Tracing Impressions of Privacy in Paratexts

A small group of scholars assembled in the Italian city of Verona on 16 and 17 May 2024 for a symposium dedicated to the study of early modern privacy in paratextual sources. Some twenty interested students in book history from the University of Verona also attended the opening day.

The symposium was organized by Liam Benison (University of Verona) and Jelena Bakić (Free University of Bolzano) with the aim of developing a scholarly conversation between the fields of privacy studies and paratextual studies. The idea for the project grew out of the researchers’ early work on privacy conducted with the support of Mette Birkedal Bruun and colleagues at the Centre for Privacy Studies (PRIVACY).

Although paratexts have the highly ‘public’ aim of presenting a written work to its audience, many early modern paratexts include representations of the authorial persona. While these are typically rhetorical, Jelena noticed through her research on sixteenth-century books written by Italian women that the paratexts also recorded social, cultural, gender and emotional expressions that might be considered private. Meanwhile Liam had become aware through his study of privacy in early modern utopianism that the paratexts of utopias also played with the thresholds between private and public. They therefore decided to bring together a small group of experts to explore the synergies of paratext and privacy in more depth.

The symposium was funded by the University of Verona and supported by Federica Formiga, Associate Professor in book history and contemporary publishing in the Department of Cultures and Civilizations at the University of Verona.

Verona, although known today more for the romantic heroes of an early modern English play, was once an important centre of publishing in the Venetian Republic. The city has maintained a long legacy of book culture, being home to what claims to be the oldest, continually active library in the world. The Biblioteca Capitolare was founded beside the cathedral in the fifth century as a scriptorium for writing and copying books on vellum and parchment. Today it houses many important early manuscipt and printed books including incunabuli.

The symposium was divided in two parts. Thursday morning was devoted to four lectures discussing the state of the art and methodologies of the fields of privacy studies and paratextual studies. 

Mette Birkedal Bruun (Director of PRIVACY, University of Copenhagen) presented via Zoom a survey of the work of scholars at PRIVACY who question assumptions about the public and private as being quite separate spheres and purely modern phenomena. She stressed the importance of asking the ‘wh’ questions such as for whom is something private, how, why, where and when?

Federica Formiga discussed the importance of paratexts as sources for interpreting the reception of books. She highlighted the use of rhetorical techniques such as the captatio benevolentiae used in early modern dedicatory epistles to capture the goodwill of readers, negotiate patronage relations and define works for a particular audience.

Michaël Green (University of Łódź and co-founding editor of the Brill book series Studies in the History of Privacy) discussed some important considerations when publishing in the field of privacy studies, including the use of definitions (however loose), a clear structure, and editors’ expectation of the use of multiple or corroborative sources.

Finally, Jelena Bakić looked at how methodologies from the fields of early modern paratext and privacy studies could be combined for a productive study of the meaning of privacy through paratextual sources. Highlighting Maria Terzoli’s view of paratexts as ‘autobiographic public space’, Jelena argued that, while we cannot expect to discover an author’s experience of privacy through the public medium of the paratext, we may discern ideal conceptions of privacy when paratexts are contextualized through an understanding of contemporary social, cultural, gender and emotional expectations. Jelena concluded with the reflection that we can read in paratexts the mechanisms by which people’s private thoughts or feelings were managed or reshaped when communicated in public, and therefore, evaluate the success of social and political regimes in controlling the private.

The programme for Thursday afternoon and Friday morning was dedicated to discussing papers presented by eight researchers.

Federica Formiga considered paratextual traces of the competition between Jewish itinerant printer Gershom Soncino (1460–1534) and his more successful and renowned rival Aldus Manutius (c. 1450–1515). Stefano Cassini (Università Cattolica del Santa Cuore, Milan) compared Manutius’ paratexts and letters to shed light on how he re-presented events of his life in his paratexts.

Valentina Sestini (Sapienza, University of Rome and Editor of the journal Paratesto) discussed the topos of exile and ‘unjust misfortunes’ narrated in the paratexts of Muzio Oddi (1569–1639). Laura Mattioli (University of Durham) examined how Anton Francesco Doni’s ‘Mondo Savio e Pazzo’ (‘Wise and Mad World’) was privatized in expurgated editions published to conform with Counter-Reformation ideology. Finally Alexa Zildjian (University of St Andrews), considering power and secrets in British paratexts, showed how a person’s relative anonymity might be exposed by becoming the subject of a dedicatory epistle.

On Friday morning, Lars Cyril Nørgaard (PRIVACY) examined how private states are made public in the paratexts of early modern Lutheran funeral books from Denmark. Paolo Tinti (University of Bologna) showed examples of the paratexts of early modern academic books that reveal aspects of scholars’ relations. Michaël Green (University of Łódź) examined prefaces of the scholarly books of the French Huguenot Jean Rou (1638-1711) for traces of privacy.

The papers demonstrated a rich variety of ways in which aspects of the private may be perceived as imbricated with the public aims of the paratext. The researchers are now working on a book project.

Past Privacy Matters

On 3rd April 2024, the workshop “Past Privacy Matters: How to Study It and Why” attracted an audience of sixty-nine students and professors at the Federal University of Santa Maria (UFSM) in Santa Maria, Brazil, in addition to thirty-three attending online.

The workshop was organized by LAPS (Latin American Privacy Studies) and the postgraduate programme in history at UFSM (PPGH) in collaboration with the Centre for Privacy Studies (PRIVACY) at the University of Copenhagen. Natacha Klein Käfer (PRIVACY) designed the programme to bring together a small team of speakers, and Taís Tomazi (UFSM) arranged logistics on the ground with the help of PPGH students. The five lectures provoked an engaging discussion in Portuguese and English about the meaning of privacy and the challenges of studying it.

Speakers and participants were warmly welcomed by José Remedi, Professor of History and Vice-Dean of Humanities at UFSM. Professor Remedi expressed solidarity with striking university workers calling for improved wages and conditions.

In the opening lecture, Natacha Klein Käfer, Assistant Professor at PRIVACY, presented a methodological introduction to historical privacy studies. She gave an overview of the diverse research of the Centre for Privacy Studies, including publications and ongoing projects. Teams of scholars at PRIVACY focus on five key domains of knowledge: privacy in the context of law, health, the home, urban spaces and belief. An important tool of research are the heuristic zones developed by Professor Mette Birkedal Bruun, Director of PRIVACY [1]. The heuristic zones are neither a method, theory or result, but rather a tool for analysing the meaning of privacy in different contexts.

Natacha considered some questions privacy scholars ask, which may include, Who gets to decide what will be private? Is privacy imposed against someone’s will or willingly taken and defined? The following discussion highlighted that, although scholars are necessarily concerned with problems of identifying examples of privacy in different situations, the more important objective is not to define privacy in a concrete way but rather to focus on questions of its fluidity, how it is interconnected with aspects of the public. A withdrawal from public life, for example, may involve negotiating and giving public notice of the withdrawal.

The second session was presented online by Johannes Ljungberg, Assistant Professor at PRIVACY, on the topic of “What privacy are we talking about?” Johannes reviewed the historiography of privacy in the twentieth century in the context of the enshrining of privacy as a right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Johannes argued that Jürgen Habermas’s theory of the public sphere has skewed thinking on privacy because, while it is commonly claimed that privacy did not exist in the premodern period, it is rarely recognized that the same is true for the public sphere as Habermas defined it.

Johannes sparked a good discussion with four propositions about privacy. Particularly interesting is the proposition that “privacy is a product of social interaction”. This refers to the idea that we often only notice privacy when we lose it, as a result of some social intrusion. Johannes suggested that this may be a recurring historical phenomenon. One example was the call for privacy to be recognized as a right, by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis in 1890 [2]. The historical context was the rapid spread of photography and newspapers, which, according to Warren and Brandeis, was turning gossip into a trade, broadcasting the prurient details of people’s private sexual affairs.

In “Researching privacy through the history of emotions: voices from the margins”, Jelena Bakić, Researcher at the Free University of Bolzano, presented three case studies from Renaissance Italy of two women and a man who shared personal reflections in dedicatory epistles to their published books. Jelena’s research demonstrates that paratexts can reveal significant insights into the particular circumstances and concerns of individual writers, despite the commonplace that paratexts are merely rhetorical.

One of Jelena’s cases was that of Camilla Herculiana, an apothecary and natural philosopher from sixteenth-century Padua, who complains that the time she has to write and work is severely restricted by her responsibility to her husband, caring for her children, and the demands of household management. Although women were expected to declare their dedication to husband and family, Camilla’s words also express an emotional and personal protest against the position of women in her society. Jelena’s vivid examples showed how the public and private are intertwined in women’s and men’s paratexts. Although the published paratext is a public statement, the public persona it presents generally reveals some details about the individual’s life. Its public and private meanings lie therefore in what the writer chooses to make public about their private experience.

In “Privacy and the novel: a history of utopian possibilities”, Liam Benison, Researcher at the University of Verona and University of Porto, discussed how utopias have been used by scholars as sources to understand the history of privacy. He argued that utopian texts are of great importance to the history of privacy because the problem of the private is at the heart of utopian thinking. His research focuses on how representations of doors in utopian architectures open up insights into how utopian writers conceived of privacy and frequently saw it as a threat in an ideal society, although they often availed themselves of privacy in their own lives.

Liam presented an overview of the methodology he is developing in the CETAPS Digital Lab at the University of Porto, which applies PRIVACY tools using digital humanities methods in practice. Liam’s presentation was followed by an interesting discussion regarding literature and privacy, and also about surveillance and privacy in the early modern period and today.

The final session, “Privacy through quantitative sources: a possible encounter”, was presented by Taís Tomazi, PhD candidate at UFSM. Taís discussed the value of the use of quantitative sources and considered some of the disadvantages. She looked at the use of databases, fontes seriais versus qualitative information and information derived from personal testimonies such as diaries or official documents such as legal trial records. By focusing on inventories from the nineteenth century in southern Brazil, Taís showed how it is possible to reconstruct private space and private life, and what are the challenges. A serial history, Taís’s research shows, offers an important and valuable avenue of research for the history of privacy.

Taís provoked an engaging discussion in which Professor Luís Augusto Farinatti (UFSM) pointed to how a sense of privacy can affect the way in which certain facts of history enter or do not enter the historical record. He gave the example of Gaúcho households in the borderlands between Imperial Brazil and Argentina that owned knives used in feuds. The knives legally had to be registered, but if a researcher looks for knives in the registers, they almost never find them, because families regarded the cultural tradition of feuding as private and none of the business of state authorities.

The workshop demonstrated a strong interest in historical privacy studies among students and staff at UFSM, and was productive in fostering new scholarly contacts between the speakers and UFSM researchers. The authors of this post are very thankful to Natacha for the opportunity to present at this event and for the warm welcome we received at UFSM. It was a wonderful and memorable experience and we hope the first of many future engagements with the new scholarly friends we met.


1. Mette Birkedal Bruun, ‘Privacy in Early Modern Christianity and Beyond: Traces and Approaches’, Annali Dell’Istituto Storico Italo-Germanico in Trento, 44.2 (2018), 33–54.

2. Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis, ‘The Right to Privacy’, Harvard Law Review, 4.5 (1890), 193–220.

Urban Gardens: A Public Place for Private Activities?

“The first gardens were not made, but discovered.” So begins Christopher Thackers The History of Gardens (1979) in his treatise on the first woody or grassy areas that we humans would soon consider as gardens, parks, or groves. Although the parks that Thacker initially discusses with this sentence are those untended gardens of the elusive nymphs, the bountiful flower goddess Flora or the ever-fruitful orchard of the Hesperides,  the sentence rings equally true to all the tended parks that would follow in the footsteps of these mythological spaces. These real places were all sprung from a sense of discovered beauty to quickly become a place of human control, walled limitations and man-made constructions.

The Garden of the Hesperides (1892) by Frederic Leighton.
Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, UK, Public Domain.

During the coming three years I shall study how urban gardens and parks functioned as a middling area between public elements and private activities within the urban landscape in the PhD-project: Urban Gardens: A Public Place for Private Activities?. Specifically, I will study how parks were:

  • locations for the intermingling of individuals across the social strata,
  • tools for indirect communication between the elite (or the state) and the “people”,
  • secluded places for private conversations and encounters,
  • tools for peer-to-peer rivalry and a source of social capital for its owner and their visitors,
  • disruptions, but also intrinsically connected parts of the urban landscape,
  • locations for political gatherings and public protests,
  • locations that were “hard” to control by the governing or policing body and thus became places commonly associated with illegal and anti-social activities. 

