So many European medievalists and early modernists have Latin tattoos that I’m now declaring that this is A Thing. (I know: I’m probably the last to notice!) First, we have the example of the late, great (in bloggy terms) Squadratomagico, whose tattoo is on the back of her neck & which I have met in person (scholar, neck, tattoo, and all.) Then when I got to the Huntington, I noticed that a medievalist here has a mid-thirteenth century quotation from a manuscript tattooed on the inside of his left forearm.
Finally, we have Flavia, who has celebrated her fortieth birthday and her retirement from the job market alike by getting a Latin tattoo, also on the inside of her left forearm. Her tat says “Omnia mutantur, nihil interit,” or “Everything changes, nothing perishes,” which is a thought so lovely that it makes me cry. Of course it’s from Ovid’s Metamorphoses–what else? (Why the inside of the left forearm? I get the inside part, as it’s more protected from the sun and other injuries, but is the choice of right versus left merely a personal one or dependent on right- or left-handedness?)
I asked my tattooed Huntington colleague if he thought so many of his medievalist colleages had tattoos because medieval scholars in particular are accustomed to ink on skin through their work on vellum documents and manuscripts. (Vellum is a fine parchment made from lamb or kid skins, and is among the oldest paper-like technology we have for recording and preserving information.) He agreed that this might be an interesting connection, and also said that it’s pretty popular for people to get textual tattoos these days anyway. He also connected his tattoo to a major life change–in his experience, winning tenure, whereas for Flavia it was her fortieth birthday.
I’ve never wanted a tattoo, mostly because I’ve always been aware how quickly fashions change and am becoming more aware (sadly!) how skin can sag. I am very glad I never got a tattoo when people of my generation (in the early 1990s) started getting inked. Also, perhaps even more importantly: they’re really painful, and I’m a huge pain baby, so there was no way I was going to volunteer for something that hurt! But most adults these days seem to be inked–I felt conspicuous a few years ago when we went to Hawai’i and my husband and I were among the only people over the age of 18 who didn’t have visible tattoos.
I haven’t noticed a trend among early Americanists for acquiring body art, although of course early modern sailors and merchant mariners were tattooed for various reasons. Simon Newman wrote about seamen’s tats more than a decade ago in a really good article and then a book, so there are some ways in which early Atlanticists could link their scholarship directly to their bodies.
But I haven’t seen any early Americanists with their shirts off lately, and we are all most grateful for that. (But if any of you want to tell rather than show, I’m interested!)
(This is the first of a two-part post. I’ll share a few facts I learned recently in a seminar at the Huntington led by one of the curators on the technologies of archiving and preserving information in part II.)