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The mark of the cross was a simple signature for the illiterate

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics, Religion on Monday, 29 April 2013

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This edited article about literacy originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 235 published on 16 July 1966.

Voting booths, picture, image, illustration

Voting booths at a polling station in a Parliamentary Election where voters mark their ballot paper with a cross

There is still in existence at Canterbury a document of the year 1072, which bears the “signatures” of William the Conqueror and his Queen, Matilda. But unlike documents signed by the Queen today, William’s and Matilda’s signatures are simply crosses.

The reason for this was simple: in those days few people, however powerful or wealthy, could read or write. In the above instance, a clerk had written the document, in Latin, and the king and queen, who spoke a Norman blend of Old French, had signed it with the sacred symbol of a cross to give it the seal of truth. The same scribe had then written out their names next to the crosses they had drawn.

Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury was able to add his own name, but he also drew a cross, in this case the regular episcopal cross which bishops still add when writing their names today.

It is difficult for us to imagine how administration was carried on in Anglo-Saxon times, when few government officials could read or write. Even accounting seems to have been done by means of a stick, called a “tally”, into which notches were cut to register sums of money.

Before the 10th century, most information was sent by word of mouth along with a token to prove that it was genuine. The only formal written instruments of government were charters granting lands or privileges. These were seldom signed, but the king or other donor would put a sacred cross against his name which had been written by a clerk.

The trouble was that these crosses could easily be forged, and so kings began to send letters bearing their own stamped seal. The use of the cross as a signature obviously did not immediately die out since William and Matilda were still using it.

The crosses used were often of different shapes, including the St. Andrew’s cross, shaped like our X. This form of signature is still with us today; it is the sign we are asked to use on voting forms in elections.

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