Modes of Authentication in Early Modern Europe

Modes of Authentication in Early Modern Europe

Richard Calis, Princeton University; Liesbeth Corens, Queen Mary University of London; Tom Tölle, Hamburg University
Vom - Bis
04.07.2019 - 05.07.2019
Url der Konferenzwebsite
Joëlle Weis, Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel

Current times of uncertainty marked by alternative facts and fake news seemed to call for a historical debate on criteria of credibility and truth. The three organizers addressed this necessity in their introductory remarks, relating it to a nostalgia for a hypothetical time in which facts were simply facts.

If this conference has shown one thing, though, it is that facts were never simple. Authenticity, facts, legitimacy, proof and truth – these are all historical terms that experienced shifts in meaning and appreciation. What is more, modes of authentication clearly depended on different traditions and disciplines newly taking shape. The implication is that contrasting forms of authentication and different strategies existed at the same time. The sessions were planned accordingly and paired papers in order to break down “disciplinary comfort zones” (Corens).

The first session was concerned with the discursive production of proof and truths and showed the fluidity of benchmarks of certainty.

VIRGINIA REINBURG (Boston) talked about “shrine books” published throughout France in the 17th century and the accompanying strategies of authorizing beliefs. The aim of these books was the establishment of a specific cult’s authenticity which was increasingly challenged by a society that was still deeply influenced by religious wars. Reinburg observed a hybrid approach that provided legal (i.e. archival or eyewitness) testimony as well as a foundation narrative that established a place’s “identity”. The genre thus mixed contemporary practices of historiography, as exercised for example by Cesare Baronio, with local traditions and stories, creating its own mode of authentication that countered doubt with evidence interweaved with exciting story lines. By doing so, they created “common cultural plots” that were widely understood, recognized and, most importantly, believed.

In her paper on handling knowledge and uncertainty in early modern cartography, CHARLOTTA FORSS (Oxford) presented different maps that aimed at giving exact renditions of the known world. Using Gerardus Mercator as one example, she showed how cartographers demonstrated their conformity with the truth, presenting the sources and insisting on double-checking information. Nevertheless, the period’s rapid discoveries represented a challenge for mapmakers who were constantly confronted with new information. It was thus the (still) unexplored parts of the world that raised problems and, as a result, cartographers developed certain strategies to represent the unknown. The possibilities were numerous: drawings of foreign animals, labels stating “unknown”, or symbolic representation were used. What they all show is that the creators acknowledged the unknown and were aware of the possibilities of future discoveries. They simply accepted uncertainty as a fact, showing that things might be “unknown but not unthought”.

NOAH MILLSTONE (Birmingham) showed how contradiction was a fundamental part of news stories, precisely because information was unreliable and uncertainty was an everyday reality that had to be dealt with. Millstone argued that early modern readers even expected revisions and that they were simply not looking for facts. Instead, newspapers were supposed to be an account of the ongoing “talk of the town”, witness of orality, with an inherently transitory nature. Amendments and self-correction were thus not seen as a weakness but as a sign of quality, as it showed that reporters always kept pace with the times, were critical about their own writings and were able to suspend judgement.

The following session looked at the intellectual foundations in which supposed truths were established and asked about syntheses as well as conflicts between systems of knowledge.

RICHARD SERJEANTSON (Cambridge) showed how historical arguments were increasingly integrated into logical thinking and vice versa, even though the common conception stated that a rational art of history was impossible. He presented authors like Melchor Cano, Richard Crakanthorpe or Antoine Arnauld, who paid attention to historical dimensions, asking about the authority of history and establishing rules by which to judge history. They discovered temporality as one possible mode of authentication. This can be seen especially in Mabillons Brèves réflexions in which he invokes formal logic in his arguments, trusting that they will become more convincing. It is striking, although not surprising, that the concept of the fides historica was especially present in the confessional controversies, considering that theologians were increasingly reliant on historical arguments. They needed to develop new methods and included logical reasoning as one new facet and by doing so, they became innovators in their fields.

