- Dissimulation and Deceit in Early Modern Europe ed. by Miriam Eliav-Feldon, Tamar Herzig
Lucas Cranach the Elder’s “The Mouth of Truth,” adorning the cover of the book under review, depicts an adulterous wife at court who escapes perjury by devising a clever plan. Having asked her lover to dress as a Fool, she puts her hand in the mouth of a lion’s statue—the early-modern “lie detector”—and simultaneously touches her disguised lover, claiming that she has never touched anyone except her husband and that Fool. In July 2015, the earlier version of this painting was sold at Sotheby’s for the record sum of $14.3 million. Yet the monetary value [End Page 834] of this artistic exploration of ambiguity surrounding seemingly truthful utterances is only secondary to the ever-growing academic and public interest in the phenomena of dissimulation and lies, reticence and evasion, to the interplay between concealment and transparency, as well as their impact on our social, political, and religious life.
The impeccably chosen visual imagery for the cover predisposes the reader to engage in conversation about a fascinating subject of simulation (pretense, feigning, deceit) and dissimulation (concealment) in the early-modern era—the age, as Jorge Flores puts it, of “fake science and alchemical fraud, of forgers and swindlers, of tricks and lies, of blurred lines between the real and imagined, true and false” (p. 184).
Edited by prominent Israeli historians Miriam Eliav-Feldon and Tamar Herzig, this volume assembles twelve essays, originating in a 2012 international conference held in Tel Aviv. The essays are incredibly well put together and can be read as a cohesive whole. An extensive bibliography at the end is a valuable addition.
This book explores techniques and strategies of dissimulation within all social strata: professional beggars (Moshe Sluhovsky), common folk, artisans (Monica Martinat), diplomats (Giorgio Rota), academics (Vincenzo Lavenia), and philosophers (Giorgio Caravale). It also covers an impressive time period: from the examination of the discourse on religious falsity in the fifteenth century (Michael D. Bailey) to the narratives of feigned sanctity in the eighteenth century (Adelisa Malena). Special emphasis is put on the problem of questioning and establishing authenticity—of holiness manifested in stigmata (Tamar Herzig) or of demonic possession (Guido Dall’Olio). The question of identity—“mixed,” “hybrid,” “multifaceted”—is placed in the forefront.
Acknowledging an undeniable rapport between the proclivity to engage in certain shady and ambiguous activities—“personal propensity towards secrecy” (p. 166)—and deceit, the authors do not fall into the trap of reducing this whole gamut of motivations to deceive to a psychological portrait of an individual. Indeed, one of the book’s great achievements is an inclusive interpretation of possible motives for dissimulation. Although some (usually, lower classes) had to practice dissimulation to survive or adjust “to satisfy the ideological requirements of authorities” (p. 76), contributors to the volume also present an alternative, nonexpedient interpretation of dissimulation. In this perspective, dissimulation is a specific “way of thinking” (p. 36), often accompanied by a “complete rethinking of . . . religious choices” (p. 53). In other words, the very character of theological ideas of early-modern literati, as well as fluidity in their literary self-fashioning and self-representation, brought about their concealment practices.
Dissimulation and Deceit dismantles the rigid framework of the binary approach to dissimulation, based on the oppositions “truth versus lie” or “moral versus immoral.” Readers will be pushed “to discover how much more aggressive than all impostors put together were those attempting to impose a single truth and a pure unmixed identity on every person among their contemporaries” (p. 7). [End Page 835]
This volume is a true milestone in tracing, mapping, and conceptualizing the culture of lying and dissimulation in the premodern era. It ranks in importance with works by Delio Cantimori, Carlo Ginzburg, Perez Zagorin, Jean-Pierre Cavaillé, and Jon Snyder and goes further by introducing new names of dissemblers and opening new research perspectives. This seminal book will...