These perspectives on gardens will be pursued á longue durée, focusing on the continuity, the changing functions, and accessibility of urban gardens from antiquity to the early modern period. A multitude of varied urban landscapes will serve as cases for this project, but few such landscapes can exceed the historical continuity existing in Rome when it comes to urban gardens. The urban gardens and parks of Rome enable comparisons with how other urban landscapes of antiquity, such as Constantinople (Istanbul), Pergamon (Izmir), and Athens, developed and how urban landscapes that grew to prominence at later periods, such as those in Aachen, Florence, Paris, London, Copenhagen, Tunis, or even Boston were established. In summary this project primarily focuses on European gardens and parks in an urban setting, as well as the interconnected gardens of the extended eastern Mediterranean. 

Sommerdag i Villa Borghese i Rom (1922) by Hans Andersen Brendekilde.
Photo from Bruun Rasmussen Kunstauktioner, Public Domain.

Horti Luculliani – The First Urban Garden in Rome

To visualise a rough outline of the study and its approach, we can look at Rome’s first large urban garden, the Horti Luculliani as an example. In the first century BCE the Roman aristocrat and graecophile Lucius Licinius Lucullus (118–56 BCE) constructed his own enormous private pleasure garden within the urban landscape of Rome, the Horti Luculliani. The garden was primarily used as a meeting place for the retired general and his associates; it was never open to the general public. The Luculliani was thus a private garden that was only used by a highly curated group of individuals; at the same time it was a very publicly visible garden. It was located by one of Rome’s major roads, the Via Flaminia, on the slopes of the Pincian hill and towered over the Campus Martius.

Modern reconstitution of the Horti Luculliani as made by André Caron (  

The Horti Luculliani, later renamed as the Horti Asiatici, would eventually become imperial property during the reign of Claudius (10 BC–54 CE). As an imperial property, it was turned into a “semi-public” park and was used as a site for the emperors to withdraw but also for private gatherings of the political elite and it was regularly opened for the general populace during festivals and other events. It would survive in this fashion for most of antiquity, occasionally changing hands between an aristocratic elite and the emperor, until the 600s when it is mentioned for the last time as being the target of renovations performed by the Byzantine general Belisarius (c. 500–565). 

Sometime after these renovations, the park and most of the now ravished and greatly diminished surrounding urban landscape were abandoned and given up to ruralisation. Among the abandoned ruins of the gardens on the Pincian hill instead sprung up vineyards, used, owned, and frequented by papal dignitaries and their hired hands, and it was not until the 15th century that the area would again become included in the revitalised urban landscape of Rome. During this revitalisation, the former area of the Horti Luculliani, became part of three new renaissance urban parks: the monasterial garden of the Trinita dei Monti, and the two aristocratic park-palatial complexes: the Villa Medici and the Villa Borghese, which all still remain today. These complexes would all go through different stages of being private, semi-private, and, as they stand today, public. By the 18th and 19th century they were joined by many other public projects such as galleries, museums, a French institute and, by the early 20th century, the Bioparco di Roma, one of the first zoological gardens that was primarily aimed towards public amusement, and not, like many other early zoological parks, scientific endeavours. 

Thus, just by looking at one urban park in one urban landscape we are able to see the park going through a myriad of uses, all of them interlinked with the private and the public. In summary, my project will look at parks as places for curated private gatherings, tools for peer-to-peer rivalry, tools for the elite to curry favour with the general populace and with their associates, places for being withdrawn and having privacy, commercial meeting areas for the elite, places to show sophistication, wealth and erudition, and finally as public places where private visitors can come to relax, sightsee and be amazed.

La fontana dei Cavalli Marini a Villa Borghese (c.1880) by Aurelio Tiratelli.
Photo from Paolo Antonacci Roma, Public Domain.

Frances Burney, Privacy, and Female Writing Practices in 18th-Century England

Frances Burney (1752-1840), or Madame D’Arblay, second daughter of Charles Burney, born in Norfolk, England, was a writer who achieved success through her four main works: Evelina (1778), Cecilia (1782), Camilla (1796) and The Wanderer (1814). From a young age, Frances Burney developed her writing skills. However, before becoming a writer, she kept a diary and communicated via correspondence with family and friends. Her literary career began with the anonymous publication of Evelina, Or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World. In this work, the trajectory of the young woman opens up the possibility of examining and reflecting on the historical, social, and literary context of 18th-century England, as well as the author herself, Frances Burney, through her writings in his diary and letters.  Here, I propose to analyze the private writing practices of a young Frances Burney before becoming an author – that is, her diary and her letters from 1768 to 1778. In this period, Frances was still single and living with her father, but was already involved in English aristocratic society. Considering that diaries and letters are configured as a form of private writing, her work also covers privacy and its influence on the writing of 18th-century English women.

Portrait of future femme du général Alexandre d’Arblay (elle n’épouse cet émigré français qu’en 1793), Frances, alias ‘Fanny’ Burney (1752-1840), British writer, par son frère. Edward Burney (ca. 1784-1785)

In order to research Frances Burney’s writing practices, it is crucial to understand female education ideals in the early modern period. Reading and writing, at that time, were almost exclusively intended for noble women. Yet, such practices were still mostly restricted to the private sphere. Female literary expression was highly contested and judged, and often, for this reason, when their intellectual works managed to advance and surpass this private circulation, they achieved this anonymously, as was the case for Burney. Furthermore, it is important to emphasize that the education of women at the time was mostly focused on what would provide them with good marriage prospects.

Frances’ Father, Charles Burney, by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1781

This brings us to another important point: male support. In Frances Burney’s case, it was her father who encouraged her love of reading, which later led her to seek refuge in pen and paper. Her diary, in turn, can demonstrate the cultural practices of this period, as well as reporting the thoughts and feelings of an individual. Thus, by adding the necessary filters, such as class, race, and gender, it is possible to consider what the private thoughts of (at least part of) the population were like. In Frances Burney’s diary, we can observe from her reports what were the thoughts, feelings, and vulnerabilities of an aristocratic woman in 18th-century English society. However, the biggest paradox in her diary occurs right at the beginning, where Burney states that she needs to write to someone she trusts completely and, thus, decides to write to nobody. However, her diary circulated among a selected circle of family and friends. As such, her diary tensions the public and the private at the moment she states that she could only reveal her most intimate feelings and thoughts, as well as conversations with third parties, to ‘no one’, and, even so, she chooses to circulate the diary.

Letter From Fanny Burney To Dr Charles Burney (, accessed on 25 January 2024)

Similarly, her letters lend themselves to a wide range of analyses: historical, literary, lexical, paleographic, and gender. Furthermore, like the diary, letters give us the possibility of observing privacy. In letters, it was possible to report anguish, desires, and uncertainties, as well as detail everyday events, as Frances Burney did. It was possible to see that Burney was very aware of what to say and who to say it to, or rather, what to write and who to write it to. In fact, we can consider that Frances knew how to move between public and private very well. She did not see her writing in the private sphere as an obstacle. In fact, she used this strategy of circulating the diary among a selected group as, possibly, a way of “measuring” her writing skills. Furthermore, Frances was able to use the sociability of her father and, consequently, her family to strengthen ties with intellectuals of the time. From this, she gained benefits such as friendship with playwright Samuel Crisp. She was also able to enter Hester Thrale’s Streatham salon, which included Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds and Edmund Burke as members. Consequently, she secured her place in the society of the important Bluestockings, alongside Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Carter and Hester Chapone. Therefore, beyond the question of being a good writer from an aristocratic family, Burney was welcomed by intellectual circles in which gender mattered.

* This post was based on my research as a history bachelor at Universidade Federal de Santa Maria, which culminated in my BA thesis: Writing to Nobody: Privacidade e Práticas de Escrita Feminina na Inglaterra do Século XVIII a partir da Escritora Frances Burney, defended in 2023 under the supervision of Adriano Comissoli and Natacha Klein Käfer.


BURNEY, Frances. Journals and Letters. Penguin Classics, 2001.

CHISHOLM, Kate. The Burney family. In: SABOR, Peter. The Cambridge Companion to Frances Burney Edited by Peter Sabor. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2007.

CIVALE, Susan. The Literary Afterlife of Frances Burney and the Victorian Periodical Press. Victorian Periodicals Review, 2011, vol.44 no.3, p.236-266., accessed  24 set. 2023.

CONCEIÇÃO, Adriana Angelita da. Sentir, escrever e governar: a prática epistolar eas cartas de D. Luís de Almeida, 2º Marquês do Lavradio (1768-1779). Tese (Doutoradoem História). São Paulo, Faculdade de Filosofia, Letras e Ciências Humanas daUniversidade de São Paulo, 2011.

DAYBELL, James. Early Modern Women’s Letter Writing, 1450-1700. London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

ELK, Martine Van. Early Modern Women’s Writing – Domesticity, Privacy, and the Public Sphere in England and the Dutch Republic. In: HADFIELD, Andrew. O’Callaghan, Michelle. Early Modern Literature in History. 2017.

GOREAU, Angeline. The Whole Duty of a Woman: female writers in seventeenth-century England. Doubleday & Company, New York, 1985.

GREEN, Michäel. Public and Private in Jewish Egodocuments of Amsterdam. In: BRUUN, Mette. GREEN, Michäel. NORGAARD, Lars. Early Modern Privacy –Sources and Approaches. Leiden, Brill, 2022.

JONES, Vivien. Burney and Gender. In: SABOR, Peter. The Cambridge Companion to Frances Burney Edited by Peter Sabor. New York, Cambridge University Press,2007. p.117.

KÄFER, Natacha Klein. PEREZ, Natália da Silva. Situating Women’s Private Practices of Knowledge Production in the Early Modern Context. In: KÄFER, Natacha; PEREZ, Natália. Women’s Private Practices of Knowledge Production in Early Modern Europe. Cham, Palgrave Macmillan, 2024.

LUCA, Tânia Regina de. Diários pessoais – Territórios abertos para a História. In: PINSKY, Carla. O Historiador e suas Fontes. São Paulo, Contexto, 2009.

PACHECO, Anita. A Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

PAUL, Mary. Frances Burney’s Marketing of Evelina to a Gendered Market. In: PAUL, Mary. Marketing Women’s Writing in Eighteenth-Century England: The Consideration of Audience in the Works of Mary Astell, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Frances Burney. Dissertação (Mestrado em Inglês). Fresno. 101 p. 2005.

PEREZ, Natália da Silva. Lady Jane Lumley’s Private Education and Its Political Resonances. In: KÄFER, Natacha. PEREZ, Natália. Women’s Private Practices of Knowledge Production in Early Modern Europe. Cham, Palgrave Macmillan, 2024.

RAMOS, Beatriz Rodrigues. Evelina, de Frances Burney: romance de educação.Dissertação (Mestrado em Letras) – Faculdade de Filosofia, Letras e Ciências Humanasda Universidade de São Paulo, São Paulo, 86 p. 2022.

RODRÍGUEZ, Carmen Mª Fernández. Frances Burney and female friendships: some notes on Cecilia (1782) and The Wanderer (1814). Journal of English Studies, vol. 9, p.109-123. 2011. <Frances Burney and Female Friendships: Some Notes on “Cecilia” (1783) y “The Wanderer” (1814) Journal of English Studies (>, accessed on: 17 ago. 2023.

VICKERY, Amanda. A Self off the Shelf: The Rise of the Pocket Diary in Eighteenth-Century England. Eighteenth-Century Studies, 2021, vol. 54, no. 3. p. 667–86. <Project MUSE – A Self off the Shelf: The Rise of the Pocket Diary in Eighteenth-Century England (>, accessed on: 07 set. 2023.

WADDELL, Brodie. Writing History from Below: Chronicling and Record-Keeping inEarly Modern England. History Workshop Journal, 2018, vol. 85, p. 239-264. < – Writing History from Below(accepted ms).pdf>. accessed on 03 out. 2023.

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Private and Public in the case of Early modern Swedish consuls

Historians have shown how early modern European states used both of private and public resources to govern. Early modern states relied on social capital and social networks to function, and private contractors supplied their armed forces with both equipment and men. A recent article shows how the Swedish national bank was reliant on the personal credit of its employees.

This reliance on private resources is also prevalent when looking at the consular services of the early modern age. The Swedish consular service expanded drastically in the eighteenth century, especially in the latter decades, 48 consulates in total by 1789, and did so on a shoe string budget. Most consuls neither received a salary nor could levy fees on incoming ships. At the same time, cash and credit were necessary for the exercise of their office. This combination led to a striking amalgam between public office and private enterprise. In this post I focus on Swedish eighteenth century consulates in Spain, building on my two recent anthology[1] chapters[2].

The port of Cadiz in south-western Spain, a key port in the eighteenth century because most goods from the Spanish colonies landed here. Source.

