PRIVACY CONFERENCE: Early Modern Notions of Privacy and the Private

The Centre for Privacy Studies is looking forward to welcoming all to the online conference “Early Modern Notions of Privacy and the Private”, taking place on June 2-4, 2021.

Registrations are open until May 31 on the PRIVACY webpage.


DAY 1 -Wednesday, 2 June 2021

11:00—11:10 – Søren-Peter Olensen (The Danish National Research Foundation) – Welcome – Opening address;
11:10—11:30 – Mette Birkedal Bruun (Centre for Privacy Studies) – Opening presentation;
11:30—11:40- Frank Ejby Poulsen (Centre for Privacy Studies) – Practicalities and Online etiquette

11:40—12:15 – Joachim Eibach (Historisches Institut, Universität Bern) – The Open House: Communication Practices in and around the Domestic Sphere (Chair: Sari Nauman)
12:15—12:30 – Joachim Eibach Q&A Session
12:30 – 1.15 – Lunch break

1:15—1:50 – Paul Taylor (The Warburg Institute, University of London) – Iconography and Privacy in Seventeenth-Century Holland (Charir: Fabio Gigone)
1:50- 2:05 – Paul Taylor Q&A Session
2:05—2:20 – Break

2:20 – 2:55 – Alec Ryrie (Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University) – Alone with God: the practice of ‘public’, ‘private’ and ‘secret’ prayer in Reformation England (Chair: Lars Nørgaard)
2:40 – 2:55 – Alec Ryrie Q&A Session
2:55 – 3:10 – Break

3:10 – 3:45 – Elaine Leong (The Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin/University College London) – ‘In Parcels Transmitted’: Recipes, Knowledge Circulation and Privacy in Early Modern England (Chair: Natacha Klein Käfer)
3:45 – 4:00 – Elaine Leong Q&A Session
4:00 – 4:15 – Break

4:15 – 4:50 – Angela Vanhaelen (Department of Art History and Communication Studies, McGill University, Montreal) – Vermeer’s Secret Sphere: Domesticity and Global Sex (Chair: Christine Jeanneret)
4:50 – 5:05 – Angela Vanhaelen Q&A Session

5:05 – 5:35 – Mette Birkedal Bruun – Wrap up and discussion

DAY 2 – Thursday, 3 June 2021

10:3011:00Check-in + Meet and Greet
11:00—11:15 – Jesper Jakobsen (Centre for Privacy Studies) – Welcome to the second conference day (questions + Online etiquette brush up)

11:15—11:50 – Claudia Opitz Belakhal (Departement Geschichte, Universität Basel) – How and why did the private sphere become a space of emotions? (Chair: Natalie Patricia Koerner)
– Claudia Opitz Belakhal Q&A Session
12:05—12:45 – Break

12.45 – 1.00 – Check-in
1:00—1:35 – Karl Härter (The Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory, Frankfurt am Main) – Ordering Privacy? The Implications of Early Modern Police Ordinances for Private Areas of Life (Chair: Paolo Astorri)
1:35 – 1:50 – Karl Härter Q&A Session
1:50 – 2:05 – Break

2:05 – 2:40 – Ben Kaplan (The History Department, University College London) – Quietly in His Own Home”: The Language of Privacy in Early Modern Freedom of Conscience Laws (Chair: Johannes Ljungberg)
2:40 – 2:55 – Ben Kaplan Q&A Session
2:55– 3:10 – Break

3:10 – 3:45 – Fabrizio Nevola Department of Art History and Visual Culture, University of Exeter) – Private lives in a public Renaissance: spaces and practices (Chair: Sanne Maekelberg)
3:45 – 4:00 – Fabrizio Nevola Q&A Session
4:00- 4:15 – Break

4:15 – 4:50 – Ann Thomson (Department of History and Civilization, European University Institute) – Expressing oneself in the early 18th-century republic of letters: what can and can’t be said in private correspondence (Chair: Frank Ejby Poulsen)
4:50 – 5:05 -Ann Thomson Q&A Session

5:05 – 5:35 – Sari Nauman and Søren Frank Jensen (Centre for Privacy Studies) – Wrap up and discussion

DAY 3 – Friday 4, June 2021


10.30—11.00 Check-in + Meet and Greet
11:00—11:10 – Marie Louise Nosch (President of the Danish Royal
Society of Sciences and Letters) – Opening
11:10—11:20 – Mette Birkedal Bruun and Søren Frank Jensen (Centre for Privacy Studies) – Welcome to the PRIVACY Master Class

11:20 —11:40 – Jelena Bakić: Privacy and Paratext in Renaissance Italy (Chair: Bastian Felter Vaucanson)
11:40 —12:20 – Jelena Bakić discussion
12:20 —13:00 – Lunch break

13:00 —13:20 – Liam Benison: Dissimulation as a Form of Early Modern Privacy: A Utopian Perspective (Chair: Frank Ejby Poulsen)
13:20—13:40 – Liam Benison discussion
13:40—13:55 – Break

13:55—14:15 – Anna McGee: Looking Up and Crossing Over: Art at the Threshold in the Palazzo Medici, Florence (Chair: Natalie Patricia Koerner)
14:15—14:35 – Anna McGee discussion
14:35—14:50 – Break

14:50—15:10 – Annemie Leemans: Leonardo da Vinci and privacy – a new approach in Leonardo Studies (Chair: Oskar Rojewski)
15:10—15:30 – Annemie Leemans discussion
15:30—15:45 Wrap up

Languages of Privacy

Spread across different European contexts, when we dig just a little bit, we can find many historical linguistic traces showing how diverse the language to speak about privacy can be. By attending to these historical traces, we can notice that exercises in theorizing, defining, or formally conceptualizing  privacy—especially those attempts anchored in a modern-day view of privacy and of the private—are bound to find more than a few similarities and affinities with the past. The ideas behind the concept of privacy were already manifested, historically, in the languages that people used and adapted to speak about their attempts and strategies at controlling access to themselves and to information about themselves. And there have always been a lot of cross-fertilization among the languages. Let me share with you some examples I’ve been thinking about.

In contexts where English is used as a language of international communication, we can use the noun privacy to refer to the ability to regulate or adjust access to ourselves, our families, ideas, and resources. We can also use the adjective private to modify a resource or piece of information over which access is regulated. For example, a private school is a school over which access is regulated via the payment of tuition fees. Private property refers to real estate where the owner can choose who can enter. In a private conversation, only selected interlocutors are allowed to access the exchange.

Translations for the English terms privacy and private exist in other languages. For example, as I write in the year 2021, the Portuguese noun privacidade is an apt enough translation for the noun privacy, with meanings and connotations mapping quite well between the two languages. This equivalence between privacy and privacidade is likely due to the fact that the historical origins of the noun privacidade in Portuguese are recent, possibly from the 1970s, and can be traced to the noun privacy in English.1 The adjective privado/privada (here inflected as masculine and feminine, respectively) came into Portuguese much earlier, as a participle form of the Latin verb privare. This adjective has the sense of ‘conditioned or reserved access’ as well as ‘that which does not belong to the state’ but it can also connote ‘deprived’ of something.2 As a noun, the feminine participle form privada means toilet, a meaning that is reminiscent of the English privy used in the sense of bathroom. Like the noun form, the adjectives privado/privada can be translated as the English adjective private.3

But it was thanks to French, after the Norman Conquest, that the words private and privacy entered into the English lexicon. The earliest extant written example of the use of the adjectival form in English comes from a 13th century work called Ancrene Wisse (see my blog post about that text here). There, the term privite was borrowed from French and used alongside the Old English word dearnliche, both words meaning in a hidden or concealed manner:4

Hercnith nu, leove sustren, hu hit is uvel to uppin, ant hu god thing hit is to heolen god-dede, ant fleo bi niht as niht-fuhel, ant gederin bi theostre – thet is, i privite, ant dearnliche – sawle fode.

[Hear now, dear sisters, how it is evil to mention, and how good a thing it is to cover up a good deed, and fly by night as a night bird does and gather by darkness – that is, in privacy and secretly – the soul’s food.]5

French has the adjective form privé/privée (masculine and feminine, respectively) to describe that which concerns a person in their own life, as opposed to what concerns them in public or in official roles. French also has the verb priver meaning to deprive or to abstain from something. Just like in Portuguese, the history of these French terms is directly linked to the Latin verb privare and the participle form privatus.6

The French noun form privauté has been in use since Middle French with the sense of intimacy, familiarity, or secret, but can also appear in the plural privautés when the intended sense is excessive or unwelcome intimacy, especially of a sexual nature. It was derived from the adjective privé by adding a suffix, similarly to the word royauté.7 The earliest extant use of the noun appears in the 12th century Li quatre livre des Reis:

E Joab vint erranment devant le rei, si li dist: ‘Que as fait? Abner le fiz Ner vint devant tei, e purquei le laissas de tei en pais partir? Dun ne sez que pur çó i vint qu’il te deceüst é seüst tes privitez e quanque tu faiz?’8

[Then Joab went to the king and said, ‘What have you done? Abner came to you; why did you dismiss him, so that he got away? You know that Abner son of Ner came to deceive you, and to learn your comings and goings and to learn all that you are doing.’]9

In Miserere by the monk known as Reclus de Molliens, we find an example from the early part of the 13th century:

Veve, je te fais une enqueste :
Quieus vie vaut mieus, chele ou cheste?
Essaie l’as : di vérité !
Sont li marié sans moleste ?
N’acatent il moût kier le feste
De lor caitive privauté?10

This brief journey through history suggests to us that European languages are teeming with traces of words derived from the Latin privare or privatus. Dutch is another example: privacy as an English loanword is now incorporated into its lexicon, and the Dutch translation of article seven of the European charter of fundamental rights in Dutch uses the expression privé-leven where the English translation has private life.11

But as we saw from the use of the Old English term dearnliche in the Ancrene Wisse, other terms that are not derived from the Latin root priv* can of course be used to designate that idea of regulating or modulating access to ourselves, to our belongings, and to information about us. For example, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where the English translation uses the word privacy, the Frisian translation uses the expression persoanlike oangelegenheden, the Picard version uses lès-afe°res d’ine saquî ou di s’ famile, and the Dutch version uses persoonlijke aangelegenheden.12

We humans are capable of wonderful agility and flexibility in the terminology that we use to talk about our experiences. I look forward to investigating how other people around the world talk about their practices to regulate access to themselves, their families, their information. Languages are so nimble!

NOTE: this text used to be part of the article “Privacy and Social Spaces” that will appear in a forthcoming issue of TSEG – The Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History.  I was advised to remove this section because it didn’t quite fit with the rest of my article. So instead of totally “killing my darling,” as the saying goes, I decided to adapt it and share it with you here on the blog. Hope you enjoy!

1    Houaiss 2001, p. 1553, quoted in Marcos Barbai and Maria Moreira, ‘A escrita de verbetes para a ENDICI: privado e privacidade’, Entremeios, Revista de Estudos do Discurso 13 (31 August 2016): 290,

2    ‘privado’, in Dicionário Priberam da Língua Portuguesa (Lisbon: Priberam, 2011).

