Impostors and impostures featured prominently in the political, social and religious life of early modern England. Who was likely to be perceived as impostor, and why? This book offers a full-scale analysis of this multifaceted phenomenon. Using approaches drawn from historical anthropology and micro-history, it investigates changes and continuities within the impostor phenomenon from 1500 to the late eighteenth century, exploring the variety of representations and perceptions of impostors, and their deeper meanings within the specific contexts of social, political, religious, institutional and cultural change. The book examines a wide range of sources, from judicial archives and other official records to chronicles, newspapers, ballads, pamphlets and autobiographical writings. Given that identity is never fixed, but involves a performative dimension, changing over time and space, it looks at the specific factors which constitute identity in a particular context, and asks why certain characteristics of an allegedly false identity were regarded as fake.
This introductory chapter discusses the theme of this book, which is about impostors and impostures in early modern England. The first part of this book analyses the phenomenon and its variety, and explores incidents showing the common characteristics of imposture, and to whom and why the labels impostor and imposture were applied; and the second examines the life of William Fuller, who assumed different elite roles during his lifetime.
This chapter examines counterfeit beggars, bigamists and bogus cunning folk in early modern England. It argues that descriptions of false beggars and vagabonds from the late Middle Ages indicate a change in perception of the phenomenon and (re-)introduced motifs which can be found in representations throughout the early modern period. The chapter explains that cunning men and women were often labelled impostors, not because their claims were held irrational and superstitious, but because they had misused belief and trust in the real power of other practitioners. It also discusses the strategies of bigamists and polygamists inveigling their future bride or groom, and highlights the similarities among these types of people, suggesting that they all represented a threat to social order.
This chapter deals with bogus officials and forgers in early modern England. It contends that the bureaucratisation process resulted in problems with the clear roles and identification of officials, and contributed to the rise of bogus officials. The chapter explains that while bogus officials tried to impersonate officials by means of a forged document, the forgers are temporary impostors with the primary intention of gaining money or property by forging letters, bonds, bills or even a will in the name of real personages.
This chapter focuses on medical impostors and quacks in early modern England. It explains that quack is the term used to describe someone claiming medical skills or university degrees to gain the status of a licensed physician, and that it could also refer to someone using techniques and forms of knowledge which were disapproved of as superstitious. The chapter describes the performative strategies of so-called quacks that enabled them to become consultants to people of all social strata, and argues that medical imposture displays conflicts which arose over professionalisation and institutionalisation, either between regular and irregular doctors, or among the latter.
This chapter highlights the prevalence of religious imposture in early modern England, including prophets, visionaries and exorcists. It suggests that the occurrence of religious individuals who claimed spiritual power and thought themselves prophets, exorcists or healers is not a peculiarity of the early modern period, but rather a transhistorical and transcultural phenomenon. The chapter explains that religious impostors during this period can be divided into a category of people who deliberately perpetrated a fraud, a larger category who believed in their own religious powers and role but were rejected by some contemporaries, and a category of people who functioned as puppets. It argues that the language of religious imposture had reflected the struggle between denominations since the Reformation, and was again a significant rhetoric tool in the debates over probability and certainty, and over the meaning of credulity and incredulity, in the late seventeenth century.
This chapter focuses on political impostors, or people who assumed the identity of a royal personage in order to achieve either a personal goal or that of a political faction, in early modern England. These people were either genuine members of the royal dynasty or ordinary men or women who claimed to be the real heir to the throne and therefore challenged the legitimacy of the current ruler. The former are often labelled as pretenders or claimants. The chapter discusses various circumstances of a vacuum of power, including political or succession crisis, which provided fertile ground for their claims.
This chapter investigates ethnic impostors, or people who claimed to be of a different ethnicity. It examines the perception of people who claimed to be of a different ethnicity, and identifies which features of ethnicity played a role in their success. The chapter explores the celebrated case of the pretended Formosan George Psalmanazar and Mary Baker, who passed herself off as Princess Caraboo from Javasu, and suggests that a shift in perception of the far-away ‘other’ was necessary to make ethnic imposture a worthwhile enterprise.
This chapter focuses on gentleman impostors and people who attempted to realise a noble life in order to make up for their imaginary or lost world. It analyses literary representations of gentlemen impostors and argues that they reflect a shift in meaning of the concept of gentility which created uncertainties over gentility itself, and who could be considered to qualify. The chapter also examines the cases of impostors Elizabeth Thornborough, William Morrell and William Stroud, and suggests that their experience highlights the importance of property and consumerism within the socioeconomic context of the period between the late seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries.
This chapter provides a micro-historical analysis of William Fuller, who, during his lifetime, assumed several different elite roles, and analyses how Fuller represented himself and his surroundings, linking the themes of autobiography and imposture. It explains Fuller's sense of the mismatch between his own poverty and noble kin and his double or ‘poly-identity’ in religious, social and political terms, and also examines Fuller's self-representation and self-perception.