them with fire, but to distinguish them from the ‘pagans’, that is the Muslims (as the text suggests), and out of respect for the Holy Cross. The Coptic reader who reads the above passage would not recognise the practice of branding children with hot iron as Coptic, since it does not exist now: what Copts do in their modern age is tattooing crosses on to their wrists and arms, rather than branding their skin with hot iron, as this picture shows:

Figure 1: Copts often have crosses tattooed to their wrists – Stressing their Christian identity amongst a hostile Muslim society.

Tattooing of crosses is done using several needles tied together and manually held by the tattooer to prick the skin of the tattooed in a cross pattern, causing mild bleeding from the skin punctures, and then using a pigment made of a mixture of lamp-black and either oil or water to rub on the raw area to leave a permanent mark. This method has almost disappeared, and most tattooers employ now an electric needle.[6]  Coptic crosses nowadays are tattooed almost always on the wrist or flexor side of the right arm, and sometimes on the back of the right hand opposite the thumb. The practice of tattooing crosses on foreheads, temples, knees, and elsewhere, has almost disappeared from Coptic society now, although, as we have shown in a previous article,[7] tattooing crosses on the forehead and chin was still being practised by some Copts in the 19th century, as is shown in the Femme féllah et son enfant” (A Fellah Woman and her Infant Son) by the French artistLéon Bonnat:

 

Figure 2: A close in of Femme féllah et son enfant” (A Fellah Woman and her Infant Son) by the French artist Léon Bonnat, second half of 19th century.

This practice of tattooing crosses on the face and other parts of the body still exists in Ethiopia, a country which professes Coptic Christianity, as this picture shows:

 

Figure 3: Ethiopian woman with crosses tattooed to her forehead, base of nose, chin, cheek and temple (Photo: Llanosom, 2009).

But Jacques de Vitry isn’t speaking about tattooing using needles, soot and oil; he is talking about the use of hot iron. This is not really tattooing but scarification of skin using branding, i.e. using a piece of metal that is heated and then pressed on to the skin to leave a permanent brand or mark in the shape of the cross. This must have been the practice before tattooing was introduced into Coptic society. At what age did the scarification method die out to be replaced by tattooing is not clear to me at the present, but we must take from Jacques de Vitry that Copts of the early 13th century used to brand their children with hot iron to leave a permanent mark on their skin in the shape of the cross to designate them as Christians once and for all. By the stamp of Christ, that is the crucifix, Coptic families hoped that their children would be proud enough of their religious inheritance, and sufficiently brave in a hostile Muslim society to resist any worldly temptation or pressure to convert.  In fact, the Coptic cross brand was, as the cross tattoo is, a sign of defiance – a Coptic attribute that one comes across several times in various Coptic martyrologies.[8] It is this which, in his last sentence, that de Vitry stresses.

Babies were branded with the cross before they were baptised, that is before the age of forty days for boys and eighty days for girls. We have seen in a previous article[9] that circumcision of boys, which was acquired, as a social custom, from the Muslims in the 12th century, was permitted by the Church for as long as it was performed before baptism, so that the Pauline theology on the matter was not undermined.[10] It is possible that the Coptic Church saw the branding of children in the same light as that of circumcision, and insisted on the practice being performed before baptism, so as to avoid undermining the Christian importance of baptism. If that was the case we do not have any record to support it, as is the case with circumcision which required the promulgation of several ecclesiastical canons to regulate the practice.

No other writer to my knowledge, other than Jacques de Vitry, has spoken about the practice of branding crosses on Copts foreheads, temples, knees and arms; and no pictorial evidence exist to show us how it looked.  However, one can always resort to Ethiopia, which is heavily influenced by Coptic culture, and in which some customs that have vanished from Coptic society continue to live, as we have seen with the tattooing on different parts of the face. Here again, we have evidence that the practice still exists in Ethiopia, and, below, I reproduce two pictures to support it:

Figure 4: Young girl from Tigray, Ethiopia, with a cross branded on her forehead (Photo: Courregesg, 2011).

Figure 5: Ethiopian priest (Photo: Courregesg, 2011).

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: THE READER IS ADVISED TO REVIEW AN UPDATED EVIDENCE THAT CONTRADICTS DE VITRY’S STATEMENT THAT THE COPTS BRANDED THE FACES OF THEIR CHILDREN BEFORE BAPTISM WITH HOT IRON TO MAKE CROSSES: here.

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[1] Christian Cannuyer, Coptic Egypt, the Christians of the Nile (New York, Harry N. Abrams, 2001); pp. 130-131.

[2] Coptic Egypt, the Christians of the Nile; p. 130.

[4] H. J. Schroeder, Disciplinary Decrees of the General Councils: Text, Translation and Commentary, (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1937).

[6] Otto Meinardus: Christian Egypt, Faith and Life (AUP, Cairo, 1970); pp. 506.

[7] Dioscorus Boles (10 September 2011): How they saw the Copts: “An Egyptian Peasant Woman and her Child” by the French painter Léon Bonnat: A study in her Coptic identity https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2011/09/10/how-they-saw-the-copts-%E2%80%9Can-egyptian-peasant-woman-and-her-child%E2%80%9D-by-the-french-painter-leon-bonnat-a-study-in-her-coptic-identity/

[8] See, e.g., Four Martyrdoms from the Pierpont Morgan Coptic Codices, edited by E. A. E. Reymond and J. W. B. Barns (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1973).

[9] Dioscorus Boles (16 February 2012): Circumcision and the Copts: A History – Part II https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/02/16/circumcision-and-the-copts-a-history-part-ii/

[10] The Pauline theology on circumcision is based on 1 Corinthians 7:18 “If any man is called without circumcision, let him not be circumcised”.  For more on that, see: Dioscorus Boles (28 January 2012): Circumcision and the Copts: A History – Part I https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/01/28/circumcision-and-the-copts-a-history-part-1/

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 28, 2013 7:10 am

    whoah this weblog is wonderful i love studying your articles.
    Stay up the good work! You realize, a lot of persons
    are searching around for this information, you could aid them greatly.

  2. August 24, 2013 6:39 am

    I know an Ethiopian who has a cross like this on his forehead. I don’t think it’s branded on with a hot iron but carved into the skin with a sharp object. I’ll ask him next time I see him.

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  1. A VANISHED COPTIC CULTURAL PRACTICE FROM THE 13th CENTURY: THE BRANDING OF CHILDREN WITH HOT IRON TO MAKE CROSSES ON THEIR SKIN: BISHOP JACQUES DE VITRY’S EVIDENCE « ON COPTIC NATIONALISM ?? ??????? ???????
  2. COPTIC EVIDENCE THAT THE COPTS OF THE MIDDLE AGES DID NOT BRAND THEIR CHILDREN WITH HOT IRON TO MAKE CROSSES ON THEIR FACES | ON COPTIC NATIONALISM في القومية القبطية

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