Kingdoms of Paper

Natalie Zemon Davis

  • Who Are You? Identification, Deception and Surveillance in Early Modern Europe by Valentin Groebner, translated by Mark Kyburz and John Peck
    Zone, 349 pp, £18.95, April 2007, ISBN 978 1 890951 72 6

When does the history of personal identification technology begin? The history of fingerprinting, photographs, retinal scans, DNA testing? Of the many situations in which we are called on to prove who we are, and of the many places in which our identity is recorded? Some accounts start with the French Revolution and the needs of modern states and colonial empires. Others, following Foucault, push the beginnings back to the surveillance and discipline – ‘the new technologies of power’ – that the monarchies of the 17th and 18th centuries developed to control their subjects. Valentin Groebner traces the origins back to the regulatory urges of even older political and religious institutions: ‘Modern identity papers can in fact be described as the combined outcome of those techniques developed between the 13th and the 16th centuries.’ He establishes his case through an impressively wide range of examples, from government registers and ordinances to personal travel accounts from Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and France.

Groebner begins with a trick played on a 15th-century Florentine woodworker: his friends, among them a city official with a record book and a priest, insisted so strongly that he was someone else that he finally agreed, only for his friends to return him to his previous name. Our identification, Groebner suggests, depends on what others say of us. But he goes on to describe the marks and signs people used to identify themselves to others: authenticating seals, coats of arms, trademarks, insignia. The authorities intervened in these only in exceptional circumstances: in the 14th century, the jurist Bartolus spelled out who had the rights to a trademark or a watermark when a commercial partnership ended; after 1349 the new popular government of Florence integrated nobles into the regime by having them change their coats of arms.

Interestingly, the painted portrait, so extensively developed in the 15th and 16th centuries, did not become a part of the various identity papers and objects that governments were developing at the same time, not even in a small, reproducible woodcut form. Groebner notes the doubts raised at the time about how closely portraits ‘from life’ resembled a person, and cites Alberti’s warning that an artist’s portrait could not be counted on to distinguish a face from a mask.

Authorities relied, then, primarily on words to identify people in official documents. Groebner has dug up letters describing wanted felons and outlaws circulated by towns in Switzerland and north-west Germany from the late 14th century, and registers of pilgrims who deposited valuables at Italian hospitals. In some instances, the name alone was thought sufficient, despite the variation in spelling so common at the time. Often height and appearance were included, but clothing was especially important. It linked the person to a social group or status, something that wasn’t expected to change. An informer’s account of the peasants’ revolt, or Bundschuh, in the Freiburg im Breisgau region in 1517 described the leader’s white coat with black velvet lining, and the small silver arrow in his hat.

The Bundschuh informer also mentioned the moles on the faces of some of the peasants and the shapes of their noses, and Groebner stresses the increasing importance of the skin and the face in practices of identification by the 16th century. Scars, birthmarks and moles become central to recognition, the legacy of a world in which criminals were branded and religious virtuosi displayed stigmata. Skin colour was also characterised, although in a fashion that left plenty of room for interpretation. Groebner provides a helpful excursus on the medical and popular assumptions underpinning notions of complexion, first deriving from humoral theory and then based on physiognomy. When a person’s colour was said to be ‘rosy’ or ‘dark’, this was neither a geographic or ethnic identification, nor connected with lineage: King Louis XI of France was described by a German viewer as ‘brown’. Groebner tells us that ‘the skin colours that European travellers caught sight of in various parts of the New World in the 16th century coincided with those they employed to describe their own skins.’

Only well after the 16th century, Groebner says, with colonial expansion and the Atlantic slave trade, was skin colour seen as a fixed characteristic, biological in origin and unchanging through life. Groebner is not alone in holding this view, but it flies in the face of the evidence collected by Ania Loomba and Jonathan Burton in Race in Early Modern England: A Documentary Companion.[*] Texts from many sources show that ‘quasi-biological’ classifications in regard to skin colour, lineage and religion were in place in the 16th century ‘in ways that illuminate the growth and nature of racial ideologies’. Such classifications didn’t stand alone, but jostled with other, contradictory ones, mixing old ideas with new; yet the amalgam, together with discriminatory practices, helped ‘shape the particular forms taken by modern European slavery and colonialism’. In the late 14th-century Florentine registry of female slaves bought in the city, which Groebner describes, the many Tartar women are characterised as ‘olive-coloured’, which may be an example of the practice that led to the mental habits of classification discussed by Loomba and Burton.

