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Reviewed by:
  • Dissimulation and Deceit in Early Modern Europe ed. by Miriam Eliav-Feldon and Tamar Herzig
  • Benedek Láng

Miriam Eliav-Feldon, Tamar Herzig, Benedek Láng, deception, Early Modern Magic, demoniac, deceit in magic, trickery

miriam eliav-feldon and tamar herzig, eds. Dissimulation and Deceit in Early Modern Europe. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, Pp. 250.

Imposture, pretense, dissimulation, deceit, lying, and forgery have increasingly become the foci of scholarly publications in the last decades. Natalie-Zemon Davis' famous analysis of the story of Martin Guerre, Carlo Ginsburg's book on Nicodemism, Anthony Grafton's overview on forgery, Jon Snyder's monograph on dissimulation and secrecy, Stephen Greenblatt's investigation of bluffing travel book authors, and Perez Zagorin's Way of Lying concentrate on various aspects of false identity and issues of questioned authenticity in the early modern period.

The volume under review groups eleven studies, most of which were originally presented as contributions to an international conference held at Tel Aviv University in 2012. Many of the chapters are case studies. However, [End Page 127] they are consistently focused around three types of problems: religious dis-simulation (problems around converts), links to the supernatural (problems surrounding discernment of spirits), and travel liars (problems connected to self-appointed ambassadors and a false cosmographer).

As the Introduction by Miriam Eliav-Feldon argues, "The fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries were the heyday of religious dissimulation and the authorities' preoccupation with unmasking it" (3). While lying has always been a sin in Christianity (and elsewhere), differentiation between various types of lies and relativization of the value of truth started very early in history. Michael Bailey documents in his systematic analysis—which is one of the pieces in the volume that is not a case study—the history of how church authorities offered more and more sophisticated taxonomies of falsehood and developed categories of lying. Categorization depended not so much on the action of deceit, but rather on its end and the motivation behind it. Augustine, and Aquinas following him, tolerantly allowed space to harmless—as opposed to harmful—lies, and unintentional—as opposed to intentional—deceit. In a parallel way, difference between true religion and superstition was also gradually "internalized," so that less emphasis was put on external behavior and more on internal convictions. Dissimulation became a particularly vexed issue when the condemnation of (clerical) necromancers was at stake, inasmuch as necromancy used the ceremonial forms and institutional values of true Christian worship but misdirected them. Documenting the growing concern on religious falsity, superstition, and diabolical witchcraft, Bailey arrives at the time of reformation, from which the following chapters depart.

One of the first theorists of international law, Alberico Gentili's classification of mendacium (as is documented by Vincenzo Lavenia) marks a further step in accepting "useful" lies. With the rise of the protestant churches, it became possible for intellectuals banned from one confession to follow new and complicated strategies to become accepted in another. Their arrival in a new religious context and their sometimes repeated change of confession genuinely raised the problem of dissimulation. The stories of intellectuals such as Francesco Pucci (examined in the article by Giorgio Caravale) and common people (such as those men and women presented in the study of Monica Martinat), show that leaving one church and getting accepted to a new one was—in spite of the huge doctrinal differences—far from being final; occasionally a complex maneuvering was possible for example between the competing churches in the "silk-triangle" of Geneva, Lyon, and Milano. The motives for conversions and reconversions might have been intellectual [End Page 128] and theological, but could also be purely financial (for example, to score an improvement in one's social position).

Several studies focus primarily on fluid, unstable, and attributed identity issues. The figure of the "Marrano" (a term for a Christianized Jew or Muslim in medieval Spain, especially one whose Christian identity might have been simulated), was quite "well known" and widespread in Italy, as we learn from Stefania Pastore, while the image of the recidivist baptized Jew, who lived as a professional itinerant beggar, was not only a simple literary anti-Semitic stereotype, but also had...


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