In the eighteenth century, states appointed consuls in port towns across Europe. Their task was to promote trade, help nationals in need, and to correspond with their home authorities as well as diplomats and other consuls. They were not diplomats, but they performed some diplomatic duties and handled the day-to-day interactions between different nationalities on a much more frequent basis than diplomats did.

As for the Swedish consular service, a consul needed cash and credit to be able to serve. Most, if not all, consuls mostly made their living from private trade and had been merchants before their appointment. Their new post entailed many outlays. For instance, when consuls helped ships pay custom and clearance fees when entering and leaving port, for court and lawyer fees when Swedes ended up in court, or for hospital bills when Swedes needed health care, and so on.

Even though consuls made money from these outlays, as they charged ship owners and merchants brokerage fees, interest rates and fees for their services, it took at least several months for reimbursements to reach a consul in Spain from Sweden. And only in the much-frequented ports could these incomes reach substantial levels. Unsurprisingly, the Swedish consular decree of 1793 stated that a sufficient fortune was a prerequisite for receiving a consular appointment. If a consul filed for bankruptcy, he lost his position immediately.

Yet, the costs of exercising the consular office only partly explains the importance of cash and credit. As the decree also stated, it was undesirable that a consul allowed for the ‘decay of his credit’ (understood here as both reputation in a broader sense and trust in a financial sense), as this decay not only destroyed public confidence for himself, but also for Swedish trade. The reason for this is that, by appointing someone a Swedish consul, the Swedish crown had become associated with his firm, and even authorized it to some extent. The job applicants themselves recognized the boons of this affiliation. When Gustaf Baumgardt was appointed Swedish consul in 1776 in Alicante, he advertised his new position to Swedish merchants, making it clear that this appointment would benefit his private enterprise.

In exchange for an improved legal status, the Swedish authorities seems to have viewed it as the consuls’ task to improve and benefit Swedish trade by engaging in trade themselves. In Cadiz, this connection was so strong that the consul had to notify the Swedish authorities if he entered in any trade partnerships, and he was expected to choose a Swede.

Sometimes, public and private interests intermingled perfectly. Hans Jacob Gahn, consul in Cadiz between 1773 and 1800, managed to broker a deal with the Spanish navy to become its contractor for supplying copper sheets for its ships in the early 1780s. Copper sheets were used to make ships less susceptible to decay and formed part of the naval arms race between Spain, France and Great Britain at the time. Although some copper was brought to Spain from the Habsburg Empire, as Gahn partnered with the Italian merchant and consul Pablo Greppi, most of it seems to have come from Swedish copper mines, increasing Swedish metal exports.[3]

The Spanish frigate “San Carlos” in Port Mahon, Menorca. Source.

The association of a private firm with the Swedish crown also meant that the consulate served as a training ground for future merchants and consuls. To take an example, Jacob Martin Bellman, consul in Cadiz between 1744 and 1766, had it written in his instruction that it was “the duty of the consul to employ Swedish youths as assistants in his trading house in order to provide them the opportunity to learn about trade so that they may be of future benefit and use to the king and the realm.”

Consuls were supposed to employ young Swedes, give them training in international trade, and thereby produce skilled merchants who would either take up positions as consuls themselves or at least benefit the Swedish nation as merchants, enriching themselves and the Swedish trade and industry all at the same time. Although the Swedish authorities could do very little to enforce this demand, they expected the consul to repay his appointment not only with service but also with the training of new merchants.

The effects of this alliance of public office and private venture also manifested itself in the consular house. Here, the consul lived, ran his merchant operation, and operated his consulate. Consequently, his merchant office also doubled as his consular office, and his staff also worked for the consulate. As an example, Gahn’s business partner also worked as his vice consul, and the provincial historical archives in Cadiz show that the vice consul and several others of Gahn’s staff served Swedish ships and sailors as interpreters and legal aides whenever they needed help in the port. The consul himself is seldom visible in the material, his staff took care of his duties for him.

The consulate, moreover, kept his archives, including his formal correspondence with the Swedish authorities, other consuls, diplomats, merchants, and other people he kept in touch with. Bellman and Gahn kept in touch with, among other, the botanists Carl Linneaus and José Celestino Mutis. Sadly, there are no archives left from any of the eighteenth century Swedish consulates in Spain but they were important, not least to the Swedish authorities. When a Swede serving as the Russian consul in Cadiz also applied for the Swedish post, one of the arguments against him was that his Russian staff would have access to the Swedish archives.

Finally, the consular house also served as a house of representation. Although the house could not display a coat of arms on the front, it was adorned with a Swedish flag and could also contain many artifacts that showed its intrinsic connection with Sweden. The Swedish consul in Alicante in the late 1700s writes that the flag was important to the honour of the Swedish nation. Additionally, visitors to the Cadiz consulate in 1748 and 1751 wrote about how the consul had decorated one of his rooms in the colours blue and yellow and that he had adorned the walls with portraits of the late king Fredrik I, the present King and Queen, and the Crown prince. The room was clearly used for Swedish representation abroad.

Private businesses and public affairs clearly mixed in Swedish consular houses in eighteenth century Spain. My findings, thus, further adds to the results from previous research on the mixing of public and private resources in the early modern European consular service.

Crucially, the execution of the consular office rested on personal credit wedded with state authority, and the large outlays required from the incumbent necessitated some type of income from trade. A consular appointment resulted in the association between a merchant or merchant house and the Swedish crown, to the benefit of both, at least in theory. Very few precautions about the potential drawbacks of greed are noticeable in the material, and when they surface, they mostly relate to nationality. People who were not subjects to the Swedish King were seen as less trustworthy and more prone to prioritize their private affairs to the detriment of the public interest. How things worked in practice needs further empirical studies.


[1] Published in

[2] Published in

[3] In the 1790s, Gahn won the contract to supply the Spanish navy with lumber but this time the lumber was brought from Russia.

Silence, Noise, and Privacy

Noise and silence are notions that elude a hard definition, just like privacy. Precisely for this reason, they are powerful tools that will give new insights into the early modern world.  Sonic history brings innovative insights into history and privacy. Noise and silence played a crucial role in the appropriation, display, control of power and political performance. Speaking, producing sound, being silent or being silenced involved cultural and social protocols of rank, power, and proximity.

Paris Nogari, Allegory of Silence, Vatican City, Room of the Swiss, 1582

Historians rarely listen, musicologists listen mostly to music but rarely to silence and noise, and sound studies scholars focus mainly on contemporary topics. The acoustic turn allows us to combine theoretical approaches from the three fields along with methods inspired by historical performance practices. Aurality defines a community that shares and hears the same sounds. However, people can feel both unisonance and dissonance, by hearing the same soundscape but interpreting it differently, according to their social level or gender. In order to study inclusion and exclusion in sonic interpretation, we shall therefore consider not only the members of the court, but reach across social classes and consider everyday life.

The sound of the past is irremediably lost, along with listening habits. However, a keen scholarly analysis of a variety of sources allow us to reconstruct the historical sonic environments. Written sources can be analyzed lexically to uncover words referring to sound, noise, music, silence, listening and hearing practices. Visual sources also shed light on sonic practices and can be interpreted not only with the eyes but also with the ears. Moreover, physical evidence such as original spaces and artefacts of the past have been preserved and can literally be heard and even recorded, giving access to a sonic reconstruction. Bringing sound into historical studies creates a change in paradigm: what was once fixe has become dynamic, what was silent can be heard. Sound is immersive and dynamic; it travels through time and space and therefore involves temporality and humans. Sonic practices and aurality are crucial to study privacy because of the focus they bring on its main producer, the human body and its relationship with its environment.

Jan Miel, Carnival in Piazza Colonna, Rome 1645

Visual or aural privacy were rare commodities in the early modern world. What could be heard or not is therefore highly significant and sheds new light on its social structures. The study of soundscapes reframes and redefine spaces by revealing new boundaries and thresholds. It brings new insights into private and public spaces and the overlaps between them. The porosity of sound and its power to cross physical boundaries allows us to consider outdoor sounds penetrating inside, but also indoor sounds that spill outside, expanding into surrounding areas.

In acoustics, silence is defined as a sound below 20 decibels, whereas noise is a non-periodical sound. But these definitions do not take into account the listener, perception, and the context. Silence and noise are always culturally and socially defined. Silence is a threshold between sounds, be it in music, and speech, but also between noises. Silence can never really be experienced, since in extremely silent environment such as an anechoic chamber, one can distinctly hear his own blood flowing and his own heart beating, along with possible experiences of disorientation and hallucinations. Noise in English refers etymologically to nausea and is connected to seasickness, whereas the French bruit and the Italian rumore link the word to animals, respectively the deer (bramer) and the lion (ruggire).

Both silence and noise can be considered in positive or negative ways, according to the context; both can be weaponized. Silence can be seen as a sanctuary, but it can also be used as an instrument of torture, just like noise. Noise has traditionally been associated with the unmusical, the unintentional, the disruptive. But it has been used musically in pieces inspired by animal vocalizations, battles, or street calls since the Renaissance. Noise implies a judgment about the quality of the sound and is always understood in a contextualized relationship with the social and musical order. The early modern audiences had a noisy form of listening. History shows a progressive containment of noisy and rowdy publics toward a more enlightened and silenced notion of listening. History also shows a progressive domesticating of the body by silencing the noises it produces.

Aert van der Neer, Moonlit Landscape with Bridge (1648-1650)

Silence and noise are time-specific; the former associated with the night, the latter with daily activities. Noise is a disruption of the social order if it happens at night. Both notions are also site-specific; silence is associated with a variety of natural sites (desert, wood, garden), whereas noise is mostly associated with the city. Finally both are linked to specific activities; for example, silence with devotion, noise with carnivalesque activities. But the early modern churches were places of sociability and tended to be noisy. The omnipresent bells rhythmed the daily activities and early modern cities were populated by a variety of animals, speeding carriages, street sellers, blacksmiths, cooks, and other workers producing a lot of noise. Finally, silence can be a political weapon of domination, but also a form of protest and a message. Noise, on the other hand, can also be a form of protest, perceived as a sign of political dysfunction; untimely voices disrupt the social order.

White noise

The Rise and Fall of Privacy: An Interview

Tiffany Jenkins discusses her upcoming book with the Centre for Privacy Studies at Copenhagen University

Tiffany Jenkins, Edinburgh-based author and Doctor of Sociology, is working on a longue durée investigation into the history of privacy.

The provisional title for Jenkins’ book is Strangers and Intimates: The Rise and Fall of Private Life. Impressively, Jenkins begins her enquiry with the Ancient Greeks and traces the history of privacy through the early modern period to the present.

I had an intuitive sense that all the discussions on privacy at the moment were ahistorical.

Two PRIVACY scholars, Anni Haahr Henriksen and Frank Ejby Poulsen, had the chance to sit down with Jenkins and ask her a few questions about her interest in privacy, her experience with tracing the complex concept historically and her impression of the Centre.

Why privacy?

I had an intuitive sense that all the discussions on privacy at the moment were ahistorical. Much of it focuses on the last few decades and on the changes brought with technology, but I thought one piece of technology can’t change human behaviour completely. There must be something else going on.

I wanted to ask whether privacy was natural. Eternal? So, I began an investigation. Where does it come from? What causes it? What threatens it? And how novel is it?

Can a historical awareness of privacy inform contemporary discussions?

A longer view allows us to understand not just where privacy comes from and what brings it about, but what is or is not unique about the contemporary period. It allows a broader and deeper study of the influences at play than you get in the many discussions today.

Luther’s challenge to a monolithic authority germinated the seeds of private life

Tiffany Jenkins and PRIVACY scholars in June 2022

At the Centre for Privacy Studies, we focus on the early modern period as a birthplace of privacy. Do your results align with this hypothesis, and what were your expectations when starting out?

When I started my investigation, I thought privacy might be tied to prosperity and bourgeois society, and to developments in architecture. These are important, but not as important as the idea of conscience, which is the real beginning of privacy.

The dawn of private life has three components: freedom of conscience and religious freedom; what would become known as civil liberties; and the establishment of sexual and domestic mores as private matters. Each does not start out fully formed, nor does one inevitably lead to the other. Nor they do emerge at the same time, or develop in a straight line, at the same rate.

The early modern period was crucial to the birth of privacy

Luther’s challenge to a monolithic authority germinated the seeds of private life.  That, over the course of centuries, with many twists and turns, brought about freedom of conscience. Of course, conscience was limited, and it was supposed to stop at religion. But once these ideas were out in the world, it was not possible to contain them.

All that means, that I too reached the conclusion that the early modern period was crucial to the birth of privacy!