Having explored the various categories of description used by Europeans over the centuries, Groebner turns to the documents and objects of identification issued by authorities for people to wear or carry. Badges with civic insignia were given to town officers and messengers, and, where begging was permitted, to legitimate beggars. Stamped tokens, handwritten notes and eventually printed forms were given to those entitled to receive alms from 16th-century poor relief agencies. Letters of safe conduct and recommendation existed in the early medieval period, and from the 13th century were used by nobles, merchants, pilgrims and envoys. Containing information about the bearer and his or her destination, and authenticated by the formal signatures and seals of a city, duke or prince, such letters were intended to prevent arrest, harassment or the seizure of merchandise along the way, and to facilitate a welcome reception on arrival. The issuer’s prestige, rather than the person of the bearer, endowed the document with its power. Of course, such letters did not usually come free – payments or gifts were required. Some of the letters were quite ornate, presented ceremonially on arrival or saved by their bearers as souvenirs of the voyage.

By the 16th century, travel identification documents had become obligatory in several places. Northern Italy required health certificates from travellers in times of plague. In France and in the Swiss cantons, soldiers away from their fellow troops required documents from their officers proving they weren’t deserters. In Spain, Philip II required all emigrants to New Spain to have written proof, confirmed by their hometown governors, of their identity and appearance, including height and distinguishing marks, and of their origins: that they were not descendants of converted Jews or Muslims or heretics. All of this was reviewed at Seville, and would-be passengers could board the boat only after they had been registered and given a certificate.

But Groebner does not leave his story in the hands of issuing agencies or ‘kings of paper’ (as Philip II was known). He shows how these documents functioned in travellers’ lives, how they were frequently ignored or fabricated or turned to new purposes. Though armed with letters exempting him from excise duties on a trip from Nuremberg to the Netherlands, Albrecht Dürer still had to argue endlessly with customs officials and ended up paying much of the time. The young Swiss physician Thomas Platter had better luck at the end of the 16th century. His passport issued in Geneva was accepted on the Rhone boat from Lyon, but passengers without papers simply bribed the boatmen and on they went. To enter Catholic Spain, Platter persuaded the border official that he and his companions were French merchants intending to buy wine and grain, and was given a travel certificate; at a Catalan monastery, he persuaded the monks that he was a German Catholic come to see the prized relics and other religious treasures.

There are many examples of pilgrims with concealed missions, including spying. Poor relief documents and certificates of attendance at confession were forged – it was especially easy when they were printed. City seals were stolen and used illicitly, as happened in Berne in the late 14th century. Indeed, Gypsies were believed to be so good at forging documents and seals that an imperial decree of 1551 ordered the destruction of all their identity papers. As for the boats bound for New Spain, they had any number of people on board with documents based on false information, or stowaways without any papers at all.

Such successful evasions were not only due to the limits of early modern bureaucracies, but were called into play by the system itself. The 16th-century impostor is for Groebner an exemplary product of the developing system of identification. Indeed, he maintains that a new figure emerges in the 16th century ‘in close association’ with identity papers: rather than a mere impersonator, a returned emperor or king or missing husband, people appeared with completely invented pasts, ‘employing their appearances, testimonies and particularly their papers to substantiate their claims’. Here Groebner is pushing his argument too far. Made-up pasts have a long history behind them: sometimes they were invented by would-be prophets, miracle-workers, healers at fairs, or cross-dressing men and women. Identification papers thread their way through the adventures of impostors, but their importance in winning people’s trust varied.

They weren’t especially important in the very case that Groebner cites to support his claim: David Reuveni, calling himself the brother of King Joseph of Habor, the ruler of some of the Lost Tribes of Israel, came to Rome as his brother’s messenger in 1524 and promised an army of Jewish warriors to join with Christians in a final battle against the Turks. He arrived at the house of Cardinal Egidio di Viterbo, whose favour he needed, dressed in striped silk garments and a great white scarf, riding a white horse, carrying a banner with the Ten Commandments embroidered on it in gold thread, and accompanied by a crowd of Jewish supporters. Egidio was a learned Christian cabbalist and preacher who called for a world conqueror to defeat the Turk and usher in a golden age, and as Miriam Eliav-Feldon has pointed out, the cardinal’s eschatological excitement made him respond eagerly to Reuveni’s claims.[†] When the cardinal took Reuveni to see Pope Clement VII, the ‘prince’ produced a Hebrew genealogy tracing his ancestors back to the biblical King David (a translator must have been used for the presentation since Reuveni spoke only Hebrew and Arabic).

