Segno di Croce – sign of the cross or signature? Are we going back to this?

Literacy and the ability to read & write was often a privilege of the wealthy despite the fact that schooling was, officially at least, available to all children between 6 and 9 years of age starting in 1877.   Many children of the poor “contadini” were needed in the fields and rarely allowed to attend school.  Illiteracy was very high.    

Every legal act or contract in Italy is read aloud to the participants even today. I assume that is to ensure that the contract is understood by all present since many, and sadly even today, were illiterate.  In 1816 this birth act was read aloud to the declarant and witnesses.  The final paragraph reads, “this act was read to the declarants’ and signed by us being that the “others were illiterate”.  Another version would read “that they didn’t know how to write”.                                                             

The above is unusual in that it shows that the “others” actually made the sign of the cross and had their names entered beside it.  The clerks didn’t often bother with this step, they simply signed themselves.

Research suggests that while computers, cell phones and tablets are dominating our lives, penmanship can benefit us in many ways. France has recognised this and children are taught cursive writing.  Italy also continues to teach cursive while in North America and England it is quickly a dying skill.

 Look at this example of signatures on an 1846 marriage document. All, except Pasquale Tatangelo have an education at least to Grade 8 if not higher.  Pasquale is an ‘artisan’ and the father of the bride, and is one of those people who has laboured over his signature and probably knows only how to write that. It is an attempt at cursive writing but still needs practise.  His daughter Filomena Tatangelo, the 18 year old bride, writes beautifully as does the groom Tommaso Terribile and his father Donato, also ‘artisans’. The other signatures are those of the witnesses and you can guess at the various levels of education just by looking at their signatures.

In an article from Guardian Weekly,

Although learning to write by hand does seem to play an important part in reading, no one can say whether the tool alters the quality of the text itself. Do we express ourselves more freely and clearly with a pen than with a keyboard? Does it make any difference to the way the brain works? Some studies suggest this may indeed be the case. In a paper published in April in the journal Psychological Science, two US researchers, Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, claim that note-taking with a pen, rather than a laptop, gives students a better grasp of the subject.

The study focused on more than 300 students at Princeton and the University of California, Los Angeles. It suggested that students who took longhand notes were better able to answer questions on the lecture than those using a laptop. For the scientists, the reason is clear: those working on paper rephrased information as they took notes, which required them to carry out a preliminary process of summarising and comprehension; in contrast, those working on a keyboard tended to take a lot of notes, sometimes even making a literal transcript, but avoided what is known as “desirable difficulty”.

It is sad that many young people today are ‘signing’ their passport and driver’s licence with their initials or writing their name in basic block printing.  A signature can say a lot about a person’s character and while the Pasquale Tatangelo of 1856 is not an ancestor I respect the effort he made to learn to ‘sign’ his name. It says a lot that he learned this in order to sign his daughter’s marriage act. Her signature tells us that her father sent her to school for many years, unusual in those times for a female.

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