Have you identified other cornerstones or patterns of development in the history of privacy?

The most important factor is the relationship between the public and private spheres: most discussions of privacy are shallow and don’t account for that broader determining relationship, which sets the role of authority and where its borders lie. Another key influence is the conception of human beings – what are they capable of and what do they need.

If you understand the relationship between public and private, and the conception of the self at any given period, you can tell what the vision of privacy will be. Essentially, it comes down to ideas about authority – what is it for and the limits to it and the conception of the self.

Conscience […] is the real beginning of privacy

Which would you identify as the major epochs in the history of privacy?

I would say, the seventeenth century: conscience. That was the foundation stone.

The birth of the public and the private sphere is the second – in the eighteenth century. For it is important to understand that for the rise and fall of private life is not a simple story of the progressive growth and decline of a private space free from the reach of authority. One of the most critical influences on the private sphere, on its expansion and definition, is the rise of public life.

The third is the nineteenth century and the liberal arrangement with between the state and the liberal subject.

The divide between public and private which had been established in the Victorian era was eroded

For the twentieth century, progressivism in the early part of the century triggered a shift in the relationship between the state and the individual, which meant authority creeped into the private world.

Then, a key moment that brought us to where we are in today, was in the sixties and seventies which saw the rise of the authentic self and the politicisation of private life encapsulated in the feminist mantra the ‘personal is political’. That changed everything for public and private life: the private self was projected ever outwards, whilst political scrutiny and activities had the private world in sight. Thus, the divide between public and private which had been established in the Victorian era was eroded. And all this this happened before the age of the internet.

That is what we are living with today and that explains a lot of our ambivalence about public and private.

Privacy is not natural, but a historically and culturally specific set of ideas.

What were your biggest insights about privacy and its history?

My biggest insight is that privacy is not natural, but a historically and culturally specific set of ideas. And that technology is not the driver many think it to be.

Sounds a bit boring, doesn’t it?

No, it sounds ground-breaking.

Has the Centre for Privacy Studies, its research, and your discussions with us enlightened you or changed your perceptions?

It was a really informing and invigorating visit for me. And it actually has given me some ideas that will go into the book, and may help also with the conclusion.

Strangers and Intimates: The Rise and Fall of Private Life will be published by Picador in 2023. Find out more about Tiffany Jenkins’ work here:

Utopian privacy

What has utopia to do with privacy?

Nothing at all, according to Raphael Hythloday, the narrator of Thomas More’s eponymous Utopia, first published in Latin in 1516. Hythloday reports what he observed when he travelled to the island of Utopia:

Every house has a front door to the street and a back door to the garden. The double doors, which open easily with a push of the hand and close again automatically, let anyone come in—so there is nothing private anywhere. Every ten years they exchange the houses themselves by lot.[1]

Utopia has neither private property nor privacy. If we take Hythoday at his word, utopian privacy should be an oxymoron. However, early modern travellers were widely regarded as liars, so we might be sceptical of Hythloday’s report. Readers who know Greek might recognize that his name means ‘nonsense peddler’.[2] So how seriously can we take More’s figure of the easily opening doors?

The passage is adapted from no lesser an authority than Plato. In the Republic, the Guardians are forbidden private property ‘beyond the barest essentials … none of them shall possess a dwelling-house or other property to which all have not the right of entry’.[3] More used humour and word games for the serious purpose of imagining what a society might look like with a different balance between private and public interests. His work was experimental, meant for contemplation by fellow humanists, and not to be taken literally as any kind of blueprint. His own views about the positive or negative values of privacy and communism have long been debated, but whatever he thought privately, his evocation of an egalitarian society without private property has been used by both communists and Christians to claim More as one of their own.[4]

Woodcut illustration to the 1516 edition of Thomas More’s Utopia (Public Domain).

Utopian literature is a self-referential, intertextual tradition, in which utopists frequently claim to offer a better vision of utopia than their predecessors. More coined the word ‘utopia’ from the Greek topos ‘place’. The prefix u- represents the two Greek prefixes eu– and ou-, so that utopia signifies both a good place and a no-place. Utopia’s poet laureate Anemolius explains the pun in a poem which strikes a competitive contrast with Plato’s Republic:

‘No-Place’ was once my name, I lay so far;
But now with Plato’s state I can compare,
Perhaps outdo her (for what he only drew
In empty words I have made live anew
In men and wealth, as well as splendid laws):
‘The Good Place’ they should call me, with good cause (123).

So did More think that privacy was incompatible with a good society? It is clear that he regarded private property as a social problem. His work was inspired in part by the negative effects of incipient capitalism, in which the enclosures of common lands were forcing many rural people to become vagrants, beggars and thieves. As Hythloday observes, England’s sheep ‘that commonly are so meek and eat so little; now … have become so greedy and fierce that they devour human beings themselves’ (19).

More goes beyond Plato with the concrete reference to ‘double doors, which open easily with a push of the hand’. The idea of the front door to the home being open for anyone to enter would have troubled More’s readers as much as it does us today. As Daniel Jütte argues, the door to the house in European societies has a long history of being locked and bolted in both the city and countryside.[5] Utopia then presents privacy and private property as a Gordian knot, anathema to social harmony.

What did later utopians make of More’s open doors? Could we trace a history of privacy through representations of doors in utopian literature? Let’s look at a couple of examples.

An interesting example comes from The History of the Sevarambians by Denis Vairasse (1675–79). When the narrator, Captain Siden, sees the viceregal palace in the centre of the utopian city for the first time, he makes an interesting observation about its transparency:

[W]e came to a spacious Square, in the midst of which stood this most magnificent Palace, built all with white Marble, and adorn’d with divers Pieces of Architecture and Sculpture. This Building, like all their others, is a Quadrangle, not less than five hundred Geometrick Paces in the Front, and two Miles round.—A prodigious Bigness for one House! It has twelve Doors in each side of it, which being exactly opposite to each other, one sees quite through the Palace at so many different Places.[6]

The twelve doors are a reference to the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21), signifying that the palace is a microcosm of the utopian society and the universe. That Siden can see into the interior of the building from outside complicates the easy conclusion that such utopian architectures are simple precursors of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. As Lise Leibacher-Ouvrard points out, the twelve doors not only allow the rulers to maintain surveillance over the citizenry, they also enable the citizens to return the gaze.[7] One illustrator’s idea of a Sevarambian palace is suggestive of the idea of their transparency:

Copperplate illustration showing palace with view through large windows, from the 1682 Dutch edition of History of the Sevarambians.

This two-way transparency is not limited to the impressive public buildings of the rulers. Residential buildings, called osmasies, mimic the palace on a smaller scale. They have four doors on each side, opposite each other, and are transected by corridors leading to a central courtyard with a fountain that reminds the narrator of a cloister. This opens up the possibility of space for privacy. Leibacher-Ouvrard remarks that the osmasies are ‘at the same time turned inward on themselves, protecting the intimacy of their green heart, and open to the exterior world’.[8] These architectures are exploited by characters who escape the gaze of the authorities to engage in forbidden sexual encounters, heretical worship or other illicit activities, in the many sub-narratives of Sevarambians.

Hendrik Smeeks’s Description of the Mighty Kingdom of Krinke Kesmes recounts the observations of utopia by the merchant, Juan de Posos, whose ship is blown off course in a storm en route from Panama to the Philippines. Stranded on the island of Krinke Kesmes, he meets the supervisor of aliens, the Garbon, who informs him about the Kesmians’ political institutions, geography and history. There is no explicit abolition of privacy or private property in Krinke Kesmes, but we can glean something of attitudes to privacy from descriptions of their customs.

On his tour of the City Hall, de Posos is confronted with a custom that he had read ‘in More’s Utopia, yet believed … to have been a fiction’, in which potential marriage partners inspect each other’s naked bodies as a buyer would a horse. More borrowed this idea from Plato’s Laws.[9] In Utopia, the ritual’s aim is to prevent either party to the marriage from deceiving the other about bodily flaws:

Whether she be widow or virgin, the woman is shown naked to the suitor by a responsible and respectable matron; and similarly, some honourable man presents the suitor naked to the woman. … If some disfiguring accident takes place after marriage, each person must bear his own fate; but beforehand everyone should be legally protected from deception. (83–4)

It is not stated where the inspection takes place, but since utopian doors are unlocked, it must be assumed that, whether indoors or outdoors, it can be witnessed by anyone. In Krinke Kesmes, the ritual takes place in a special room of the City Hall called the ‘wedding chamber’. De Posos reports that a male relative of the groom and a female relative of the bride escort the prospective partners inside:

Having arrived in the chamber and closed the doors, these each undress their relation and display them to one another quite naked, who then scrutinize each other behind and in front, moving standing, stooping &c. … if both are well and sound, then the marriage is concluded and must proceed.[10]

De Posos’s visit to the wedding chamber is interrupted by four people who enter ‘covered in silk’ to perform the nuptial inspection, so that he ‘had to depart, the door was closed’ (88).

Copperplate illustration from the 1721 German edition of Krinke Kesmes, Deutsches Textarchiv (Creative Commons licence).

Smeeks’s adaptation is instructive of differences between his and More’s conception of the problem of privacy and its limits. In Krinke Kesmes, the public performance of the ritual is limited to a private room with locked doors, preserving some degree of the marriage partners’ modesty. The ritual’s relative privacy is emphasized in the narrative by allowing de Posos to view the wedding chamber, but making him leave it when the couple arrives, the door closing behind him. The reader’s desire to view the ritual has been titillated but denied. Nonetheless, de Posos says that the custom strikes him as ‘peculiar [and] at odds with honour and modesty’, which suggests that it would violate his sense of privacy. Where the doors to the houses of More’s Utopia can be opened by anyone at anytime, Kesmian doors have locks and someone controls access with a key, providing opportunities and space for some degree of privacy.

Many utopians have pondered the problem of how society might be remade to achieve a more harmonious and egalitatarian balance between public and private interests. More’s figure of the open doors links privacy with private property in an inextricable knot. While privacy is more limited in all of these utopias than we might accept today, in the later works, Vairasse and Smeeks nuance the absence of privacy that Hythloday claims prevails in Utopia, and open up spaces where private experience might be enjoyed. That suggests a marked shift in the conception of privacy between the early sixteenth and early eighteenth centuries that requires more investigation. These few examples offer evidence that utopias are excellent sources for the study of early modern privacy.


[1] Thomas More, Utopia, ed. George M. Logan, trans. by Robert M. Adams, 3rd edn. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), p. 48.

[2] More, Utopia, p. xi.

[3] More, Utopia, p. 48, n. 18.

[4] Marie-Claire Phélippeau, ‘Controversial More and Puzzling Utopia: Five Hundred Years of History’, Utopian Studies, 27.3 (2016), 569–85 (575–6).

[5] Daniel Jütte, The Strait Gate: Thresholds and Power in Western History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), p. 86.

[6] Denis Veiras [Vairasse], The History of the Sevarambians: A Utopian Novel, ed. by John Christian Laursen and Cyrus Masroori (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2006), p. 93.

[7] Leibacher-Ouvrard, Lise, Libertinage et utopies sous le règne de Louis XIV (Genève: Librairie Droz, 1989), pp. 99–100.

[8] Leibacher-Ouvrard, p. 100.

[9] More, Utopia, p. 83, n. 99.

[10] Smeeks, Hendrik, The Mighty Kingdom of Krinke Kesmes (1708), ed. David Fausett, trans. Robert H. Leek (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995), p. 88.

Turn on, tune in, drop out: On the attentional privacy of 17th century Dutch letter-readers

The following blog post is a revised version of the essay that Emil Stephensen wrote as student for the 2019 PRIVACY summer school.

When Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, visited Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum in 2016, he claimed to have found an iPhone in one of the paintings – more specifically in A Letter Delivered in a Voorhuis (1670) by Pieter de Hooch. This 17th century painting of a woman receiving a letter is one among many representations of epistolarity in Dutch Golden Age art – and there might be something to the comparison between smartphones of today and Dutch letters of the early modern period. Both smartphones and letters are pragmatic tools of everyday life. Both are used in the sort of individualized, attention-demanding activities so characteristic of modern societies with pervading technological mediation of thinking and communication. And both seem to highlight the visible trademark of people indulged in those activities: the zombie-like determination with which we, mouths slightly ajar and heads tilted down, routinely opt out of immediate perceptual reality and hook up to other, artificial ones.

