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Early Modern Self-Fashioning

A/N: Part I: Paper 16 [Early Modern Europe] essay written in Lent term of the 2008/09 academic year. I was supervised by Dr. M. Laven at Jesus and was graded a first for it. Hurrah. Lol. 

Why did early modern people become increasingly concerned with self-fashioning?

‘Self-fashioning’ describes the way in which people cultivate a particular image of themselves, the way they present a (possibly falsified) version of themselves to the rest of the world. It is a concept that stems from the work of twentieth-century sociologists such as Erving Goffman and overturned the idea that the individual was ‘transparent’. In the 1860s Jacob Burckhardt claimed that individualism was ‘created’ in fourteenth-century Italy. Before that point, he argued, people were simply ‘dreaming… beneath a common veil’. By the late twentieth-century historians had been forced to concede that this individualism might have been around since as early as the twelfth-century and, more importantly, was never as simple as Burckhardt had assumed. Historians involved with the New Historicism movement, such as Greenblatt, argued that identity reflected contemporary politics and culture as much as, if not more than, individualism. For them self-fashioning was also formulated by these factors; individuals might seek to emulate someone else for example, rather than self-fashioning in a truly innovative way. More recently historians like Martin have focussed on the idea of ‘fragmented’ identities, and the extent to which early modern identities relied on the concept of the inner and the outer self. For Martin self-fashioning was a more individual expression, the self was not fixed and self-fashioning could reflect that; a different version of the self could be portrayed to different audiences. This conflict between the inner and outer self, combined with contemporary religious tensions and the growth of the printed word helped create an increasing concern with self-fashioning.

There is much evidence to support the idea that people in the early modern period believed in fragmented identities. By this I mean that not only did they understand there to be a separation between the ‘soul’ and the body (i.e. the inner and the outer), but also they did not necessarily believe that the two were inseparable. Groebner points to a story recorded by the Florentine writer, Antonio Manetti, in the 1480s to support this idea. Manetti tells of a craftsman named Manetto ‘Il Grasso’ upon whom, as revenge for missing a party, his friends play a trick. They convince him that he is, in fact, a thief named ‘Matteo’. The important point to the story is that Manetto truly believes the ruse. To the early modern mind such a seemingly implausible occurrence as a body switch was a possibility. The same is seen in beliefs about religion; it was possible for demons to possess a body for example. This fundamental belief in the distinction between the inner and outer self may well have encouraged a growing concern with self-fashioning; the outer self could be portrayed in such a way as to hide the ‘true’ inner self.

 Yet this belief in the fragmented self had a long history by the early modern period; the medieval period too was full of stories of possession and exorcisms (abundant in the Vitae of the Saints) and the problems of mistaken identity. What made the early modern period different was the growing importance placed on the more secular idea of ‘sincerity’. In this context sincerity was a moral ideal; to be sincere was to have agreement between what one said (the outer) and what they thought (the inner). In the medieval period a similar idea had existed; Alan of Lille, a twelfth-century theologian, had defined this ‘symphonia’ as ‘a concordant harmony of one’s speech and acts with one’s mind.’ Martin convincingly argues that the idea of sincerity replaced earlier medieval thinking as Protestantism emerged. Medieval thinkers had been stressing the inner and outer should be in harmony so as to reflect the similarity between man and a harmonious God. Protestant thinkers, such as Luther, demanded sincerity of their followers to help the individual stand alone. For the authorities the issue was one for concern; was anyone really sincere? Or were they merely ‘fashioning’ a disguise for their true beliefs?

 Religion provides an excellent example of how both the state and the people were becoming increasingly concerned with the ideas of sincerity and self-fashioning in the early modern period. In 1566 a witness before the Catholic Inquisition in Modena could say that Protestants in the city acted ‘with prudence and in secret’ to avoid detection. ‘Prudence’ had by this point, argues Martin, been appropriated by humanists such as Leonardo Bruni to mean a kind of ethical pragmatism, rather than Christian wisdom (as it had in medieval times). For the authorities this was unacceptable. If the outer could be fashioned to hide the inner then heresy might become rampant. Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto, for example, described Venice as being ‘infected’ with heresy in 1546. For those forced to adopt such tactics it could be, quite literally, a matter of life and death. When teachings such as Calvanist disdain for ‘false and deceitful persons’ are thrown into the mix it becomes clear that self-fashioning was a potential source for huge tensions in the early modern world. Heretics needed to hide their true beliefs, but was it right to do so?

 So far however an important facet of early modern belief has been ignored, namely the idea that the inner would almost invariably manifest itself in the outer. In his discussion of the perfect courtier Castiglione maintains that physical beauty must stem from inner beauty; likewise a wicked inner self would show in an ugly countenance on the outer self. If this were truly the case then ‘fashioning’ a disguise would be pointless as the inner would always shine through in some way. The Catholic Inquisition for example looked at where suspects lived and the company they kept; Castiglione provides contemporary evidence for a belief that people would be judged guilty by association as ‘anyone who knows one of a pair of close friends at once imagines the other to be of the same sort.’ Yet the very existence of Castiglione’s book dealing with the subject, and numerous other similar publications by different authors, implies increasing concern with self-fashioning. What this seemingly contradictory belief tells us is that understandings of identity and self-fashioning were fairly complex. In addition religion could not have been the only factor at play, other pressures must have been adding to concern over a self-fashioning which would supposedly be physically apparent. 

