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Italy

From C. W. Previté-Orton, The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), 1077.

Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press. This map cannot be reproduced, shared, altered, or exploited commercially in any way without the permission of Cambridge University Press, as it is copyrighted material and therefore not subject to the allowances permitted by a CC license.

Italy, the physical and spiritual heir to Rome, is the classic land of notarial power. Under this legacy of Roman law, seals were not legally required: the notary made legitimate documents, and indeed the first document written in Italian, rather than Latin, was an eleventh-century notarial deed recording the sale of some land owned by a Benedictine monastery. Beginning with the reign of Emperor Frederick II (that is, from the very late twelfth century), the law clearly stated that the sign of the notary* and the authentication formula (known as the completio), with the proper signatures of the witnesses, constituted sufficient evidence of publica fides (“public sanction”). By the thirteenth century, the signature of a judge from the city where the notary drew up the document was also required for validation. The seal in such cases, when applied, was a secondary factor.

This is not to say that the seal was without value in medieval Italy. Giacomo Bascapè, probably the leading authority on Italian seals, has stressed that insofar as lords and independent cities were concerned, the act of sealing constituted more than a bureaucratic formality and that “seals aim at jointly validating city authorities’ deeds by bearing public witness to them” (Bascapè, 1953, p. 117). In this view, Italian seals constitute tangible evidence of power and authority. As a result, he writes, the responsibilities of notary and sealer coalesced, and only “notaries of the seal”—in the case of cities, mayor’s notaries or special officers, and in the case of lords, only bailiffs or seneschals—were trusted with the physical possession of the official seal. The degree to which rank and prestige were enhanced by possession of a seal, as distinct from notarial validation, is hard to define. Virgilio Giordano, director of the State Archives of Palermo and a lawyer as well, acknowledges that occasional seals appear on notarial documents. In a letter to the author several years ago he noted: “In rare cases, a seal does appear. . . . According to the general experience, however, these are usually deeds in which a feudal lord or a lay or ecclesiastical authority is involved. These authorities would affix their own seals to bestow greater solemnity upon the deed. Such deeds at any rate would tend to be in the semi-public category rather than regular notarial instruments.” Perhaps the difference in emphasis here is explained by the fact that Professor Giordano’s material is mainly from Sicily, which was ruled by a monarchy, while Professor Bascapè emphasizes correctly that the Italian city-states employed sealing as a tangible proof of their hard-won autonomy in the fight first against the emperor and then against the papacy.

The Italian Jews, however, were members of the Third Estate, that is, commoners, when they were considered to have any rank at all, burghers who developed some limited status in the late fourteenth and the fifteenth century. For them (as for Christian commoners), the seal served no true function. In southern Italy, where they had lived for many centuries and where they were considered actually, if not legally, citizens like others except for their different religion, they resorted to Christian notaries even in cases where both disputing parties were Jewish. In most important towns, however, the notary of the Jewish community was Jewish. There did not seem to be any fixed rule in the matter, and certainly, unlike the case in northern European countries, there was no specific Christian authority assigned to authenticate documents involving Jews.* However, under the Spanish domination, the Jews of southern Italy were weakened and then expelled a few years after their expulsion from Spain proper. It was then that the smaller Jewish communities of northern Italy—at cities such as Pisa, Verona, Mantua, and Padua—became the dominant centers not only because of settlement of refugees from the south but also because of flight from the German persecutions occurring at the same time. In the Italian north, it would appear that special notaries were charged with registering or certifying deeds in which Jews were involved. Thus, in the later period Italy followed the customs of northern Europe (Trasselli, n.d.). However, this did not extend to the use of seals, and no known Jewish seal either from southern or northern Italy exists from the medieval period.

The lack of importance of the seal in Italian culture is overwhelmingly evident. Such material flows ordinarily from archival centers. A beautiful book (Baggio, 1969), illustrated with that tactile sensitivity seen in the finest Italian works, was published by the composite Italian archives. In 161 pages with almost 400 illustrations, there are only 14 illustrations of seals. Of these only 7 are Italian, and only 3 of these are from the Middle Ages. The evidence is even thinner when it comes to Jewish seals. In Bibliotheca historica Italo-Judaica, by Attilio Milano, published in Florence in 1954, 209 pages list every conceivable subject involving Italian Jewry. The subject “seals” (“sigilli”) is not included among the 1,597 references. Marino Ciardini likewise published in Florence in 1907 a book on the Jewish bankers in Florence during the sixteenth century (this study deals with documents issued not by Jews but by the Florentine government about Jews). Here too, we see that the Christian authority authenticated and verified deeds without recourse to seals: moreover, not a single Jewish seal is anywhere alluded to. In Paolo Norsa’s two-volume study of the famous Norsa banking family (1957–59), there is no mention of a family seal. The leading authority on Italian Jewry, Cecil Roth, in 1967 published a study of Italian Jewish family coats of arms or, more properly, family badges. The study commences at the time of the baroque period, with nothing indicated from earlier days. In Roth’s analysis of the roots of the names of the most famous ninety-five Italian Jewish families, not one is derived by evidence of a seal. Giacomo Bascapè, in an important article (1973), makes the first concise study of Jewish heraldic symbols and Jewish seals so far attempted by a Christian scholar. Commencing with the banners of the tribes of Israel as recorded in the Bible, he then concentrates on the coats of arms of Jewish families in Italy and ends with a brief note on Jewish seals from the medieval period. There are twenty-nine footnotes, often involving multiple sources. Yet nowhere in all this material is there a single reference to a specific Italian Jewish seal from the Middle Ages!

