Tell me about the history of identity.
September 8, 2012 2:28 PM   Subscribe

Tell me about the history of identity. Today it's pretty easy (though not foolproof) to find out if someone was who they said they were, or to verify a communication is from who it's claimed. But what about 200-2000 years ago?

Before photo and state issued ID, and before the modern post office, how did you prove you were who you say you were? (or weren't!) Was there anything to keep serial killer (And known witch) Bob Baker from moving to a new town and calling himself Bob Wainwright and getting on with his life? Of maybe even claiming to be a visting duke and cashing in on the generosity of his hosts?

What about record-keeping, like censuses and taxes?

I know that rulers and royalty had various ways to verify themselves and their communication but those were generally kept out of the hands of ordinary people until at least the late 1800's.

I also know that soldiers (before dogtags) would pin their names on their uniforms or just have letters/wills on their body to identify them if they didn't survive battle. But what did they do before high literacy rates? And was there a way to keep spies out when even military uniforms weren't uniform?

Or was all this even a problem since few people moved outside of their known circles?

I'm mostly interested in the late Middle-ages, but pretty much anything about any time in history would be enlightening.
posted by Ookseer to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
As an Official Document Wrangler I get to use a seal all the time, they're super fascinating. The study of them is called Sigillography, or sphragistics, and goes back quite some time.
posted by carsonb at 2:33 PM on September 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

Well, naturally the ur-text for this issue during the Middle Ages would be The Return of Martin Guerre (or its various remakes), based on a true story. A man showed up in a small village claiming to be Guerre, who had gone off to war. Despite differences in appearance he was accepted by Guerre's wife and family, possibly because he was more attractive and/or charismatic. He seemed to know just enough about his own life. During a dramatic trial, the real Guerre, apparently, showed up.

I think it wasn't a problem for the vast majority of peasants or farmers, as travel was difficult or impossible for the average person.

Later, with immigration, settlement, and urbanization, situations like your serial killer or con man were in fact quite common, as far as we can tell.
posted by dhartung at 2:43 PM on September 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'd say that up to around WWI is was still pretty easy to change your name and identity at will, and before photographs were common, it would have been even easier. The use of fingerprints is only something like 130 years old.

Heck, one of my own aunts changed her name in the mid-1930s, simply by declaring "from now on, this is my name and I won't answer to anything else."
posted by easily confused at 2:47 PM on September 8, 2012

It's interesting you mention serial killers. Part of the reason that we have almost no information about serial killers before the late 19th century is that, since identity wasn't as easily confirmed before then, it was possible to move to a new place and live under a pseudonym.

You might be especially interested in the case of H. H. Holmes, a serial killer operating in Chicago during the 1890's. He moved, changed his name, and lied about his qualifications and background in ways that were at the time almost impossible to see through.

I imagine this would have been a little easier during times where life was more rural and sedentary, and it wasn't common for people to pick up and move to a new place. The industrial era forms an interesting liminal period, where on the one hand urbanization and technological advances like the steamship and railroad make it easy to be relatively anonymous, but on the other hand the ability to positively identify people hasn't caught up.

You might also enjoy the novel The Alienist, which is a crime novel about a serial killer that deals with early attempts by police to figure some of this stuff out.
posted by Sara C. at 2:53 PM on September 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, and you mention censuses: if you take a look at US census records, you'll see that up through the 1840 Census, the only individual listed by name was the head of the household --- other than that, it was simply a list of sex/age/race: x many white males between 10-15 years old, xx many white females over age 40, xxx many black males ages 15-20, and so on.
posted by easily confused at 3:00 PM on September 8, 2012

In medieval England, there was no easy way of identifying a person, unless somebody who knew them vouched for or against them, although even that was open to individual bias. Richard II of England was impersonated by somebody for years after his death (though with connivance), and famously Perkin Warbeck claimed to be Richard of Shrewsbury for almost ten years. On a lesser scale, it would have been fairly easy to invent and claim a new identity, especially if you moved over administrative boundaries, such as shires or court circuits.

