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Cursing and Cursive: scribes

The writing of curses demanded an ability to write, of course, and expertise in the appropriate form that a curse should take. The formulae (see Creating the curse - Writing the curse) shared by tablets are so similar that they must derive from common sources, perhaps the magical handbooks of the type that occasionally survive amongst papyri from Roman Egypt, as well as oral tradition . Copying from a text seems clear in one instance from Bath (Tab. Sulis 8), in which the last line of the text refers to 'the written page being copied out'. Formulae were also sometimes reproduced incorrectly (Uley 4).

Roman literature presents witches like Pamphile as possessed of the appropriate knowledge for making curses (see Cursing in Greece and Rome), but so too perhaps did other religious specialists, like the haruspex (a diviner of the future from the study of entrails) who erected an altar at Bath, or the interpres Victorinus at Lydney (see Lydney deity and cult). This may account for the echoes of prayers and sacrifice in the ‘gifts’ made to the god and the extraction of blood and other vital essences (see Creating the curse - Writing the curse).

The terminology of the curses also recalls the language of late Roman law, for instance exigere (‘to exact’) (Pagans Hill 7) or redimere, (‘to buy back’ or ‘redeem’) (Uley 43). Formulae too echo legal formulations, for example clauses to identify unknown thieves (see Creating the curse - Writing the curse). Terminology is also reminiscent of clerical language, for example suprascriptus (‘abovementioned’). Procedures set out in the tablets also mimic those of Roman law (see People, goods and gods - stolen goods and justice). Perhaps individuals familiar with the terminology and workings of Roman law, such as the iuris periti responsible for contracts and loan notes, may have advised on the writing of curse tablets.

However the quality of handwriting varies greatly. Many different individuals are represented in the handwriting of the Bath and Uley tablets. In only one instance have different curse tablets from Britain been attributed to the same hand. Not only is the handwriting of a tablet from Uley (Uley 43) and a tablet written at Bath very similar, but the names of the petitioners, Docilinus and Docilianus, may represent varied spellings of the same individual's name.

A townsperson in Bath or farmer living near Uley preparing a curse may have often sought assistance from experts at some stage of the process, but neither the means nor the skills of writing curses seem to have been absolutely restricted to a specialist group. The evidence not only of handwriting but also of names and stolen property suggests that a wide range of people could read or write documents (see People, goods and gods - victims and wrongdoers). In particular curses from the countryside suggest that the literacy of Roman Britain may not have been as closely confined to towns or forts as has previously been believed.

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