In this blog post, I want to explore the attentional privacy of letter-readers in Dutch 17th century art. The figures in these representations, most of them women, are calmly attending to something absent within the representational frame of the painting – and doing so with little to no outward expression. The American art critic Svetlana Alpers has described the poised attention of letter-readers in Dutch art as a “vacuum at the center. The letter stands in for or represents events and feelings that are not visible.”[1] In Dutch 17th century art, letters are not yet conceived of as a way of accessing the minds of fictional beings; they are not the signs of transparency and interiority they would become in 18th century sentimental literature and art. Instead, the Dutch letter-readers seem to enjoy a privacy as familiar, yet opaque as that of a smartphone-gazing stranger on the subway in 2021.

1. Illustration of the EXMF by Dave Gray.

As we plug into what Canadian neuroanthropologist Merlin Donald has called the ‘external memory field’ (EXMF, fig. 1) of letters, computers, smartphones and other thinking devices – “a cognitive workspace external to biological memory” – we are temporarily drawn away from our embodied field of experience and communication[2]. The still-ongoing transition from oral-biological to technologically-mediated modes of thinking and communication is both a process of meshing us ever-closer together and fragmenting our attentional fields into evermore self-reliant units. Throughout history, this twofold trend of modernity – toward technological mediation and cognitive privacy, meshing-together and falling apart – has often been perceived as problematic and deceptive. In early modern Europe, letter-writing was characterized by what Gary Schneider has called an “epistemological anxiety” – the letter medium fostered games of unequal access to information: secrecy, manipulation, delay and interception[3]. In order to overcome this fundamental instability and ambiguousness, commentary on and artistic representations of epistolarity has often evoked bodily or oral presence – in the 16th and 17th centuries through the embodied, face-to-face topoi of classical rhetoric and in the 18th and 19th centuries through a robust association between letter-writing (or literacy in general) and emotional immediacy and authenticity. Evoking a sense of oral presence, Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote of letters in the early 16th century: “as we write we seem to be carrying on a conversation with the dearest of friends in his very presence.”[4]. In the 18th century, sometimes called the ‘golden age’ of letter-writing, the letter genre became a model of emotional authenticity in literary fictions (epitomized by the epistolary novel) and in the visual arts. In Jean Baptiste Greuze’s Girl with Letter (1770) (fig. 2), for instance, a girl sits with a letter in her lap, looking at the viewer with an absent-minded and dreamy gaze. Her state of emotional agitation is emphasized by her untidy appearance, her clothes having seemingly fallen off her body and exposed her breast while reading – she is ‘somewhere else’, absorbed into the world of the letter. But she is not absorbed into the activity of letter-reading itself – the abandoned letter in her lap is there to suggest emotional immediacy, not focused attention.

2. Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Girl with Letter (1770)

In Dutch 17th century paintings of readers and writers, the letter (and the attention required to produce or comprehend it) is rendered interesting in itself. In these representations, letters are bland communicational instruments before they serve as indicators of interiority or subjectivity. The stress on the attentional absence and fragmentation produced by reading or writing is evident in genre paintings such as Gabriël Metsu’s Woman Reading a Letter (1660’s) (fig. 3) and Pieter Janssens Elinga’s A Woman Reading a Letter and a Woman Sweeping (1670) (fig. 4); paintings which emphasize and explore the attentional disconnect between modern human beings. In Metsu’s painting, a woman reads a letter while her maid, turned against us, holds the envelope in one hand and pulls aside a curtain with the other, revealing a sea piece on the wall. On a basic structural level, the painting depicts two human beings looking into different representations: A painting of a ship in stormy weather and a letter. As the Dutch became increasingly engaged in seafaring explorations and settlements during the 17th century, it is easy to imagine that the lady has received a letter from an absent husband. But stripping away this level of iconography (we also have a dog possibly indicating loyalty to her husband), the figures, their expression and their interaction are not particularly suggestive of love, longing or other such strong, narratively-driven emotions. While we cannot see the maid’s face, the lady is reading with a poised demeanor and a slight indication of a smile. What is depicted is her action of reading rather than a reaction to something already read and comprehended – her state of focused attention takes the centerstage and is emphasized by her tilting of the letter toward the window in order to catch the light. As Svetlana Alpers has convincingly argued, Metsu’s work thematizes representation in general: “Metsu frankly acknowledges and plays with the representational character of the letter by placing it among other representational surfaces.”[5]. Instead of portraying human sentiment and outward-directed or worldly action, the painting portrays human beings looking into representations of human sentiment and worldly action. As Alpers also note, even the mirror reflects its own mirroring capacity rather than the world: “The mirror, solipsistically, is enfolded into itself, reflecting only the grid of the adjacent window panes.”[6]. The sort of privacy Metsu is interested in is not the domestic, emotionally charged peephole-privacy of 18th and 19th century art – it is the sealed-off privacy of the human mind as it opts out of immediate social and perceptual reality and tunes in on the EXMF.

3. Gäbriel Metsu, Woman Reading a Letter (1660’s)

The disconnect between occupied minds is even more pronounced in Elinga’s A Woman Reading a Letter and a Woman Sweeping. In this painting, three people are occupied by different tasks: a lady is reading a letter, her maid is sweeping the floor and a man is standing, in another room, at what might be an easel – another portable device which promoted attentional privacy and, according to Marshall McLuhan, “deinstitutionalized pictures” and “added much to the new cult of individualism” in early modern Europe [7]. As in Metsu, the painting depicts three minds allocating attention to different things. It also similarly emphasizes representation and representational surfaces: the lady is reading by the window in order to catch the light and the mirror is “enfolded into itself”, reflecting the geometrical patterns of the floor tiles. Only the floor-sweeping maid has a visible, seemingly thoughtless face. The domesticity of the scene is reminiscent of De Hooch’s work with its many openings, doors and mirrors – it suggests a threshold between private and public space rather than a self-enclosed home. In Elinga’s painting, privacy is a situational reality connected to specific attentional practices or actions like reading a letter or working at an easel – not to abstract or permanent categories such as the body, the mind, the home or gender.

4. Pieter Janssens Elinga, A Woman Reading a Letter and a Woman Sweeping (1670)

The privacy of Elinga’s and Metsu’s attentionally occupied figures is characteristic of the kind of cognitive introversion which modern life imposes on us. Since the 17th century, layers upon layers of privacy-promoting technological mediation has changed the ways we think and communicate. The 350 year old letter-reading scenes are strangely familiar to us because their ‘cold collectivity’ of disconnected minds occupying the same space is reminiscent of contemporary scenes from subway trains, internet cafes or reading rooms.

While we are often made aware of privacy as a positively defined normative or political notion, a value to protect or a goal to achieve, we might also understand it as an unavoidable sociological corollary of modernity, that is, processes such as professional specialization, urbanization, and growing technological mediation of thinking, learning and communication. As Svetlana Alpers made it clear in her 1983 book The Art of Describing, 17th century Dutch art moved into an increasingly more descriptive mode of representation. A mode that put less emphasis on storytelling and more on attentive observation. Artists such as Metsu, Elinga and De Hooch was attending to and imitating the world with an unprecedented level of scrutiny and observational skill – an activity often mirrored by figures in their paintings who in similar ways are opting out of immediate social reality and tuning into some individualized, attention-demanding activity, be it reading, easel painting, looking at maps, looking through telescope lenses or simply looking away. The attentional privacy of figures in Dutch 17th century is linked to a distinct trait of modern thinking and behavior: the acknowledgement of the capacity of individual human beings to see, attend to and discern phenomena on their own.



[1] Svetlana Alpers. The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (The University of Chicago Press, 1983), 196.

[2] Merlin Donald. The Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. (Harvard University Press, 1991.), 296-97.

[3] Gary Schneider. Politics, Deception, and the Workings of the Post: Some Features of Epistolarity in Early Modern England. In Explorations in Rennaissance Culture. (Brill, 2002), 99.

[4] Gary Schneider. The Culture of Epistolarity: Vernacular Letters and Letter Writing in Early Modern England, 1500-1700. (University of Delaware Press, 2006), 29.

[5] Alpers, 196.

[6] Ibid., 197.

[7] Marshall McLuhan. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. (University of Toronto Press, 1962), 206.

Cosmopolitanism as transcending the private and the public

This post follows my previous post that presented a biography of Joseph-Honoré Rémy.

Analysing this 1770 pamphlet, Le cosmopolisme, I find a certain view of cosmopolitanism that seeks to transcend the private and the public realms. There are two main points in which this is done. First, with the rhetorical strategy of the ‘cosmopolite’ author inserting himself in a transnational space. Second, with the content of this cosmopolitanism that seeks to inform private and political virtues.


The author is anonymous, but is presented as an Englishman and a cosmopolite. As an Englishman, he inserts himself as a private citizen of a foreign country in the French public realm by taking part in the celebration of the union of the two European powerhouses that are France and Austria. He then criticises heavily his ‘own’ homeland, England, for waging brutal wars. He calls England for a partnership with France now allied with Austria, a partnership in which only commercial and trade competition are allowed.

Dictionnaire de Trévoux 1771

As a ‘cosmopolite’, the author is exercising a different function. The word is very loaded at the time. It appeared in the French dictionary in 1690, but became popular in the second half of the eighteenth century. The 1721 edition of the ‘Trévoux’ dictionary defines a cosmopolite or cosmopolitain. The 1771 edition adds that the current usage is now in favour of cosmopolite and not cosmopolitain. It denotes both a person traveling or for whom no place is foreign, and a philosopher (with an allusion to Diogenes of Sinope).

In this understanding, several author have penned their work using the word ‘cosmopolite’. The author who contributed the most to make it famous is Louis-Charles Fougeret de Monbron (1706-1760) who published Le cosmopolite, ou le citoyen du monde in 1750. The opening lines are very famous and Lord Byron used them as epigraph to his poem ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’:

The universe is a kind of book of which one has read only the first page when one has seen only one’s own country. I have leafed through a large enough number, which I have found equally bad. This examination was not at all fruitless for me. I hated my country. All the impertinences of the different peoples among whom I have lived have reconciled me to her. If I had not drawn any other benefit from my travels than that, I would regret neither the expense nor the fatigue.

Fougeret narrates his travels in search of ‘man’, knowledge, and a true homeland. Reflecting upon the countries and its inhabitants in a cynical fashion, Fougeret concludes that his original homeland, which he hated, is not so bad after all.

This philosophical reflection upon the whole world and the whole humankind in a political setting led to a development of a certain kind of cosmopolitan ideal. Many authors had been appalled by the atrocities committed during the Thirty Years’ War in the seventeenth century. In particular, legal scholars had criticised the lack of legal structure to prevent barbaric acts and protect the individual in international wars. The eighteenth century also saw its share of wars with the Seven Years’ War in particular. The development of the slave trade and the treatment of the inhabitants in the colonies also contributed to developing ideas of natural rights and other criticisms of the current political and legal state of world affairs. Rousseau, who had re-edited and commented upon Saint-Pierre’s Plan for Perpetual Peace, famously wrote about the ‘grandes âmes cosmopolites’ in his 1755 Discours sur l’origine et les fondemens de l’inegalité parmi les hommes.


The first sense of cosmopolitanism was related to the travelling cosmopolitan. In a medical book written in 1775 about bathing waters, the authors write the expression ‘cosmopolitisme’ in italics because it did not exist in the dictionary, in order to describe the action of travelling. The authors warn against the potential risks of excessive travelling and lack of any restraint in experiencing new things, as the exact opposite of the fears, superstitions and restraints of the past, which surrounded the use of bath waters and prevented medical research to see their benefits on health. ‘Notre liberté, notre fureur d’aller, notre cosmopolitisme en tout genre, peuvent devenir excessifs & entraîner bien des inconvéniens’.[1]

A word that appears in parallel with ‘cosmopolitisme’ is ‘cosmopolisme’, which had equally two meanings attached to it. The relation between travelling, the act of ‘cosmopoliter’, and potential health risks are reiterated with the expression ‘cosmopolisme’ as the psychological condition of confused identity that the all too frequent traveller would fall victim of:

COSMOPOLISME. Il faut aimer un lieu ; l’oiseau lui-même qui a en partage le domaine des airs, affectionne tel creux d’arbre ou de rocher. Celui qui est atteint de Cosmopolisme, est privé des plus doux sentimens qui appartiennent au cœur de l’homme.

Qui croirait que l’on peut exercer à Paris le Cosmopolisme, encore mieux que dans le reste de l’univers.
COSMOPOLITER. Parcourir l’univers.[2]

In this sense, cosmopolitanism is related to the act of travelling, but also the reflection that the cosmopolitan, the traveller, experiences when encountering other populations, cultures, and mores: a reflection upon humankind—the universal and the particular.

