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Welcome to Episode 146 of That Shakespeare Life, the show that takes you behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare.

When telling about the Battle of Hastings, William Malmesbury wrote a description of the English ancestors, the Anglo Saxons, as having “arms covered with golden bracelets, tattooed with coloured patterns.” The trend of tattooing oneself with coloured patterns seems to have fallen to the wayside by the time William Shakespeare was writing about skin used as parchment in Comedy of Errors, because tattoos were far from the everyday normative for your average English citizen in the 16th century. Despite the ancient history of tattoo art on the European continent, for most of the people in Shakespeare’s lifetime, tattoos arrived as a new and noteworthy cultural event when they saw them first as international explorers returned from their oceanic voyages, bringing with them natives who were adorned with ink tattoos. British pilgrims to the Holy Lands in the 17th century would often be tattooed with the Jerusalem Cross as a souvenir from their travels. One famous Britain who had this kind of tattoo done was William Lithgow, who returned to England in 1612, causing quite a cultural splash with his new artwork. Here today to help us explore the place, and reality of tattoos in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime including what kind of tattoos might have been present, from where, and why is our guest, Matt Lodder.

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Dr Matt Lodder is a Senior Lecturer in Art History and Theory, and Director of American Studies at the University of Essex. His research explores the application of art-historical methods to the history of Western tattooing from the 17th century to the present day. His expertise also extends to wider histories of body modification practices in the West, including tongue splitting, implants, and other procedures. He has given lectures at the V7A, National Museum of Scotland, and the Museum of London. His work is published in history Today, The Guardian, and Royal Academy Magazine, among others. His first major exhibition, ‘British Tattoo Art Revealed’, toured nationwide throughout the UK for three years, concluding in 2020. Matt serves as the presenter of the landmark television series “Art of Museums” , also known in French as ‘Magie des Grands Musées’, airing across Europe. Find out more about Matt and links to his work in today’s show notes.


In this episode, I’ll be asking Matt Lodder about :

  • When William Lithgow returned to England from the Holy Land in 1612, sporting a brand new tattoo of the Jerusalem Cross, was his tattoo a cultural event for society in 1612? 
  • William of Malmesbury wrote about the Battle of Hastings, describing the British as having tattoos on their bodies. Was there an association with tattoos and military service by the time Shakespeare was alive?
  • In 1577, Martin Frobisher brought back Inuit natives from the Americas to England, and they were covered in tattoos. Surviving images and drawings of these men show the tattooing could be quite extensive, as one Pictish warrior drawn by John White, is almost entirely blue, such extensive tattooing had be done on his body. Matt, were tattoos part of the novelty of natives for Tudor England.

… and more!

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    The country gives me proof and precedent
    Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices,
    Strike in their numb’d and mortified bare arms

    King Lear (II.3)

    witch feeding familiars 1604

    Screen capture from the Google Books version of William Lithgow’s  account of his travels. This drawing is of the tatoo design he created and had placed on his arm while in Jerusalem. The tattoo includes the Jerusalem Cross and the symbol for King James I reign in England. Text and images are not mine. The book is in the public domain.  Original Source.

    William Lithgow

    When William Lithgow returned to England from the Holy Land in 1612, sporting a brand new tattoo of the Jerusalem Cross. 

    “Lithgow is a good example of the early modern period tattoos. That’s very early in pilgrimages to the Holy Land and his tattoo is interesting in this context because he goes and gets tattooed and he himself tells various versions of his tale in the various editions he published of his journey. He conned the tattooist into giving him a pro-James I tattoo without telling him what it was.” 

    Screen capture of The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Totall Discourse of The Rare Adventures & Painefull Peregrinations, by William Lithgow. Public Domain. Highlights are provided by Cassidy Cash to show you where in the work by Lithgow our guest, Matt Lodder, is quoting during the episode.
    You can read the full book here.

    Lithgow’s tattoo (shown in the image above) is an example of early modern tattoo art, but as Matt Lodder points out,

    Lithgow’s design seems to be of his own invention. The designs do survive, produced by carving into olive wood blocks, Printed onto the skin and tattooed over by hand. Traveller in the 1960s, recorded the imprints of these tattoos and there’s a Jerusalem tattoo shop that claims to have been doing these since the 17th century. Often the Jeruslaem Cross, symbol of the franciscans. Edward VII fot that tattooed on him in 1861. Saints, names of places you’ve been, stars of the three kings. Some are more decorative with flowers, etc. Wide iconagraphic range. Beautiful. Proof that you’ve been. Proving your piety.” 

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    1589 drawing by John White showing Arnaq and her daughter Nutaaq who were Inuit from Frobisher Bay; woman in sealskin parka with baby in hood Pen and ink and watercolour. Public Domain. Source

    Martin Frobisher Returns with Tattooed Natives

    In 1577, Martin Frobisher brought back Inuit natives from the Americas to England, and they were covered in tattoos. Surviving images and drawings of these men show the tattooing could be quite extensive, as one Pictish warrior drawn by John White, is almost entirely blue, such extensive tattooing had be done on his body.

