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  • Who Are You? Identification, Deception, and Surveillance in Early Modern Europe
  • Louis Haas
Valentin Groebner . Who Are You? Identification, Deception, and Surveillance in Early Modern Europe.Trans. Mark Kyburz. Cambridge, MA: Zone Books, 2007. 350 pp. index. illus. $30. ISBN: 978–1–890951–72–6.

How do we know who we are, and how do others know who we are? These are not existential questions in the hands of Valentin Groebner; they are practical questions for people in the past as well as for us today. I can remember being struck, while studying the medieval English feudal proofs of age years ago, by the simple fact of how difficult it was for premodern people, without our records, to determine age. Groebner reminds us even better how difficult it was for premodern people to assert or ascertain any identity. Our wallets overflow with identity today; not so in the past. All this modern testimony has roots in the later Middle Ages, both as form and forms as well as practice and control. Essentially, as Groebner points out, as medieval European society became more bureaucratic and state-centered, be it at some local level, such as in the communes, or at the eventual national level, that society began to both provide and demand ways to demonstrate identity. First it was simply a matter of providing information regarding the body itself —in other words, recognizing, demonstrating, or duplicating nature (portraits), which is the theme of the first half of Groebner' s book. Scars, coloration, clothing, signs, and insignias all play their part here. But with these attempts also went the paradoxical trend of falsity, deception, and deceit. Identity is always perceived by others; hence it can be fooled. So society and bureaucrats demanded more; they demanded an assurance of the body. As the Middle Ages progressed, things, such as documents, were added to identity to demonstrate that the body is real; this development is the focus of the other half of his book. Who are You? is a fascinating meditation on medieval and modern identity, more essay than monograph, which just barely scratches the surface of its subject but also does so much to set out an interesting agenda of further research: an appetizer of sorts, then.

Groebner begins with a cute and humorous tale from Renaissance Florence that is robust enough to encapsulate within itself all his major themes —and Groebner throughout the book keeps returning to it. In the early to mid-1480s, Antonio Manetti told a tale of identity theft. A friend of a number of artists and humanists is tricked by them into believing that he is not who he thinks he is, and [End Page 950] then convinced that he is someone else. By the end he is reconvinced that he actually is who he thought he was originally. In a nutshell, the story points out how little premodern people had around them to identify themselves with. And in the points of confusion that the jokesters set up for this poor little fellow —similar features between others, people not recognizing him, the appearance of imposters, governmental agents' assertions in Kafkaesque fashion —Groebner finds the points and details on which premodern government and bureaucracy would build a structure of identity, from being able to recall or recognize a body by its marks and record this fact (such as in the Florentine slave registers) all the way to the development of documents attesting an identity but also signed off and sealed by officialdom (such as with a passport). While Groebner does not make much of it, the Renaissance story also highlights the sheer individual frustration, even fear, of one not being able to convince others at times of who they are.

Using mostly Continental sources, and particularly those from Florence, Groebner explores the medieval focus and eventually fascination with signs, insignia, heraldry, the recording of names, the observation of the identifying marks and colors of the body, and how one can decorate the body, including tattooing. Pilgrims, from their dress to their adoption of particular signs to even the tattooing of crosses on their hands and wrists, are just one of many examples of how the medieval body...


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pp. 950-951
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2009
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