The earliest eighteenth-century record of ‘cosmopolitisme’ I could find is in a 1756 critique of Rousseau’s Discours sur l’inégalité by Italian mathematician and astronomer Giovanni Francesco Mauro Melchiorre Salvemini di Castiglione (1708—1791). It is also the first reference to a philosophical conception. It is not exactly clear what the author means by ‘cosmopolitisme’ as it is referred to in passing:

Je ne m’arrêterai point à détailler les avantages de la communauté des biens. Ce sujet a été traité par plusieurs auteurs estimables, lesquels l’homme corrompu par les richesses n’a reproché qu’une pauvreté vertueuse & un cosmopolitisme trop profondément raisonné.[3]

This excerpt is taken from a general discussion about ownership. It seems that, in this context, this ‘cosmopolitisme’ is a consideration about the general equality among men in the state of nature, which would justify a ‘community of goods’ to some philosophers, against whom even a corrupt man would only reproach a ‘virtuous poverty’ and a ‘too deeply reasoned cosmopolitanism’. It may be a direct reference to Rousseau’s mention of ‘les grandes âmes cosmopolites’ as quoted above.[4]

However, the first formulated conception of cosmopolitanism is Le cosmopolisme by Joseph-Honoré Rémi (1738—1782), priest in Toul, Meurthe-et-Moselle, and lawyer at the Parlement de Paris. Rémi participated to the first volume on ‘Jurisprudence’ of the Encyclopédie méthodique, project which was meant to be an extension to Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie.[5] Rémi wrote this pamphlet for the wedding of Louis XVI. There are several relevant excerpts for cosmopolitanism, which I will here quote and comment:

Pourquoi le Cosmopolisme est-il donc si rare sous cette planette ? A peine a-t-il un sens parmi nous : la plupart de nos langues si riches en mots honteux & barbares, n’ont rien qui peigne les premiers sentimens de l’homme social. Un sourire risiblement dédaigneux est la récompense de quiconque ose parler d’humanité aux nations. Noble & touchante humanité ! à ton foyer s’allume & s’épure dans nos ames le feu sacré des vertus privées & des vertus politiques (6) ; mais on t’abandonne, on te méprise, on t’insulte avec orgueil, on encense d’odieux Simulacres, & tes temples sont déserts. Nous avons des Maîtres pour enseigner à nos enfans les langues des nations qui n’existent plus ; en est-il un seul destiné à leur apprendre celle de la nature ?[6]

The endnote (6) is explained later in the book with a quotation of Fénelon:

 (N°.6.) Page 25. « J’aime mieux ma famille que moi-même ; j’aime mieux ma patrie que ma famille ; mais j’aime encore mieux le genre humain que ma famille [sic: patrie] ». Telle étoit la morale de ce Fénélon, qui dans une Cour où l’égoïsme national étoit honoré des plus glorieux titres, osa prêcher éloquemment le Cosmopolisme, & érigea à l’humanité un monument digne du siécle de l’Encyclopédie. Le sentiment associé à la raison, n’a jamais rien produit d’aussi noble & d’aussi attendrissant que le Télémaque.[7]

‘Cosmopolism’ is, for Rémi, related to the ‘first sentiments of social man’, which is to say that when man in the state of nature meets another man, he experiences a feeling, which is one of humanity for meeting with another human being. This feeling of humanity is about recognising one another as members of the same species, the same community of human beings, rather than from different communities. Rémi juxtaposes this natural feeling of love towards humanity, ‘cosmopolism’, to another artificial feeling, negative this one, of egoism towards one’s nation. Nation should here be understood as ‘state’, or more rightly ‘kingdom’. This ‘national egoism’ proclaims the superiority of advancing national interest at the cost of human interest. What Rémi alludes to here with ‘national egoism’ are the wars led by Louis XIV in the name of absolutism, whose policies Fénelon criticised.


This feeling of humanity, for Rémi, warrants virtues (‘private virtues’, and ‘political virtues’). According to the dictionary, virtue is a disposition of the soul to do good and avoid evil.[8] So, for Rémi, ‘cosmopolism’ is the doctrine of doing what is good and avoiding what is bad for humanity, both in the private and public (political) spheres. Fénelon is cited as a leading figure of this movement of thought with his work Telemachus, combining sentiment and reason, that is to say humanity as a feeling and a rational argument for the love of other fellow human beings in the world. Telemachus is ‘worthy of the century of the Encyclopaedia’, the work of reference for reason.[9]  This may be for Rémi a reference to how Telemachus, in the novel, fights morally, thanks to his wisdom, the excesses of passions—both his and others’—that lead kings to wars and destroys the lives of his and other’s peoples. Mentor helps him throughout but leaves him with the freedom of choice over his actions. The novel is therefore perceived as an ode to liberty.[10]

Telemachus listening to Mentor
Charles-Joseph Natoire. Télémaque écoutant les conseils de Mentor, 1740, Troyes, Musée des Beaux-Arts.

The reference to Télémaque in a pamphlet published for the wedding of Louis XVI, who was then fifteen, is certainly a way of hoping that the young king will follow the pedagogical advice set in the book that Fénelon intended for the education of the dauphin of France, Louis Duke of Burgundy (1682—1712). In search of his father, Telemachus goes to hell and visits Tartarus where he sees bad kings agonising; he then visits the Elysian Fields, where good kings, who govern their people wisely, rest in bliss.[11] Telemachus is considered a work of ‘republican monarchism’ because it ‘combines monarchial rule with republican virtues’.[12] It is a ‘classical republicanism’ that Fénelon develops in Telemachus, that is to say republican virtues from Ancient Greece and Rome. These republican virtues are the interest for the common good and disinterest for riches, or selfish and artificial gains and rewards by the court. In general, the ‘country’ is opposed to the ‘court’ in classical republicanism, as Pocock notes.[13] In Telemachus, Fénelon displays similar ‘classical republican’ virtues. Bétique (Boetica) is a country described in book seven. There, the inhabitants are free and equal, live in accordance with nature, and are disinterested although gold and silver abound since they are of no use for the common good and corrupt. Edelstein’s interpretation of Boetica is that it is not an ‘utopian’ place in the same sense as More’s Utopia or Bacon’s New Atlantis because it is meant to be an example for contemporary society, and is not thought in isolation but with international contacts and with the prospect of perpetual peace.[14] Moreover, Edelstein argues that it is a republican state because the basic political structure is participative, the inhabitants are free and equal, they are ready to fight to defend their liberty, and they shun luxury and corruption in favour of peace, union, and liberty, by wisely using their ‘right reason’.[15]

Considering Rémi’s argument, it seems that a relevant passage in Fénelon’s Télémaque is in book 9, when Mentor addresses various Greek kings after they decided to make peace and avoid waging war:

Tout le genre humain n’est qu’une famille dispersée sur la face de toute la terre. Tous les peuples sont freres, & doivent s’aimer comme tels. Malheur à ces impies qui cherchent une gloire cruelle dans le sang de leurs freres, qui est leur propre sang. La guerre est quelquefois nécessaire, il est vrai : mais c’est la honte du genre humain qu’elle soit inévitable en certaines occasions. … Quiconque préfére sa propre gloire aux sentimens de l’humanité, est un monstre d’orgueil, & non pas un homme : il ne parviendra même qu’à une fausse gloire ; car la vraye gloire ne se trouve que dans la modération & dans la bonté.[16]

Shortly after, Mentor suggests that the Greek kings meet in an assembly every three years to renew their alliance and discuss matters of common interest. Mentor emphasises that being united is the only way to make Greece prosper inside and stronger outside.[17] In other words, Mentor suggests that the kings organise a sort of commonwealth or res publica.

Fénelon makes another direct reference to a ‘universal republic’ in book 17. Mentor advises king Idoménée on how to settle an international dispute between him and another king using arbitration. Mentor then takes a hypothetical example of a republic that the king would consider with horror if there were no laws and no legal institutions, but where each family would use violence against their neighbours to make their own justice, and asks Idoménée rhetorically:

croyez-vous que les Dieux regardent avec moins d’horreur le monde entier, qui est la République universelle, si chaque peuple qui n’y est que comme une grande famille, se croit en plein droit de se faire par violence justice à soi-même sur toutes ses prétentions contre les autres peuples voisins?[18]

Through Mentor, Fénelon argues for a ‘universal republic’, which does not mean a world state with a republican democratic government, but a state of law in international affairs, the same way there is a state of law inside a given ‘republic’. It is an argument against absolutism in that Fénelon emphasises that kings are not above the law, not even regarding internal state affairs. Fénelon’s argument is as much the need for legal settlement in international affairs—and thereby the reduction of wars—as it is the observation that the human race is one ‘family’ and therefore ought to be under a common law.

To Rémi, cosmopolisme is associated with the language of nature, of the very first feelings that men had when becoming social creatures. In other words, in the golden age of the state of nature before the social contract was formed, as described in natural law theories:

Cet heureux sentiment que la Nature inspire aux Individus de même espece ; Instinct sacré dont le Législateur des Chrétiens voulut faire un mérite à l’homme, en l’érigeant en vertu, & la plaçant à la tête de son code immortel ; la Fraternité combattue par les maximes de l’intolérance, & avilie par le fanatisme du zèle, n’a commencée à rentrer dans ses droits que depuis la renaissance des Lettres. Elle doit la gloire dont elle jouit, aux efforts des Cosmopolites. Ramenée par eux dans l’Europe, sous les noms de Bienveillance & d’Humanité, cette vertu pourra s’annoncer à nos neveux comme la fille du malheur & de la Philosophie.[19]

Fraternity—the feeling of being related and belonging to the same family—is a natural instinct that God—the legislator for Christians—inscribed as the first and most important law. Rémi is here referring to love as God’s law, particularly love towards fellow man: ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:39). Rémi then goes on to argue that intolerance and fanaticism have been the enemies of fraternity, and it is only with the ‘renaissance of letters’ and the ‘efforts of the cosmopolites’ that fraternity was brought back. There is no doubt that Rémi refers here to the Republic of Letters, and the fight by ‘la petite troupe des philosophes’ led by Voltaire against religious intolerance, revealed religions, and in favour of humanitarian considerations (see the opening of Candide).[20] It is also exactly the same meaning of the word ‘cosmopolites’ that Rousseau used when writing about ‘quelques grandes âmes cosmopolites’, as seen above.[21] Rémi refers to the same thing: state wars that entail murders and other atrocities that are revolting to reason and nature, but that, nonetheless, are rewarded with the highest honours. It is in that sense that Rémi concludes that this virtue of fraternity, which the cosmopolites brought back in Europe under the names of ‘benevolence’ and ‘humanity’, is the ‘daughter’ of ‘misery’ and ‘philosophy’. The ‘cosmopolites’, the philosophers, reflected upon the calamities of wars due to ‘national egoism’, to produce works of morality and ethics for humankind.

We can take several elements from Rémi’s writings on what seems to constitute cosmopolism for him: nature, humanity, reason, sentiment, the Encyclopaedia, liberty, fraternity, individuality, belonging to the same human species, a sense of equality, and elements of classical republicanism. ‘Cosmopolism’, for Rémi, is the doctrine that ‘cosmopolites’ professed, that is to say the rational natural feeling of fraternity among individuals, because they belong to the same species, against any divisive passions or thoughts, such as national egoism, intolerance, or fanaticism.

If in Rémi’s view, there is sufficient material to form an -ism out of cosmopolitan views on the international order, this does not mean that there was a widely accepted view that ‘cosmopolisme’ actually existed. As Mercier’s Néologie shows, ‘cosmopolisme’ was a new word even as late as 1801. It is not possible to ascertain historically a fixed understanding of ‘cosmopolisme’ or ‘cosmopolitisme’ in the eighteenth century. It is however possible to witness in eighteenth-century writings the rise of a philosophical consciousness of cosmopolitanism. Rémi’s general cosmopolitan sympathy is however not offering any concrete system to achieving this goal, besides an appeal to the king’s good will in foreign affairs, and a prayer to God to enlighten kings.[22] The Revolution will mark the apex of cosmopolitanism considered as a political philosophy.

‘Cosmopolitisme’ only enters the dictionary (Littré) in 1873.

[1] Bordeu et al., Recherches sur les maladies…, 65.

[2] Mercier, Néologie, 1:131.

[3] Castillon, Discours sur l’origine de l’inegalité, 164.

[4] Rousseau, Discours sur l’origine de l’inégalité, 138–9.

[5] s.n., Encyclopédie méthodique. jurisprudence.

[6] Rémi, Le Cosmopolisme, 24–25.

[7] Rémi, 73–74.

[8] Dictionnaire de l’Académie françoise.

[9] Fénelon, Télémaque.

[10] Dédéyan, Télémaque; Cuche, Le Télémaque de Fénelon.

[11] Fénelon, Télémaque, vol. 2, book XIX, 395.

[12] Riley, ‘Fénelon’s “Republican” Monarchism’, 78.