3    Barbai and Moreira, ‘A escrita de verbetes para a endici’, 290.

4    For further discussion of the history of these words in English, see Natália da Silva Perez, ‘Ancrene Wisse: The Earliest Extant Use of the Word “Private” in Written English’, Centre for Privacy Studies (blog), 18 January 2021,

5    Robert Hasenfratz, Ancrene Wisse (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), pt. 3, l. 308,

6    ‘privé, privée, priver, se priver’, in Dictionnaire de français Larousse, n.d.,

7    ‘Privauté’, in Trésor de La Langue Française Informatisé, accessed 10 January 2021,

8    Ernst Robert Curtius, ed., Li quatre livre des Reis; die bücher Samuelis und der Könige in einer französischen bearbeitung des 12. jahrhunderts, nach der ältesten handschrift unter benutzung der neu aufgefundenen handschriften kritisch (Dresden: Gedruckt für die Gesellschaft für romanische literatur, 1911), 66,

9    New Revised Standard Version, 2 Samuel 3:24-25, n.d.

10    Stanza 200, verse 12. According to the footnote to verse 12, several manuscripts spell it ‘priuete.’ Le Renclus de Moiliens, Li romans de Carité et Miserere du renclus de Moiliens: poèmes de la fin du XIIe siècle, ed. A.G. van Hamel (Paris: F. Vieweg, 1885), 243,

11    ‘Handvest van de Grondrechten van de Europese Unie, Titel II, Artikel 7’, 26 October 2012,

12    ‘Dèclaråcion Dès Dreûts d’ l’ome Po Tos Lès Payîs Dè Monde’, n.d.,; ‘Universele Ferklearring Fan de Rjochten Fan de Minske’, n.d.,; ‘Universele Verklaring van de Rechten van de Mens’, n.d.,

Privacy Studies Journal Inaugural Conference 26-28 April 2021

The inaugural conference of the Privacy Studies Journal will happen from 26 to 28 April 2021 and we have a great program for you. The journal’s chief editor, Mette Birkedal Bruun, and the editorial board have been working behind the scenes to bring you an amazing lineup of international speakers specialized in different aspects of privacy.

They will be part of five different thematic clusters and will speak over three days according to the schedule below:

Monday 26 April


16:00-16:20 Mette Birkedal Bruun, Professor of Church History, University of Copenhagen, Editor in Chief Privacy Studies Journal

16:20-16:40 David Vincent, Professor Emeritus of History

16:40-17:00 Discussion


17:10-17:30 Dr Wojciech Wiewiórowski, Professor, European Data Protection Supervisor

17:30-17:50 Joe Cannataci, UN Special rapporteur on the right to privacy, Chair of European Information Policy & Technology Law, University of Groningen

17:50-18:10 Discussion

Tuesday 27 April


15:00-15:20 Amy Russell, Classics and Ancient History, Brown University

15:20-15:40 Nele De Raedt, Professor of History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture, Université Catholique de Louvain

15:40-16:00 Discussion

16:15-16:35 Béla Kapossy, Professor of Modern History, Collège des Humanités, University of Lausanne

16:35-16:55 Frank Pasquale, Professor of Law, Brooklyn Law School

16:55-17:15 Discussion


17:30-17:50 Kristina Milnor, Professor of Classics, Barnard College, Columbia University

17:50-18:10 Anita Allen, Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy, University of Pennsylvania – The Myth of Privacy at Home

18:10-18:30 Momoyo Kaijima, Professor of Architectural Behaviorology, ETH Zürich and Atelier Bow-wow, Tokyo

18:30-19:00 Discussion

Wednesday 28 April


15:30-15:50 Lena Cowen Orlin, Professor of English, Georgetown University

15:50-16:10 Simone Fischer-Hübner, Professor of Computer Science, Karlstad University

16:10-16:30 Discussion

16:45-17:05 Valerie Steeves, Professor, Department of Criminology, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ottawa

17:05-17:25 Sonia Livingstone, Professor of Social Psychology, London School of Economics and Political Science

17:25-17:45 Paul De Hert, Professor, Head of Department, Interdisciplinary Legal Studies, Vrije Universiteit Brussels

18:30-19:00 WRAPPING UP

To attend the online event, please sign up by visiting You will receive a link to join the conference via email. If you have questions and comments for the speakers of the conference, you can send them in advance to using the subject line “Question for [speaker name]”

See you there!

Conceptions of the Private in Hermann Conring’s “Observations” on Machiavelli’s The Prince

The present post is based on the paper I shall present at the Renaissance Society of America (RSA) for its annual conference. This will be held virtually. This paper focuses on Hermann Conring’s translation of Machiavelli’s Il Principe(The Prince) from Italian into Latin and most importantly on Conring’s observations on Machiavelli. Hermann Conring published his translation of Machiavelli in 1660, and the year after he published his observations.

Conring did not leave a book that summed up his whole political thought, so one needs to look at his political views in several of his works.(Lang, 2) Several major works are worth mentioning for an overview of Conring’s political and legal thought. In 1644, Conring published De Germanorum imperio Romano liber unus or One Book on the Roman Empire of the Germans. It is a historical and legal analysis of the relationship between the Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire arguing that the Roman Empire had either ceased to exist or been reduced to a shadow of its former self and the German Empire had risen in its place. In the same vein, another important work, which earned Conring the epithet of “founder of German legal history” is De origine iuris Germanici (Helmstedt, 1643) On the Origins of German Law, and De finibus imperii Germanici On the Boundaries of the German Empire (1654).

More specifically on political thought, in 1650 Conring published Theses Miscellaneae de civili prudentia, (Miscellaneous theses on civil prudence), which is his major work in political thought.

Concerning Conring’s views on Machiavelli, one could also find many references to him in Dissertatio de Ratione Status (or Dissertation on the Reason of State) (1651). This essay, as Stolleis argues, is Conring’s even though it is signed Heinrich Voss who was his student.(Stolleis, 74). As a matter of fact, at the time, dissertations defended by students merely reproduced the content of the professor’s lectures. In De ratione status, Conring investigates what a “good government” ought to do with respect to the law, the government, and the citizens. Following the Aristotelian tradition, the law, for Conring, must be suitable to the form and necessity of the state.


Searching for priv words in Conring’s Animadversiones, I have found 28 occurences, which are all a form of the adjective privatus, -a, -um, except one from the adverb privatim. In this special occurrence of privatim, Conring opposes it to populo, the people. The whole sentence is a comment to Machiavelli writing in chapter 2 on ”hereditary principalities” that those are easier to hold than new ones because people are accostumed to the rule of the ruler. Suffice that the ruler does not change the established order and is more than ordinarily diligent and competent and he can conserve the principality. Unless some unusually strong force should remove him. Conring criticises Machiavelli. For Conring, no one can foresee political affairs. No matter how careful one is, there is no easy way to conserve one’s state (status). Conring notes that experience of world affairs teaches that even ancient principalities can be shaken by internal movements, and that the ruler, either because of hatred for him or weariness of the principality, can be removed “aut a toto populo, aut a nonnullis privatim” (either by the whole people or by some privately).[1]

This example shows an interesting opposition between “toto populo” and “nonnullis privatim”, “entire” against “some”, and “people” against “privately”. It is not certain if there is a value here, but since Conring is proponent of German political Aristotelianism, one can see a reference to his theory of constitutionnal change. Since Machiavelli is writing about principalities with one ruler, these are either, in Aristotelian terms, kingships or tyrannies, which can be overturned by some privately (aristocracy and oligarchy) or by the whole people (polity, democracy). As other scholars have shown, Conring’s translation and comments on Machivalli presents an interesting position at the time between Machiavellians and Anti-Machiavellians.[2] Conring knew that Machiavellianism had little to do with Machiavelli, and hence Anti-Machiavellism as well. Conring sought to rehabilitate Machiavelli within political science, therefore seeing him as an analyst of tyrannical policies and how they concretely help conquer and maintain power in a principality, in an Aristotelian framework of constitutionalism. As Dauber notes Conring thought that Machiavelli had exagerated the opposition between popular liberty and tyranny.[3]

Apart from this example, two main categories of use for priv-words stand out. First, Conring uses privatus in his observations or translation in relation to coming out of “private condition” or “private life” or “private fortune” or “private state” and entering, in opposition, a “dignity/office of ruler/prince” or “principality”. The second category concerns “private interests” as opposed to “public interest” or “common good” “commonwealth”.

Private condition, private fortune, private life

Machiavelli’s main theme in Il Principe (The Prince) is to analyse principles that make a ruler obtain and maintain the government of a “principality”. Machiavelli does not focus on republics but on principalities with a single ruler. Several times, Machiavelli writes about the theme of this ruler accessing this position from “private” condition. For instance, at the end of chapter VI, Machiavelli writes about Hiero of Syracuse who became prince from private: Machiavelli writes “di privato diventò principe”,[4] which Conring translates as “ex privato”.[5] By the same token, Machiavelli notes that in his “private life” (translated “in private vita”), he had so much “virtú” that people said of him (using a Latin quote from Justinius) that “the only thing he lacked to be a ruler was a kingdom”. There are other examples, in chapter VII, Machiavelli gives the example of several men who were granted principalities in Greece, “di privati principi” in the original Italian, translated by Conring: “principatus Transsylvaniae, Moldaviae, et Wallachiae: qui solent dari a Turca, quondam etiam a Polono, privatae conditionis hominibus” (1017) (Such today are the principalities of Transsylviania, Moldavia, and Wallachia: which are wont to be granted by the Turcs, hereafter likewise by the Poles, to men of private condition.) Or again the example of Francesco Sforza who became Duke of Milan out of “private condition” in chapter VII paragraph 3.

We can see already that Conring adds a little bit from the Italian “da private principi” the term “condition”. From Latin condicio, it means in general the external position, situation, condition, rank, place, circumstances.[6] It seems that “private condition” here means the position and rank in a certain way of thinking, in a hierarchy. Conring also adds to the term “prince” “dignity/office” and the idea of elevation from a “private condition”. Conring translates Machiavelli ch. 6, §2 ”di diventare di privato principe” as ”ex privata conditione ad Principis dignitatem pervenit”, ”for a private citizen to become ruler”[7]. One may notice that in his translation into Latin, Conring translates Machiavelli’s spirit, but adds a few words: “private condition” and “office/dignity of ruler/prince”. In his footnote, Conring comments further ”Maximas difficultates vero experitur principatus novus, hominis ex privata conditione evecti.”[8] “The largest difficulties in truth, are the new principalities of a man elevated out of private condition.”

Conring accentuates the difference between private condition and the office of ruler, and argues furthermore that, if Machiavelli is right to state that all new principalities are difficult to maintain, it is even more difficult for a new principality acquired by a man of private condition.

Perhaps this accentuation is in the “spirit” of Machiavelli’s work as interpreted by Conring. Machiavelli, does give an example of Agathocles, the Sicilian king of Syracuse who became ruler from private but also abject and lowest origins. Is it then simply social elevation? Or is there a meaning between the distinction of “private condition” and “dignity of prince” for COnring?

The Aristotelian distinction between a private and public condition of life gives certainly an answer: man, as a zoōn politikon, can only achieve his true potential by being an active polis-forming being. For Aristotle, ethics and politics are connected, in that every community must be for the common good. The right action is the one that allows good life.

I think that there is certainly a specific meaning for Conring in that the “dignity of prince” requires to rule public affairs, which obey to completely different rules. In a second footnote comments on Machiavelli’s ch. VII second paragraph regarding these men granted a principality, who are under the will and fortune of those who granted it to them, Conring notes that Machiavelli gives 4 reasons to be under the will of fortune of those who granted it. The second one is the interesting one for us here: “Secunda; quia illi, qui ex privata conditione ad principatus evehuntur, raro intelligunt artem regendi, non assueti scilicet regere, nec ad regnandum instituti.” (Secondly, because those who elevate from a private condition to Prince, seldom understand the art of government, no one dispute that they are neither accustomed to rule nor made for ruling.) One issue for a prince who came from private condition is thus that he rarely understands the “art of government”.

Conring also gives another example with Francesco Sforza, who became Duke of Milan “ex privato vitae statu” (out of a private state of life) thanks to fortune and military forces.[9] This time the issue is not the prince himself, but the prince’s sons, who turned degenerates because they refused the troubles and inconvenience of military service.

In his note about his translation of Machiavelli’s statement that virtue is needed for the principality, Conring observes that:

“Nihil est certius, quam non sola virtute aut industria humana parari pariter & teneri respublicas. Luculentissime autem id apparet circa novos quosque principatus; praesertim eos, qui parantur ab his, qui privata aut tenui admodum in re ante vixerunt.”[10]

[Nothing is more certain: that not only virtue or human industry/diligence prepare to acquire and hold commonwealths. This appears most splendidly regarding how new a principality is, especially the ones that are obtained by those, who have lived before to a great measure in private or inferior/unimportant affairs.]

