Odd subject, I know, but I tend to be curious about unusual topics prompted by some knick knack artifact that somehow presents itself to me. In this case, it begins with a small beat up and partially corroded chessman style bronze wax seal. The seal was a dig find, I am not the digger, in England that has been unearthed after spending centuries buried in the ground… thus the corrosion! It dates back to the 1400’s and on the face of the seal is a little squirrel holding a nut to its mouth. The squirrel is surrounded by a legend, in Lombardic script, that’s quite challenging to read because of the corrosion around the edge, the fact that it is inscribed in the reverse and it’s in Latin! Eventually, with the help of a magnifying glass, I discover the legend reads “I CRAKE NOTIS” which translates “I crack nuts.”
What on earth does that mean? After lots of research, I have reached several conclusions. I crake notis could mean:
1 – The ability of the owner (of the seal) to deal with difficult situations or tough negotiations
2 – Referring to the breaking of the seal. Remember, one reason folks used wax seals was to seal a private letter to keep the contents private to all but the intended reader.
3 – A bawdy meaning that refers to sexual conquest.
This research satisfied me until I came across a second medieval squirrel wax seal. This one had a different Latin legend surrounding the squirrel:
*S’ RADVLEI.LE.CHAPMA” which translates to the “Seal of Ralph.” It was the personal seal of a Medieval trader named Ralph, who was a Chapman, meaning he traveled from village to village selling the items he carried. I would consider a chapman or salesman a hard worker but interestingly, according to the Grand Medieval Bestiary (just one illustrated volume of various beasts, quite common in the Middle Ages) there were three animals that symbolized greed: “Be not like the grasping squirrel, the covetous monkey, or the avaricious wolf.” The squirrel was viewed as greedy as the ultimate winter hoarder that could not even remember all the places it hid its hoards of nuts and lazy because it spent one third of the year sleeping (now known as hibernation).
And now, a third medieval squirrel wax seal. This one a more preserved “I CRAKE NOTIS” legend surrounds the squirrel. It’s just beautiful, but now I wonder why so many medieval squirrel wax seals when really, there aren’t that many medieval wax seals still in existence?
More research, this from The Archaeological Journal, volume 12, finds that the squirrel was actually a favorite and popular device on seals of the XIVth and the XVth centuries. In fact, the “I CRAKE NOTIS” squirrel device was already engraved and available for purchase in the markets… one did not need to engage an engraver to inscribe this motif… it was done.
So, medieval folks liked squirrels! They were actually often affectionate companions and popular medieval pets, one of little monetary value, but pampered and adorned with elaborate accessories, fitted with a collar attached to a finely crafted silver chain. There is evidence of this in all kinds of medieval literature and art… including jewelry!
The British Museum in London displays a 15th century gold love ring with a sapphire setting inscribed on both the outside and inside of the ring. The outer description reads, in French, “une fame nominative a fait de moy son dative par la parole genitive en depit de l’accusatiff” which translates ”nominative fame has its dative of me by the genitive of the word despite accusatiff” but I think I’ll need a little help with the figurative meaning. The inside depicts a drawing of a lady with a squirrel on a leash, holding an acorn to tempt it into her lap and the inscription reads
“s(i?)s amour est infiniti(v)e ge veu este son relatiff” (even the British Museum has a little trouble reading this one) and the translation from French is ““Love is infinite for her relative.” I’ll leave this to you, the reader!
And now, we can wear our own little squirrel… a wax seal necklace that’s a little piece of history!