TOM TÖLLE (Hamburg) talked about the archivist Nikolaus Kindlinger and his path towards becoming an expert in the creation of (historical) proof. From a praxeological perspective, Tölle argued that a specific toolkit had to be acquired and applied in order to be able to navigate the uncertain waters troubled by the eroding institutions of the Holy Roman Empire. Kindlinger was successful, precisely because his toolkit combined deep knowledge in different fields – reaching from abstract philosophy and mathematics to practical sigillography – and the intersection of various methods, enabling him to apply different modes of authentication to different materials, making him an all-round expert. Precisely the combination of markers of validity inherent to documents and the external authority of the expert combined to form a refined (dual) mode of authentication.

Using the example of Leonardo Bruni’s History of the Florentine People, HESTER SCHADEE (Exeter) analyzed a specific strategy to establish authority: the self-fashioning of critical authorship. Although still drawing on older methods of historiography like the invention of speeches, Bruni highlighted his use of archival and literary sources and sign-posted his own conjectures in his writings as well. Schadee described these as different “modes of persuasion” which Bruni used to create credibility. In doing so and regardless of his actual modus operandi, he succeeded in differentiating himself from earlier Florentine historians and thus inscribing himself into the history of historiography as one of the first historical-critical scholars.
The third session shifted more explicitly towards materiality and the different media of authentication.

KAI SCHWAHN (Hamburg) presented a case study on the set of problems surrounding manuscript copies in historical-critical scholarship. How can scholars assure authenticity of their editions if they have never seen the original? This question concerned Johann Schilter, the figure at the heart of Schwahn’s case study, when he edited and translated the Ludwigslied written in Old High German and conserved in Paris. As he could not travel to Paris himself, he had to rely on the work of others, a common problem in the Republic of Letters, which again accentuates the highly important social components of erudition. The copyist hence became an important (but often neglected) figure who, according to his knowledge, skills, social status, and reputation, could act as a quality label and thus as authentication for manuscript copies.

SARA BARKER (Leeds) asked how establishing trust worked for pamphlets that were published in the context of the French Wars of Religion. On the one hand, Barker objected to traditional understandings that works were simply filtering out from centers into the provinces. Instead she insisted on more complex forms of exchange patterns that were closely linked to the ongoing event narrative and to the relationships between individual printers. On the other hand, she argued that this medium was very effective for sustaining and driving the conflict, even beyond the actual contents. Considering that pamphlets heavily relied on visual aspects, design decisions that were made in the print shop were essential for achieving credibility and conveying a sense of authority. Using specific layouts or fonts instilled confidence in customers, which was necessary to ensure an important function of the pamphlets: creating a shared experience for the audience which was all the more important in times of uncertainty.

In her keynote address on ethics and epistemology of belief in early modern Europe, LORRAINE DASTON (Berlin) sketched a picture of the early modern period that was oscillating between “believing too much” (i.e. superstition) and “believing too little” (i.e. scepticism, doubt). The “shock of error” that followed new inventions and the discoveries of new lands in the late 16th and early 17th century led to an awareness of scientific claims not necessarily being final truths which resulted in an increasing discomfort. The developing ideal of constant innovation was not welcomed by all early modern thinkers. Nevertheless, an increased interest in epistemological questions can be observed and especially the avoidance of error was discussed. Daston compared the situation to today, where people often do not know which information to trust or distrust. What was and is needed in order to deal with the emerging uncertainty is an “education of the eye”, the shaping of critical methods that help us to classify information. In this sense, the writings of Bacon, Locke or Descartes can be seen as reactions to the question how much could be believed.

The last session particularly looked at the very diverse actors that were playing a role for the processes of authentication.

