11 Inscriptions on Buildings That Tell It Like It Is
By Arika Okrent
People have carved inscriptions onto buildings since ancient times. They usually contain wise advice or admonitions. The Temple of Apollo at Delphi says "Know Thyself," and legend has it that an inscription above the door of Plato's school read "Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here." The practice carried over to humbler buildings, like personal dwellings and shops, and got a boost in popularity with the classical revival of the Middle Ages. Most inscriptions favor fancy Latin proverbs and religious scripture but sometimes they get a little more creative. Here are 11 inscriptions on (mostly) old buildings that tell it like it is.
1. Plaza Entrance in Amsterdam
Homo sapiens non urinat in ventum
This quote, which you can see in the photo above, translates to "A wise man doesn’t piss into the wind." Built in the 1990s, so not exactly an old building yet, but advice for the ages.
2. On a house in Norfolk, UK
Nec mihi glis servus, nec hospes hirudo
This inscription—"No doormouse as servant for me, neither a horse leech for a guest"—was no doubt inspired by an overstayed welcome. Stay away mooches!
3. Almshouse in Herefordshire, UK
"He that gives away all before he's dead, Let 'em take this hatchet and knock him on the head."
Illustrated with the figure of man holding an axe, naked but for his hat, shoes, and a strategically placed knot of fabric. One story (of many) says it refers to the man who founded the almshouse and got into so much debt from building expenses, he ended up spending the rest of his days as a resident.
4. Doorway in Essex on Hilly Road
"The dumb animals' humble petition Rest, drivers rest, on this steep hill, Dumb beasts, pray use with all good will. Goad not, scourge not, with thonged whips; Let not one curse escape your lips. 'God sees and hears.'"
Someone on that hill got sick of hearing all the shouting and abuse.
5. Under the Coat of Arms, Knowsley Hall in Lancashire
“James, Earl of Derby, Lord of the Man and the Isles, grandson of James, Earl of Derby, and of Charlotte, daughter of Claude, Duke de la Tremouille, whose husband James was beheaded at Bolton, 15th October, 1652, for strenuously adhering to Charles II, who refused a bill passed unanimously by both Houses of Parliament, for restoring to the family the estates lost by his loyalty to him, 1732."
The politics are complicated, but it means something like, "I'm putting this here as the grandson of the guy that got beheaded defending Charles II, that jerk who when he got back into power couldn't be bothered to pass a bill that would have given my grandfather's estate back to us. But look, we got it back anyway."
6. Houses in Buckinghamshire
"Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Women." "An Obedient Wife Governs Her Husband."
Among the inscriptions on the 31 houses of Harleyford village are some that are pretty forward-thinking for the 17th century. Must have been a nice neighborhood.
7. Adare Manor House, co. Limerick, Ireland
"This goodly house was erected by Wyndam Henry, Earl of Dunraven, and Caroline his countess, without borrowing, selling, or leaving a debt, A.D. 1850"
Well, good for you, but you don't have to brag about it. Unfortunately for their descendants, the house proved too expensive to maintain and it was sold to an American businessman in 1984. It's now a lovely hotel.
8. On the Town Gate in Galway, Ireland
"From the ferocious O'Flaherty's, Good Lord deliver us!"
The gate is no more, but legend has it the citizens of Galway erected one in the 1500s with this inscription on it. Another account, unsupported by the historical record, has it that the gates at the other entrance-points to the city read as follows: "From the devlish O'Dalys, Good Lord, defend us!"; "From the cut-throat O'Kellys, Good Lord save and keep us!"; "From the murderous O'Maddens, Good Lord, preserve us!"
9. House in Baumkirchen, Austria
Dies Hause gehört mich nein, Der nach mir kommt auch nicht sein; Man trug auch den Dritten, hinaus: Ach Gott! wem gehört dieses Haus? "This house belongs not to me, Neither to him who comes after me; They carried out the third also (to burial): Ah God, to whom belongs this house?"
In other words, "Yeah, I guess this is my house, but not really, because nothing actually belongs to us anyway, 'cause we're all gonna die."
10. Various Places in Bavaria, Germany
Extra Bavariam nulla vita, et si vita, non est ita.
This inscription reads, "There's no life outside Bavaria, and if there is, it isn't life at all." And you thought Texas had state pride.
11. A Sundial on a House in Northhamptonshire.
"We shall die all."
Pretty gloomy. Like, "look at the clock, and be reminded how little time you have left." But it sounds less gloomy when you realize it's a pun on "dial." Get it? Sundial? Die all? Feel your gloom being replaced by annoyance?