The difficulty would come with settling somewhere new. Boroughs and manors could be closed communities, with the authorities in each having a vested interest in discovering where you came from. Boroughs were jealous of their freedoms and didn't like diluting their worth by admitting just anybody, and nor did lords want to undermine each other by taking in runaways. You risked being apprehended as a vagrant and kicked out, or at best living on the margins of society. While they might not know exactly who you were, the community as a whole knew you weren't one of theirs, and that is what mattered. Bear in mind that populations were far lower than today, and most places rural. You could be expected to know most local people by sight, and many of them by name or relationship. A stranger couldn't walk through a village without being known as a stranger.

Also of interest might the idea of livery, which was used by all kinds of groups to identify their officers at the time. A badge of some kind (most famously a collar) would almost definitely entitle the bearer to be taken as genuine.
posted by Jehan at 3:03 PM on September 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

But what did [soldiers] do before high literacy rates?

Keep in mind that, in the periods you're thinking about, armies weren't as highly mobile and families often traveled alongside as camp followers. Life also wasn't as complex.

It would be pretty easy to figure out if your husband got killed in battle, because the battle probably wasn't that far away and you were probably traveling along with the army. Or, conversely, Olaf would leave for the raiding season with the other berserkers, and if he didn't come back, well, duh.

There was also less division of the domestic and economic spheres back then, so you probably wouldn't need anything complicated like a will. If Olaf gets killed shaking down a monastery in the Outer Hebrides, Inge is probably already managing the family farm as it is. It's not like there's a complicated financial situation that needs to be taken care of so that little Sven can go to college.

By the time you get huge international fighting forces traveling across continents, you're talking about a time when literacy was pretty common and the military would have had the clerical tools to figure out whose wife needed to be notified.
posted by Sara C. at 3:04 PM on September 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

Oh, and also note that sometimes criminals were marked--such as by cutting off an ear--so that their criminality could be known wherever they went. There's a funny case of a guy who was soaking in the bath when one of his pigs came up and bit off his ear. He had to apply to the king--with the vouch of the local sheriff--to receive a letter patent that showed he was not a criminal, but had lost his ear otherwise.
posted by Jehan at 3:09 PM on September 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

This is why so many very old stories revolve around Stranger Danger. People didn't usually just show up as adults totally unknown in a new place without an obvious reason for being there and ideally with personal introductions be they written or of the oral "cousin Bob says hi and asks after you wife Anne" variety. If they did they were regarded with suspicion up through present days in lots of places.
posted by fshgrl at 3:25 PM on September 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

The difficulty would come with settling somewhere new.

The more I think about this (great AskMe, by the way!), the more I think this is ultimately the key.

Even if Olaf didn't die in that raid but had a spiritual awakening and decided to stay on at Iona as a monk, he still has to be accepted by his new community. A bunch of Irish monks aren't going to want to deal with a "reformed" Viking raider. And even if he's just so filled with anachronistic ennui that he can't bear to go back home, regardless, there are significant barriers to settling anywhere else.

There are even stories of English communities during the early modern period turning away pregnant women who mysteriously show up in their towns, because god forbid she has the baby there and then she belongs and the community has another two mouths to feed. The anchor baby concept was not invented by American Republicans.

Before the industrial revolution, you couldn't just turn up any old place and expect to be welcomed with open arms. Which makes it hard to be a roving con man with a different identity in every town. This is one of the HUGE almost unfathomable changes of modern society.
posted by Sara C. at 3:27 PM on September 8, 2012 [6 favorites]

Back in 1880 my great grandfather left his family and their family name behind (for a very good reason). The custom at the time (US east coast) was to take his mother's maiden name, and that's the family name we were all born with. It was legal at the time to do this without notifying anyone. The Wells genealogy folks were very confused about where we came from until we had figured this out. In the documentation he did manage to file, which wasn't much (his death isn't recorded, nor the births of any of his five kids), he just stated his birth place as it was. Parents weren't requested so it was never recorded. I had to track down descendants of his older children to get the story and finally make sense of it all. Really screws up my chances of getting anything on the basis of genealogy (Sons of Whatever, etc.). Officially, half the line is missing or for another surname!
posted by jwells at 3:28 PM on September 8, 2012

Remember that language was much less uniform in earlier times. Even now, if someone from NYC just turned up in Boston, their accent would mark them as conspicuous. Though all of France now speaks "Metropolitan French" with slightly differing accents, a few hundred years ago even a short trip would end among speakers of a recognizably different dialect.

