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

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

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

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

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

Folio 16 of Ancrene Wisse, Corpus MS 402

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

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

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

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

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

The modern English translation provided in Hasenfratz reads as follows:

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

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

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

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

It gives it the following definitions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

Privacy, Secrecy, and Cryptography in the Early Modern Period

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

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

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

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

Opuscoli morali di Leon Batista Alberti gentil’huomo firentino

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

Musée d’Écouen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Performance, Performativity, Privacy

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

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

Marina Abramović, The Lips of Thomas (1975)

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

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

The Performance Group in 1976

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

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

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

Lulu, Alban Berg (New York 2016)

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

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






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

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

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

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

One of the lanes leading to the Hermitage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Arendt on privacy

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

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

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

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

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

The public and the private realms

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

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

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

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

Private realm: property

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

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

The social and the private

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

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

The Public realm: the common

The term “public” signifies two phenomena:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Domestic animals and private spaces in the early modern period

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hans Asper, Portrait of Cleophea Krieg von Bellikon, 1538

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


Testing out Voyant Tools with a sample from Lettres Portugaises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early Modern Banquets: A Noisy but Tasty Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Albala, Ken, The Banquet: Dining in the Great Courts of Late Renaissance Europe. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 2007.
Apostolides, Jean-Marie, Le Roi-machine: Spectacle et politique au temps de Louis XIV. Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1981.
Arizzoli-Clémentel, Pierre, ed., Versailles. Paris: Citadelles & Mazenot, 2013.
Dennis, Flora, “Cooking pots, tableware, and the changing sounds of sociability in Italy, 1300–1700,” Sound Studies (2015), 1-22.
Fabbri Dall’Oglio, Maria Attilia, Il trionfo dell’effimero: Lo sfarzo e il lusso dei banchetti visti nella cornice fastosa delle feste nella Roma barocca, lungo il percorso storico dell’evoluzione del gusto e della tavola nell’Italia fra Sei e Settecento. Rome, 2001.
Fischer-Lichte, Erika, The Routledge Introduction to Theater and Performance Studies. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Fischer-Lichte, Erika, The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics. New York: Routledge, 2008
Imorde, Joseph, “Edible Prestige,” in Marcia Reed, ed., The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals. Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, 2015, 101-123.
Jeanneret, Christine, “Un triomphe gastronomique: Performance et banquet dans le jardin de Flavio Chigi”, in Anne-Madeleine Goulet, José María Domínguez, Élodie Oriol (eds), Spectacles et performances artistiques à Rome (1644–1740): Une analzse historique à partir des archives familiales. Rome: Mélanges de l’École française de Rome, 2020 (forthcoming).
McIver, Katherine, Cooking and Eating in Renaissance Italy: From Kitchen to Table. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Pennell, Sara, “‘Pots and Pans History’: The Material Culture of the Kitchen in Early Modern England,” Journal of Design History 11, no 3 (1998), 201-16.
Reed, Marcia, “Court and Civic Festivals,” in Marci Reed, ed., The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2015, 27-71.

Gendering the Renaissance Commonwealth by Anna Becker

Cambridge University Press

On 23 September, the Centre for Privacy Studies welcomed back former colleague Anna Becker, now Professor MSO in the history of ideas at the University of Århus, for a book launch. Anna presented her newly published book Gendering the Renaissance Commonwealth, published by Cambridge University Press in the prestigious series ’Ideas in Context’. This ‘Cambridge School’ historical analysis of gender in the language and the concepts of Renaissance political thought presents a thought-provoking reinterpretation of looking at the period.


This fantastic book kills two birds with one stone. Firstly, it presents a historical analysis of the gendered languages of Renaissance political thought. Doing so, and secondly, it is challenging the dominant narrative on Renaissance political thought.

The dominant narrative of Renaissance political thought is that this period marked the beginning of a sharp separation between a private and a public sphere. The public is the political and reserved to male citizens. The private is the realm of the domestic and reserved to female non-citizens. Becker attributes this narrative to Hannah Arendt’s influential reading of Greek thought in general and Aristotle in particular. The view for Aristotle is that man is a political animal (zōon politikon), who can only reach his true potential in the, the public sphere, the polis, as a citizen. In opposition, the private sphere of the household is simply for social companionship, not unlike any other animal. Becker urges us to free ourselves from this reading, which has influenced many thinkers, first of all Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, and Pocock in The Machiavellian Moment. We must rethink, writes Becker, this simplified division between the public-political-male realm and the private-apolitical-female realm.