[13] Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment, 401–22.

[14] Edelstein, The Terror of Natural Right, 58.

[15] Edelstein, 59–60.

[16] Fénelon, Télémaque, 1: 230.

[17] Fénelon, 1: 231.

[18] Fénelon, 2: 483-4.

[19] Rémi, Le Cosmopolisme, 19–20.

[20] Voltaire, Candide.

[21] Rousseau, Discours Sur l’origine de l’inégalité, 101.

[22] Rémi, Le Cosmopolisme, 64.

[23] Mallet du Pan, Mercure Britannique, 4:461.

Privacy & Inventories

Wednesday 15 September the Privacy staff gathered for a Learning Together Seminar on the use of inventories for privacy research.[1] After a short introduction on some of the particularities of historic house inventories, we tried to reconstruct the floorplan of the first floorplan of the sixteenth-century Chatsworth House.

As an architectural historian I get a big kick out of historic architectural floorplans or sections, but in many cases those do not exist, either because they were never made or because they got lost over time. Floorplans only really became widespread and in-fashion starting from the nineteenth century, with the emergence of building applications. While façade drawings might have sufficed in the early years, soon floorplans of all floors were required for the building administration.

Prior to 1800 floorplans were more the exception than the rule. For important buildings or rich commissioners, they still occasionally got made, often in combination with inventories. And sometimes inventories is all we have left. This is partly because of the way archives store documents. In the nineteenth century there was the habit of separating iconographic sources from their accompanying textual sources. Iconography usually ended up in collections like ‘maps and plans’, while the texts were stored thematically. This can make the search for accompanying material quite difficult, but it does mean that the plans are usually kept under better condition, stored separately between layers of acid-free paper.

Inventories are an indispensable source for research into historic houses that might have changed considerably or even completely disappeared over time.[2] Very often inventories were part of a last testimony and will and they are used to literally ‘inventory’ the possessions in order to decide who inherited what. For the Chatsworth case, the inventory made for Bess of Hardwick in 1601 is an excellent example. However, other occasions might also call the need for the drawing up of an inventory. When the Danish royal family moved into the first Christiansborg in 1740, several inventories were made.[3] Another reason might be a thorough restoration, which allows us now to reconstruct a ‘before and after’ situation.

The way in which inventories were made is fairly straightforward. Someone – usually a clerk – went from room to room to record everything that was present in that room. The difficulty here is that the route of the clerk is a little bit of a mystery to our 21-century reading. Staircases were often omitted (since there was no furniture to record there), so the text can jump between floors and rooms. If the clerk took a lunchbreak and started on a complete opposite end of the residence afterwards, that often leaves no trace in the written account. Figuring out what route the clerk took can thus be quite a challenge.

So what is being recorded in an inventory? Basically, all the things that could be moved or sold. We would expect furniture to be in there, and it is. But there is a lot more. The concept of ‘movable heritage’ went a little further in early modern times than it does today. Wall paneling, for example, is often part of the inventories; mantelpieces could be taken apart and rebuilt. Some of the most interesting inventories even give the amount of windows, the type of floor and so on.

The second part of the seminar the entire group looked at the 1601 inventory for the first floor of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, UK.[4] The house was built by Bess of Hardwick in the second half of the sixteenth century, and in 1601 she drew up her will with 3 adjoining inventories: one for each of her important building projects, that is Chatsworth, the New Hardwick Hall and the Old Hardwick Hall. Both the old and new Halls at Hardwick, together with their contents, were bequeathed to Bess of Hardwick’s second son William Cavendish and his male heirs. Her eldest son, Henry Cavendish, was to inherit Chatsworth but not its contents, a reflection of their troubled relationship. The contents were bequeathed to William.[5]

Based on the inventory and additional iconographic material, we came to an interesting reconstruction of the spatial organization of Chatsworth House’s first floor.[6] Since no floor plan survives, this reconstruction should be considered more of an organogram, a schematic representation of connections and sequences. Room dimensions, windows or other architectural details can not be deduced from this preliminary reconstruction. Ideally this inventory could be combined with other source material, such as building accounts or descriptions of visits, something we will hopefully be able to do during our visit to Chatsworth in three weeks!



[1] I want to thank all the Privacy colleagues for their wonderful input and new ideas on the knowledge that can be gained from inventories.

[2] Antenhofer, Christina Inventories as Material and Textual Sources for Late Medieval and Early Modern Social, Gender and Cultural History (14th-16th centuries), in: MEMO 7: Textual Thingness /Textuelle Dinghaftigkeit 2020: 22-46. doi: 10.25536/20200702

[3] Rigsarkivet, Overhofmarskallatet, F: Inventarieregnskaber. Two inventories, dated 1739 and 1741.

[4] Transcriptions of all three of the inventories were published: Levey, Satina, and Peter Thornton. Of Houshold Stuff: The 1601 Inventories of Bess of Hardwick. London: National Trust, 2001.

[5] White, Gillian. ‘“That Whyche Ys Nedefoulle and Nesesary”: The Nature and Purpose of the Original Furnishings and Decoration of Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire’. PhD thesis, University of Warwick, Centre for the Study of the Renaissance, 2005.

[6] Mark Girouard has done a similar exercise, with the difference that he based the reconstruction of rooms on the floorplans of the new Chatsworth, as they were included in the Vitruvius Britannicus. Girouard, Mark. ‘Elizabethan Chatsworth’. Country Life CLIV (1973): 1668–72.


Joseph-Honoré Rémy and his 1770 pamphlet ‘Le cosmopolisme’

SEMFS Conference

On 8th-10th September 2021, the Society for Early Modern French Studies held its annual conference ‘Public and Private/Public et Privé’ online. The Centre for Privacy Studies was co-organiser, and several PRIVACY scholars presented their work. Assistant Professor Lars Cyril Nørgaard presented his research on private penitence. PhD-candidate Bastian Felter Vaucanson presented his research on spiritual intimacy in the correspondence between Mme Guyon and Fénelon. Professor Mette Birkedal Bruun was the keynote speaker with a presentation of the Centre for Privacy Studies and her research on the vocabularies of privacy and the private. I presented my original research on privacy based on my previous work on cosmopolitanism (my PhD thesis at the EUI, an article on cosmopolitan rhetoric, and a chapter on 18th-century French cosmopolitanism). My paper focused on a little known work of cosmopolitanism published in the second half of the eighteenth century in France. I analysed this work in relation to the uses of the vocabularies of ‘cosmopolite’ and ‘cosmopolitanism’, and demonstrated how cosmopolitanism transcended conceptions of the private and the public.

Marriage of Louis and Marie Antoinette 1770

In 1770, an anonymous pamphlet was published with the title Le cosmopolisme. It was written on the occasion of the marriage of the Dauphin Louis and Marie Antoinette. In the forewords, someone pretends to be the translator of a work written in English by an Englishman, whom he calls a ‘cosmopolite’. In reality the whole pamphlet is written by someone not yet known in the Parisian literary circles, but who would then make a career. His name was Joseph Honoré Rémy.

My research on Rémy shows that there is very little secondary literature on him. The only work I could find is the database of journalists in the Dictionnaire des journalistes, which is online. There is a list of primary sources where Rémy is mentioned, and it presents a summary of his life.

In this post I present a biography of Rémy. In my next post I will present my analysis of Rémy’s Le cosmopolisme as a cosmopolitanism transcending the private and the public realm.

Biography of Rémy

Joseph Honoré Rémy (also spelled Rémi) was born in Remiremont in 1738 and died in Paris in 1782. After studying philosophy and the humanities he decided to pursue an ecclesiastical career and studied theology. He never received his tonsure and became only abbot in Toul. The rest of his life he would be known as ‘l’abbé Rémi’ (abbot Rémi). However, he had little interest in church matters. He wished to become a man of letter (homme de lettres). Therefore he went back to Paris. He followed lectures in law and befriended practitioners until he himself could practice as barrister at the Parlement de Paris.

He was a member of a Freemason Lodge called ‘Les Neuf Soeurs’, established in 1776 to gather artists and scientists. Since the statutes of the Lodge obliged its members (in particular lawyers, doctors, and surgeons) to assist the poor and the needy, and a general duty of humanity, I think it explains why Rémy was known to defend cases free of charge in favour of victims of injustice who were too poor to hire a barrister. In my paper I add new knowledge to Rémy’s biography with my research on this lodge.

Logo Mercure de France

Rémy worked as the right hand of famous publisher Charles-Joseph Pancoucke (1736-1798) and wrote many articles and reviews as editor of his Mercure de France, the most important magazine in pre-revolutionary France.

Rémy participated several times to the Académie’s oratory prize with several eloges: unsuccesfully in 1769 with an Eloge de Molière, but received an accessit (certificate of merit) in 1771 for Eloge de Fénelon, and an honorable mention in 1773 with Eloge de Colbert, which was published. He won the prize in 1777 with Eloge de Michel de l’Hopital. It created a controversy with the Sorbonne’s Faculty of Theology, which censored the work.

The same year Rémy published Le cosmopolisme, he published a “translation” of what is supposed to be a sequel to Edouard Young’s (1683-1765) Nights, which had been translated into French in 1769. Young’s Les nuits was popular, and Rémy wrote under the pseudonym of “un mousquetaire noir” a satiric version of what he considered a bathetic work. In 1772, Rémy published a collection of various legal works under the title Le code des François. He also wrote several articles for the Rémy wrote several articles Répertoire universel et raisonné de Jurisprudence and collaborated to editing the complete works of Voltaire.

When Rémy died in 1782, he was working on an encyclopedic work that was thought as adding to the existing Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert. His collaborator finished editing the first volume on “Jurisprudence” of the Encyclopédie méthodique following Rémy’s work, and also used Rémy’s research for the second volume.

In my view, Rémy was an important figure of the Parisian literary scene, as can be inferred from multiple mentions of him, and especially his death, in the Mémoires secrets. He was at the centre of many literary circles and was known to be an erudite. Therefore, I consider his early pamphlet Le cosmopolise, as capturing his Zeitgeist regarding eighteenth-century French cosmopolitanism.

In my next post I will present my analysis of this cosmopolitanism based on Rémy’s pamphlet Le cosmopolisme.

20 years after 9/11. From privacy to monitoring and surveillance

Way back in May of 2000, in a world without smartphones or social media, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) called on Congress to pass a law protecting the elementary privacy rights of all Americans.[1] It would be the opening at the time of many such recommendations made by the commission, and it reverberated similar, even more enthusiastic, pleas for action for privacy. The internet was starting to globalize and become an instrument in everyday life for everyone. The World Wide Web was an information space where documents and other web resources identified by URLs, interlinked by hypertext links, could be accessed via the Internet using a web browser and (more recently) web-based applications. As of the 2010s, the World Wide Web is the primary tool billions use to interact on the Internet, and it has changed people’s lives immeasurably. It has become known just as “the Web”.

Way back in February of 2004, Facebook was created. Three years later, the first smartphones were released.[2] Nevertheless, FTC surveys had already exposed that, regardless of gathering vast quantities of personal information from consumers, very few corporations shown anything about how this data was collected and used, and even fewer assured to provide even the most elementary protections for it. Therefore, the need to legislate was clear, even before we had smartphones, mobile devices, social networks, apps, and detailed tracking of our daily movements, locations and ultimately personal lives. So the new law was supposed to force the United States administration and the United States corporations to inform people about the kind of data collected in their searches, communications and data collection.[3] However, this never happened.

On September 11, 2001, at 8h45 a.m. on a clear Tuesday morning – exactly 20 years ago from today – the Pentagon and the Twin Towers suffered a terrorist attack by al-Qaeda, an Islamist extremist group. This tragic event grounded the idea that zeal for the right to privacy and freedom of movement had helped terrorists attack United States soil. With the terrorist attack, all momentum around a privacy law stopped. The focus shifted from privacy to mass monitoring and surveillance. Accordingly, the national privacy law did not happen. In many ways, 9/11 obstructed the progress of privacy laws in the United States and gave the administration and corporations more room to collect data, as Peter Swire points out.[4]

In the first few weeks after 9/11[5], George W. Bush, then President of the United States, sanctioned the National Security Agency (NSA)[6] to conduct surveillance actions inside the nation which had been barred for decades by law and agency policies. When the NSA’s spying program was first exposed by the New York Times in 2005[7], Bush admitted responsibility only concerning the “Terrorist Surveillance Program”. This NSA program monitored the communications inside the United States of hundreds of people with alleged connections to al-Qaeda without any kind of citizen’s approval or the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying.[8] At the time, administration officials were confident that the existing safeguards were adequate to protect the privacy and civil liberties of American citizens.