These studies are summarized here to reinforce the point that in the north of Europe, following Germanic custom, the seal was of great importance (which makes the evidence of such Jewish seals a significant aspect of their physical presence in certain of these countries), while in countries following Roman law notarial attestation alone constituted legality. But Jewish seals do appear in Italy in the period under study. This is not a paradox. Though we can call the fifteenth century the Middle Ages north of the Apennines, the culture of Italy during this period was more advanced than that of the rest of Europe, and so was its attitude toward the Jews. Immanuel of Rome, the great Italian Jewish thirteenth-century poet, born, according to tradition, in the same year as Dante and friend of the poet and his liberal Christian literary companions, moved in these artistic circles without prejudice. Some two centuries before the end of the medieval period in most of Europe, he wrote:

Where shall I pass after death from this light?

Do heaven’s bright glories await me, I wonder.

Or Lucifer’s kingdom of darkness and night?

In the one, though it’s perhaps of ill reputation,

A crowd of gay damsels will sit at my side;

But in heaven there’s boredom and mental starvation,

To hoary old men and to crones I’ll be tied.

Such sophisticated verses could not have sprung from a Jew (and a man holding the post of what would now be called president of a synagogue, as well) of that time in any other country but Italy.

Thus we have fifteenth-century Jewish seals from cities of northern Italy which in style and form are in every way products of the Renaissance. These seals are also intricately related to Italian culture and the position of the Jews in that short period before the hammer blows of the Counter-Reformation drove them into the ghettoes.


*The signum tabellionis is not a seal but rather an identification mark, made up of the sign of a cross, the word “Ego” or “I,” and the letters of the notary’s name, all intertwined to form a specific and individual figure. The Talmud sometimes uses the word “seal” for such identification marks, which has confused many otherwise knowledgeable writers on the subject.

*The Iberian countries, also molded by Latin influence, had a similar mixed background in this matter. Jewish notaries were accredited by appointment to the Jewish communities in Castile, subject to the approval of the monarchs. Once so recognized, the certificates of such notaries were validated without question by Christian judges and administrators. In Navarre, on the other hand, it seems that Christian notaries were required for Jewish affairs (see Baron, 7:77–78).

Italy, the physical and spiritual heir to Rome, is the classic land of notarial power. Under this legacy of Roman law, seals were not legally required: the notary made legitimate documents, and indeed the first document written in Italian, rather than Latin, was an eleventh-century notarial deed recording the sale of some land owned by a Benedictine monastery. Beginning with the reign of Emperor Frederick II (that is, from the very late twelfth century), the law clearly stated that the sign of the notary* and the authentication formula (known as the completio), with the proper signatures of the witnesses, constituted sufficient evidence of publica fides (“public sanction”). By the thirteenth century, the signature of a judge from the city where the notary drew up the document was also required for validation. The seal in such cases, when applied, was a secondary factor.

The Italian Jews, however, were members of the Third Estate, that is, commoners, when they were considered to have any rank at all, burghers who developed some limited status in the late fourteenth and the fifteenth century. For them (as for Christian commoners), the seal served no true function. In southern Italy, where they had lived for many centuries and where they were considered actually, if not legally, citizens like others except for their different religion, they resorted to Christian notaries even in cases where both disputing parties were Jewish. In most important towns, however, the notary of the Jewish community was Jewish. There did not seem to be any fixed rule in the matter, and certainly, unlike the case in northern European countries, there was no specific Christian authority assigned to authenticate documents involving Jews.* However, under the Spanish domination, the Jews of southern Italy were weakened and then expelled a few years after their expulsion from Spain proper. It was then that the smaller Jewish communities of northern Italy—at cities such as Pisa, Verona, Mantua, and Padua—became the dominant centers not only because of settlement of refugees from the south but also because of flight from the German persecutions occurring at the same time. In the Italian north, it would appear that special notaries were charged with registering or certifying deeds in which Jews were involved. Thus, in the later period Italy followed the customs of northern Europe (Trasselli, n.d.). However, this did not extend to the use of seals, and no known Jewish seal either from southern or northern Italy exists from the medieval period.

*The signum tabellionis is not a seal but rather an identification mark, made up of the sign of a cross, the word “Ego” or “I,” and the letters of the notary’s name, all intertwined to form a specific and individual figure. The Talmud sometimes uses the word “seal” for such identification marks, which has confused many otherwise knowledgeable writers on the subject.

*The Iberian countries, also molded by Latin influence, had a similar mixed background in this matter. Jewish notaries were accredited by appointment to the Jewish communities in Castile, subject to the approval of the monarchs. Once so recognized, the certificates of such notaries were validated without question by Christian judges and administrators. In Navarre, on the other hand, it seems that Christian notaries were required for Jewish affairs (see Baron, 7:77–78).

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780814344859
MARC Record
OCLC
1055142843
Pages
333-335
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-02
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
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