Mirrors Turned People Into Individualists

Photo: Columbia TriStar Pictures

Being confronted with your own image is a constant, almost inescapable, part of life today, whether it’s your reflection in a street window or the black mirror of a waiting iPhone. But in the scope of history, knowing what you look like is pretty new — and there’s good reason to believe that it brought about a more individualist culture in the West.

Historian Ian Mortimer contends as much in his new book Millennium: From Religion to Revolution: How Civilization Has Changed Over a Thousand Years. In an excerpt for Lapham’s Quarterly, Mortimer tells the story this way: Before glass mirrors, the best you could do was copper or bronze, but those mirrors reflected only 20 percent of light and were super expensive. So for most medieval folks, their personage was left to a glimpse in water.

This started to change around 1300, when Venetian glassmakers invented the convex glass mirror. (Lenses and their ilk were going bananas in those days: Spectacles were invented in Italy around 1280; by the 1600s, the telescope and microscope would start spurring their skyward and inward revolutions). By the late 14th century, Mortimer notes, mirrors started landing in Northern Europe; Kings Henry IV and Henry V of England had them. “Although these were still far too expensive for an average farmer or tradesman, in 1500 the prosperous city merchant could afford such an item,” he writes. “In this respect, the individual with disposable income differed greatly from his ancestor in 1400: He could see his own reflection and thus knew how he appeared to the rest of the world.”

From there, portraiture become a force in painting, which is why if you stroll around an art museum, almost everything that isn’t a religious or mythological scene will be some dead rich guy. Like proto-selfies, “[p]ortraits invited the viewer to ‘Look at me!’ and implied that the sitter was a man of substance, or a well-connected woman, worth portraying because of his or her status,” Mortimer writes. And with that, you talked about these people, placed them at the center of attention. Having one’s image out there, as any Instagram-savvy teen would tell you, is a way of asserting status, of showing that you are separate from the other.

Whereas in early medieval times you defined yourself by your household or guild or church or relation to the Lord, the self-consciousness offered by mirrors (and their aesthetic offspring, portraiture), turned people more individually conscious. As the haunting, existential self-portraits of the Rembrandts of the world suggest, a mirror is a tool for introspection, for asking, what’s in here, who am I?

With the mirror, the body is no longer just the subject, the perceiver of the world, but an object — a thing being perceived. Indeed, clinical-psychology research indicates that eating disorders can develop when self-consciousness reaches pathology: People identify with others’ gazes of them. Rather than identifying with the experience of looking into the mirror, they identify with the face in it.

The history of science tells us that knowledge is shaped by our instruments, like Galileo’s using a telescope (and his knowledge of perspective) to deduce that the moon had shadows, and therefore mountains. To Mortimer, and fellow historian Steven Johnson, the mirror is a tool not only for scientific but for psychological insight: Your identity isn’t merely how you relate to others or to the divine, but how you relate to yourself. Or, in the case of 2016, your selfie.

Mirrors Turned People Into Individualists