Monday, October 31, 2011

Sign of the Times

How much can you tell about a person from their signature? That's the question recently asked in Mercurius Politicus.

From the piece...

One legitimate answer to that question is nothing. That’s probably the right answer if you interpret the question in terms of whether the idiosyncrasies of someone’s handwriting reveal anything about their personality.

In other respects, though, a signature can be incredibly revealing. This is particularly the case for the early modern period, where a person’s signature – on a title deed, on a will, on a book – may be the only surviving material trace of their existence. From a humanist perspective, seeking to recover what we can of the past, finding someone’s signature is exciting. It is a way of connecting with someone long gone, across a void of hundreds of years. And while trying to discern actual personality traits from signatures may be a dead end, the material aspects of a signatures can still tell us things.

Signatures are a means of expressing one’s identity in textual form. The fact that they became, and remain, the primary legal means of asserting one’s identity means that there are all sorts of culturally-specific assumptions bound up with them. To know how to write, you had to know how to read: the latter was taught before the former. The fact that a person in the sixteenth or seventeenth century could write their name instantly tells you something about them. It also tells you something about how their contemporaries might have perceived them. The ability to sign one’s name demonstrated to others that you had at least some degree of education, and that you had a certain amount of agency with which to engage in the worlds of commerce, politics or law.

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