Before the mirror was invented, we had glimpsed our own reflections in water, or in polished metals, but never really seen ourselves. It wasn’t until the development of the high-quality mirror-image found in silvered glass, which had started to become available to rich merchants and royalty in the 15th century, let us see what we really looked like. And that new understanding brought about a host of major changes to civilization.
Author Ian Mortimer argues that, before this invention, the concept of individual identity didn’t exist: “The development of glass mirrors marks a crucial shift, for they allowed people to see themselves properly for the first time, with all their unique expressions and characteristics,” writes Mortimer in an excerpt from his new book Millennium: From Religion to Revolution: How Civilization Has Changed Over a Thousand Years.
Before this, we thought of our ourselves as a part of a community. Our identity was tied up with the people we knew, the place we lived in. “This is why the medieval punishments of banishment and exile were so severe,” writes Mortimer. “A tradesman thrown out of his hometown would lose everything that gave him his identity. He would be unable to make a living, borrow money, or trade goods.” Even before the internet and the telephone, exile has seemed a trifling punishment to our modern, individualist minds. Imagine, instead, having your personality somehow removed, and you can get a feel of the real threat of exile in those times.
As mirrors became available to the average person, society shifted. We no longer saw ourselves as drones in a hive of humans.
The very act of a person seeing himself in a mirror or being represented in a portrait as the center of attention encouraged him to think of himself in a different way. He began to see himself as unique. Previously the parameters of individual identity had been limited to an individual’s interaction with the people around him and the religious insights he had over the course of his life. Thus individuality as we understand it today did not exist: people only understood their identity in relation to groups—their household, their manor, their town or parish—and in relation to God.
Art changed, too. The “trend toward portraiture grew in the 15th century, and came to dominate nonreligious art,” and painters could paint themselves for the first time, bringing about self portraits. In writing, the first-person novel, which would have made little sense before, became a popular form. By reading one, we could inhabit the thoughts of another individual.
Society shifted in fundamentals ways, thanks to the mirror. “Ordinary people started noting down the times and dates of their births, so they could use astrology to find out more about themselves in terms of their health and fortune,” writes Mortimer. We also demanded privacy. Instead of all sleeping together in the same room or hall, we started to value our own space.
All this because of simple invention. Where, then, are today’s technological shifts taking us? Jason Kottke, the internet’s favorite blogger, wonders thusly:
If glass mirrors helped bring about such a shift in society, I wonder how society is shifting with the ability, only over the past 10-15 years or so, for people to instantly share their inner thoughts and selfies with friends, family, and even strangers many times every day?