Indeed, Renaissance political thought revolved around interpretations of Aristotle’s division between the household and the city. Philosophy, for Aristotle, was divided into practical and natural philosophy. Practical philosophy was divided into three disciplines: ethics, economics, and politics. Moral philosophy in universities were taught according to this distinction. Ethics concerned the self, economics the household, and politics the city. Becker shows in her book that Renaissance thinkers pondered all three disciplines together. In this sense, the household and even the self, were political matters because the well-being of the res publica depended on good mores of individuals and a harmonious family life, res familiaris.

Becker looks more specifically at Machiavelli’s thought in one of the chapters and Jean Bodin’s thought in three other ones. It is not possible to present all the arguments and points that Becker makes, but I shall here select important ones for her overall thesis.

First, Becker explains Aristotle’s divide of philosophy upon which all Renaissance thinkers commented. Italian thinkers, such as Leonardo Bruni (c. 1370 – 1444), Donato Acciaioli (1428– 1478), and Bernardo Segni, were interested in the relationship between the individual, the family, and the state in their commentaries of Aristotle’s Politics and Ethics. These three communities of human life constituted three objects of the practical philosophy called moral philosophy, which sought to regulate all human life. Ethics was concerned with individual mores, Economics with family matters, and Politics with public matters. All three sub-disciplines were related with one another, so there was no sharp distinction between a “private” and a “public” sphere. The debates among Renaissance commentators of Aristotle focused on how to balance the three for a harmonious whole.

When it comes to Machiavelli, he pondered on “private” issues such as family and friendship, using the same vocabulary as his civic humanist contemporaries. However, Machiavelli argued against the accepted narratives. It is not friendship in the citizen body that makes a city great, but the lack of it. Discord, and not concord, makes better laws because conflict leads to greater debates. And the law is needed for good civil life (vivere civile). Friendship, on the other hand, leads to corruption and cronyism. This is the lesson from Florentine history, in which powerful families ruled the city almost to its ruin. By the same token, education should not be left to families because anti-republican families educate their children with these values.

Regarding Bodin (1529/30–1596), one of the main arguments turns to the gendering part of our political vocabulary; what Becker calls the “invention of a tradition.” This new tradition is the husband’s power over his wife. Since marriage and the family are the first stones of the res publica, the commonwealth, and since the trope is that a state is a big family, or a family a small state, the gendering of the vocabulary is here crucial. The private marriage of husband and wife is about power (imperium): the power of the pater familias (family father) over the submissive wife. This construction is particular to Bodin and contradicts Roman law. In the body of Roman law known as Corpus iuris civilis, Roman wives were not subjected to the power of their husband. The seventeenth century was then heavily influenced by this metaphor of the ruler as a father. The divine-right theory was a direct consequence of this idea and the tradition of paternal political power.

We are left hanging in the last chapter, which only a few paintbrushes of what a study of German political thought during the same period would be like. The reader could ask for more on Martin Luther, and how Reformation thinkers interpreted Aristotle’s practical philosophy, but Becker paved the way for this reader to accomplish that on her own using the same method of analysis.

If you want to know more about the book, stay tuned for a podcast episode with Anna Becker. In the meanwhile check our amazing previous episodes!

The benefits of the “workshop volume” and the launching of a CFP – Talking in private: tracing everyday conversations in early modern Europe

Academia is often a solitary pursuit. In that light, the vision of collaborative research implemented at the Centre for Privacy Studies is rather unusual. Within the case teams of the research program, each postdoc and doctoral student is working close together with previously unknown colleagues, something that is certainly both challenging and stimulating.

But the centre’s collaborative endeavours stretch beyond the eleven case teams. For example, since May 2019, a group of Danish and Swedish scholars, covering affiliations to no less than ten different institutions, have been working on a joint volume with the preliminary title Private/Public in Eighteenth-Century Scandinavia. Since yesterday, the entire manuscript is in the hands of our brilliant editors (and co-authors in the volume) Helle Vogt and Sari Nauman. It will soon be submitted to the publisher.