Some groups of people tended to wander more than most, like Jews and Roma. I'm not quite sure how they identified themselves to their new communities, but I imagine knowledge of customs helped a lot.
posted by vasi at 3:54 PM on September 8, 2012

As another note on census data, it's quite unreliable as far as identifying someone without context. Even through 1940 on the US census you'll find neighbors responding for houses that weren't home or didn't want to speak to the census-taker. People's names changed all the time, and it's only by knowing other data that you can be sure it's the right person or the same from decade to decade. My husband has a relative named George David Alfred [Surname], and depending on what documents you look at, he's George or Alfred or Al, and sometimes David isn't listed at all. I can't tell you how many people go by their middle names sometimes or always, or how many women shaved off a few years when answering the census (rarely happens with males IME). My grandmother kept changing her name (was she June or Juanita or Sheridan? I won't really know til I find her birth certificate). So I think legally speaking even through mid century in the US it was relatively uncomplicated to be who you wanted, but your success depended on people around you accepting it.
posted by asciident at 5:17 PM on September 8, 2012

To what Sara C is saying, I made a friend from South Africa recently and he told me something about his home country that I thought was crazy: he said there are so many languages (like 20 or 30) spoken in the rural parts of the country that he can't travel without a translator, and he always feels like an outsider. At least, I think that's what he meant - he said that "they could tell by the way I walked that I was from somewhere else." In his own country! I'd bet those sorts of areas, which likely exist all over the world today, have self-contained communities where outsiders aren't particularly welcome to enter and settle.
posted by Buckt at 5:32 PM on September 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is one of those great questions that can get really broad, really fast. If you think about it, our entire legal system of witnesses and juries is based on claims and proofs of identity based on community awareness, and these tropes exist today. "Can you state your name for the court? Do you see the man that attacked you in the courtroom today? Can you point him out for the jury? Your honor, let the record reflect that the witness has indicated the defendant..."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:21 PM on September 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might be interested in the case of the Tichborne Claimant, from the mid-19th century. It's a pretty wild ride.
posted by ostro at 7:37 PM on September 8, 2012

You might be especially interested in the case of H. H. Holmes, a serial killer operating in Chicago during the 1890's. He moved, changed his name, and lied about his qualifications and background in ways that were at the time almost impossible to see through.

The first thing I thought of when I read this question was the excellent The Devil in the White City which is partly the story of how Holmes was able to do all this.
posted by lunasol at 9:42 PM on September 8, 2012

Steven Shapin has a decent discussion of the gradual formalisation of vouching during the early modern period in A Social History of Truth -- letters of introduction (i.e. 'vouchers') were, in many regards, the first broadly-used ID beyond the formal domain of seals. To gain acceptance and recognition in an unfamiliar environment, whether geographical or social, you'd present a written (and often sealed) introduction from somebody known to the new group -- generally a person of equal or higher status, because status eases mobility.

One example: John Evelyn gave Samuel Pepys a set of letters of introduction for his visit to Paris "to Friends of mine (though of the lower Rank) who will abundantly satisfy your Curiosity" (and find him and his wife lodging).

The kind of trust found in a close-knit social group serves as the baseline here; where that doesn't exist, and trust needs to be established, tokens must be provided in lieu; initially, those tokens literally say "trust this person" and only very late on do they become 'identifying' in and of themselves. Rven then, they bear the vestiges of their origins.

For the US, at least, I think asciident's right to suggest that the mid-20th century is more of a threshold than 200 years ago, with elements like the consolidation of county vital records and the Federal Records Act, and the impact of WW2 military mobilisation on the extent of federal records.

