Of Seals and signatures: More of the history of identification

A continuation of my review of Higgs’ book about identification (see below), in which we look at various forms of non-documentary identification, ending in the Age of the Document.

Clothes make the man


Anne Vavasour, not a carpenter or a sailor or a sempstress…

Clothes have always been at least partly designed to proclaim your identity; your gender first and foremost, but also your social status and/or your profession. Clerical garb is very distinctive, for example. This is why the Tudors kept passing Sumptuary Laws, trying to make sure the people wearing the fancy clothes really were important and not just rich.

Clothes can be stolen by imposters, but the company of a group of retainers in matching outfits — livery — bearing the readily recognized insignia of a noble family was considerably harder to forge. This is why aristocrats plastered their coats of arms on everything they owned, including their servants.

The right to bear arms was controlled in England by the College of Heralds, who were kept very busy during the Tudor period. Many new men rose through competence and hard work, and then wanted to provide themselves with pedigrees. Aspiring arms-bearers had to submit hard evidence: documents, monuments bearing your progenitor’s likeness or arms, artifacts in notable houses, or records in the Tower Record office.



Coat of Arms of the College of Arms

Higgs writes (p. 55): “Care had to be taken to distinguish between true and forged evidence, given the lengths to which some would go to prove a spurious pedigree. Thus, a fictitious claim of descent of the Wellesbournes of Buckinghamshire from Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, was supported by forged medieval deeds and seals, and the placing in Hughenden church of a fabricated thirteenth-century knightly effigy.”

That guy really wanted his pedigree! He obviously didn’t do a good enough job, though, since the story of his failure lives to the day. Well, that’s a form of immortality too, I guess.


Of seals and signatures

We consider signatures the ultimate expression of identity in legal contexts. Contracts and deeds are not valid without signatures on them. We present a credit card and sign the slip. I e-sign my contracts with editors and cover designers, which is sort of funny, but we (speaking collectively) aren’t ready to give up that crucial proof yet. My dog could be e-signing those things, for all anyone knows! (She’s very smart.) And my signature is a scrawl, a sad thing really, totally illegible. I was told once by a clerk in the grocery store that legibility didn’t matter, as long as I would recognize it and acknowledge it as mine. Huh.


Mesopotamiam cylinder seal with the impression it makes. So lovely!

But long ago, only clerics could write. Reading and writing didn’t go hand in hand, so even if your noble person was eccentric (or devout) enough to be able to read, he or she might not be able to write. We learn from Higgs (p. 59) that “The seal is a very ancient form of personal validation. Minute stone of clay discs, engraved with straight lines or criss-cross patterns have been found in Mesopotamia from the period of the Hassuna culture of 6000 to 5500 B.C…. The earliest English documents known to be authenticated by seals are writs of Edward the Confessor (1042-66), although there are earlier Anglo-Saxon references to them.”

You could wear your seal on a ribbon or chain around your neck, or have it made into a ring. Even peasants had seals. Like your scribble on the card reader, it only has to produce an image which the person supposedly being identified by the said image will accept as their own.

We still use seals today for all sorts of official documents. States, countries, cities, universities, and many other entities have seals, whose use is jealousy guarded.

Higgs suggests that signatures may have been given authority over seals by the passing of the 1677 Statute of Frauds, which included provisions such as: 

“1. certain conveyances of interests in land must be in writing and signed by the parties;
  2. wills of real estate must be in writing signed by the testator…” (p.66)

What’s in a name?

On p.74, Higgs notes, “changing one’s name in England was not in itself a crime…. English common law recognized that a person might take any surname he or she pleased, provided that this was not done for a fraudulent purpose, or in order to deceive and inflict pecuniary loss on another. As long as the person persuaded the public to adopt and use the name he or she preferred, a change of surname was perfectly legal, and this seems to be true of first names as well.”


Francis Bacon’s signature

This is the way pen names work nowadays. You just pick one and start using it. Best to choose a name you’ll answer to. Something easy to spell, with an available domain name…


Sir Walter Raleigh’s signature

Surnames became a little more solid over the Tudor period, as births were more commonly registered in parish churches. There it was, written in the big book. “What d’ye mean, calling yourself James Williamson? The church register says you’re William Jameson!”

The philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed a radical plan for identifying individuals. He believed that “Everything which increases the facility of recognizing and finding individuals, adds to the general security.” (Higgs, p.76) Bentham thought every person should be tattooed with their unique identifier: first name, surname, place and date of birth. Higgs calculates his own as “Edward Higgs Lancaster 151153.” The idea of tattooing identity numbers on people never took off, apart from a short and brutish run in Nazi Germany.

Certificates, licenses, and passports

Births were registered in parish churches, as mentioned before, from the 16th century forward. Alas, that wasn’t a perfect solution to the identity question. Churches burned or were flooded. Most uk038cwere well supplied with mice, who liked nothing better than a tasty old registry. By the early 19th century – a time when people began to migrate from country to city in vast numbers, to take factory jobs – the authorities began to bewail the lack of sound evidence of who was whom and whence and where.

As always, they were chiefly concerned with property ownership. Anyone might turn up anywhere and claim anything, for all anyone could do about it.

Then the 1836 Registration Act divided all of England and Wales into registration districts (note the secular foundation), assigning a registrar to each. “These local officers were to record, and issue certificates of, birth, marriage and death, the latter including cause of death.” Copies were sent to a central General Register Office, “which created indexes of these and made them available to the public at a central site at Somerset House in London.” Now, we’re getting somewhere!

Passports, in the form of a letter from a monarch granting the bearer permission to leave the country, have been around for centuries. Wikipedia credits the rapid expansion of the railway system, and the burgeoning middle class, for making the old-fashioned passport system completely obsolete. They just couldn’t be checked in any meaningful way, not when trains could pass through several countries in a single journey!


William Powell Frith, The Railway Station

You didn’t need a passport to travel in the Victorian period. You needed money, of course, and food for the trip, and an extra shawl, and something to read…

Modern passports were stimulated by the need for border security during WWI. After that bloodbath ended, the League of Nations had a conference on passports which resulted in the general design of the ones we use today.

Biometric identification


I signed your contracts. Where are my cookies?

Fingerprints, hair color (easy to change), eye color (not quite as easy), height, blood type, DNA. We don’t trust documents so much anymore, in the Information Age. Not when Labradors could be e-signing book cover contracts. (She misunderstood the concept of cookies.)

Fingerprints were known to be unique, at least to Jan Evangelista Purkyně or Purkinje (1787–1869), a Czech physiologist and professor of anatomy at the University of Breslau. The world’s first fingerprint bureau was established in Argentina, by Juan Vucetich. Another was established in 1897 in Calcutta for use in criminal records. The first United Kingdom Fingerprint Bureau was founded at Scotland Yard in London in 1901.

And thus the new age of identification began. We 21st-century people consider fingerprints far superior forms of identification to signatures, although we still rely on the latter. I guess giving up a print feels somehow too intrusive, too lacking in that fundamental essence of trust. How are we going to feel when we’re asked for a cheek swab, to pop in that DNA sample?

It’s not that farfetched. I googled “us visa thumbprint” out of curiosity and found a slew of websites for services that help people get their papers in order to come to the US of A. The process does not look very friendly. I belong to the old “give us your tired and poor” philosophical camp. These are more like, “stand up and let us do biometric scanning and then take all your prints and a bundle of money while we’re at it.”

This place will do your biometric interview for you: https://www.path2usa.com/fingerprinting-and-biometrics-for-us-visa. That includes ink-free fingerprints (less messy) and a digital photo of your face. So that last thing is just a photo, for pity sake. What, are they going to use actual film?

But we know who are we are. Or so we believe…


Higgs, Edward. 2011. Identifying the English: A History of Personal Identification, 1500 to the Present. New York: Continuum.


Where to Buy

  • Buy on AppleBooks
  • Buy on Amazon
  • Buy on Barnes & Noble
  • Buy from Google Play
  • Buy from Kobo
  • Buy from Audible

My books are also available at at Amazon in the UK, Australia, Canada, and Germany as well as IndieBound, Powell’s, Scribd, Indigo Chapters, Books-a-Million, and Chirp.