In this passage, Conring clearly opposes respublica with res privata and adds a hierarchy with aut tenui. If the private wealth or private realm is inferior or unimportant, then the common wealth or public realm is superior or important. The footnote also corrects Machiavelli’s concept of virtú by preferring the concept of human industry.

Private interest, private property v. public good

Conring translates Machiavelli writing about ”le forze proprie di Lodovico”[11] (”Ludovico’s own troops”)[12] by ” Ludovici Sfortiae privatae vires” (Ludovico Sforzia’s private troops/military forces).[13] It is the same meaning, but one can note that the idea of property is attached to “private”, and the “private” in question may be in opposition to other types of military forces (common/public?). In any case, what is here private is owned by an individual and not shared with others, let alone the whole community.

In chapter 6 Machiavelli examines principalities acquired by one’s own arms and looks at new princes who were “innovators”, such as Moises, Cyrus, Theseus or Romulus. Conring comments that it is manifest that new princes make their laws obeyed through the arms. However, Conring adds that: “populum necessum est amore boni publici vehementer flagrare, quod infrequens admodum est, plaerisque hominibus ad privata commoda attentis” (it is necessary to inflame vehemently the people to the love of public goods, because it is excessively in small numbers, and the majority of men pay attention to private interests). Conring then adds further that people are not willing to observe the law solely because of the authority of the legislator.

The distinction between private and public with a certain value for the public good or common wealth against private interest comes out from some of Conring’s choice as translator. In chapter VII, Machiavelli writes about about Alessandro: “Vedeva oltre a questo l’arme di Italia, e quelle in spezie di chi si fussi potuto servire, essere nelle mani di coloro che dovevano temere la grandezza del papa…”.[14] (Apart from this problem, Alexander saw that the Italian military forces (and especially those that he could have used most easily) belonged to those who had every reason to fear any increase of the pope’s power…).[15] Conring’s translation is: “Perspiciebat praeterea Italiae arma, et quae privatim suis commodis subservire poterant, in eorum manu esse, quibus papalis potentia formidabilis erat”.[16] Here the idea that Conring conveys is that the army in the hands of those who fear the pope’s grandezza (power or potentia) could serve Alexander’s “interest in private”. The idea is of private interests of a man to acquire a principality through external force.

The same appears a little later in the same chapter when translating Machiavelli’s passage about pope Julius, who captured Bologna to destroy the power of Venice and expel the French from Italy. “it was very much to his credit that he did everything in order to increase the power of the Church, and not any individual.”[17] Machiavelli writes: “e tutte queste imprese gli riuscirno, e con tanta piú sua laude, quanto lui fece ogni cosa per accrescere la Chiesa e non alcuno privato”.[18] Conring translates as “ac majore cum laude ideo, quia non ad privatum quempiam, sed ad Rempublicam Pontificiam locupletandam, id totum curavit agendum”. It is interesting to note that it is private as private individual, but opposed to “Rempublicam” commonwealth or public good, even if it is the Church. The res publica of the Church did not appear in Machiavelli, but Conring emphasised it. Pope Julius acted for the common good of the Church and not for anyone’s private interest.

In Ch. XVII, Machiavelli disserts on “cruelty and mercifulness, and whether it is better to be loved than feared or the contrary”. Machiavelli writes that “My view is that it is desirable to be both loved and feared; but it is difficult to achieve both and, if one of them has to be lacking, it is much safer to be feared than loved.”[19] Notes by Conring on ch. XVII of Machiavelli: “Non adeo difficile est, si severe animadvertas in illa tantum crimina, quae rempublicam et civium tranquillitatem honestatemque turbant; in reliquis autem mitiorem te praebeas. Ita sane ipsa simul severitate amorem tibi conciliabis: quoniam omnes sentiunt ab illa severitate sibi et publico bene esse, nihil autem dari privatae vindictae.” (It is not exactly difficult if you severely punish only those crimes, which disturb the honor and the tranquillity of the commonwealth and the citizens, but supply milder ones to the rest. Thus, you will unite reasonably at the same time the love to you and to the severity: because all men perceive from these to be for themselves and the public good, but nothing given for private vengeance.)

Conring continues criticising Machiavelli for being wrong in opposing the two, being hated or being loved. He quotes another passage by Machiavelli himself where that being feared and not being hated can be connected. Conring notes then that “not being hated” is the civil equivalent of being loved, and therefore the two are possible, especially so since the one who is not feared is held in contempt, and who is held in contempt is not really loved.

What we can take from this passage is that, for Conring, the ruler can or even must be both feared and loved. This is done by executing harsh sentences but only in the interest of the commonwealth and the safety of the citizens. Because then they will understand it and therefore not revert to private vengeance. It is however difficult to understand Conring here, unless he exits the premisse that the discussion is focused on tyrants and their policies. What kind of idea of public good does the population of a tyranny have?

Learnings with regard to Conring’s political thought of the time

What can we make of this small study of priv-words in Conring’s comments on Machiavelli with regard to Conring’s political thought and the intellectual context of his time? It is important to understand the context of the reception of Machiavelli in seventeenth-century Germany. Machiavelli was linked to the introduction of the concept of “reason of state”, which had been debated in Italy (ragione di stato) and France (raison d’État). The first German discussion started with Arnold Clapmar’s De arcanis rerumpublicarum libri sex (1605) and contributed to three debates within discussions of politica : Staatsrecht based on Bodin’s sovereignty and Roman law; Tacitism; and political Aristotelianism.[20] Conring’s Animadversiones take place within this context. The identification of status with respublica emerged at the end of the seventeenth century; status meant “standing” as opposed to actio and mutatio and could refer to three things: 1) the power of the ruler; 2) the political system of the commonwealth; 3) the legal and social status of a person.[21] can confirm Dreitzel’s argument that Conring disagrees with the idea of reason of state as conserving the power of the ruler. Rather COnring considers the reason of state to be the Aristotelian notion of good life of the citizens, or what the upholders of politica christiana thought was gute Policey.[22] Dreitzel notes: “Following the common interpretation of status as ‘standing’, and continuing both the Roman law and scholastic doctrines concerning governing and the duty of rulers, ‘reason of state’ doctrines had, from the beginning, serious implications for the discussions of the principles governing the conduct of subjects and ‘private’ individuals within society. This enlargement was reflected in Clapmar’s definition of arcana: every science, every ‘conditio in rebus humanis‘ had to have its own arcana; thus there were also ‘arcana privata, hoc est, intima consilia communis privataeque vitae in luce hominum feliciter et decore instituendae‘ [private mysteries, that is, the innermost counsels of communal and private life which ought to be instituted felicitously and decorously before the eyes of men], which differed from the secret arts of using power, preserving a dynasty, or commanding an army.”[23]

From Conring’s distinctions of private and public, one can see the idea of superior ”standing” of a ruler, due to the different and complex nature of politica. A private person may have mastered the ”private mysteries” of communal and private life, but superior qualities are required for handling the mysteries of power and the respublica. Moreover, the only reason for political action in the respublica should be a development of common wealth, not only by satisfying private citizens, but also by instauring a love for the common good. These are ideals opposed to a private interest of a tyrant as his reason of state.

[1] Hermann Conring, ‘Animadversiones Politicae in Librum Nicolai Machiavelli De Principe’, in Opera, vol. 2 (Aalen: Scientia Verlag, 1970), 997.

[2] Stolleis, ‘Machiavellismus und Staatsräson’; Rosanna Schito, ‘Alla ricerca della sovranità: osservazioni sul Machiavelli di Hermann Conring’, Giornale di storia costituzionale, no. 16 (II semestre 2008): 85–99.

[3] Noah Dauber, ‘Anti-Machiavellism as Constitutionalism: Hermann Conring’s Commentary on Machiavelli’s The Prince’, History of European Ideas 37, no. 2 (June 2011): 102–12,

[4] Niccolò Machiavelli, ‘Il Principe’, in Opere, ed. Corrado Vivanti, vol. 1 I Primi Scritti Politici, Biblioteca Della Pléiade (Torino: Einaudi – Gallimard, 1997), 133.

[5] Conring, ‘Animadversiones’, 1017.

[6] Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary:  Founded on Andrews’ Edition of Freund’s Latin Dictionary, Rev., and enlarged. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).

[7] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, ed. Quentin Skinner and Russell Price, 2nd Edition (Cambridge University Press, 2019), 19.

[8] Conring, ‘Animadversiones’, 1012.

[9] Conring, 1015.

[10] Conring, 1013.

[11] Machiavelli, ‘Il Principe’, 121.

[12] Machiavelli, The Prince, 7.

[13] Conring, ‘Animadversiones’, 999.

[14] Machiavelli, ‘Il Principe’, 135.

[15] Machiavelli, The Prince, 24.

[16] Conring, ‘Animadversiones’, 1019.

[17] Machiavelli, The Prince, 41.

[18] Machiavelli, ‘Il Principe’, 149.

[19] Machiavelli, The Prince, 57.

[20] Horst Dreitzel, ‘Reason of State and the Crisis of Political Aristotelianism: An Essay on the Development of 17th Century Political Philosophy’, History of European Ideas 28, no. 3 (January 2002): 163–87.

[21] Dreitzel, 172.

[22] Dreitzel, 175.

[23] Dreitzel, 175–76.

Health care under suspicion? Early modern scandals and the creation of fear

During my research on the oral history of my own community in Southern Brazil about health and healing practices in the first half of the twentieth century, I remember hearing from my interviewees that, “back in the day”, the hospital was a place that you would go to die. Less than a matter of precarity – which could be the reality of several facilities -, people would only go to the hospital as a less resort. Fractures, diseases, and other ailments were first taken care of by local healers and home remedies. It was not necessarily a lack of trust in the medical help, and more a culture of taking care of one another within the community whenever possible. That perception of the hospital had changed by my parents’ generation, but it stuck to me how health care could be seen in a myriad of ways depending on the cultural, economic, and historical context.

This idea came back to me while I was studying the suspicion over acts of charity by nobles — particularly noblewomen — in the court of Louis XIV, and I noticed that there was this apparent concern over charitable acts at the hospitals. As we can imagine, hospitals in this context were different from what we know today. As Susan Broomhall explains in her chapter The Politics of Charitable Men, early modern French hospitals were institutions that, beyond health concerns, offered poor relief to “passers-by, paupers, the sick, aged, children, the elderly and mentally ill, as well as the first line of response in epidemics” (p. 137). Hospitals at the time were mostly secular institutions, which depended a lot on charity efforts. Institutions led by noblewomen offered not only monetary support but also caring staff to the hospitals. However, rarely these women would do the work themselves — they were primarily responsible for sending maids and nurses to attend to the patients and paupers. These efforts were seen as part of their responsibility as pious Christians and were commendable, both among peers and the population at large. Hospitals were meant as a safe haven for the most disenfranchised people. But scandals could always shake that image.

Infirmary of the Hospital of Charity, 17th-century illustration. This hospital in Paris, France, was founded by the Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God in the 17th century. Members of this Roman Catholic order are seen receiving and tending to patients. This religious hospital was demolished in 1935 to make way for the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Paris. This artwork, from around 1639, is by French artist Abraham Bosse (c.1602-1676). METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

The conviction of Marie-Madeleine-Marguerite d’Aubray, Marquise de Brinvilliers in 1676 shook life in court, particularly due to the direct involvement of the nobility in poisoning plots. She was accused of poisoning her father and her two brothers as well as plotting to poison her sister and sister-in-law, all with the help of her lover, the army captain Godin de Sainte-Croix. This not only instigated the poisoning paranoia in court but also put acts of charity under scrutiny. How could people separate between sincere generosity and public masking of nefarious private intentions?

The figure of the poisoner imposed upon Madame de Brinvilliers was carefully constructed in trial — both the testimonials of witnesses and the annotations of the interrogations stress the depravity of her character. In addition to the poisonings, she was accused of having committed incest, having illegitimate children, maintaining several love affairs, having abortions, and mistreating servants, among several other offences. She was also described as unwilling to perform charitable acts, going so far as actively resenting them. In the records, Madame de Brinvilliers was said to have wanted to poison her sister because her donations to charity were depleting the family’s fortune. This portrait of Madame de Brinvilliers seems to carefully oscillate between destroying her individual reputation while trying to preserve the charitable ideal for noblewomen. However, the accusations against her brought forth a new fear involving acts of charity.