All of which chimes nicely with something like Facebook (or even LinkedIn), because their model of identity is also constituted primarily on who you know.
posted by holgate at 10:50 PM on September 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm having trouble finding English-language resources on this, but much of the Dutch identity system dates back to Napoleon (which I'm sure applies to other European countries as well). Prior to Napoleon people who weren't royals or nobles went by patronyms (which in some parts of the country remained in place until relatively recently - my grandmother and her siblings had a patronym as well as a surname). Under Napoleon, everyone had to register a surname, which led to some pretty silly surnames like Naaktgeboren (Born Naked). As far as I know our current birth registry, which is pretty much the basis of our identity system, also dates back to Napoleon.
posted by rjs at 10:55 PM on September 8, 2012

The Documentation of Individual Identity research group did a lot of work in this area a few years ago. (Check out the extensive bibliographies linked at the bottom left of the main page.) Group member Edward Higgs has recently published Identifying the English: A History of Personal Identification 1500-2010, which might be of interest to you as well.
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:01 AM on September 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is, as Sara C. says, one of the biggest transformations involved in the making of the world we live in. You might want to have a look at this book, Documenting Individual Identity, which explores precisely the question you're interested in (and would complement Nathalie Zemon Davis's book on the Martin Guerre case very nicely). The editors have written other related things: Jane Caplan on the history of tattoos, for example--one of the most definitive ways of identifying individuals until very recently--and John Torpey on the history of the passport.

As several people have already mentioned, the development of surnames is part of this question. Discussing identification in his book Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott mentions that in England medieval England, 90% of the male population "bore just six Christian names (John, William, Thomas, Robert, Richard, and Henry)." He also discusses the well-known case of the imposition of surnames on Jewish populations that hadn't previously used them, which could give rise to bluntly antisemitic insults (people being given surnames like Scheisskopf, 'shithead') as well as joke names--Katzenellenbogen (Catselbows), Fischbein (Fishleg)--alongside more neutral names like Apfelbaum (Appletree). There's a brief discussion of this in Norman Davies's book Europe, but I can't get a detailed link to the page; it's about the partition of Poland-Lithuania in the C18th, anyway.

More recently, surnames weren't introduced in Turkey until 1934 (the same year women there got the vote!), a decade after the emergence of the modern Turkish Republic. As it happens, I've spent this week looking at archival records of the departure of tens of thousands of Armenian refugees from a zone that had been occupied by the French in 1919 but was in 1921 handed to the new Turkish nationalist government in Ankara: in very many cases, where their names are listed it is not as Firstname Lastname but in the format [Name] Oglou [Name]*: Person Son of Person. Not all, though, and it would be interesting to try and work out if people who at this stage had a surname already were disproportionately from larger towns or involved in 'modern' institutions like the French armed forces or orphanages funded by philanthropic organizations.

Always 'son of' because it's the male head of the family whose name is given. Oh--and Oglou is the Turkish, but not as far as I know the Armenian, word for 'son'. Modern Turkish oğlu, pr. OH-loo

Of course, the problem of verifying the identity of individual displaced persons in a major refugee crisis set off by a war that resulted in complete and permanent 'state collapse' for several of the belligerent states was a huge one. It was one of the first major tasks of the new standing institutions of the modern 'international community' that were created after World War One. One result was the 'Nansen passport', actually an individual identity document issued by the state where a stateless refugee was residing (and not actually a passport; memail me if you'd like a more detailed explanation) under the aegis of the League of Nations. But the need for the 'Nansen passport' points to another important aspect of the development of individual identification: once modern state practices permitted the documentation of individual identity, anyone who didn't have the requisite state-backed paperwork had no legal identity. Because the First World War witnessed both a general intensification of the documentation of individual identity in all belligerent states (and beyond), and the 'state collapse' of several belligerents, it left millions of people in this situation--a global crisis of mass statelessness, only imaginable once the documentation of individual identity had developed.

Which points to one other important thing, implicit in your question and explicit in the subtitle of that book edited by Caplan and Torpey ('The Development of State Practices in the Modern World'): without the involvement of the state, very little of this makes any sense.

