I have often been fascinated by ideologies passed down through the generations that can then be observed over time to have changed in meaning or practice. In my parents’ generation, I could never understand why my mother was so against me getting my ears pierced or why it was so taboo to get tattoos. Of course, growing up Baptist, there were always religious reasons given. And as I recently discovered, the religious aspects pertaining to this subject also played a huge part in colonial times, but for different reasons.
I didn’t make the connection between generational negative attitudes towards piercings and tattoos and the uses of markings on the body as forms of punishment from colonial times, until I spent a dream vacation with my husband last Christmas in Colonial Williamsburg. We enjoyed all its festive beauty with: windows donning fresh fruit fur wreaths, authentic instruments being played by candlelight in the House of Burgesses, soldiers marching to the rhythm of drum and fife for the lighting of the Governor’s Palace and onlookers singing traditional carols on the colonial streets in the brisk cold evening air.
We also experienced one of the most informative events of our visit at the Colonial Courthouse. There, my husband and I learned about traditional punishments of the colonists that were deeply intertwined with the church; many times the pastors being the ones to enforce the laws, especially around attending church services.
In the Colonial Williamsburg Journal article by James A. Cox, “Bilboes, Brands, and Branks: Colonial Crimes and Punishments” the types of punishments that were the norm in colonial living and how the larger community took part were detailed. Branding and maiming may shock us, but, for our colonist ancestors, “the sight of a man lopped of his ears, or slit of his nostrils, or with a seared brand or great gash in his forehead or cheek could not affect the stout stomachs that cheerfully and eagerly gathered around the bloody whipping-post and the gallows.” I can see where a 17th century branding could be the predecessor of today’s more contemporary rendering of the tattoo, which some describe as a type of branding of the body.
My aha moment came when I heard the lady in the courthouse at Colonial Williamsburg describe the punishment given to those placed in the stocks. Cox describes the whole affair this way: “The pillory, or ‘stretch-neck,’ called ‘the essence of punishment’ in England, stood in the main squares of towns up and down the colonies. An upright board, hinged or divided in half with a hole in which the head was set fast, it usually also had two openings for the hands. Often the ears of the subject were nailed to the wood on either side of the head hole. In 1648 in Maryland, John Goneere, convicted of perjury, was ‘nayled by both eares to the pillory 3 nailes in each eare and the nailes to be slitt out, and whipped 20 good lashes.’"
Here is an example where the piercing of the ears created a marking on the body that even after healing would still be present for other members of the colonial community to not only remember what that person had done, but what kind of character flaw they portrayed in society. The “mark” would let others know that a person had committed an offense and was not trustworthy.
The negative psychology associated with the piercing of the ears in colonial times may be an underlying subconscious influence behind negative feelings about the subject today.
Could there be a connection between 17th century colonial punishments and my mom’s beliefs that I shouldn’t brand or pierce my body? Could it be not just religiosities of belief systems, but a negative collective consciousness that has been passed down through generations to preserve society as a whole? Could the idea of being marked or pierced create a stigma, or a Darwinian development in the psyche, a type of human conditioned response that makes us associate these as a sign of, as Cox points out, “… treason, sedition, arson, blasphemy, witchcraft, perjury, wife beating, cheating, forgery, coin clipping, dice cogging, slandering, conjuring, fortune-telling, and drunkenness, among other offenses”?
I believe the suspicion is there, at least with certain generations, that people with piercings and tattoos can’t be trusted.
Considering the backdrop of these specific punishments within the context of Puritan thought within the colonial movement, I cannot go without stating the obvious. Jesus was both pierced and marked with nails. Although his circumstances and communal context was different, the punishment left marks on his body denoting not only his suffering, but that he was a marked man. Ironically, because of these markings, how would he be judged within a religious colonial community?
I jump to the current trend where, within society today, it is more acceptable to get piercings and tattoos. I don’t think all the judgment has disappeared, but, unlike generations past, it is the freedom to self-express and have ownership of one’s body that speaks to why people make those choices. For many, tattoos create a way to memorialize loved ones or keep literal reminders of significant moments in their personal journeys.
And for those who need to know, yes, I have pierced ears and I do have tattoos by choice, not because someone else has forced those markings upon me or because of character flaws against societal rule. And if you take the time to really get to know me, I think you’ll find me quite trustworthy.
Kat Helms writes from Taneytown.