Portrait of the Marquise after her imprisonment by Charles LeBrun

Rumours had spread that Madame de Brinvilliers had been performing acts of charity for nefarious purposes.  Accounts described how she would visit paupers in public hospitals under the guise of charity in order to experiment with her poisons. According to these rumours, she added poison to patients’ food or distributed poisoned pastries to the poor, subsequently analysing the effects in order to calculate the exact quantities of poison to be used later on her family. These rumours not only reflect a fear of the misuse of charity and its effects on vulnerable subjects but also reveal a different anxiety — the fear of human experimentation.

Ravaisson, Archives de la Bastille, vol. 6, 396.

At the time, the norm was that only royal practitioners were allowed to perform experiments on human beings, and even then, only on convicted criminals. Alisha Rankin, in her recently released book The Poison Trials, adds nuance to the developments in human experimentation, showing how antidote tests on humans spread across continental Europe during the sixteenth century. This fear of underground activities using vulnerable people for experiments or rituals was crucial for legal developments during the Affair of the Poisons. This much larger scandal involved plots for murdering Louis XIV and reinforced the idea that “pious noblewomen” enacting charity could be more dangerous than it seemed. 

If even the king was not safe, what can be said about the paupers at the hospital? In a moment of political crisis, even the very few resources available to the poor were seen as potentially untrustworthy. However, with the sources at hand, it is not possible to say how much the Affair of the Poisons actually impacted people receiving the relief efforts at the hospital and how they evaluated their own safety, or how much of it was more of a reaction from the authorities projecting onto their situation.

It is important to mention that there was no conclusive evidence of poison experimentations at the hospitals made by noblewomen, and according to the investigation led by the police chief la Reynie, the suspicion was sustained by rumours. However, that does not mean that experiments at hospitals did not take place. These experimentations tended to be with less deadly substances than poison, usually testing the extent of the efficacy of certain medications. In the eighteenth century, William Withering, for example, was outspoken about only administering his digitalis preparation for dropsy to his paying customers after carefully testing on his charity patients.

An Account of the Foxglove, and Some of Its Medical Uses, p. 2.

The fear of experimentation becomes more than granted when looking at early modern colonial experiences. Londa Schiebinger’s book Secret Cures of Slaves shows how colonial relations and the knowledge circulation within the Atlantic trade impacted medicine as we know. Her nuanced approach can be found in this illuminating piece for The Conversation, detailing how experimentation took place in colonial environments.

This broader contextualisation of the flow of medical knowledge in the Atlantic world made me thing of Brazilian natives communities, which in the early modern period were brought to Europe as curious specimens, and have taken the brunt of epidemics across centuries. Many missions sent to their territories used the disguise of care to exploit their people and their land. With the challenges they have historically faced, it would be understandable for them to be fearful of current relief and vaccination efforts in the thick of the Covid pandemic. This assumption, however, does not coincide with what we have heard from representatives of the indigenous communities themselves. About the Covid vaccinations taking place in Brazilian indigenous communities, the president of the Mainumy association, Arlete Viana dos Santos Guajajara actually declared that these efforts bring hope to the community, despite the distortions created by fake news in Brazil:

“For me and I believe also for many relatives, the arrival of this vaccine within indigenous territories is a sign of hope that our people will live longer. Because this damn disease has already killed many, many of us. So, for us, it is a great hope to have our people alive for a longer time. It is a pity that there is a lot of fake news. There are people who think they are living just to spread these fake news, both in Brazil and around the world. So, this ends up getting in the way of the issue of vaccination within the territories. But, as leaders, we have this role of actually articulating and denying these fake news within the territories. How can we do that? Calling relatives, talking and explaining how the vaccine works. Anyway, doing our part for the good of our entire population, because this vaccine is our hope for survival.”

Picture by Thales Renato Ferreira – Prefeitura de Sao Leopoldo

The indigenous experience in Brazil is varied, and opinions will of course differ, but Guajajara’s quote reminded me of how easy it is to project fear onto a community that might be dealing with a situation in very different terms. This brought me back to the charity patients amid the poisoning fear, for whom I have not found a voice to echo here until now. To what extent this fear created by political unrest of the poison scandals affected them? Was the fear of human experiments something that they harboured themselves or something that the authorities latched upon at the height of the investigations? But more importantly, how these more vulnerable communities took care of each other in such times of suspicion and political crisis?

Although we are left with more questions than answers, I think it is an important exercise to bring history together with the present struggles. By looking at the past, we can see how challenging situations developed, how people responded to them, and what pitfalls can be avoided. By looking at the present, we historians can also be reminded that the past is made of multiple voices, and sometimes it is too easy to run on assumptions if we do not make an effort to listen to the whispers amidst the shouting.

Privacy in an Early Modern Prison

Leonora Christina, daughter of the Danish King Christian IV, was imprisoned in the Blue Tower of Copenhagen castle from 1663 to 1685, as she was suspected of having knowledge of her husband’s betrayal of the Kingdom. After her release from prison in 1685, she wrote a record of her 22 years in the Blue Tower, addressed to her children and known as Jammers Minde (translated into English as Memoirs of Leonora Christina).[1] The manuscript disappeared for several decades, until it came back to light in the nineteenth century and it was published in 1869. It is now considered one of the most important works written in seventeenth-century Denmark.

Portrait of Leonora Christina Ulfeldt by Gerrit van Honthorst (Frederiksborg Museum)

One of the approaches at the Centre for Privacy Studies is to look for priv*-words, analysing the context in which they appear and see if they tell us anything about early modern notions of privacy. Doing this analysis on the text of Jammers Minde shows that these words are particularly used in the context of the process against Count Corfitz Ulfeldt, Leonora’s husband.

“I was suspected of being privy to an act of treason for which he has never been prosecuted according to law, much less convicted of it, and the cause of the accusation was never explained to me, humbly and sorrowfully as I desired that it should be” (p. 89)


During the interrogations she was asked who visited her husband when they stayed in Bruges, which was a question she could not answer, since he received his guests in a “private chamber”, where she was not admitted. This gives an interesting insight into privacy in the marital relations of the seventeenth century. During another interrogation she goes on to tell her interrogators that her husband would never keep anything secret from her that concerned them both.

Imprisonment can be considered one of the most far-reaching infringements of privacy. Throughout history many famous persons have been subjected to periods of detention, although in early modern times this might have had a slightly different dimension. Analysing the text there is reference to different heuristic zones: Leonora’s cell or her chamber, her body and her mind.

At the moment of her arrival to the Blue Tower, Leonora Christina is forced to give up all her possessions and clothes, and is searched by one the ladies of the Queen:

“She had formerly sought for letters on the private parts of my person” (p. 99)


The Blue Tower of Copenhagen Castle


We also get a glimpse of the environment where Eleonora Christina spent the 22 years of her imprisonment through her memoirs. She was apparently put in the Blue Tower that was part of Copenhagen castle, located on Slotsholmen (more or less the same site of the current Christiansborg). She was put into a room referred to as the “Dark Church”, a horrendous space without windows meant for the worst criminals.





“I found before me a small low table, on which stood a brass candlestick with a lighted candle, a high chair, two small chairs, a fire-wood bedstead without hangings and with old and hard bedding, a night-stool and chamber utensil. At every side to which I turned I was met with stench; and no wonder, for three peasants who had been imprisoned here, and had been removed on that very day, and placed elsewhere, had used the walls for their requirements.” (p. 110)

She stayed in this room for seven years, accompanied by several ladies who kept her company in order of the Queen. The company did not, however, ease her captivity. Several times in her record she brings up the annoyance of their chatting and the attempts she made to silence them.

“I was never more glad than when the gates were closed between me and those who were to guard me. Then I had only the woman alone, whom I brought to silence, sometimes amicably, and at others angrily and with threats.” (p. 94)


An undeniable threshold was indeed established by the gates of her prison. According to her description, the “Dark Church” had two doors with locks which separated her from the prison governor. Despite being an obvious spatial threshold, this did not at all contribute to Leonora’s privacy. The doors were opened or closed off by the governor or prison warden and she did not have any control to this effect. According to Altman control and the freedom to make oneself accessible or inaccessible to others is essential in the notion of privacy.[2] While architecture is often a boundary between different private and public realms by doors, walls and windows, there is no opportunity for spatial privacy at prison. Leonora Christina does however protect her mind and her sense of self by putting up an additional boundary or ‘wall of defence’ she found in God.

“I have ever clung steadfastly to God, who has been and still is my wall of defence against every attack, and my refuge in every kind of misfortune and adversity.” (p. 95)


When King Christian V ascended the throne, Leonora’s circumstances somewhat bettered, as she was moved to the room above the “Dark Church”. Newly whitewashed this room too had a stench upon her arrival. While there was a window towards the vaulted ceiling of the space, she now reports four doors with locks, separating her from the staircase.

“He then affixed locks to the door of the outer chamber, and to the door leading to the stairs; he had, therefore, four locks and doors twice a day to lock and unlock.” (p. 150)


The window allowed her to hear some of the courtly life that was going on just outside her prison walls and when rope-dancers performed in the castle square she even managed to catch a glimpse by building a construction of the sparse furniture in her cell.

“So I took the bedclothes from the bed and placed the boards on the floor and set the bed upright in front of the window, and the night-stool on the top of it. In order to get upon the bedstead, the table was placed at the side, and a stool by the table in order to get upon the table, and a stool upon the table, in order to get upon the night-stool, and a stool on the night-stool, so that we could stand and look comfortably, though not both at once.” (p. 205)


As part of the easing of Leonora’s captivity after the coronation of Christian V, a new and lower window was put in the prison on 25 July 1674. She was given material to pass the time, an outer apartment and some money to dispose of for herself.

On 19 May 1685 Leonora Christina was finally released from prison, never having confessed to any of the accusations.

Leonora Christina in the Blue Tower of Copenhagen Castle. A commemoration by Kristian Zahrtmann, 1891 (SMK, Royal Collection of Paintings and Sculptures, KMS 1436)


[1] Ulfeldt, Leonora Christina, Memoirs of Leonora Christina, daughter of Christian IV of Denmark, written during her imprisonment in the Blue Tower at Copenhagen 1663-1685, translated by F.E Bunnett (London: Henry S. King & Co, 1872).

[2] Altman I., “Privacy Regulation: Culturally Universal or Cultural Specific?” Journal of Social Issues 33, 3 (1977) 66–84 (67).

Privacy and Knowledge: Fundamental Fields of Study for Twenty-first-Century Democracies

Photo by Anete Lusina from Pexels

Citizenship plays an essential part in a functioning modern democratic polity. The consolidation of mass democracy and the nation state, mass consumption and capitalism, as well as the development of rational knowledge are the main elements that built this modern polity. Part of the nation state’s function has been to develop a welfare state with the aim to make its citizens thrive. After all, to make citizens thrive was the old Aristotelian ideal of the polis, often translated as ‘city-state’, as the sole space for human beings, political animals, to achieve their potential. In order to build this social and political system, public institutions evolved into complex bureaucracies, which gathered more and more information about its citizens. Sociologists have referred to this as ‘information society’ or ‘knowledge society’.

The early modern period gave Europe the foundations of its modern vocabulary. Theologians, and legal and political thinkers established the basis for our modern concepts such as citizen, the state, law, freedom, the nation. The construction of the nation-state was the project of the nineteenth century, while the construction of the welfare state was the project of the twentieth century. Both projects have created a bureaucracy in charge of gathering information about citizens. This knowledge has also served as identity formation, political identity, which resulted in tremendous crises (world wars based on nationalism, and the use of national registers to identify specific groups of population). The twenty-first-century model is still under formation, but seems to be basing itself on the digital revolution; a cyber-Leviathan struggling to cap a multitude of fluid political identities.

