A flourish of thy name!

signature and history

As young children forever held fascinated by how the elder people around us dished out the initials of their identity with a flourish upon our record books and copies and documents, there always has rested a fancy in the tender minds about this very important, yet commonplace still need to put up signatures somewhere or the other. Particularly for the ones like us who were resigned to jotting down their full names every single time on notebooks and answer scripts and here and there for what seemed like an eternity already, there was reserved this particular fascination for signing on our own, something we set about working on so diligently quite so often then, as the penultimate pages of our school notebooks would be filled with such flairous and frivolous scribblings of our initials that we hoped to sometime ‘portray’ to the world in all our naivety of how it all works. For us youngsters not yet accustomed to the ways of the grown up world, there had always existed this deep seated longing to someday have our own signatures, something that would ever be always so personal but that which felt then even more especial given how it was out of bounds of our tipsy fingers not yet fully habituated to delivering the perfect strokes of finesse while yielding a pen.

Growing up, the charm of signatures somewhat faded but their significance persisted, perhaps even aggravated as we would come to discover while starting out by signing application and examination forms, graduating to even more esteemed but as menacing requirements of the professional and legal and financial aspects of life that we saw through their pompous pursuals of our innocent fantasies. But despite having our bubbles burst and the ‘power’ to finally sign out signatures of our own not causing much of a stir in our worlds, fancy adaptations of our names so excitedly played out mid class took on repetitive and even illegible interpretations as the grown up realm of the signature and the signatories ceased to do any sort of magic to us.

Whether signatures have been working, or not working their magic through times might be obscured, or even unimportant a matter in consideration of the widely significant function they are entitled to performing but they still have been around in some form or the other as a means of essential validation for really long. In fact, the first recorded signature in history happens to date back to times even before the dawn of the Common Era, precisely to the 30th century BCE when a certain scribe Gar.Ama recorded his signature, or more appropriately his autograph on a Sumerian clay tablet. Just for the record though, signatures and autographs are not always the exact same thing despite their tendency to being used as synonyms of each other. An autograph is a more stylised version of a signature, an artistic signature that is often the marker of identity of public figures and celebrities who oblige their fans and followers with that characteristic flair of their own, usually as a means of a souvenir that commemorates people’s in person brush with them.

Whatever that might be, Gar.Ama’s signature was not one in writing terms as known to us today for the simple reason that alphabets had not come to be until then. What prevailed then was a series of pictures and symbols, or pictographs that the ancient culture of the Sumerians and the Egyptians used as a meaningful means of conveyance. The said sign of Gar Ama was one amongst a number of such symbols inscribed on the clay tablet that was a list of 41 common professions of that time. More concrete an existence in history has been the signature of the medieval Spaniard El Cid dating to the 11th century who marked on the impression of his identity upon a document that acknowledged the donation made by him to the Cathedral of Valencia. But evidently, the earliest handwritten signatures, signed in the Latin language had already come into being several centuries earlier during the rule of Roman emperor Valentinian III, in the year 439 AD when wills began to be authenticated by adding a subscripto towards their end, therefore endowing upon signatures a clarity that has endured its significance well into the modern times. Even further back another few centuries, it had been emperor Nero during whose reign signatures were understood to be in prevalence, established though rather ironically in a particular anecdote that stemmed of the royal’s reluctance to sign a death warrant for a convict, going as far as to lament having ever learned to write!

What however persisted as signatures before the Middle Ages were rather seals that which in the Sumerian context used to be attached to a small round cylinder about one inch in length and then pressed into wet clay, therefore embossing them with intricate designs. Japan also had its own seal, the Hanko seal as a means of stamping identity as did the ancient civilisations of Greece, Rome and Egypt who sought authentication through such ways of asserting identity.

Signatures began to dictate the realms of the arts quite early as well, as existing references of cave paintings and rock art point to certain definite imprints that sought to communicate the identity of the artist. The most prominent of such unique identifying marks should be the aboriginal hand stencils that are so much a feature of paintings dating back to times really ancient and far flung in the annals of history. But the today routine phenomenon of definitively marking artistic creations with signatures did not emerge well after the Medieval Period, during which they dwelled in less coveted an appeal. Most recognised of such artistic recourse to assertion of identity would be the many mason’s marks, cut out decisively on dressed stone in buildings and other public structures as testament to the work done by stonemasons in all their skilful flair. Notions of the engraved identity in creation beyond these stone structures only began to be more encountered since the times of the Renaissance. The Ancient Greeks were more advanced however in this adage of life and culture as well, as signed ceramics and other such items of craft ranging from the 7th century BCE have been known to exist in not very sparse numbers.

But while signatures in all their physical manifestation of letters and alphabet had come to be in existence, whether on documents or into pieces of art, since the times when the Common Era began marking the timeline of the world, the means of stomping authority through seals had not yet been outdated. Also making their appearance in the Bible, sealing continues to be a very common form of identity marker in a couple of Asian nations like China and Japan, as also in Korea even as one of the most important historical documents, England’s Magna Carta was agreed upon by the king and validated by means of a seal as considerably late as in 1215. It was again the period of the Renaissance of the 15th century that signatures gained greater ground but as a means not yet tied to legal notions of them. Authenticated and signed old manuscripts and documents came to be coveted items of novelty among the classy elite but far more intriguing was the collection of friends’ signatures and autographs that the public came to take pride in. Compiled as alba amicorum or “albums of friends” and continuing well into the early modern era, this trend is what perhaps brought into focus the autograph craze of celebrities though of course the underlying factor of ‘showing off’ in the latter case is much more dominant that what likely had guided the collecting of signatures of near and dear ones.

Beyond such recurring visage of signatures in the modern times associated somewhat with the flair and charisma that held us in awe as kids emerged the more integral and necessary essence of it that validated personal identity in legal terms. The most significant development in this respect dates to the England of the 17th century when increasing literacy rates as well as an unrelated but simultaneous increase in frauds necessitated signatures to be bestowed with a greater legal status so as to prevent being duped by conniving agents. Thus ensued the path for the Statute of Frauds to recognize the signature as an official evidence of the legal validity of certain contracts in conformity with its passing by the Parliament of England in 1677. It was following this rather epochal decision that written signatures began to assume a more authoritarian role as an effective guarantee against frauds, thereby closely binding them with the legal dimensions of modern society, popularly considered to be the hallmark of safety and security.

The 19th and the 20th centuries saw greater ‘versatility’ worked into this realm of the essentially important nature of signatures as digital signatures came to be recognised as as legitimate a means of stamping one’s identity. Prior to that it was the development of the printing press that brought about the phenomenon of rubber stamps that allowed these custom imprints of name to be as affirmative a case in validation though with associated ambiguities. The emergence of the telegram facility and the boom in the usage of fax machines led to similar such explorations with the signature to become possible and electronic signature soon became the preferred means of exerting flair through one’s name. Celebrity autographs continue to be popular as well, though somewhat losing out on the more gratifying ‘acknowledgement’ of the selfie but still persisting haughtily enough to still be a thing of the current times. And as for us, the common grown up masses, signatures have indeed still held their place of relevance more out of necessity than by choice, even when losing out long ago on its facade of irresistibly abridged charm.