The Sepulchre of the Priest John Blodwell in Holy Trinity Church, Balsham, Cambridgeshire d. 16th April 1462

Or how an inattentive text-cutter caused havoc

  • Reinhard Lamp (Autor/in)


It is natural for a friend of medieval Latin texts found on a brass epitaph to enjoy detecting a mistake in the engraving, as in the present case of the commemorative brass to John Blodwell in Balsham, Cambridgeshire, which even has three such events. It definitely makes the day for the specialist. In reality, however, it is unjust to gloat over a mistake. Mistakes are natural, are to be expected. On the contrary, each time an inscription is faultless, one should take off one’s hat to the engraver. In the Middle Ages only a small minority of the population was able to read and write, and an estimated 2 % only understood a Latin text and would know to evade errors when copying it. The meaning of an inscription was explained to the parishioners or visitors by the priest. So, one may consider an engraver to be a high-calibre expert and knowledgeable specialist of a metal-workshop, artisan and artist to boot, who not seldom went out of his way to deliver a graphic work of art, equipping a letter, in particular capitals, with manifold decorations, thus spending additional time and energy while finding his joy in creating a thing of beauty. In our present case, however, the engraver was inattentive and committed a thundering blunder, which caused havoc. The present author ventured to repair it by his conjecture. More interesting even is the rare event of the poet making a mistake in the Latin poem on purpose in order to get his message across. One example of such liberty taken with the language is found on the commemorative brass plate for Rupert of Jülich-Berg, bishop-elect of Paderborn. The marginal text describes him as De montis vectum bavarorum – meaning “Him who travelled here from the mountains of the Bavarians”, in order to explain that he resisted the chance of occupying the rich and powerful see of Passau, preferring to be bishop in his own duchy of Berg, in Westfalia. The Latin text should be understood as containing the elliptical terms “gens, or stirps, or familia” and to be read as De (gente) montis – “Of the family of Berg”, thus pointing to Rupert belonging to the ducal family of Berg. Insolent, but ingenious. Something similar happened on Blodwell’s foot-inscription. The poet wrote invenit, but that would not have made sense in its context. He intended the word to be understood as Invenitur, thus avoiding a mistake of prosody. In the same text occurs the word do in the meaning of deo. In both cases the relevant letters received a special treatment as a warning. Thus the inscriptions on Blodwell’s memorial are not only a work of graphic art, but also ensure high-rate entertainment in the act of deciphering them.