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Eliav-Feldon, Miriam, Renaissance Impostors and Proofs of Identity.

Eliav-Feldon, Miriam, Renaissance Impostors and Proofs of Identity, Houndmills, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012; hardback; pp. viii, 292; R.R.P. US$92.00, 60.00 [pounds sterling]; ISBN 9780230547063.

This study examines the phenomenon of assumed identity, of passing for somebody one was not, in early modern Europe. It seeks to explain why people perpetrated such frauds and how the powerful improvised technologies of authentication.

Imposture flourished, or doubts about social authenticity were abnormally high in this period, for several reasons. However, the root cause, Miriam Eliav-Feldon contends (in Chapter 2, disproportionately the longest), was religious strife, compounded by serial failures in authentication; those who had claimed or been judged to be of one community were eventually found to belong to another confession or class, prompting further waves of anxiety that all were not as they seemed. The conversion of Jews and Muslims in Spain, Catholics in Protestant territories, and Europeans in the Moorish Mediterranean, triggered religious dissimulation and panic about fifth columns and raised questions concerning the nature of faith and the reliability of knowledge based on sensory perception.

Paradoxically, the wars of religion within and without Christendom, between the later fifteenth and early seventeenth centuries, lent plausibility to impostures and otherwise help explain the credulity of contemporaries who took the bait. For example, in the early 1520s, David Reuveni presented himself as the princely emissary for several Tribes of Israel. Both Portuguese and Venetian authorities welcomed him because of the implications for their continuing--yet at times apocalyptic--struggle against Suleiman I. Similarly with the pretence of those alleging they came from the realm of Prester John to aid Western Christendom in its time of need.

Layers of deception piled one on top of the other, and this circumstance seems to be the justification for discussing other sorts of impostor: sturdy beggars, false saints, witches, and gypsies (Chapters 4-5). Thus indigents could themselves pretend to be the victims of Ottoman tyranny. Witches masqueraded as proper Christians and mystics were exposed as servants of Satan. And there are suggestions that the Roma presented themselves as pilgrims before they became vagrant. Fatal assumptions were made about their true origin and character: assumptions the Roma may occasionally have owned but which were otherwise foisted on them and appropriated by false gypsies, serving only to tarnish further their reputation.

The official response (Chapters 6-8) was varied. Some sought to cure the epidemic with a regime of corporal punishment. Prevention, or at least faltering attempts at it, relied upon policing the appearance of the well-to-do courtesy of sumptuary legislation and watching for bodies marked by earlier run-ins with the law. As more people were thought to be dressing above their station in the context of urban anonymity, or otherwise disguising past stigmas, attempts were made to use bureaucracy rather than bodies to prove identities. Veritable (and verifiable) paper trails were gradually established with central registers, licenses and passports, health certificates, and university testimonials.

Citing examples from across Europe, Eliav-Feldon draws extensively on scholarship in several languages. Notwithstanding its ambitious scope and the evidentiary challenges, some will find this collation not quite to their taste.

The Introduction avers that this is not a study of identity. However, this seems at odds with establishing imposters' motives, or arguments for the growing prominence of lineage, and with it the emergence of a racialist mentality. Despite the importance of Spanish edicts concerning blood purity (limpieza de sangre), more than one reference to heraldry's semiotics (p. 182) would strengthen the case that European elites were preoccupied with who was who. Likewise, consideration of transvestitism, as part of a deliberate fraud, probably requires acknowledgement of ambiguous premodern understandings of sexual difference per se.

Notwithstanding some case studies, the book tantalises with terse references to the historiography. Particularly when it comes to the proving of identity, and unmasking impostors, mention is made of archives bearing final witness, but direct quotation from these materials is sparing. This abridges the very processes of identification, of identifying as someone or being identified as somebody else. Some of the primary evidence might be more closely contextualised too, otherwise readers will miss its true significance. For instance, the observation of a London beadle concerning gypsies is framed as plainly descriptive (p. 130). Yet this beadle was fictional; the imposition was the pamphlet itself. Probably penned by Samuel Rid, who is mentioned on the same page, these observations were part of the rogue literature that conjured, for profit, with tales of a vast criminal underworld.

Chapters could be more tightly integrated. Contextual points are repeated (e.g., pp. 24, 142, 177 for the sanbenito, or sackcloth of the Inquisition; pp. 8 and 217 for counterfeiters known as 'jarkmen'; pp. 127 and 131 for gypsies as heiden/heathens). Acknowledgement of older research proves generous yet overly diligent, with the study eventually refuting arguments that are neither current nor mainstream (e.g., p. 119, n. 90). There are a number of sections that conclude with distracting demurrals about just-stated issues being not central or of small concern (pp. 9, 25, 98, 150, 154, 166).

Mark S. Dawson, Australian National University
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Author:Dawson, Mark S.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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