Identity documents certainly served Reuveni’s purposes: a papal letter of recommendation to John III, the king of Portugal, when Clement VII decided not to help him further; a letter of safe conduct into Portugal (whose Jews had been forcibly converted or expelled some years before); and a royal letter of safe conduct out of the kingdom once John III had decided not to give him ships and guns. But letters of authentication had little to do with the conversion of a royal secretary at the Portuguese court back to the Jewish religion of his grandparents. It was, rather, the result of the mystical fervour inspired by Reuveni’s forceful message (under the name of Solomon Molcho, the convert a few years later declared himself the Jewish Messiah). And in 1530, Jews in Venice flocked to Reuveni’s sermons, undeterred by the news that he had been discovered in Mantua not long before forging letters from King Joseph to the pope and emperor; despite some doubters, they were enthralled by his promises to lead them back to the Holy Land. Meanwhile, to the Venetian humanist and geographer Giovanni Battista Ramusio, charged by the Signory with assessing the man, Reuveni presented himself as a warrior ‘with more than a hundred wounds on his body’, a man learned in scripture and cabbala – here Ramusio agreed – and a recipient of messages from the angels. Identity papers were necessary to Reuveni’s movements, but they were not at the heart of his vision nor the grounds for trust in him.

What status did identity papers have in the 16th century? How were they understood by the governments that issued them and the people who carried them? Throughout Who Are You? Groebner characterises them as ‘doubles’ of the people described and even of those signing them. Letters of safe conduct and passports ‘furnished a personal account and duplicated the bearer in material form’; ‘the certificate … literally doubled the person thus authenticated through sealed and stamped documents’; safe-conducts, signed by the duke of Florence, ‘amounted to nothing less than a literal doubling of the prince’s physical authority’; ‘it was reproduction that literally created the proofs of a person’s individuality: an individual had to be doubled by an identity document.’ Groebner is not using ‘double’ in a loose metaphorical sense: when unknown incendiaries, dressed in red and white pants and yellow tunics, threatened Swiss towns in 1499, ‘their menacing visible-invisible doppelgängers appeared … in warrants for arrest.’

A double is not an image or representation of a person; a double comes from the other world, both looking exactly like a person and uncannily incarnating their presence. In the 16th century, when François de Belleforest wrote about people from different families who so resembled each other you could not tell them apart, he talked of the ‘monstrous’, the ‘miraculous’ and the possibility of magic, but still did not refer to them as ‘doubles’.

None of the objects or documents in Groebner’s account has the qualities of a double. The ‘kingdoms of paper’ dreamed of by rulers who signed identity documents and ordered grandiose registers of their subjects might better be linked to the new classification systems being developed to organise manuscripts and printed books and control the swell of information flowing from them. Authenticating seals on identity papers could appear to be infused with the presence of their owner, but they did not replicate the owner. When late medieval and 16th-century people, most of whom could not read, thought of texts as magical, it was again in terms of infusion: pictures of amulets or hands warding off the evil eye were infused with the power of their image; printed prayers to Saint Margaret, placed on the belly of a woman in labour, brought the martyr’s protection, not her double. We might better think of the safe-conduct letters and passports as carrying a message from an authority and as representing a person in words. For the bearer, such a text was not a second self but an instrument. It generated an occasion, a performance, during which one’s identity was affirmed, or made up.

Another kind of occasion on which identification was necessary is interesting to consider here, because it suggests other practices that were brought into play to establish who people were: the drawing up of marriage contracts, wills and inter vivos gifts. Here men and women were described not by their physical traits and appearance, but by biographical information and a web of connections and intentions. The person’s presence was affirmed by a signature, or for the many peasants and artisans who could not sign their names in the 16th century, by a mark, often an X, sometimes an individual design. The writing and reading aloud of the final document (and its translation, if needed, into the local language of the parties involved) took place in the presence of witnesses – relatives, neighbours, artisans in the same trade – all of whom signed or made their mark confirming not only that they had heard the agreement but that the parties were who they said they were. The notary is the supreme witness, his formal signature and multiple copies the guarantee of authenticity.

This mixture of the intimate, the everyday, the formal and the legal is not an archaic one: to obtain my Canadian passport recently, I had to provide the names, status and contact information of people who had known me for a specified number of years and who would confirm that I am who I say I am. One of the many strengths of Groebner’s book is its undermining of a linear account of the history of identification and surveillance. His story is not one of small beginnings and aspirations that grow steadily over the centuries as bureaucracies and technologies become more effective, geographical mobility increases, and nation-states emerge and tighten their borders. Rather, he sees the process of gathering information and creating identity papers as moving in waves, changing its political co-ordinates, conceptual categories and techniques in different contexts. And his associated story – of the ignoring or falsifying of identity papers, of people moving constructively or treacherously in their own fashion – is there from the beginning too. The dual process continues today, as Groebner suggests in a final chapter: fingerprint scanners can apparently be fooled by reproductions made with sellotape and gelatin. Who Are You? helps us understand better the crosscurrents of trust and suspicion, safety and surveillance, independence and control on our own crowded borders and highways.

[*] Palgrave, 320 pp., £60, October, 978 1 4039 6166 2.

[†] ‘Invented Identities: Credulity in the Age of Prophecy and Exploration’, Journal of Early Modern History 3 (1999).