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NEW EVIDENCE THAT COPTS OF THE MIDDLE AGES DID NOT ACTUALLY BRAND THEIR CHILDREN WITH HOT IRON TO MAKE CROSSES ON THEIR FACES

December 17, 2013

In a previous article, titled A Vanished Coptic Practice From The 13th Century: The Branding Of Children With Hot Iron To Make Crosses On Their Skin: Bishop Jaques De Vitry’s Evidence, I argued that the Copts in the 13th century did brand the faces of their children with crosses, a prototype to the wrist tattoo crosses that they practice today. The evidence I used was from Historia Orientalis by Jacques de Vitry (or James of Vitry), Bishop of Acre at the time of the Fifth Crusade (1213 – 1221 AD). In Historia Orientalis , which was written in 1220, de Vitry counts the errors which, in his opinion, the Copts fell in: circumcision, confession over the censer, and the practice of branding newborn children, before baptism, with hot iron to make crosses on their foreheads, temples, arms, and knees. On the third error:

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. 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.[1]

Jacques de Vitry isn’t speaking here about tattooing; he is rather talking about the use of hot iron for branding and scarification of the skin: a piece of metal is heated and then pressed on to the skin to leave a permanent brand or mark in the shape of the cross.

Copts of today, in contrast to the Ethiopians, do not scarify their children but instead tattoo them with crosses on wrists and arms using needles, soot and oil. Of olden times, we could gather no proof from other literary or photographic evidence that the Copts ever scarified their children. However, Jacques de Vitry’s evidence seemed compelling, so I concluded in my article that “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.”

But now I have contradicting evidence, which seems stronger, that refutes de Vitry’s statement about the scarification by Copts, and it comes from no less than the famous 13th century Coptic scholar, al-Safi Abu al-Fadail Majid, known simply by the name al-Safi ibn al-‘Assal الصَفِّىِّ بن العَسَّال (c. 1205 – c. 1265). Ibn al-‘Assal wrote in 1239 a monumental book in Arabic, called “Al-Majmo’a Al-Safawi (The Safawi Collection المجموع الصفوي)”, which constitutes the largest collection of ecclesiastical and civil laws in Coptic literature. Ibn al-‘Assal was part of the heated discussion in the Coptic Middle Period, during the Fatimid Dynasty (969 – 1171) and the Ayyubid Dynasty (1171 – 1250), between the pro-circumcision and anti-circumcision camps within Coptic society: he supported, with some of the Coptic Patriarchs of the period, circumcision of boys before baptism for temporal, though not religious, reasons.[2]  To defend the newly emerging custom within the Coptic society, he responds to criticism by both Greeks and Catholics:

Some [Christian] sects have approved customs that are disapproved by other sects, such as the facial scarification by the Abyssinians and Nubians, the shaving of beard by the Faranj [Roman Europeans], the shaving of the crown of the head by the priests of the Rûm [Orthodox Greeks]. If these two sects [the Faranj and Rûm] say their Patriarchs have commanded them to do so; we say unto them, and so the circumcised Copts have been allowed by their Coptic Patriarchs to circumcise.[3]

Here we leave the comments about circumcision aside and focus on ibn al-‘Assal’s specific allocation of the tradition of face scarification to the Abyssinians and Nubians, obviously in contrast to the Copts. This is strong evidence that the Copts did not brand the faces of their children, before or after baptism, as de Vitry claims in his Historia Orientalis. To be fair to de Vitry, I don’t think he pointed to the Copts specifically by name in his comments but talked about them as Jacobites. The word ‘Jacobites (يعقويين )’ refers to the communities influenced by the work of Jacob Baradaeus(c. 500 – 578), Bishop of Edessa, who reorganised the Anti-Chalcedonian Oriental Orthodox churches in the 6th century after the actions of Emperor Justinian I (518 – 565) had seriously weakened  them. Copts, Syrians, Ethiopians and Nubians are all called Jacobites by Western writers of the time and as recently as the 20th century. But even if de Vitry had pointed to the Copts by name on speaking about facial scarification to make crosses, Ethiopians are often spoken of  by Europeans as Copts – and that would be correct rom the religious point of view since they follow the Coptic Orthodox Church but not in any ethnic sense of course.


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

[2] We shall talk about this in more detail in future articles as part of a series of articles under the category: Circumcision and the Copts – A History.

[3] Al-Majmo’a Al-Safawi by al-Safi Abu al-Fadail ibn al-‘Assal; Vol. 2; edited by Guiguis Filotheus Awad; pp. 420-421.

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