Forty-five days after 9/11 (October 26, 2001), Bush decided on behalf of national security and trying to prevent another terrorist attack, to create and implement the USA PATRIOT Act, a law that increased the power of surveillance to be carried out by the United States administration.[9] The terrorist attacks intensified debate over the issue of monitoring and surveillance by the government and law enforcement officials, with some advocating increased tools to help track down terrorists, and others cautioning that fundamental tenets of democracy, such as privacy, not be endangered in that quest. For example, the administration convinced the major telecommunications corporations in the United States to hand over the “call-detail records” of their customers. According to USA Today, this included “customers’ names, street addresses, and other personal information.” [10] The agency’s goal was to create a database of every call ever made within the nation’s borders. All of this was done without a judicial oversight. This meant that the normalization of mass surveillance in day to day life became the rule.[11]

With 9/11, the United States administration, and consequently in a knock-on effect the other governments around the world, were authorized to access tis citizens communications in the name of security, as Cindy Cohn stated,[12] chair of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).[13] Before, the idea was that democratic governments couldn’t directly access people’s communications unless there was any doubt or suspicion. With 9/11, the NSA’s strategy became collect first and analyze later.

The Muslim diasporic community in the United States was one of the most affected by these events and by the resulting changes, with some of the data justifying the inclusion of Americans on lists of suspected terrorists and often without any valid explanation. One of the most well-known and notorious examples is that of “Baby Doe 1”, a baby, who, in 2012, was barred at an airport and targeted for “chemical testing” because his boarding pass (a set of letters SSSS) identified him as a “suspected terrorist or terrorist”. Those who get on the list can be required to provide access to smartphones, mobile devices and social media to compare with data from Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE).[14] Therefore, the USA PATRIOT Act became the instrument for the widespread privacy-violating infrastructure of the post 9/11 era.

The United States administration, with assistance from the major telecommunications corporations, engaged in massive, illegal tracking operations of surveillance of domestic communications records of millions of Americans since at least 2001. Despite several leaks, for years the NSA argued that it did not collect bulk data of Americans’ communications in the United States. However, the revelations made by Edward Snowden[15] forced the agency to amend the narrative. In 2013, Snowden working for United States intelligence, revealed documents showing that United States telecoms were collecting information on the communications of people and handing it over to the intelligence services.

In 2015, the USA PATRIOT Act was replaced by the USA Freedom Act[16] which limited the administration’s power. With the USA Freedom Act, the NSA left the collection large-scale collection of communications metadata (e.g. phone numbers, location, email addresses and call duration) constantly and without legal justification. Except that this data, which is now kept by telecom operators or corporations like Facebook and Google, is made available to the NSA upon a warrant from a secret court.

The massification of internet-connected smartphones, social networks and geolocation apps do not make it easy to stand for privacy. Everyone is carrying high-end cameras and tracking devices. The ability to collect and process data has been increasing exponentially every year. The technical capability for mass surveillance is very new. And this fact, is because the technology has changed, not because 9/11 happened.

However, in recent years there have been developments in the defense of privacy. On the one hand, because of Edward Snowden’s revelations, on the other hand, because of the encryption of electronic communications. In the months after Snowden’s revelations about massive spying by the authorities, email providers like Google started offering encrypted messages and more online sites started using the HTTPS protocol (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure). By 2021, it is the norm on most of the email and messaging services, as WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram.

The United States administration has been trying to defend the successes of the surveillance police. In October 2013, the president of the NSA admitted that there was only evidence of the programme having barred 13 threats. One example is that of Najibullah Zazi, an al-Qaeda member allegedly planning bomb attacks on the New York underground.  However, a BuzzFeed investigation showed that the arrest would have been possible without the 9/11 surveillance rules.

Two decades after 9/11, one of its legacies is that many programs that were created to give people more security, have not worked. We have given up privacy for very little. Postponing reflection, puts democracy at risk. The lack of privacy in general, is creating a whole generation of people who are afraid to share their opinions. And last but not least, another Pandora box (that will not be addressed here) concerning privacy was opened in the last year and a half with the current pandemic …


[1] See (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[2] The iPhone was released in the United States on June 29, 2007.

[3] See (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[4] Leading privacy and cyber law scholar, former Chief Counselor for Privacy, in the United States Office of Management and Budget, and the first person to have had United States government-wide responsibility for privacy policies.

[5] “9/11” is shorthand for the terrorist attacks carried out by al-Qaeda, to the Pentagon and the Twin Towers which occurred on the morning of September 11, 2001. If the term identified literally a date, it also became an acronym for the events of September 11, 2001. Two of the hijacked planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, a third plane hit the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C., and the fourth plane crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Almost 3000 people were killed during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which triggered United States initiatives to combat terrorism and defined the presidency of George W. Bush. See (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[6] The largest and most secretive intelligence agency of the United States, so intent on remaining out of public view that it has long been nicknamed “No Such Agency.” It breaks codes and maintains listening posts around the world to eavesdrop on foreign governments, diplomats, terrorists, drug lords, etc.. However, it ordinarily operates under tight restrictions on any spying or disseminating information on Americans.

[7] The White House asked The New York Times not to publish the article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny.

[8] and (acessed 08 Sep 2021).

[9] (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[10] (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[11] With a strong evidence with the current pandemic that will not be addressed here.

[12] Cohn has been named to TheNonProfitTimes 2020 Power & Influence TOP 50 list, honoring 2020’s movers and shakers. In 2018, Forbes included Cohn as one of America’s Top 50 Women in Tech. The National Law Journal named Cohn one of 100 most influential lawyers in America in 2013, noting: “[I]f Big Brother is watching, he better look out for Cindy Cohn.” See (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[13] A non-profit organization dedicated to protecting privacy in the digital environment. Cohn first became involved with EFF in 1993, when EFF asked her to serve as attorney in the First Amendment challenge to the United States export restrictions on cryptography. See (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[14] United States administration central database on terrorism from military and intelligence sources around the world. Includes contains highly classified information provided by members of the Intelligence Community such as CIA, DIA, FBI, NSA, and many others.

[15] Computer analyst whistleblower who provided the Guardian with top-secret NSA documents leading to revelations about US surveillance on phone and internet communications. See (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[16] A long acronym for Uniting and Strengthening America by Enforcing Rights and Ensuring Effective Discipline over Monitoring.

Privacy and the Bed(room)

One of the exercises in studying architecture is to colour floorplans according to a gradation of public to more private, often using a green to red colour scale. This leads to varying results in contemporary building plans, with one recurring phenomenon: the bedroom is usually red. This modern idea of the bedroom and the bed as the most private part of the home was born only in the nineteenth century, as rooms became increasingly specific, with designated bedrooms for the different members of the family, gendered drawing rooms and connecting corridors.

example of the segregation of zones according to access by Gauche

The idea of the bedroom as private is thus a relatively recent development, as is the concept of the bedroom as the designated room to put the bed.[1] For the Chatsworth case, I have been reading the inventory of Chatsworth house that was drawn up for the last will and testament of Bess of Hardwick in 1601. Of the 127 rooms mentioned in the inventory, 71 featured at least one bed (but several rooms had two to three beds) and several pieces of beds, including textiles, could be found in the storehouse and other rooms. The use of the word ‘chamber’ usually implied that the room contained a bed.[2] These beds could range from a simple servant bedsted to a richly decorated four-poster bed draped with expensive textiles, as the one present in My Lady’s Bed-chamber at Chatsworth:

“A bedsted, a tester vallans and postes covered all of black wrought velvet with golde lace and golde fringe, curtins of black damask all trimmed with golde lace, a mattris a featherbed, three bolsters too quiltes four fledges, three flannels a pillowe, three fusteans about the bed foure fledges about the bed.”[3]

This bed is believed to be the oldest bed in England. It has been standing in Berkeley Castle for over 400 years (photo from

The bed and the bedroom in the sixteenth century were thus far less private than one might suspect. For starters, personal servants were probably present at all times, to be able to serve their master’s bidding. In France the custom of the public lever and coucher was already commonplace in the sixteenth century, as noble and household servants came in the bedchamber while the king was getting (un)dressed. This public ceremony became part of the daily formal court ceremonial at the court of Louis XIV in the seventeenth century. A similar custom was adopted by the English court at the end of the seventeenth century.

The bed also played a prominent role during other courtly ceremonies, mostly involving the birth of a successor, or the death of the reigning monarch. These life-cycle events were public ceremonies, often with a rather large crowd assembling in or near the bedroom. The drawing of Henry VII’s deathbed by Thomas Wriothesley shows 14 people gathered around the bed in the privy chamber, including the king’s closest friends, courtiers and physicians.[4] Exceptional was, however, that the door to the king’s privy chamber remained firmly shut. This is how the privy chamber ‘worked its magic’,[5] and the king’s death remained a secret for two days while the council prepared for the accession of Prince Henry (future Henry VIII). Only the 14 people present at the death knew that the king had died and they were trusted to keep the secret.

Drawing of the deathbed of Henry VII by Sir Thomas Wriothesley (c) British Library



[1] See here for a short history of the bed as a furniture piece.

[2] Several exceptions have been recorded: Levey, Satina, and Peter Thornton. Of Houshold Stuff: The 1601 Inventories of Bess of Hardwick. London: National Trust, 2001, p. 16.

[3] ‘The Inventorie of the furniture of household stuff which is meant and appointed by this my late will and testament to be remayne and contynewe at my house at Chatesworth according to the true entent and meaning thereof’, kept in the Chatsworth archives, published by Levey and Thornton: Levey, Satina, and Peter Thornton. Of Houshold Stuff: The 1601 Inventories of Bess of Hardwick. London: National Trust, 2001.

[4] British Library Ms 45131, f. 54: Henry VII on his deathbed, drawing by Sir Thomas Wriothesley.

[5] To use the words of Thurley, Simon.  Houses of Power. The Places that Shaped the Tudor World. London: Transworld Publishers, 2017, p. 88.

Introducing Privacy Black and White: a collaboration between PRIVACY, In the Same Sea, and CopeNLU

Yesterday, I had the pleasure to attend the kick-off of PRIVACY BLACK and WHITE, a new research collaboration between In the Same Sea, CopeNLU, and the Centre for Privacy Studies.  Our project will tackle the role of privacy practices in the development of slavery and racism in the Caribbean-European colonial nexus (c. 1600-1850).

Under the joint leadership of Gunvor Simonsen, Isabelle Augenstein, and Mette Birkedal Bruun, our team will count with one postdoc from the Saxo Institute representing In the Same Sea, one PhD candidate from the Department of Computer Science, as well as Natacha Klein Käfer and myself, from the Centre for Privacy Studies. In addition to doing research, I will also act as the project’s coordinator.

From left to right: Isabelle Augenstein, Natália da Silva Perez, Gunvor Simonsen, Natacha Klein Käfer, and Mette Birkedal Bruun
From left to right: Isabelle Augenstein, Natália da Silva Perez, Gunvor Simonsen, Natacha Klein Käfer, and Mette Birkedal Bruun

From roughly the fifteenth through the nineteenth century, Europeans were responsible for the abduction and enslavement of c. 12,5 million Africans. In that context, property practices, religious beliefs, sexual mores, philosophical ideas of European origin, all helped to shape the racialization of manual labor, resulting in centuries of exploitation of Black people in Caribbean colonies as well as elsewhere in the American continent. Strategies for regulating access to bodies, goods, and ideas are at the core of the colonial exploitation, and these ideas are also crucial for our understanding of privacy. Africans and their descents also resisted appropriation of their bodies, notably through marronage, something that we can study as a strategy to obtain privacy. Can we find traces of these long term, trans-imperial developments in the historical texts we study? This is part of what our team will explore.

My own research within the project will focus on studying European discursive practices in print that undergirded justifications for the reproductive exploitation of African women. I am also interested in discursive representations, across different imperial borders, differentiating between European and African women. Women were crucial for the economic success of colonial enterprises and the enrichment of European imperial powers. I will draw from my experience on the history of women from different linguistic communities. Some of the questions I have been thinking about are: what did people of different religious or philosophical persuasions say about the enslavement of African women and of African children? What differences can I find between discourses present in early periodicals, for example, and religious literature, such as printed sermons and published devotional manuals? How about legal treatises and slave codes?

To tackle research questions stemming from a trans-imperial context, we need to examine a lot of historical documents. This is why we will use a collaborative intelligence approach that combines historical methods with purpose-built NLP tools capable of dealing with the complexity of our historical material. Building on the NLP paradigm of cross-lingual transfer learning, we will develop models that can handle temporal, geographical, and gender variations in cross-lingual contexts. Then we will train our classification models based on these representations.

Our project will run from 2021 to 2024.

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