The good functioning of a modern democratic polity has become increasingly complex in our ‘knowledge society’. New actors have challenged nation-states. Multiple actors (transnational groups, the internet, foreign countries, large multinational or global companies, NGOs, etc.) impact on the functioning of democratic nation-states. These alternative actors have sometimes surpassed governments and public authorities in gathering knowledge about their citizens and in using it. The USA engaged in mass surveillance post 9/11, sometimes with the complicity of local governments.[1] Private corporations have established an economic system called ‘surveillance capitalism’.[2] China has built ‘smart cities’ where citizens cannot cross the street without the party knowing it.[3]

That ‘knowledge is power’ is a well-known aphorism, commonly traced to Francis Bacon (1561—1626), from his 1597 Meditationes Sacrae: ‘ipsa scientia potestas est’ (‘knowledge itself is power’). Thomas Hobbes (1588—1679), who knew him, also wrote in his 1668 Latin edition of Leviathan ‘Scientia potentia est’, adding: ‘sed parva’; or in the original 1651 version ‘The Sciences, are small Powers…’[4] Hobbes’s point is that, since science cannot be contained in one person, it is a small power. Knowledge of everything, for Hobbes on the other hand, is real power, but only pertains to nature. What would Hobbes say today when governments and corporations have access to an unprecedented amount of personal information about individuals and have the ability to process and analyse all the data collected? ‘Scientia potentia est sed parva’?

Castells theorized the ‘information age’ as a competition between the self and networks driven by technology.[5] For Castells, social groups construct their identity, which shape the institutions of society. Who controls the means of constructing collective identities determines the content of these identities. Now, since the technological tools available determine social change, who controls this technology has tremendous power over society.

Today, the topic of privacy is therefore of paramount importance. Technology and economy have merged into a system of collection of data from individuals as a way of making a profit. This deep knowledge of individuals is not only selling new objects of consumption, but constituting political identities, disrupting elections, impacting freedom of thought by altering one’s access to unbiased information.[6] Have algorithms and artificial intelligence used by social media companies and governments to mine big data reached the status of all-knowing God? The individual still has free will against this powerful knowledge by protecting her privacy. A recent book argues simply that ‘privacy is power’.[7] If privacy is power and knowledge is power, research on the dynamic between knowledge and privacy is fundamental for democracy. Historical research should inscribe itself within this grand narrative of modernity as a construction of identities between the self and networks by powerful technologies. Or of postmodern deconstruction into small narratives, as Lyotard has it (more on this in a future post).[8]

Privacy studies as a field of research is still in its infancy despite a handbook.[9] What is missing is a richer historical perspective. The Centre for Privacy Studies at the University of Copenhagen is aiming at developing an interdisciplinary outlook on privacy and a method for privacy studies as a field. The history of privacy has been a developing topic of research for the past three decades. But it is more recently that the idea of privacy and the private/public nexus as threshold of contested power as a relevant tool for studying the past has emerged.[10] Privacy studies contribute to at the evolution of various understandings of privacy across time and space, and how they have been justified or limited in political ideologies.

The field of the history of knowledge can ironically be traced to Bacon again with his 1605 The Advancement of Learning, inspiring the taxonomy of knowledge in the French Encyclopédie.[11] It has had different names and objects of study over time.[12] The field is developing rapidly with a new Journal of the History of Knowledge created in 2020,[13] the Lund Centre for the History of Knowledge,[14] following the work of Peter Burke since the 1990s.[15] Knowledge studies should examine how political knowledge of citizens was created, limited, and disseminated throughout modernity.

Knowledge has always been considered partial and limited. It could be that it is limited to an elite or that it is deemed dangerous and concealed, or simply that it is not possible to gather enough information. Echoing Bacon, Foucault has established a fruitful conceptual tool with the nexus power/knowledge that mutually create and influence one another: ‘the exercise of power perpetually creates knowledge and conversely, knowledge constantly induces effects of power’.[16] He had previously studied Bentham’s panopticon for prisons, a device bereaving prisoners of privacy and enabling the collection of information on their private behaviours at will and at random so that they discipline themselves.[17] In this sense, there has also been privacy of political knowledge of citizens. What justifies on the one hand the limitations to citizens’ privacy to gather political knowledge, and what justifies the limitation of citizens’ knowledge to this?

[1] Elliot D. Cohen, Mass Surveillance and State Control: The Total Information Awareness Project (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); Timothy H. Edgar, Beyond Snowden: Privacy, Mass Surveillance, and the Struggle to Reform the NSA (Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution Press, 2017).

[2] Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2019).

[3] Kai Strittmatter, We Have Been Harmonised: Life in China’s Surveillance State (La Vergne: Old Street Publishing, 2019).

[4] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck, Revised student edition, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 63.

[5] Manuel Castells, The Information Age, Volumes 1-3: Economy, Society and Culture (Malden (Mass.); Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1999).

[6] Ivan Manokha, ‘Surveillance: The DNA of Platform Capital—The Case of Cambridge Analytica Put into Perspective’, Theory & Event 21, no. 4 (2018): 891–913.

[7] Carissa Véliz, Privacy Is Power: Why and How You Should Take Back Control of Your Data (London: Bantam Press, 2020).

[8] Jean-François Lyotard, La condition postmoderne:  rapport sur le savoir, Collection critique. (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1979).

[9] Bart van Der Sloot and Aviva de Groot, eds., The Handbook of Privacy Studies: An Interdisciplinary Introduction. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018).

[10] Sarah E. Igo, The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2018).

[11] Francis Bacon, The Two Bookes of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning Divine and Humane (London: Henrie Tomes, 1605).

[12] Peter Burke, What Is the History of Knowledge?, What Is History? (Oxford: Polity Press, 2015), chap. 1.


[14] Johan Östling, David Larsson Heidenblad, and Anna Nilsson Hammar, ‘Developing the History of Knowledge’, in Forms of Knowledge: Developing the History of Knowledge (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2020), 9–26.

[15] Burke, What Is the History of Knowledge?

[16] Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge:  Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 / (New York, N.Y: Pantheon Books, 1980), 52.

[17] Michel Foucault, Surveiller et Punir. Naissance de La Prison (Paris: Gallimard, 1975).

Ancrene Wisse: the earliest extant use of the word “private” in written English

Why do we talk about privacy using the word “privacy”?

English is the lingua franca of academic knowledge. We use it as a tool to communicate with each other across linguistic borders. So one of the answers to this question is that we use the word “privacy” as a way to explain to each other—in an international context—not only historical events described in English that use this English word, but also events that use other vocabulary and other languages, and that we (as researchers) recognize as being related to what in English we call privacy.

But listening to the History of English Podcast, I recently caught myself pondering a second way of thinking about this question: why this particular word? Or to put it in another way, how and when did the word “privacy” (and related words, like “private”) appear in the English lexicon?

A 13th-century text called Ancrene Wisse can provide some clues to answer this question.

Folio 16 of Ancrene Wisse, Corpus MS 402

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 402: Ancrene Wisse. The marginal note on the left side of folio 16 shows a drawing in the shape of a pointing finger, indicating something of interest in the text.

Ancrene Wisse means roughly Anchoresses’ Guide. It is an early Middle English text containing instructions for women who lived as recluses and were known as anchoresses. The first version of this guide was originally written for three laywomen, sisters of noble birth, as spiritual and practical advice for their chosen life of seclusion. The text is believed to have been produced sometime in the early 1200s. The author of the Ancrene Wisse is not known. Attempts at identifying the author have been numerous but inconclusive, and recent scholarship is moving away from the fixation with trying to identify one single author. Some scholars (Savage 2010; Hasenfratz 2000; Millett et al. 1996) argue that the content of the nine manuscripts in English that survive today can be better understood as the collaborative product of many hands and minds, since many people copied, questioned, and improved on the text, including anchoresses themselves.

The first draft of the Ancrene Wisse, which does not survive, does seem to have been written down by one person who had these particular three sisters in mind. This person was likely an educated priest who lived in the West Midlands in England. He had a habit of glossing difficult words within the text itself: when he used an obscure word, he paired it with a more common word that had a similar meaning. He did that for words that he believed were difficult for his readers to understand, as was the case for the many words borrowed from French into English in the centuries after the Norman conquest of 1066 (Melvis 2019). From the way borrowed words appear in glossed pairs in the Ancrene Wisse, it is likely that the writer was trying to clarify their meaning for readers who might not have had extensive knowledge of the French language.

It is in one of these glossed pairs in the Ancrene Wisse that we find the earliest extant use of the word “private” in English. It appears in the following passage:

Hercnith nu, leove sustren, hu hit is uvel to uppin, ant hu god thing hit is to heolen god-dede, ant fleo bi niht as niht-fuhel, ant gederin bi theostre – thet is, i privite, ant dearnliche – sawle fode.

The modern English translation provided in Hasenfratz reads as follows:

Hear now, dear sisters, how it is evil to mention, and how good a thing it is to cover up a good deed, and fly by night as a night bird does and gather by darkness – that is, in privacy and secretly – the soul’s food.

In the passage above, where we see “in privite, ant dearnliche,” the writer implies that the word “privite” (a borrowing from French) and the word “dearnliche” (which had its origins in Old English) had similar meanings. Clever! Paring a newly borrowed word with an Old English one seems to me like an intuitive, swift, and effective way to explain the meaning of the new one (Bergen 2012).

The Middle English Dictionary indicates that the word “dearnliche” comes from the Old English adjective form dē̆rne:

dē̆rnelī(che adv. Also dernlī(che, dern(e)like & dærnelike (Orm.), dearnliche & deorneliche, durneliche. Comp. derneluker.

It gives it the following definitions:

in privacy or seclusion; unnoticed, undetected; helen ~, hiden ~, to conceal (sth.); (b) privately, confidentially; (c) stealthily, slyly; (d) without display; inwardly, deeply.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “dernly” as “secretly” and gives the following examples of usage:

A1200 Moral Ode 77 in Trin. Coll. Hom. 222
Ne bie hit no swo derne idon.

c1400 (▸?c1380) Cleanness l. 697
I compast hem a kynde crafte & kende hit hem derne.

c1440 Bone Flor. 1958
They..went forthe, so seyth the boke, Prevely and derne.

a1627 A. Craig Pilgrime & Heremite (1631) sig. A1
I drew me darne to the doore, some din to heare.

This Old English word dē̆rne eventually became obsolete; today it is no longer part of the English lexicon. Cognates of “pritive” seem to have displaced representations of the sense that used to be attributed to dē̆rne.

The French-derived “privite” is related to other Latin words, such as “privus,” which means “one’s own, individual.” This word has even earlier roots, coming to us all the way back from Proto-Into-European via Proto-Italic.

Proto-Italic *prei-wo- [meaning] “separate, individual,” from [Proto-Indo-European] *prai-, *prei- “in front of, before,” from root *per- (1) “forward.”

Etymonline explains that this sense was acquired due to the semantic shift from something that was “in front of” to something “being separate.”

In hindsight, it makes intuitive sense to me that the earliest source for words like “privacy,” “private,” and their other cognates appear in a book of advice about how to live a life of seclusion. It could have been different, certainly, but it is indeed a fitting topic. What I do find somewhat surprising and quite interesting is that the passage where “privite” appears in the Ancrene Wisse deals with works of charity. More specifically, with the biblical mandate that one should do good deeds without calling attention to them, a topic that we are currently pursuing in the Versailles case team at the Centre for Privacy Studies.

Many more glossed pairs occur in the Ancrene Wisse, which is the earliest extant written source for many words borrowed from French that would become staples of the English language. If you want to have a look at it, you can visit the open access critical edition by Robert Hasenfratz at



Bergen, Benjamin K. 2012. Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning. Basic Books.

Hasenfratz, Robert. 2000. Ancrene Wisse. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications.

Mevis, Alice. 2019. ‘The French Lexical Influence on the Development of the English Language: An Analysis of French Loanwords in Three Middle English Religious Texts (1200-1400)’. Ghent, Belgium: Ghent University.

