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.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] 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).