We’re Lucky Because We Know What We Look Like

By Joe Darby

Okay, so this week I ran across one of those little gems of historical happenstance that I love so much.

And I’m going to share it with you because I think it’s just so cool to think about.

I’m reading a book called Europa, by a Hispano-Englishman, a university professor, and it’s about how the continent of Europe has, for the last 500 years or so, profoundly influenced the rest of the world.

In setting the stage for that story, the author backgrounds the readers on how European civilization became dominant as a result of the Renaissance. That was a time, as you probably know, when Western Europe, led by Italy, rediscovered the arts in all its forms, painting, sculpture, etc., as well as the idea of the importance of mankind, the structure of government, finance and, well we could just go on and on.

But the fascinating little tidbit that he touches on, and it’s one I’d never before encountered or thought about, was how the invention of the common mirror changed our concept of ourselves so profoundly. And this was about the same time that Europeans began acquiring last names. Let’s divert for a moment to discuss that fascinating fact.

Until the late middle ages most folks in Europe were known simply by their first names, like Thomas or Jean or Ludwig or Joan or Marie or Gertrude. Then, they started being called by the place they were from, Thomas London perhaps, or in my case it would be Joseph Derby, from the English town of that name.

Also, many were called by their profession, Carpenter, Baker, Cooper (for barrel makers), Cook or perhaps for their complexion, Brown, White or Black. There were lots of good reasons for the use of last names to become popular. After all, if you lived in a big city like London, there must have been hundreds of Thomases or Joans. Some type of distinction was necessary so they’d know which Thomas or Joan they were talking about.

So. What do these two things, last names and mirrors, have in common in shaping a whole people? Why, they gave the people their first sense of true identify.

At first, of course, only the rich folks in the castles and palaces could afford mirrors, But it wasn’t too long before ways of making cheap glass were discovered. Until that point, they only way the average Thomas or Joan could know what they looked like was to occasionally see a vague reflection in a shiny piece of metal or on the surface of water. And neither of those methods could give a good, true image, and in color yet.

Imagine what it would have been like going around without really knowing what you looked like. The less than handsome men and less than pretty women must have wondered why the opposite sex paid so much more attention to that handsome guy or gal down the lane.

So, almost at the same time, Europeans had a sense of identity through their first and last names and, even better, had a self-image, which I think is all important in how we feel about ourselves.

And of course this was going on at the same time as the terrific explosion of knowledge that the Renaissance brought. After centuries of being somewhat of a back water, Europe was about to take off. They knew who they were and they knew they wanted to achieve amazing things. And they did. Whether what they did was for better or worse if for you and history to judge. I think the good outweighed the bad. That might be the topic of another column soon.

Now, if you want to connect with ancestors, go stand in front of a mirror, recite your full name and say, “Hey, I AM somebody.”