Who are You? Identification, Deception, and Surveillance in Early Modern Europe

Natalie Zemon Davis writes:

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.

(LRB 18 October 2007)