Millett, Bella, Senior Lecturer in Department of English Bella Millett, George Jack, and Yoko Wada. 1996. Ancrene Wisse, the Katherine Group, and the Wooing Group. Boydell & Brewer.

Savage, Anne. 2010. ‘The Communal Authorship of Ancrene Wisse’. In A Companion to Ancrene Wisse, edited by Yoko Wada. Boydell & Brewer Ltd.

Privacy, Secrecy, and Cryptography in the Early Modern Period

Cryptography has been a tool for secrecy for millennia. As a way of ensuring information confidentiality, cryptography served to maintain military, diplomatic, occult, and personal knowledge restricted to people with the decoding key – or those determined enough to crack the code.

Giambattista della Porta‘s De furtivis literarum notis (1563)

In the past (as today), cryptography was tied to different material components. From Egyptian carvings, Ancient Greek Scytales, and even alleged hidden tattoos, attempts to pass on information in a concealed way continuously depended on clever use of substances, mediums, and devices. One of the game-changing tools of early modern cryptography was the cipher disk.

The first appearance of the cipher disk in a descriptive text was in the work of the humanist Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472). In his treatise De Cifris (1467), he described two concentric disks, divided into cells containing letters and numbers. The larger disk was used for the plaintext, while the inner ring was for the ciphertext. The use of the disk allowed a much more accessible polyalphabetic cipher, which became one of the most robust forms of encryption for centuries to come.

Opuscoli morali di Leon Batista Alberti gentil’huomo firentino

The use of encoding and decoding devices also implied that access to them needed to be restricted. This added layer of secrecy resulted in very interesting strategies of concealment. A great example is a ciphering machine used in the court of Henry II of France, which was disguised as a book.

Musée d’Écouen

These layers helped to ensure secrecy, which was fundamental for early modern strategic communication. However, do these efforts of secrecy correlate with a concern over privacy? After all, most of the subjects deemed worthy of such level of concealment dealt with very public matters, such as political arrangements and war efforts.

The philosopher Sissela Bok provides a useful distinction between secrecy and privacy. In her work Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation, Bok describes how secrecy and privacy are entangled, but not equivalent.

“Having defined secrecy as intentional concealment, I obviously cannot take it as identical with privacy. I shall define privacy as the condition of being protected from unwanted access by others—either physical access, personal information, or attention. Claims to privacy are claims to control access to what one takes—however grandiosely—to be one’s personal domain. Through such claims, and the counterclaims they often generate, people try to reinforce or expand this control.

Privacy and secrecy overlap whenever the efforts at such control rely on hiding. But privacy need not hide; and secrecy hides far more than what is private. A private garden need not be a secret garden; a private life is rarely a secret life. Conversely, secret diplomacy rarely concerns what is private, any more than do arrangements for a surprise party or for choosing prize winners.

Why then are privacy and secrecy so often equated? In part, this is so because privacy is such a central part of what secrecy protects that it can easily be seen as the whole. People claim privacy for differing amounts of what they are and do and own; if need be, they seek the added protection of secrecy. In each case, their purpose is to become less vulnerable, more in control.” Bok, Secrets (1989), p. 11.

The relationship between secrecy and privacy is crucial for our work at the Centre for Privacy Studies, as it is present in so many early modern sources. During the symposium Practices of Privacy: Knowledge in the Making, we explored how secrecy was a tool for privacy, but also discussed that the existence of secrets depended on a significant level of privacy to be secured. In early modern Europe, cryptography and secrecy also become entangled with contemporaneous philosophical and theological debates, so issues of religious confession and approaches to the natural world had a significant impact on how strategies and techniques of concealment developed. As such, the interplay between privacy, secrecy, and cryptography is crucial for understanding how privacy was created in particular environments.

On January 28, the seminar Historical Notions of Privacy in Latin America will address one of the main figures in the history of early modern cryptography: Johannes Trithemius. Professor Francisco de Paula de Souza Mendonça Júnior will present his work-in-progress on Trithemius’ Polygraphia. More information can be found on PRIVACY’s website:

Performance, Performativity, Privacy

In 1975 in the art gallery Krinzinger in Innsbruck, the Serbian artist Marina Abramović subjected her body to various bodily transgressions, ingesting a liter of honey, a liter of wine, and inflicting razor wounds to her lower abdomen. She then flogged herself and lied down on a cross made of ice, freezing her back, while her body was burning from the above. The audience could not take this exploration of physical and mental boundaries and ripped her off the cross. This performance, Lips of Thomas, constitutes a key moment for performative arts and performance studies, notably by an extreme use of the body as a medium and the unavoidable implication of the audience. In her autobiography, Durch Mauern gehen (2016), mentioning one of the performances of Rhythm 10 at Villa Borghese in Rome in 1973 – an extreme version of the knife game – Abramović described the relationship between herself and the audience as follows:

Es war, als würde ein elektrischer Strom durch meinen Körper fliessen, als wären das Publikum und ich eins geworden. Ein einziger Organismus. Das Gefühl der Gefahr im Raum hatte die Zuschauer und mich in diesem Moment vereint: wir waren hier und jetzt und nirgendwo anders.

Marina Abramović, The Lips of Thomas (1975)

Since then, the notions of performance and performativity have become powerful tools, but also muddled ones in the humanities. Radically interdisciplinary, performance studies currently include the fields of performing arts, philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, sociology, and gender studies. They encompass research in theater, ceremonies, political or religious rituals, sports, along with everyday life, spectacles, and entertainments in a broad sense. By bringing a focus on people, their interaction, self-fashioning, acting, and their representation, performance and performativity can be useful lenses to study privacy.

In 1967, Richard Schechner founded and directed the experimental theater troupe, The Performance Group, which became The Wooster Group in 1980, under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte. Experimentation by the troupe, called Environmental Theater incited the immersion of the audience within the performance and physical contacts between the audience and the actors (an endangered circumstance in the actual times of pandemic). It was meant to suppress the traditional separation between the stage and the spectators, or in theater jargon, breaking the fourth wall. From then onwards, the performing act was no longer just artistic and aesthetic; it includes social and cultural aspects, along with questions of identity and ritual.

The Performance Group in 1976

Performance cannot be evoked without its neighboring concept, performativity. John L. Austin coined the term “performative” in How to Make Things With Words (1962). The British philosopher used it uniquely in regard to speech acts. He distinguishes descriptive language made of constative language, which can be evaluated in terms of right or wrong, from performative language, which has the ability to act and transform the world. In the latter sense, talking becomes a social act. The most famous examples of performative language are institutional acts, such as a wedding ceremony or a judge giving a verdict. Pronouncing a couple husband and wife or condemning a defendant to life imprisonment will literally change the lives of the protagonists. Therefore, talking is not just pronouncing words, but talking is acting.

In the 1990s, with the emergence of cultural studies, Judith Butler extends the notion of performativity to the body. Culture, like theater and music, are now interpreted as a performance and no longer as a text. Before Butler, feminist theoreticians such as Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray or Monique Wittig considered sex as a biological factor, whereas gender was seen as a social construction: one was born as male or female, but one became a woman or a man. Butler questions both notions of sex and gender and develops the notion of gender performativity in opposition with the notion of essentialism. Born in the nineteenth century, this conception considered men and women as fundamentally different due to biological reasons, and consequently also implying moral qualities. It substituted the older Galenic conception of a one-sex model, where men and women were placed on a continuum going from perfection (man) to imperfection (woman). In this perspective, sex along with gender, are a cultural and social construction. The norm is the heterosexual male desire, which created a feminine identity established by the stylized repetition of bodily acts – what Michel Foucault calls the “discours régulateurs” or “techniques disciplinaires”. Gender performance creates gender, each individual operates as an actor of this specific gender. Moreover, gender is performative, because bodily acts express gender and constitute the illusion of a stable gender identity. Butler advocates the subversion of gender categories by performance, along with the idea of a flexible and free identity she calls gender trouble.

The lion’s share in performance studies and theory goes to the German theater historian Erika Fischer-Lichte. According to her, performance as artistic practice dissolves boundaries between life and art, between embodiment and meaning, and between presence and representation. Performance highlights the use of bodies, no longer limited to represent or play the acts of eating or suffering for instance, but literally eating and suffering on stage. Performing arts are indivisible from the concrete moment of their performance. The performance needs to be lived and experienced (erlebt und erfahren). As such, Fischer-Lichte defines performance along three lines of thinking. Firstly, it is unique and unrepeatable (Einmaligkeit und Unwiederholbarkeit). Secondly, a basic condition for performance is the bodily co-presence of spectators and actors in the same space. Finally, the identity of performance is created by a stylized repetition.

Lulu, Alban Berg (New York 2016)

How can these concepts be useful to the study of privacy? By definition, privacy would seem to be quite the opposite of staging bodies on a public stage. However, I believe that some notions linked to performance and performativity could bring a new insight into privacy studies. The body is one of the heuristic zones of privacy, as does society. By its focus on the body and interactions between spectators and actors, performance studies offer a powerful lens through which we can study bodies in private or public. Moreover, speech or gender acts of performativity can be closely related to practices of privacy. Finally, in the scarse existence of private space in the early modern world, I would argue that privacy was a performance. Breaking the fourth wall on a theater stage could be an analogy for private practices. Staging privacy on a metaphorical theater could be investigated along the lines of inclusion and exclusion, inside and outside, boundaries and threshold, sound and silence.

La Fura dels Baus, staging of Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen (Valencia 2007-2009)






What’s in a name? Privacy and the Hermitage Hunting Lodge

As an architectural historian with a PhD on the residential system of Charles of Croÿ, one of the highest noblemen of the Low Countries, I am especially interested in how spatial privacy (in the sense of ‘being alone’) was reflected in the court culture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In combination with a passion for the detective work in archives, sorting through sources to find that indispensable piece of evidence, I am also interested in digital humanities and how they can be used as a tool to improve our research and articulate new hypotheses.

The blue staircase leading to the dining hall on the first floor of the hunting lodge.

Two months ago I arrived at the Centre for Privacy studies to start as a postdoctoral researcher, in association with the Royal Danish Academy. As a member of the interdisciplinary Copenhagen case team, I will combine my expertise in court architecture and digital humanities to examine how privacy evolved at the court of the Danish monarchs, especially at Copenhagen castle and the first Christiansborg. Together with one of the core scholars of the Centre for Privacy studies Peter Thule Kristensen, I will examine how foreign ambassadors were received at the royal residence, and how much access these foreign visitors were granted to the royal apartment. Were there particular thresholds that could not be crossed?

One of the lanes leading to the Hermitage.

The first Christiansborg was actually completely newly built by Christian VI (r. 1730 – 1746), one of the great builders among the Danish monarchs. Unfortunately most of his architectural gems did not survive the test of time, with one notable exception: the Hermitage hunting lodge, north of Copenhagen.[1] So on a sunny day in October, I strapped on my walking boots and followed in Christian VI’s footsteps through the magnificent hunting park, filled with over 2000 deer, to the hunting pavilion on the highest point of the park. Long lanes crossing the entire park facilitated the hunt, as they allowed to spot deer from afar. Most of these lanes still exist today, and make for a beautiful walk to my destination: the Hermitage. The name alone alludes to the function of the building: for the King to be alone or ‘en ermitage’, in solitude, like a hermit.

The hunting lodge was never intended to be lived in, but was rather conceived as a setting for the lavish banquets that accompanied the royal hunts. The exterior shows a compact and symmetrical design, located at the centre of several divergent lanes. The decoration reflects its original function, with deer heads holding up the terrace on the back façade and plenty of windows oriented towards the different lanes. Being invited to hunt was a privilege ever since the sixteenth century. Only the lucky few were extended an invitation, since the hunting activities and accompanying banquets provided direct access to the monarch.[2]

A stove surrounded by little mirrors in one of the rooms of the hunting lodge.