Guess what my current research project is about, readers.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 2:35 AM on September 9, 2012 [13 favorites]

Oh--have a look at the Wikipedia entry for Alphonse Bertillon, too. Satirized mercilessly in this issue of L'Assiette au Beurre* from 1909 [PDF, c.22Mb]. I particularly like the one where the police officer holds up his densely-written index card of biometric data and declares "With Monsieur Bertillon's fiche, I'll recognize the killer at a glance!" Bertillon had the last laugh, though: his way of viewing the world is now shared by just about every state that has the means.

*No English wiki entry for L'Assiette au Beurre; French here.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 2:56 AM on September 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Even if Olaf didn't die in that raid but had a spiritual awakening and decided to stay on at Iona as a monk, he still has to be accepted by his new community. A bunch of Irish monks aren't going to want to deal with a "reformed" Viking raider. And even if he's just so filled with anachronistic ennui that he can't bear to go back home, regardless, there are significant barriers to settling anywhere else.

Seems as if, in the saga, people move around pretty easily.
posted by kenko at 8:06 AM on September 9, 2012

> It would be pretty easy to figure out if your husband got killed in battle, because the battle probably wasn't that far away and you were probably traveling along with the army. Or, conversely, Olaf would leave for the raiding season with the other berserkers, and if he didn't come back, well, duh.

Until the nineteenth century, when you got drafted for the Russian army, it was for 25 years—effectively, for life. When you left the village, they treated it as a funeral; very few ever returned. If they didn't get killed in battle or die of disease, old soldiers tended to settle down wherever they found themselves at the end of their service.

Fascinating question, great answers!
posted by languagehat at 3:58 PM on September 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Seems as if, in the saga, people move around pretty easily.

Sagas are legends. In the same category you also have stories like The Odyssey and Beowulf. Not exactly demographic data, you know?

And even if you're looking at the sagas as a primary historical source, remember that a lot of the interesting ones deal with the colonization of uninhabited new territory. A tale of the settlement of Iceland is of necessity going to feature a lot of moving around. The mere fact that the Norse felt that settling Iceland was worthy of a saga implies that moving such long distances was a very rare thing. And in that case, you're also going specifically for the purpose of settlement, and you're bringing your family with you. So there's no real concern about identifying yourself, because everyone important already knows who you are.
posted by Sara C. at 4:55 PM on September 10, 2012

A couple of relevant links I've run across since reading this question:

Voter Suppression, Then and Now
In 1840, and again in 1841, the former Frederick Bailey, now Frederick Douglass, walked a few blocks from his rented apartment on Ray Street in New Bedford, Mass., to the town hall, where he paid a local tax of $1.50 to register to vote. Born a slave on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1818, Douglass escaped in an epic journey on trains and ferry boats, first to New York City, and then to the whaling port of New Bedford in 1838.

By the mid-1840s, he had emerged as one of the greatest orators and writers in American history. But legally, Douglass began his public life by committing what today we would consider voter fraud, using an assumed name.

It was a necessary step: when he registered to vote under his new identity, “Douglass,” a name he took from Sir Walter Scott’s 1810 epic poem “Lady of the Lake,” this fugitive slave was effectively an illegal immigrant in Massachusetts. He was still the legal “property” of Thomas Auld, his owner in St. Michaels, Md., and susceptible, under the federal fugitive slave law, to capture and return to slavery at any time.

It was a risky move. If required, the only identification Douglass could give the registrar may have been his address in the town directory. ...
Roping the Con Artists:
In fact, financially speaking, “America was, from its inception, a confidence trick,” Reading writes. All good cons are built on trust, and so was the economy of this new nation. But she argues that the dark side of exploiting that trust was as productive as the virtuous one: “The new nation would never have prospered without imposture, speculation, and counterfeiting.” Even as individuals, Americans came to be known as people who reinvent themselves, make up new names, cultivate new personas, and improvise their way into a new life and a living. This contradictory sense of fraudulence beats in the heart of every honest American.
posted by languagehat at 12:56 PM on September 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

So many great answers and thought provoking diversions!

I marked "best" the ones that filled in my personal knowledge, but all of the answers were interesting. Thanks!
posted by Ookseer at 7:10 PM on September 14, 2012

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