ANDREW MENDELSOHN (London) traced the relationship of office and Öffentlichkeit from medieval to early modern times. He explained how office comprised notarial, syndical and inspectorial procedures that were essential in (judicial) authentication. These official practices were increasingly complemented by “public” reports that were transformed into printed texts for a universal readership. These texts were used as proof and the readers formed an Öffentlichkeit that slowly subsumed office and authenticating procedures; the meaning of society for jurisdictional procedures changed and with it societal responsibilities. Tolerance and impartiality hence became important symbols for this new role of the public.

KIM BREITMOSER (Hamburg) tied in with questions about the role of the public and the expert. She presented the case of Maria Rampendahl who was the last person being accused of witchcraft in the city of Lemgo in 1681. This was a unique case considering that the accused did not make a confession, which was traditionally considered the ultimate form of proof. Instead, the city’s court had to rely on independent legal opinions from experts at the faculty of law in Rinteln and Jena. The case thus highlights the increasing significance of the expert and shows how truth is negotiated between old and new authorities. In the end, Rampendahl was officially exonerated, but nevertheless ostracized, which shows that jurisdiction and public opinion were each making their respective truths.

In the final presentation of the conference, RENÉE RAPHAEL (Irvine) looked at the forming discipline of mechanics, “mixed mathematical science”, and its style of proof. In the first part, she analyzed the narrative and linguistic strategies that Galileo used in his Two New Sciences in order to introduce new ideas. The form of the dialogue and specific language of proof allowed Galileo to include familiar experiences as well as new thought experiments. In the second part, Raphael looked at the reception of these strategies. With the help of an annotated copy of the book, she was able to reconstruct reading practices and reactions to Galileo’s style of proof. Readers were not necessarily convinced but helped formulate standards of proof with their reflections that in return became part of the formation of disciplines that were and still are in flux.

Dominik Hünniger (Hamburg) closed the conference with a recapitulation of the most important topics. The final discussion highlighted some of the recurrent themes of the conference and thus formulated possible starting points for further research. It became especially obvious that the relationship between novelty and tradition was most notably discussed in times of uncertainty, which thus became a central motor for methodological innovation. In my opinion, the conference hence pointed to one of the main challenges for research on early modern intellectual history: the sometimes paradoxical concurrency of the old and new in early modern thought and practice. Further research on modes of authentication might help with our understanding of this perceived inconsistency, drawing our attention to the productive cooperation of innovation and tradition. In addition, many aspects that would enrich the discussion were mentioned, including issues on reception and audiences, materiality and bodies as well as most prominently the much-needed inclusion of non-European perspectives.

Conference overview:

Session 1: Truth, Falsehood, and Uncertainty

Virginia Reinburg (Boston College): Fabled Truths: Crafting a Proof in a Religiously Fractured World

Charlotta Forss (University of Oxford): A Changeable Cartography: The Problems of Proof and Discovery in Early Modern World Maps

Noah Millstone (University of Birmingham): The Spirit of Contradiction in Early Modern News

Session 2: Foundations: Transition and Complementarity

Richard Serjeantson (University of Cambridge): The Logic of History in Confessional Europe

Tom Toelle (Hamburg University): The Noble Archive Goes to Court: How a Rhenish Minorite Authenticated His Proofs

Hester Schadee (University of Exeter): "Vulgaribus fabulosisque opinionibus relectis": Authentication and Auctores in Leonardo Bruni's History of the Florentine People

Session 3: Carriers: Media and Materiality

Kai Schwahn (Hamburg University): How to Authenticate a Manuscript? Johann Schilter (1632-1705) and the Debates on ius archive and Diplomatics

Sara Barker (Leeds): Reprinting Pamphlets during the French Wars of Religion

Keynote address
Loraine Daston (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin): The Early Modern Ethics of Credulity and Incredulity

Session 4: Actors: Experts, Public, and Audiences

Andrew Mendelsohn (Queen Mary University of London): Office to Öffentlichkeit in Early Modern Europe

Kim Breitmoser (Hamburg University): Proving and Disproving Witchcraft

Renee Raphael (University of California, Irvine): A Discipline in Formation: Proving Mathematical and Experimental Claims in Early Modern Mechanics