Modern historians, professional and armchair alike, have frequently speculated on just how the modern individual—so different, apparently, from its medieval and ancient forbears—came into existence. Charles Taylor (SOURCES OF THE SELF and A SECULAR AGE) has exhaustively investigated the subject, as have the likes of Brad Gregory (THE UNINTENDED REFORMATION), Richard Weaver (IDEAS HAVE CONSEQUENCES), Alasdair MacIntyre (AFTER VIRTUE), and even literary critic Harold Bloom (SHAKESPEARE: THE INVENTION OF THE HUMAN). Their conclusions have varied, but by and large they have attributed significance to (among other factors): the triumph of metaphysical Nominalism; the Black Death; the Protestant Reformation; the expansion of European power into territories hitherto unknown (to Europeans, that is); the growth of empirical science; and the commercial explosion and subsequent development of industrial capitalism.
All of these events, taken singly or in myriad combinations, have been credited (or blamed, depending on how you feel about Modernity) with birthing the Sovereign Self as we have come to experience it, a Self that did not (or so it’s claimed) exist in earlier ages. But Ian Mortimer, a British historian who specializes in the Middle Ages, suggests that one significant factor has been overlooked; that factor, claims Mortimer, was the appearance in the Middle Ages of widely available glass mirrors.
Mirrors? Yes: mirrors, glass in which the self looks back at and, for better or for worse, appraises itself. Mirrors of a sort had long been around, of course, which may be why the influence of glass mirrors has been undervalued:
Polished metal and obsidian mirrors have existed from ancient times, and because of this, historians have usually passed over the introduction of the glass mirror as if it was just another variation on an old theme. But the development of glass mirrors marks a crucial shift, for they allowed people to see themselves properly for the first time, with all their unique expressions and characteristics. Polished metal mirrors of copper or bronze were very inefficient by comparison, reflecting only about 20 percent of the light; and even silver mirrors had to be exceptionally smooth to give any meaningful reflection. These were also prohibitively expensive: most medieval people would only have glimpsed their faces darkly, reflected in a pool of water.
According to Mortimer, “The convex glass mirror was a Venetian invention of about 1300, possibly connected with the development of the glass lenses used in the earliest spectacles (invented in the 1280s). By the late fourteenth century, you could find such mirrors in northern Europe.”
Other than making shaving oneself less dangerous, what were the consequences—in particular, the psychological and existential consequences—of such mirrors? Mortimer explains:
The very act of a person seeing himself in a mirror…encouraged him to think of himself in a different way. He began to see himself as unique. Previously the parameters of individual identity had been limited to an individual’s interaction with the people around him and the religious insights he had over the course of his life. Thus individuality as we understand it today did not exist: people only understood their identity in relation to groups—their household, their manor, their town or parish—and in relation to God. Occasionally individuals stood out from the crowd in the way they wrote about themselves…but the average person saw himself only as part of a community. This is why the medieval punishments of banishment and exile were so severe. A tradesman thrown out of his hometown would lose everything that gave him his identity. He would be unable to make a living, borrow money, or trade goods. He would lose the trust of those who could stand up for him and protect him physically, socially, and economically. He would have no one to plead his innocence or previous good behavior in court, and he would lose the spiritual protection of any church guild or fraternity to which he belonged. What happened in the fifteenth century was not so much that this community identity broke down, but rather that people started to become aware of their unique qualities irrespective of their loyalty to their community. That old sense of collective identity was overlaid with a new sense of personal self-worth.
To paraphrase John Donne, no man in olden times was an island; as God realized way back in the days of Eden, it was not good for man to be alone. But with a shiny new (and newly empowered) Self, our capacity for individualism grew:
The new individualism also extended to the way people expressed themselves. The letters they wrote to one another were increasingly of a personal nature; previously letter writers had restricted themselves to formalities and orders. There was now a marked trend toward writing about yourself and revealing your personal thoughts and feelings. Examples of such autobiographical writing abound in the fifteenth century: in English there is The Book of Margery Kempe; in Castilian, Las Memorias de Leonora López de Córdoba; and in Italian, Lorenzo Ghiberti’s I Commentarii. Four of the earliest collections of English private letters—the Stonor, Plumpton, Paston, and Cely letters—also date from the fifteenth century. Ordinary people started noting down the times and dates of their births, so they could use astrology to find out more about themselves in terms of their health and fortune.
Imagine: ordinary people acting as if their paltry, insignificant lives mattered!
As individuals’ identities became increasingly distinct from and independent of one another, people also wanted (and, at least in the prosperous classes, could increasingly afford) some space of their own:
The new self-awareness also led to a greater desire for privacy. In previous centuries, householders and their families had shared a dwelling entirely, often eating and sleeping in the same hall as their servants. Now they began to build private chambers for themselves and their guests, away from the hall. As with so many changes in history, people were largely unaware of the significance of what they were doing. Nevertheless, our vision of ourselves as individuals, not just members of a community, marks an important shift from the medieval world to the modern.
If Mortimer is correct, it seems that the unnamed Venetian inventor of the glass mirror can take his place alongside William of Occam, Christopher Columbus, Shakespeare, Martin Luther, and Adam Smith as a progenitor of the troubled, troublesome, and troubling Sovereign Self. If we really want to undo modern narcissism and restore old-fashioned communities, maybe the first thing we need to do is to smash all the mirrors--oh, and then we need to outlaw selfies.
[Ian Mortimer’s latest book, from which the above passages have been excerpted, is Millennium: From Religion to Revolution: How Civilization Has Changed Over a Thousand Years. And yes, I have it on order at the Missoula Public Library.]