Up until today the pavilion is property of the Danish Royal Family, and it is usually closed for visitors. I was able to join the students of the Royal Danish Academy for an exceptional visit, getting an extraordinary look inside the building. Recently restored, the vibrant colours and lush decoration give an impression of what the interior must have looked like in the eighteenth century. The lodge was built by architect Lauritz de Thurah, who also worked on the interior of the first Christiansborg castle, together with German architect Elias David Hausser and Nicolai Eigtved. The first floor of the lodge features beautifully decorated rooms, with the Queen and the King’s rooms provided with Chinese decorations and black window frames. What struck me the most were the tiny mirrors incorporated in the wall decorations of the different rooms. Our guide and Royal Academy colleague Mathias Mentze suggested that they might have been used to reflect the green landscape outside the windows, therefore really ‘pulling the greenery in’. A very interesting hypothesis, if you think that the color green was preferred for the decoration in most of the private lodges and rooms of Frederik II (r. 1559 – 1588) in the sixteenth century.[3]

The dining hall on the first floor of the hunting lodge.

The compact pavilion was built for the reception and entertainment of guests during the royal hunts. Everything was put in to place to host the most magnificent banquets: food supplies were brought directly into the base of the building, where the kitchens were located. The prepared food was put in a hoisting apparatus and transported to the second floor, to the main dining hall. This complex piece of machinery meant that the staff did not have to go up the stairs to serve the guests, the banquet appeared – almost magically – from the ground up through the apparatus, reverse deux ex machina style. An inventive piece of machinery thus insured the privacy between the monarch and his guests and the staff that stayed in the kitchen. A similar apparatus is known through drawings of the reception of Charles V and his son, the future King Philip II in the residence of Mary of Hungary in Binche. An anonymous drawing of the ground floor salette shows the famous apparatus rotating the food under the sound of thunder and flashing lightning.[4] This anonymous drawing gives a wonderful insight in the architectural language of Jacques du Broeucq, architect of the palace at Binche.

The “enchanted room” (salle enchantée) of the palace at Binche built for Mary of Hungary in 1549 (Royal Library of Belgium).

With this visit to the only remaining building commissioned by Christian VI, I hope to connect it to the architectural language of the first Christiansborg and especially the spatial characteristics of the royal apartment.



[1] Grinder-Hansen, Poul. Eremitageslottet. København: Gads Forlag, 2013.

[2] Christianson, John R., ‘The Spaces and Rituals of the Royal Hunt: King Frederik II of Denmark (1559-1588)’, in Beyond Scylla and Charybdis. European Courts and Court Residences Outside Habsburg and Valois/Bourbon Territories 1500-1700. Vol. 24. Publications from the National Museum, Studies in Archaeology & History, edited by Bøggild Johannsen, Birgitte, and Konrad Ottenheym. Copenhagen: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2015, p. 159-170.

[3] Grinder-Hansen, Poul, ‘Im Grünen: The Types of Informal Space and their Use in Private, Political and Diplomatic Activities of Frederik II, King of Denmark’, in Beyond Scylla and Charybdis. European Courts and Court Residences Outside Habsburg and Valois/Bourbon Territories 1500-1700. Vol. 24. Publications from the National Museum, Studies in Archaeology & History, edited by Bøggild Johannsen, Birgitte, and Konrad Ottenheym. Copenhagen: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2015, p. 171-182.

[4] De Jonge, Krista, ’Le langage architectural de Jacques Du Broeucq: entre Rome et fontainebleau’, in: Le château de Boussu. Vol. 8. Etudes et Documents, série Monuments et Sites, edited by De Jonge, Krista, and Marcel Capouillez. Namur: Ministere de la Région wallonne, 1998, p. 161-187.

Arendt on privacy

In this post, I would like to summarise Hannah Arendt‘s views related to privacy. In her 1958 book The Human Condition, Arendt develops her understanding of the public realm and the private realm, and what characterises our modern condition, the rise of the social realm.

As the title of her book indicates, Arendt’s interest is the human condition, or what it means to be human. The human condition is not human nature, but what humans do—their activities—and making sense of our life-world. Arendt sums up human activities in the concept of vita activa, as opposed to vita contemplativa. As the Latin suggests, this is an ancient conception inherited from the Romans. They considered the vita contemplativa as superior because it was dedicated to contemplative matters, while vita activa was about providing necessities. Karl Marx famously inverted this hierarchy, making the vita contemplativa a mere superstructure and the vita activa the real matter of human life.

Arendt differentiates vita activa into three types of activities: labour, work, and action. Labour concerns the activities that support life; it is about providing sustenance. Work is the activity of producing unnatural artefacts. Our interdependent activity is what Arendt calls “action”; they are interactions with other people that require initiative and not simply routine behaviour.

Labour is not distinctively human since animals also share this part with us. Work and action make us human, but only action requires the presence of a society of others in order to exist. Action takes place in the public realm and not the private realm, because the public realm is the only where there is freedom.

Arendt is hopeful about the possibility of action in the public realm, and the most important of all actions being thought. When there is political freedom, there is the possibility of thought. And when there is thought, there is political freedom. Thought is done by being by oneself, in solitude or in a private community, but it is expressed to others, in the public realm. Arendt seems to reserve this activity to scientists, and certainly not to statesmen who have as little freedom as people from the street, in their ability to act.

The public and the private realms

For ancient Greeks, freedom only existed in the public realm, insofar as only in the public realm there was an expression of the political and the possibility of equality. The realm of the public is the space of appearance, this is where one sees and is seen. It has a performative value. Through action, people distinguish themselves, by deeds or by words. So, the public space was where there was a space of freedom, and not the private space.

For Arendt, modernity is constituted by the rise of the social realm, which changes this separation between an unfree private realm and a free public realm. On the one hand it sent speech to the private realm, and, on the other, it introduced labour to the public realm. Modernity has so much modified our understanding of the private and the public that we no longer agree with ancient Greeks that privacy is idiotic since only a public political life is worth living, nor do we agree with ancient Romans that privacy is a temporary privation, a retreat from public life. In short, classical Greek and Roman thought considered the public realm, the polis or civitas the only place where man would be free. (Arendt, 38) Privacy is no longer thought of as a deprivation of the highest human capacity and “modern privacy” becomes a necessary shelter for the intimate.

Arendt names Rousseau in particular as the intellectual figure behind privacy as a retreat from social pressures, both of the household and of society at large. Society excludes the possibility of action because it requires a certain behaviour from its members. Behaviour has replaced action in the social realm because society requires conformism. Statistically, the more people there are, the less likely it is that some will deviate the social norm. Uniform behaviour “lends itself to statistical determination, and therefore to statistically correct prediction”, what liberal economists called then the “invisible hand” guiding self-interests towards a single common interest (Arendt, 43-44). “A complete victory of society will always produce some sort of ‘communistic fiction,’ whose outstanding political characteristic is that it is indeed ruled by an ‘invisible hand,’ namely, by nobody.” (44-45)

Action is characterised by two fundamental aspects: plurality and unpredictability. Plurality entails that men are equal, but also distinct.

Private realm: property

It is with respect to the public that the term “private” takes its significance. Originally it has a privative sense: to live privately means to be deprived of the essential things for a truly human life. One is deprived of the possibility to achieve something more permanent than life by being deprived of an ‘objective’ relationship with others that relate and separates through a common world. Privacy is a privation of others. For the others, private man does not exist since he does not appear. (58)

In modernity, this deprivation of “objective” relation to others has led to the mass phenomenon of loneliness. The reason for this is that mass society destroys not only the public realm but the private as well. It deprives men of their private home

The social and the private

The rise of the social coincided with the transformation of the private care for private property into a public concern. Society, when it first entered the public realm, was an organisation of property-owners who claimed the protection of their private property from the public. In other words, property-owners wanted to accumulate more wealth. According to Bodin, government belonged to kings, and property to subjects, and it was the duty of the king to govern the commonwealth for the common wealth. When wealth became private capital, the possibility to accumulate wealth became so vast that private property became close to the permanence inherent to the common world. (68)

But common wealth can never become common in the sense of the common world. It remains strictly private.

The Public realm: the common

The term “public” signifies two phenomena:

  1. Everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity;
  2. Public is the world of common things and common stories.

Everything that is seen and heard by us and others constitute appearance, and, for us, appearance is what constitutes reality. Compared to the reality of what is appearance, everything that is of the intimate is uncertain and shadowy. Everything that is part of the “intimate life”, “the passions of the heart, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses”, are uncertain and in the shadow until they are “deprivatized” and “deindividualized” into a shape that is fit for public appearance. (50) The deprivitization is what occur in artistic transformations through storytelling. “But we do not need the form of the artist to witness this transfiguration. Each time we talk about things that can be experienced only in privacy or intimacy, we bring them out into a sphere where they will assume a kind of reality which, their intensity notwithstanding, they never could have had before.” (50) Pain, however, is only with difficulty communicated to the public, it get hardly an appearance at all.

It is certainly the case for some private experiences that are not expressed in some documents that can be conserved for the historian to consult. However, how can there be words expressed on matters of the intimate life? Artists have difficulties enough transcribing their own intimate life into a sharable experience, so few could possibly “deprivitize” their intimate life. As a result very little is retrievable for the historian unless it is in the public sphere.

Our feeling of reality depends on appearance, and therefore on the existence of a public realm where things can appear in light out of the darkness of the private. In this sense, the public defines the private. What is worthy of bright public light is relevant, it is what can be tolerated, so the irrelevant becomes automatically a private matter (51). However, that does not mean that all private matters are irrelevant. Some relevant matters can only survive in private and die in public: love for instance. (51) As a result, some things considered irrelevant by the public realm can have an extraordinary appeal for people, and they may adopt these as a way of life. Such is the modern enchantment with “small things” that people cultivate in the privacy of their home. (52)

“Second, the term “public” signifies the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it (52). It is the man-made world, not nature. The world relates and separates at the same time, like a table relates and separates people sitting around it. (52) The problem that mass society then pose on the public realm is not so much the increased number of persons involved, “the fact that the world between them has lost its power to gather them together, to relate and to separate them.” (Arendt, 53) Historically, only “Christian brotherhood” has kept together a community of people who had lost their interest in the common world.

This “worldlessness” as a political phenomenon is only possible under the assumption that the world will not last (54). “If the world is to contain a public space, it cannot be erected for one generation and planned for the living only; it must transcend the life-span of mortal men”. (55) “Without this transcendence into a potential earthly immortality, no politics, strictly speaking, no common world and no public realm, is possible.” (55)

The polis for the Greeks and the res publica for the Romans, were the guarantees against the futility of individual life and provided a space for permanence. The modern age marks the rise of society to public prominence and as Adam Smith notes, men of letters were drawn to public admiration and monetary rewards. Public admiration is also something used and consumed, as well as status. (56)

“Yet, even if these needs, through some miracle of sympathy, were share by others, their very futility would prevent their ever establishing anything so solid and durable as a common world.” Public admiration does not constitute a space in which things are saved from destruction by time. As a result, monetary rewards, itself also futile, becomes more “objective” and more real. (57)

The reality of the public realm relies on the simultaneous presence of innumerable perspectives and aspects. One could call it diversity. “Being seen and being heard by others derive their significance from the fact that everybody sees and hears from a different position.” (57) “Only where things can be seen by many in a variety of aspects without changing their identity, so that those who are gathered around them know the see sameness in utter diversity, can worldly reality truly and reliably appear.” Differences of position and variety of perspectives are what guarantee the reality of a common world.

“If the sameness of the object can no longer be discerned, no common nature of men, least of all the unnatural conformism of a mass society, can prevent the destruction fo the common world, which is usually preceded by the destruction of the many aspects in which it presents itself to human plurality. This can happen under conditions of radical isolation, where nobody can any longer agree with anybody else, as is usually the case in tyrannies. But it may also happen under conditions of mass society or mass hysteria, where we see all people suddenly behave as though they were members of one family, each multiplying and prolonging the perspective of his neighbor. In both instances, men have become entirely private, that is, they have been deprived fo seeing and hearing others, of being seen and being heard by them. They are all imprisoned in the subjectivity of their own singular experience, which does not cease to be singular if the same experience is multiplied innumerable times. The end of the common world has come when it is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in only one perspective.” (58)

In my next post I shall reflect upon Arendt’s conception of privacy in relation to the rise of the social media realm.