    Matt says,

    “1566, natives brought to France and Antwerp. Tattooing is surprising to Tudor England. John White images, somehistorians think he could have been on Frobisher’s voyage. When theyare published, theyare published alongside fictitious images of ancient Britons that had benewritten about by the Romans (probably bodypaint, centuries long myth of Britons being painted blue). 1590 when White’s images first published, book by Thomas Harriot. [He quotes the book here “as savage as those of Virginia”]…Although it would go on to change in the following centuries, for Shakespeare’s lifetime, tattoos were seen as humanist and connecting people. Not something people were unaware of. Instead, it was something that links people together and particularly links England with the people they were meeting for the first time abroad. “

    A ‘Pict’ warrior; nude, body stained and painted with birds, animals and serpents carrying shield and man’s head, with scimitar Watercolour touched with white over graphite, with pen and brown ink © The Trustees of the British Museum Used under Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0. Used by permission.

    See the original at the British Museum here.

    1577 portrait of Martin Frobisher by Cornelis Ketel. Portrait of Sir Martin Frobisher. Courtesy of the collections of the University of Oxford. Public Domain. Source

    Use our collection of activity kits to can cook, play, and create your way through the life of William Shakespeare with recipes, games, and crafts straight from Shakespeare's lifetime (and mentioned in his plays!) It's the most fun way to explore history.

    Black as the ink that’s on thee!

    Cymbeline (III.2)

    Southampton portrait wriothesley

    Hand-colored version of Theodor de Bry’s engraving of a Pict woman (a member of an ancient Celtic people from Scotland). De Bry’s engraving, “The True Picture of a Women Picte,” was originally published as an illustration in Thomas Hariot’s 1588 book A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. The woman stands with a long spear held upright in her left hand, and two long spears held horizontally in her right hand. She wears only a large ring around her waist, from which a curved sword hangs behind her, and a smaller ring around her neck. Much of her body appears to be painted or tattooed. In the background, two buildings stand on hillsides. Theodor de Bry was a Flemish-born engraver and publisher who based his illustrations for Hariot’s book on the paintings of colonist John White. Most of the book’s illustrations depict the native people encountered by Hariot and White on their North American expedition, but A Brief and True Report also contains five engravings of the Picts and their neighbors in ancient Scotland. De Bry included these images “to show how that the inhabitants of the Great Bretannie have been in times past as savage as those of Virginia.” An unidentified artist applied the color to this version of de Bry’s engraving. Public Domain. Source

    Inuit Women Tattoos

    Matt indicates that one reason it is hard to catalog the exact history of tattoos in Elizabethan/Tudor England is because there’s not much evidence about things which would have been looked upon as ordinary. Matt explains,

    [There is a ] general lack of ordinary people’s lives and creates a visibility gap. It may not be that tattoos are entirely absent, but rather that documentation is lacking for that part of society, due to it being potentially an incredibly normal thing to do. Marco Polo in translation mentions tattoos in China and Far East and modern day Vietnam. It’s really clear that tattooing was happening at this point in history.

    Others who heavily documented the Inuit natives, as well as the peoples of other countries, are Theodore Bry and John White. These men created engravings as well as drawings to publish the findings of explorers like Frobisher who travelled the world. These drawings were published and are one way people like William Shakespeare would have known about these people and their culture.

    Though ink be made of gall.
    Posthumous Leonatus

    Cymbeline (I.1)

    Replica Tools Tattoo Needles Native American 16th C

    This image is titled “Replica tools” and shows recreations of pre-metal Native American tattooing implements from the Eastern Woodlands, as based on European historical accounts from the 16th-18th centuries. These include, from top to bottom (L): turkey bone; deer bone; wooden handle with deer bone slivers; locust thorn; sharpened river cane; and the mandible of an alligator gar; and (R), a catfish spine; flint graver; and flint arrow point. These objects could be identified with a description such as “European accounts beginning in the 16th century describe Native American tattooing using a variety of non-metal tools similar to the ones seen here.” Image is used here by permission and special license courtesy Aaron Deter-Wolf, Tennessee Division of Archaeology.

    What Tattoos Were Made From

    The ink they would have used to make tattoos in the early modern period was similar to the ink they would have used for writing. Matt points out that the ink was made from

    “Ox gall–fluid from a cow’s gallbladder…Some had plant based berry based inks, but in the western context, the exact same kind of ink. Carbon black.

    Notably, the ink on the Inuits as well as the accounts recorded by some of the explorers specifically say that Pictish warriors were covered in blue ink. I was unable to find out in time for this week’s episode whether the black ox gall or carbon ink that was popular for writing in Elizabethan England would have turned blue when applied to human skin, or if the specific blue color (and not black) cited by John White’s drawings and others, meant that the Picts in particular would have used a specific recipe for their permanent tattoo ink. Personally, I suspect various cultures used various combinations of permanent application but I was unable to confirm in time for today’s episode. If you know the answer, please comment below and tell us!

    Use our collection of activity kits to can cook, play, and create your way through the life of William Shakespeare with recipes, games, and crafts straight from Shakespeare's lifetime (and mentioned in his plays!) It's the most fun way to explore history.

    Books & Resources Matt Lodder Recommends

    This last one is added here by me, Cassidy Cash, as promised since it is a link to the Paul Slack book that quotes Thomas Hariot. I used it in the show notes above, and if you’re interested in your own copy, you can get one at this link.

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