Law, Crime & Rights

Facial Recognition, Medieval Style

This article for HWO accompanies Trevor Dean and Patricia Skinner’s new article in History Workshop Journal: ‘Marked Men: Identity and Surveillance in Late Medieval Italy (Perugia, 1411-45)‘.

Did medieval states engage in any sort of surveillance of populations based on the collection of their personal data? Instinctively, you would think not: surveillance is a modern phenomenon, isn’t it, and medieval states lacked the technology and the bureaucratic structures to practise it, didn’t they?  In our new article published in History Workshop Journal, we examine the personal data collected by one Italian city-state on one specific group of its employees – the police – and consider how far this can be categorised as surveillance.

Formal justice and policing in late medieval Italian cities were highly unusual in structure and personnel. In structure, they were organised by short-term contracts, usually of six months’ duration, granted to ‘teams’ or squads which comprised a chief judge, subordinate judges, court servants and armed police. By law, all of these state employees had to come from outside the city and its territory, the rationale being a desire to avoid any social connection or proximity between the police and the urban population in cities that were often sharply divided by political factions. This was radically different from the voluntary, non-professional, native, or self-employed systems found in other European states in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The records for the operation of this system include the laws that established and maintained it, the day-to-day government decisions that implemented it, the trial records that show the police in action, and – the focus in our article – the extraordinary lists that collected personal data on the police themselves at the point of their recruitment.  These lists were then used at subsequent points (at musters or roll-calls) to check that the police establishment was being maintained and that the same men were still serving (and not being impersonated).

Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Young Man (c. 1480-5). National Gallery.

I first came across muster lists for the police force of medieval Bologna one Friday afternoon in the State Archives in that city. I had finished the other research that had taken me to Bologna, and was exploring a few miscellaneous files on the off-chance that they might contain something interesting.  When file 434 of the criminal inquest series arrived, its contents surprised me: not trial documents, but lists of judicial and policing officers. This was something new. I was aware that the police force of Florence had been studied by a Polish scholar back in the 1980s, but did not know that such records existed for any other city.  The range of personal data collected about these police squads was quite exceptional for the medieval period (though it is also found for Italian contract armies at the same times).  It included not just forename, father’s name (surnames were unusual) and place of origin, but also mother’s name.  Occasionally, other elements were added too, such as age, stature, key facial traits, and distinguishing marks. I started taking notes, and then some photographs, and flew back to London the next day with a fresh research idea buzzing in my head.

The first thing that struck me about the lists, as I built spreadsheets of names and origins of the policemen, was the huge variety and breadth of nationalities and provenances. They came not just from all parts of Italy, but all parts of Europe and some parts of the Mediterranean: Germany, France, Hungary, the Low Countries, Greece, Spain, and Britain, from the Black Sea region, and from Mediterranean islands (Corsica, Crete, Cyprus). My first thought was that these lists should be approached from the history of migration.  And that is what I examined in my article on the lists in Bologna (‘Police forces in medieval Italy: Bologna, 1340-1480’, Social History 44 (2019), 151-72). Though foreign soldiers, especially German soldiers, had been heavily present in Italy already in earlier decades, the demographic situation following the Black Death seems to have intensified the international mobility of labour.  This meant that police squads in northern Italian cities were likely to be multinational and multilingual, with all the difficulties that might pose to their commanders.

Another additional aspect of the lists intrigued me even more: the facial descriptions of the police, which seemed to be both an opportunity and a puzzle.  The opportunity lay in what the lists offered as a record of physical appearance of working men from different parts of Europe.  The puzzle lay in working out what the historical and historiographical purposes of this level of information could possibly be. I set about hunting out other archives with similar records to see if this was a common or a unique phenomenon.  This took me to three further cities: Siena, Orvieto and Perugia.  It was the Perugian records that contained the most and informative facial descriptions – far more abundant than in Bologna –  including mention of scars and injuries. As I started the lengthy process of entering the data in spreadsheets, I realised that the wealth of material in the lists called for many more fields and forms: not just names and provenances of policemen, but colour and shape of their beards, colour of their hair and skin, shape of their noses, placement and size of their scars and other marks.

I also began to explore possible historiographical frames. The new history of lists and identity was one obvious point of reference, as was the older history of medieval bureaucracy.  Medieval physiognomy was another path that I trod for quite a while, but that had more to do with ascribing character-traits to physical characteristics and did not relate closely to my lists.  So, I began to look more at recent work on scarring and physical deformity/disability, and at that point I became aware of Trish Skinner’s work on facial disfigurement in the Middle Ages. I contacted her, explained what I was working on and found that she was even more excited by the Perugian data than I was.  At a seminal meeting at the IHR, we decided to work on the lists together, and to concentrate our analysis on issues of personal identity and state surveillance.  One of the advantages of collaborative working is the different perspectives and knowledges it brings to a shared object of study.  Trish knew the historiography of disfigurement much better than I did and was familiar with all sorts of medical treatises that I wouldn’t have thought to look for.  She also took our discussion of surveillance to a new level, added a new dimension to my discussion of black skin, and posed some challenging questions about the purposes of the lists.

It was in discussion together that the topicality of our lists really struck home: at a time when digital technology for facial recognition is spreading in both benign and disturbing ways, we seemed to be working on an analogue version with some of the same tracking and verifying functions. In the article, we think carefully about the practice of collecting the facial descriptions, which were highly individuated and required close physical inspection. These data, we argue, constitute a form of surveillance, as personal data was not only collected at the point of recruitment but was also used for the purposes of identification at the point of regular musters.  Some medieval states did have the interest, technology and bureaucracy to do this! There is a common idea that medieval cities were more like modern villages in terms of local knowledge about people and their backgrounds and activities, in contrast to the anonymity possible in the modern city.  Surveillance techniques in our own society are perhaps making us more like medieval cities, while the existence of surveillance in the medieval city perhaps makes them more like us.

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