According to a new historical study, we know ourselves by the papers we keep.

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, March 25, 2007


Identification, Deception, and Surveillance

In Early Modern Europe

By Valentin Groebner

Translated by Mark Kyburz and John Peck

Zone. 349 pp. $30

Valentin Groebner, who teaches history at the University of Lucerne in Switzerland, opens Who Are You? with a story. During the early Renaissance, a group of well-to-do Florentines -- including the sculptor and architect Brunelleschi -- decided to play a prank on a fat woodworker named Manetto. They arranged for everybody he met to act as if he were someone else. Friends, brothers, government officials, the local priest -- everyone treats the woodworker as Matteo. A judge tells the thoroughly confused woodworker that these cases, though unusual, do crop up with some regularity. It might be a kind of amnesia. And why, for heaven's sake, is he fighting the truth, especially since Matteo is fairly well off, and Manetto isn't? Slowly but surely, Manetto accepts that he is Matteo and begins to answer to that name.

Every day we read about identity theft on the Internet. Since 9/11 the government surveillance of every aspect of our lives has skyrocketed. Popular films such as "The Matrix" and "Total Recall" reveal the world as a theater of illusion, and novels, like those of Philip K. Dick, suggest that paranoia makes perfect sense. Are people really who they appear to be? How can you be sure? For that matter, how do you know that you are who you think you are? After all, our identities are largely "constructed" by others and by the documents in our wallets.

Groebner reminds us that, when challenged to "prove" who we are, we depend on external objects -- passport, credit card, driver's license. As the German border guards and leather-coated SS officers in old movies used to say, "Your papers, bitte." We are what and whom they certify, as long as they are "in order." For security and immigration personnel "do not check whether we are authentic or not -- we all are -- but whether our passports bear certain signs of authenticity."

Who Are You? finds the origins of our identity-obsessed culture in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. In quick-moving chapters, Groebner examines how portraits, badges, seals, clothes, tattoos, letters of safe conduct, and paper certificates helped people to recognize others whom they had never seen before. Such insignia would also be used to indicate inclusion or exclusion. Former prisoners and slaves might bear special tattoos, but so did charismatic religious leaders: Crosses branded on foreheads were common. Beggars had to be as identifiable as foreign envoys.

Technology and the culture of identification developed in tandem. When courier services spread throughout Europe, so did the wanted poster. As governments used various badges to distinguish their agents, so, too, the members of robber bands took up their own secret insignia. "Clandestine conspirators have always been the doppelgängers of the representatives of real political institutions."

Despite language that sometimes grows academic and theoretical, Groebner's study is grounded in the realities of human life:

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