Identities forged in the Dark Ages

Who Are You? Identification, Deception and Surveillance in Early Modern Europe
July 27, 2007

At the end of April The Guardian newspaper reported the capture by the CIA of one of al-Qaeda's most senior commanders, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi. This was thought to be the nom de guerre of the man now detained in Guantanamo whose real identity, the US claimed, is Nashwan Abdulrazaq Abdulbaqi, an Iraqi Kurd in his mid-40s. The only means of identifying him was a blurred "wanted" poster of a man with a full beard and dark hair, issued by the US State Department with an offer of $500,000 (£250,000) for information on his whereabouts. There were no papers, fingerprints or DNA details available; no scars or marks on the body that could serve to identify the suspect conclusively.

The authorities were not reduced to issuing a description of his clothing, but the problems of his identification appear to be little different from those encountered in early modern Europe. The photograph was as convincing, for example, as wanted posters taken from woodcuts in medieval times.

In this entertaining book, Valentin Groebner, professor of medieval and Renaissance history at the University of Lucerne, Switzerland, illustrates how early modern European practices of identification through the use of seals (like that of King John, pictured), stamps, signatures and papers have much to say about current methods.

Who Are You? will appeal to the more inquiring students studying criminology, social psychology, history and the intelligence services. Thought-provoking, like all the best books, it raises questions that resonate long after you have finished reading it.

By delving into detailed medieval histories, documents and books, Groebner illuminates current authoritarian attempts to control identity and use it as a means of exclusion. The medieval official and today's security officer are similarly indifferent to the notion of the individual and "utterly uninterested in the personal data of the those it declares persona non grata"; though little has changed from the days of medieval princes to the treatment of today's VIPs, who are allowed to bypass ordinary, time-consuming and often arbitrary identity checks at borders. Groebner argues that it is not useful to view medieval administration as inefficient, primitive and underdeveloped but "germinating forms of our present day sophisticated procedures". However, the evidence he provides in a fascinating array of examples suggests that early modern administrators were highly sophisticated at using new technology to produce new ways of identifying people by way of badges and the first passports.

In a remarkable early form of mass production, they were able to produce 50,000 identifying badges, but each advance only served to create new deceptions, forgeries and false identities. Even the genuine travel papers necessary for almost all journeys of any distance, embossed with the correct seals and signatures, became problematic as officials were still apt to distrust them.

Governments rightly consider identity theft to be a serious problem and it is put forward as the main argument for imposing a biometric identity card. But, Groebner concludes: "A host of medieval echoes haunt 21st-century identification techniques." The wish to catalogue and identify everyone will not work: "These old ghosts of identification, the doppelganger and imposters, continue to haunt an allegedly immaterial world of paperless information transfer." Indeed, the unrelenting efforts of the medieval official to establish ever more secure systems of identification led to an increase in the number of imposters.

A biometric system with supposed 100 per cent accuracy - today's security agencies exaggerate their efficacy just as medieval officials did - will lead to a similar "rise of the con man and the imposter, together with their official counterparts, the diplomat and the spy equipped with authentic counterfeit papers. Their careers in dissimulation took place not in spite of, but through, the expanding systems of bureaucratic control."

One hopes that politicians might learn from this book, but new Labour has no interest in history. The young woman in the black veil is not an individual but a mark on a file identified as a potential supporter of Muslim terrorism.

Stephen Dorril, senior lecturer in journalism and media, Huddersfield University.

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

Author - Valentin Groebner
Publisher - Zone Books
Pages - 350
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 9781890951726

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