Domestic animals and private spaces in the early modern period

Many of us have seen the stereotypical image of a peasant house: the lack of divisions, people sleeping all together, sharing the same space with their cattle and other animals. For us at the Centre for Privacy Studies, that representation is often brought up as a way of claiming that there could not be privacy in the early modern period. However, this image was mostly based on medieval reconstructions, and even then, it was not the case for every house – although space was mostly shared, temporary boundaries could be created with less permanent materials, and geographical differences applied to the structure of the house. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, peasant buildings tended to encompass room divisions (although still shared), and a separation between the space for animals and living areas for people was usually the norm. That being said, this separation was not necessarily strict, and a few animals had a better chance of mobility between spaces. A primary example is the dog.

Adriaen van Ostade, Peasants in an Interior, 1661.
Jakob Seisenegger, Emperor Charles V with Hound, 1532.

Dogs could be found inside the houses of people of all social strata. From the sixteenth century onwards, it was common for European nobles to posed for portraits with their dogs. The portrait of Charles V with his hound, painted by Jakob Seisenegger in 1532 (and reinterpreted by Titian in 1533), displays him holding the collar of his hunting dog, who looks at him devotedly. Particular hunting dogs were considered a luxury and were exchanged as presents between nobles. Although being particularly bred for outdoor activities, these dogs could be found inside the houses as well. Keith Thomas, in his famous work Men and the Natural World, gave us English examples of how hunting dogs were indulged, usually eating better than the servants.

Barthélémi Hopfer, Portrait d’une famille strasbourgeoise, c. 1660-1670.

Women were also portrayed with their dogs, hunting and lapdogs alike, although usually they were depicted with smaller dogs. Dogs were also considered great companions to children. Companion dogs, in particular, had broad access to more private spaces: Charles II, known for his love of dogs, had his Spaniels following him everywhere, including the bedchambers of his mistresses.

However, more research is required to know the nuances of the access thresholds for dogs. Another English example described by Thomas shows that it was not unusual for animals to share the table or the bed with their humans, but it was not exactly a well-seen practice: a sixteenth-century woman in her deathbed regretted having spoiled her female dog, saying “Good husband, you and I have offended God grievously in receiving many a time this bitch into our bed” (p. 40).

Hans Asper, Portrait of Cleophea Krieg von Bellikon, 1538

I am very curious about the spaces occupied by animals in the early modern home. Feel free to get in touch if you encountered any interesting historical sources talking about domestic animals in private spaces!


Testing out Voyant Tools with a sample from Lettres Portugaises

If you are starting to dip your toes into the  sea of opportunities that automated text analysis gives you but were wondering where to start, take a look at Voyant Tools. This open source application lets you quickly gather some insights about texts you might be interested in. It’s also very convenient to use, because it’s directly available from your browser—you simply upload or copy and paste your text onto the tool, with no need to download or install software.

I tested it out with a sample from a French text I am currently working with to see how it worked. My text is the first letter from the Lettres Portugaises, an epistolary novel from the second half of the 17th century, published by Claude Barbin, whose book trade is one of the topics of my research.

One quick insight that became visible for me is the importance of properly configuring stop words when doing automated text analysis. (Stop words are common words, like pronouns and prepositions, that are removed when doing certain types of analysis.) Compare the two word clouds below. The first one was made using the option to “auto-detect” stop words in Voyant Tool. The second was made without removing stop words:

Word cloud made using the option to autodetect stop words
Word cloud made using the option to auto-detect stop words

Word cloud made using the option to not remove any stop words
Word cloud made using the option to not remove any stop words

Stop words should be removed when we do types of automated text analysis that operate on a word-by-word basis, because they don’t inherently contain much “meaning”, or only have meaning in context. Topic modeling and sentiment analysis, for example, are two common tasks that require the removal of stop words to get high-quality results; without stop word removal the results would be dominated by the most common glue words in the language, drowning out the “real” results you might be looking for.

But when we are dealing with early modern texts—like my sample from Lettres Portugaises—the lists of stop words that are readily available usually don’t work very well because early modern languages used different conventions from those we have today. Spelling is a case in point, as you can see from the word clouds above. Playing around with Voyant Tools alerted me to the potential benefits of making my own list of stop words for early modern French using the corpus of texts that I engage in my research.

For me, the biggest benefit of using Voyant Tools came on the meta level: allowing a peek behind the scenes to start understanding how automated text analysis works, including its potential benefits and its potential pitfalls. It also allows us to create visuals to use in presentations or blog posts, which is also super cool. For more robust analysis tasks, though, tools that allow more fine tuning might be a better choice.

Early Modern Banquets: A Noisy but Tasty Business

What better than a banquet could display power and sociability in early modern courts? As part of my research on SOUND, food culture represents one fundamental aspect in a research focusing on sound, noise and court ceremonial. Early modern banquets were elaborate choreographies intended to display the amphytrion’s power and ability to feed his guests. The participants but also the food itself were staged and required intense, noisy, and elaborate preparations. The various parts of the banquet –from the arrival of the guests, the seating hierarchy, the accompanying entertainments, the dining– were orchestrated like an opera or a theater play, with elaborate sceneries and decorations, unexpected theatrical machines, rains of perfumes and scents. Traditionally, banquets were associated with weddings and celebrated dynastic unions between important families.

Giovanni Battista Lenardi and Arnold van Westerhout, Sugar sculptures of Cybel and Juno, banquet given in Rome by the British Ambassador Roger Palmer, Earl of Castlemaine, 1687

Indoor or outdoor, the preparation required an important number of craftsmen to set up the scenery, decorations, sometimes to build flying tables that appeared magically, cooks, pastry chef, food sculptors realizing edible triumphs in sugar or ice, perfumers, gardeners and florists, food carvers, light designers, plate turners, gilders, and a cohort of servants under the supervision of the master steward and the sommelier, along with musicians, singers, and dancers.

Such events can be read as performance, they include categories such as ritual, ceremony, spectacle, but also political and everyday life. Erika Fischer-Lichte defines performance as ephemeral, unrepeatable and dependent on the co-presence of artists and public. Ephemerality, in the case of a banquet, does not only concern the event itself, but also the food: edible monuments designed as sophisticated triumphs are literally ingested by the guests. The performative act is both artistic and aesthetic, but always includes underlying social and political motivations. The extravagance and the prohibitive costs of such a “food spectacle” were meant to represent the prominent position, the power, and the political ambitions of the host.

Aristocratic banquets since the Renaissance were sophisticated orchestrations of food and luxury objects, with fragile and ephemeral architectures. Born in Italy, sugar sculptures soon conquered all the European courts; they represented the masterpieces of a banquet, soliciting all the senses, combining culinary arts with performing arts, they progressively became an elaborate theatre staging mythological themes. The sculptures were made of solidified sugar, moulded and then chiselled. Saffron and herbs allowed to color them. Banquets were usually organized around a mythological or historical theme, celebrating the guest of honor and the sculptures staged a symbolical and political iconography, often made of animals, garlands, and flowers. The banquet ceremonial was a dramaturgical choreography, built on a precise hierarchy. Every participant was an actor, just as the meal was a theater and the banquet was a discourse on power. Everything in the ritual of the banquet was performance, from cooking to the complex choreography of service, even the act of eating itself.

Pierre Paul Sevin, Banquet table with triumphs and coat of arms of Pope Clement IX Rospigliosi

Early modern banquets were indissociable from a mythological reference to Homer’s banquet of the gods (Illiad 24.25-30), which found place in the garden of the Hesperides and served as a prelude to the Trojan war. Opulence and abundance led to war and destruction: the banquet of the gods staged passions and destructive appetites. Ovid’s Festivals narrated the banquet of the bacchanals (I.391-400 and 6.319-341) and Apuleius’ Metamorphosis the wedding of Cupid and Psyche (IV,24). Banquets during the Renaissance traditionally ended by a merciless plundering of food and decorations as a reminder to Homer’s cautionary tale. Edible monuments were intentionally meant to be devoured and destroyed.

Historical examples of such extravagant banquets include the banquet of Cardinal Riario in honor of Eleanor of Aragon in 1473 with the most prodigious triumphs of sugar of huge dimensions representing the story of Hercules, in honor of the future husband of Eleanor, Ercole d’Este; the banquet for their wedding; the banquet for the wedding of Roberto Malatesta and Isabella di Montefeltro; and the banquet offered by Federico II Gonzaga to Henri III of France in 1574 (McIver, 96-97, 141-43). Later examples include Louis XIV week-long festivities at Versailles, Les Plaisirs de L’Isle enchantée in 1664 (Apostolides 1981, Arizzoli-Clémentel 2013); Cardinal Flavio Chigi’s elaborate outdoor banquet with spectacular staging in 1668 to honor the new papal family of the Rospigliosi (Jeanneret 2020); and the scene of the banquet of the gods (Act I, sc. 4-5) in Antonio Cesti’s opera Il pomo d’oro, given to celebrate (belatedly) the wedding of Leopold I and Margaret Theresa in Vienna in 1668 (Read 2015).

Teresa del Pò and Carlo Fontana, Staging of Cardinal Chigi’s banquet in Rome, 1668 (detail)

Teresa del Pò and Carlo Fontana, Final scene of Chigi’s banquet, 1668

But banquets were also a noisy and dirty business. Smells, pots and pans clashing, cooks yelling, hot fire burning, water, stressed servants running around, living animals screeching, all were contributing to make kitchens the loudest place at court. The kitchen was usually separated from the main building, to avoid the racket and the smells, either placed outside –also to minimize the risk of fire, as it was the case at Rosenborg castle– or in the basement. The decorum of the meal choreography stood in strong opposition with the preparations, hidden away to avoid confrontation between the dirty business of cooking and the fine sophisticated moment of the banquet, raising interesting issues around the notion of privacy. Who had to stay in the kitchen to do the dirty and noisy business, who could freely move between the kitchen and the banquet room, and who could attend the banquet itself? By bringing sound into the study of food culture and court, I bring back a focus on everyday practices and high class dining, along with a focus on materiality. Kitchen tools, cutlery, glasses, wine barrels, plates, silverware were all made in specific materials –ceramics, glass, wood, metal– creating specific and highly identifiable sounds related to eating. Reconstructing these sounds gives a new perspective on the ritual of the banquet.

Antonio Cesti, Il pomo d’oro, banquet of the gods (Act 1, sc. 4-5)

Albala, Ken, The Banquet: Dining in the Great Courts of Late Renaissance Europe. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 2007.
Apostolides, Jean-Marie, Le Roi-machine: Spectacle et politique au temps de Louis XIV. Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1981.
Arizzoli-Clémentel, Pierre, ed., Versailles. Paris: Citadelles & Mazenot, 2013.
Dennis, Flora, “Cooking pots, tableware, and the changing sounds of sociability in Italy, 1300–1700,” Sound Studies (2015), 1-22.
Fabbri Dall’Oglio, Maria Attilia, Il trionfo dell’effimero: Lo sfarzo e il lusso dei banchetti visti nella cornice fastosa delle feste nella Roma barocca, lungo il percorso storico dell’evoluzione del gusto e della tavola nell’Italia fra Sei e Settecento. Rome, 2001.
Fischer-Lichte, Erika, The Routledge Introduction to Theater and Performance Studies. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Fischer-Lichte, Erika, The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics. New York: Routledge, 2008
Imorde, Joseph, “Edible Prestige,” in Marcia Reed, ed., The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals. Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, 2015, 101-123.
Jeanneret, Christine, “Un triomphe gastronomique: Performance et banquet dans le jardin de Flavio Chigi”, in Anne-Madeleine Goulet, José María Domínguez, Élodie Oriol (eds), Spectacles et performances artistiques à Rome (1644–1740): Une analzse historique à partir des archives familiales. Rome: Mélanges de l’École française de Rome, 2020 (forthcoming).
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Reed, Marcia, “Court and Civic Festivals,” in Marci Reed, ed., The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2015, 27-71.