Looking more closely at books and other printed material appears to reveal another reason for growing concern with self-fashioning. The invention of the printing press in the 1440s revolutionised the way the written word was disseminated. Printed books were quicker and cheaper to produce than hand written manuscripts, especially as paper replaced vellum. As the printed word became more widely available a number of effects were apparent. Literacy levels improved for one thing; Cressy, using a particularly harsh definition (the ability to read and write, abilities which had been viewed as completely separate in the medieval period), still notes that in Britain literacy increased from thirty per cent of the male population and ten per cent of the female population in 1640 to forty-five per cent and twenty-five per cent respectively by (the accession of king Geroge). Ideas could now disseminate more quickly, the concept of self-fashioning, and the concerns surrounding it could reach more and more people. Castiglione’s ‘The Book of the Courtier’ was translated into numerous languages through the course of the sixteenth century, making it available to people outside of his native Italy.

 The printed word provided both a means of dissemination and an outlet for individual self-fashioning in the early modern period. Elias Pledger, a teenaged apprentice, began his own ‘diary’ of sorts in 1683 after reading John Draper’s Life. In this notebook Pledger tried to frame the story of his life in the same way as Draper and other Non-Conformist lives that were appearing on the market. At some point he even went back and edited the entries for his early twenties, replacing them with new entries. This example shows how the printed word could bring self-fashioning full circle. Men like Erasmus used it to ‘fashion’ an image of themselves (Erasmus tried to portray himself as a thinker in the mould of Saint Jerome for example), this image was then disseminated to an increasingly wider audience, who then tried to emulate it. At this point the cycle could begin again. The printed word, then, provided not only the means for self-fashioning, but also provided practical guidance on how to do so.

 It was not only in words that self-fashioning was increasingly evident in the early modern period however. In visual representations too there was a close focus on symbolism and status alongside the new vogue for ‘likenesses’. Medieval portraits had relied on clothing to identify individuals; the art itself being highly stylised, early modern portraiture in comparison was prized for its realism and the artist’s technical skill. Rembrandt for example was popular for his talent; the face in the picture was recognisably his. Yet at the same time he chose the clothing and props carefully. De Winkel identifies three different ways Rembrandt fashioned a particular image for himself; in some pictures he painted himself in the fashionable court dress of France, implying his status as a popular painter. In others he depicted himself in his working clothes, using his outer appearance to reflect the power and glory of his art. Thirdly Rembrandt painted many pictures of himself in historical dress, fashioning a place for himself amongst the great masters of times gone by such as Albrecht Duerer. The face in Rembrandt’s work might be said to reflect the inner, whilst the clothing was the outer – easily changeable and a method of disguise.

 The problem with both art and literature as reasons for increasing concern with self-fashioning in the early modern period is that they ignore to a large extent the experience of the ‘common people’. Art was collected by those who could afford it, even mass produced prints would have been out of the reach of the very poor. Similarly well over half the population of Britain, and other European countries, were still illiterate by the beginning of the eighteenth-century. Even amongst the well off, few women were literate, the expense of acquiring literacy being reserved for male children who were thought to benefit more from such a skill. How did concerns over self-fashioning disseminate to these sectors of society? How can we even uncover it, given that these people did not leave their own records? Roper for example claims that the research that has been done on ‘the little people’ in the German tradition has only succeeded in portraying them as a collective mass of indistinguishable ‘simple mental lives’. Such a view would suggest that the experience of the lower orders in early modern Europe is sometimes impossible to reconstruct.

 Roper is perhaps overly pessimistic in relation to what existing research can tell us. Aside from the religious tensions outlined earlier in this essay, self-fashioning clearly also impacted on people in their relationships with others. Cecilia Ferrazzi, for example, had her story taken down by the Inquisition in court in 1664. Although Andrea Del Col expresses doubt over the accuracy of the transcription it would appear that, as the records were to be kept secret, there was little to be gained from falsifying the account. Ferrazzi told of the extent to which she had to hide the voices she heard from God and the Virgin Mother from her confessors; through this deception Ferrazzi was able to avoid being pulled before the Inquisition courts for a period of time. Less extreme examples include the way women were encouraged to mask their ‘true’ inner nature. Castiglione contends that the perfect lady ‘must clothe herself in such a way as not to appear vain and frivolous.’ De Montaigne claims that ‘if a woman cannot save her conscience let her at least save her reputation.’ In both cases the women in question are expected to hide their inner self. Whilst ideally a woman should not want to draw attention to her beauty by obvious means, portraying her beautiful hands by discarding her gloves is an example provided by Castiglione, the practical reality for many women was that this modesty had to be carefully cultivated through self-fashioning. And this was something that affected women of all sectors of society, how to negotiate the divide between the inner and the outer appearance. Respectability for instance depended on outward appearance, not inner thoughts.
 In conclusion then self-fashioning was an undeniable presence in the early modern world. The medieval idea of a harmonious ‘concordant’ between beliefs and actions had become the widespread ideal of ‘sincerity’. Authorities, both secular and religious, became increasingly concerned with the idea that one’s actions were not necessarily in sync with one’s private thoughts. Even the lingering belief that the inner had outer manifestations could not quieten the unease, in some cases there seemed to be no physical signs and in any case the printing press had been able to disseminate ways in which to make the disguise more impenetrable. Castiglione’s popular ‘Book of the Courtier’, described how one should act naturally and with nonchalance in order to create the illusion that it was a true reflection of a pure inner self. The increasing availability of the printed word also provided guidelines for how people should act; prescriptive literature described how women should behave and what they ought to wear for instance. As these ideas disseminated down through society people at all levels became increasingly conscious of how they portrayed themselves. The highly symbolic portraiture of the period reflects this concern perfectly; the figure in the picture might be a perfect likeness of the sitter, but the objects around them, their clothing, their hair, and so on were equally as important. They represent the self-fashioning of everyday life, through them the viewer could pick up on all the messages the sitter wanted them to know about themselves, just as they tried to do in their normal everyday life to reflect their position in society.


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