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27.5.20 Tile and Slate

A view of modern Pietrabbondante
A view of modern Pietrabbondante

Sometime around 100 BCE, two women, working in what is now Pietrabbondante in the south-central part of  Italy, signed a clay tile they were making with their footprints and their names. They were labourers – free or unfree we can’t be sure – and one of them has signed in Latin, the other in the Oscan language. The woman who signed in Latin was called Amica, and she put these words: Herenneis Amica signavit qando aponebamus tegila. Or, ‘Amica of Herens signed when we were laying out the tile.’  Thanks to sheer good luck, their tile, and so their names and a little snapshot of their lives, survived long enough to make it into the historical record.

Now fast forward seven hundred years or so, to the first half of the seventh century CE. In what is now Spain, the political consensus known as the Roman empire has broken down, but life goes on, and there is a legal system operating to settle disputes. Someone has scratched a declaration about witnesses with a sharp object onto a piece of slate; this slate is one of 150 or so which have been discovered in the area between Ávila and the Portuguese border in the province of Castilla y León. Here is some of what it says:

dum istare in domo Desideri,
fuit ueniens Froila et dixit mici: ‘leua, leuita,
et uadamus ad domo Busani et Fasteni [. . .]’
sucisit fuimus ad domo Busani …

‘While I was in the house of Desiderius, there came along Froila and he said to me: “Up you get, clerk, and let us go to the house of Busa (?) and Fastenus.” It transpired we went to the house of Busa . . .’

What can these two very different moments tell us about the history of Latin? What impresses me about the tile is that it records a moment that is so random, so mundane, like two people scratching their names in drying concrete today. And that is, paradoxically, what makes it such a precious piece of evidence. The women are literate, and what’s more they’re literate in two different languages. Latin started life as the language of an area no greater than Rome and its immediate surroundings, sharing the peninsula with Etruscan in the north, Oscan in the centre, and Greek in the south, not to mention a whole host of other more localized languages. It’s important to remember that Latin was not always some world-beating super-language, but was at the time of this tile only one of many different and competing means of communication.

The slate, meanwhile, documents another moment of ordinary life: language (and literacy) as a means of getting access to mediation, resolution, judgement. If the tile shows us Latin before its rise to dominance, the slate appears to show us a Latin that is beginning to fade away. That’s because the above extract is interesting not so much for what it says, but for how it says it, for what Adams calls its ‘proto-Spanish features’. The verb stare, ‘stand’, is being used in place of the verb esse, ‘to be’, in a way that anticipates the same shared duties of estar and ser  in modern Spanish; esse also appears to be filling in for the past tense of the verb vadere, ‘to go’, again in a way exactly parallel to Spanish.

These two moments, then, tiny as they are, give glimpses of an everyday language, one spoken by labourers and litigants; one used for the most ordinary of interactions and tasks. And it is this Latin, in all its diversity, much more so than the famous works of literature, which forms the human chain that stretches from the past into the present, from Amica and her friend in that tile factory, through early medieval Spain and countless other places, and on to a conversation in the streets of Milan or Madrid, São Paulo or L.A., in 2020.

Note: I first read about the Pietrabbondante tile in Amy Richlin’s Arguments with Silence (Ann Arbor, MI, 2014); if you’d like to read more about it I recommend this post by Katherine McDonald of the University of Exeter, from which I’ve taken the above translation. For the slate I draw from J. N. Adams’ An Anthology of Informal Latin (Cambridge, 2016) – his is the text and translation, above – and from I. Velázquez Soriano’s Las pizarras visigodas (Real Academia Española, 2nd edn, 2004). The image above is taken from Wikipedia and is in the public domain.