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Medieval forms of ID?

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I am trying to find some forms of "I.D." for a MG fairy tale story that has a medieval European feel. Specifically, how royalty or nobles travelling far and wide within  their kingdoms could prove to villagers that they were indeed who they claimed to be.

I've thought of the obvious -- royal carriage, royal guards, royal shields, a messenger, pictures on coins, etc. but these do not always work in the story as I have several instances of a prince and princess travelling on foot with no weapons.

Do you know of any other ways in which they might prove their identification?

Both real and made up ways are welcome, since it's fantasy. Thanks!
#1 - July 15, 2016, 11:45 PM

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In the movie A Knight's Tale the knights competing in a tournament had to prove nobility going back so many generations, and needed to show letters of patent (which I found online as letters patent) which in the movie were illuminated scrolls with crests and titles and family histories etc. In the movie the main characters forged these to compete.
#2 - July 16, 2016, 12:32 AM
THIS LITTLE PIGGY (AN OWNER'S MANUAL), Aladdin PIX June 2017 :pigsnort
KUNG POW CHICKEN 1-4, Scholastic 2014 :chicken

Seals, crests, rings with crests. Just like now, all things that could get stolen. Hmmm...smells like a subplot.
#3 - July 16, 2016, 06:28 AM
Imagination is more important than knowledge. Einstein.

Ooooh--to give it a contemporary feel: tattoos could be a form of ID. Location of such could be interesting. You wouldn't necessarily want a high ranking noble or a queen/king/prince/etc. to be easily identified in certain circumstances (for instance, on the battlefield).
#4 - July 16, 2016, 06:32 AM
Imagination is more important than knowledge. Einstein.

A purple pimpernel on the royal behind!


#5 - July 16, 2016, 08:57 AM

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This is pre-medieval, but Alexander the Great wore a helmet with a giant white plume so he'd be easily identified by his troops. It saved his life once, too--the helmet, that is.

When I'm lecturing on him I always say, "Think how different Western civilization would be if Alexander the Great had died in his first battle. No diffusion of Hellenism, the Roman Empire would not have been possible, at least in the same way, and neither would the diffusion of Christianity." Then I slam my lectern and say, "That is why you always wear your helmet!"

I'm a lecturer a few hours a week, but a mom 24/7. :grin3
#6 - July 16, 2016, 10:22 AM
Learning to Swear in America (Bloomsbury, July 2016)
What Goes Up (Bloomsbury, 2017)
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Paging rab?
#7 - July 16, 2016, 10:35 AM
VAMPIRINA IN THE SNOW (Disney-Hyperion, 2018)
BUSY-EYED DAY (Beach Lane Books, 2018)
GROUNDHUG DAY (Disney-Hyperion, 2017)
among others

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Um, hi, rab here, wishing I had a good answer. Medieval people were so incredibly status-conscious that they all tended to know who was where on the social scale, so I can't think of any examples where someone had to prove his or her identity. (Not saying there's not; just that I don't know of any, except for the tale of Alfred the Great, who had no luck convincing the peasant woman he was king.) Clothing would be a giveaway, not just because silk and fine linen were too expensive for most people, but also because there were sumptuary laws dictating who could wear what. For example, Chaucer makes fun of some guildsmen for trying to act like nobles by carrying silver knives at their belts; only the nobility were supposed to have silver knives. Arona already mentioned seals and rings with crests, which got used on documents for authenticity. In some cases, a seal would be broken in half, and you'd know it was authentic by matching the other half to it. If I think of anything else, I'll let you know, Christine!
#8 - July 16, 2016, 02:17 PM

Thank you everyone -- these are great!

A tattoo, especially a really crude one, is actually perfect for one of the characters.

rab, that is really helpful information and it's showing me that I may be thinking too literally about them needing to prove who they are in each scene. The prince and princess will definitely be wearing clothes fitting their rank, and it's good to know that I do not always need to pause the action to make them prove who they are. I like the idea of only making it an issue when it works for the story.

Thank you!
#9 - July 17, 2016, 04:19 PM

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A belated thought for you, Christine: you might also play around with language differences. For example, for a long time in medieval England, the nobility spoke French while the commoners spoke English. Several monarchs didn't even speak English. Similarly, you could indicate class differences through speech patterns---different dialects or accents.
#10 - July 24, 2016, 01:56 PM

Seals, crests, rings with crests. Just like now, all things that could get stolen. Hmmm...smells like a subplot.

Exactly:  In a pre-literate society, treaties weren't signed on paper (which few could write and even fewer read to tell whether they were forged), so important alliances had to be proven with gifts of rings, swords, daggers, and other specially designed trinkets.  Even the trope of the "dragon guarding his treasure" first began in ancient stories as an allegorical criticism of kings who wouldn't share their treasure with allies.
Signet rings were also important because the king, or his official signet-bearer held the royal Stamp of Approval on all proclamations, so they had to come from the genuine hand.

Knights designed symbolic crests from their families and achievements so that you could see who was inside the armor just from their "corporate logo".  There was a documentary on contemporary Knights of the Garter, and even 20th-cty. ones like Edmund Hillary and Margaret Thatcher now have their "knighthood crests" hung in Windsor Castle.
#11 - July 24, 2016, 11:48 PM
« Last Edit: July 25, 2016, 10:39 AM by EricJ »
Know the movies.  Show the movies.  Start the revolution:

rab -- that is a great point. I knew that about French (I actually think I learned it first from Ken Follet novels!). I could definitely refer to a "noble dialect" etc.

Ericj -- isn't it funny that to us now, it seems like a ring would be easier to forge than a treaty...well actually that seems easy to forge, too! When you live in a society that has DNA evidence, fingerprinting, and even voice recognition, it's hard to imagine a world that relied on rings and swords and shields to prove identities. But it's also fascinating! Thanks for your suggestions!
#12 - July 25, 2016, 12:31 AM

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It seems that pretending to be royalty wasn't overly rare:

I read The False Prince a while back, in it street urchins are kidnapped to impersonate the prince simple because they 'sort of look like him'
There is a special knife that shows up later, and a tattoo (I think) too.
#13 - July 25, 2016, 04:35 AM

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I'm not sure I have a lot to add--but what an interesting thread! I'm impressed by how much some of you know.

Even if they didn't speak French, wouldn't the accent give the person away? The Brits have always been very conscious of what part of England and what class someone comes from--by listening to his/her speech. (Think Henry Higgins.)

If not that, their bearing, their manners, the quality and discernment of their taste, the smooth whiteness of their skin--all that would certainly indicate their position in life. (Think THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA.) If they had noble manners and posture, etc. would anyone really question them if they also claimed to be royalty?

I can often tell whether someone has a preppy education or not, and I'm not even trying.
#14 - July 25, 2016, 11:47 AM
« Last Edit: July 25, 2016, 12:03 PM by Betsy »


Non-calloused hands? A signet ring?

I'd email a professor of Medieval history, and ask. I have found academics very willing to offer their knowledge!
#15 - July 25, 2016, 02:07 PM
« Last Edit: July 25, 2016, 02:09 PM by Dionna »


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