The upcoming volume is a product of a series of workshops. Instead of preparing oral presentations, all participants have taken time to read each other’s work-in-progress beforehand in order to contribute to the discussion of each text. The sessions have, consequently, been marked by joint discussions rather than monologues.

Admittedly, this is not a unique concept. I had my first peak on this academic practice as a doctoral student at Lund University working in professor Svante Norrhem’s research project on French subsidies to Sweden during the early modern era. Together with his colleague Erik Thomson (University of Manitoba), Svante invited a group of scholars specialized in early modern diplomacy, of which they had not met most of them before. The result was a really insightful volume on the role played by subsidies in early modern Europe. As an observer, I was fascinated by this way of conducting research and producing publications.

To my mind, this sort of publication project – let us call it the “workshop volume” – is an underestimated way of making collaborative research in a smaller scale. The workshop functions, ideally but also in my experience, as a kind of writing group, marked by an explorative approach and a significant amount of peer learning. Beside the end product – the volume – it can really offer a boost to individual scholars as we tend to get different comments from people coming in from new environments.

The process of making a workshop volume differs from doing something together with people from your own department or graduate school, with whom you tend to share a lot of common references and underlying assumptions. It also differs from the typical “conference volume”. Indeed, there are many valuable conference volumes out there, but it is something different than collecting thoughtful presentations to let not finalised drafts be formed by discussion along the way of a production process. To be fair, strong departments, stimulating conferences and (most of all!) scholarly journals are fundamental to the academic infrastructure. But as I see it, the workshop volume offers a way of working towards a publication that has its own advantages.

In the case of our soon submitted volume, it all started with a rather general Call for Papers asking for perspectives on privacy, the private and the public, with the geographical area of Scandinavia and the early modern period as the only delimitations. I was myself one of the persons responding to the call. During our sessions, the scope for our volume was narrowed down step by step:

– We gradually shifted from discussing “privacy”, via “private and public”, to a more specific interest for “the private in the public”. That means, roughly, examples of public exposure of the private, or private spaces embedded in an understanding of the public (in various ways, as the volume will demonstrate…)

– Most of us brought texts dealing with the eighteenth century to the table, which it why it made sense to us as a group to arrange the chronological scope accordingly. However, this framework did not exclude contributions related to the seventeenth and the nineteenth century; on the contrary, the contributions dealing with a longer timespan could offer us valuable reference points at both ends that helped us to reflect on changes over time.

– We concluded that most texts related to either spaces or communication, or both. This helped us to stipulate sub-sections of the book, to narrow the thematical scope, and to identify relevant research fields and cross-references.

Of course, we also tried out other ideas that didn’t last throughout the process. The point I want to make is that the choices we made were formed organically by the dynamics of the workshops.


CFP on private conversations

My own text in the upcoming volume is exploring practices of talking in private in the early modern society, more precisely in the case of state investigations over Swedish Pietism in the 1720s. Much scholarship has depicted the early modern Scandinavian societies as public scenes, on which all matters were public. In my article, this perspective is turned upside down, and the focus is instead set on what was described as private conversations. The article demonstrates the possibility to explore how people involved in the investigations had practices of talking in private – and arguments for keeping it private.

When arriving to the centre, my new colleague Natacha Klein Käfer was working on an article with partly shared connotations. Her article (for another volume) raises the question how we can understand bonds of confidentiality between healers and patients in early modern societies by reading court records.

With both these articles recently submitted, we are together launching a CFP for delving deeper into these matters in the form of a “workshop volume” preliminary entitled Talking in private: tracing everyday conversations in Early Modern Europe. In accordance with the workshop concept explained above, we are looking forward to a collaborative and open process towards the unexpected!

The workshop will take place 7–8 October 2021, hopefully in person (depending on the corona situation), at the Centre for Privacy Studies, University of Copenhagen.

The deadline for the CFP is 11 April 2021, so there is some time ahead to go through sources, and join our new quest for this kind of private matters in early modern times.

Sound and Privacy


SOUND: Soundscapes of Rosenborg is an innovative research project aiming at listening, hearing and reconstructing the soundscapes of the Danish court. How did the past sound and what can we learn about the court by studying its soundscape? The court is a privileged space to study etiquette, privacy, gender, and rituals through its sonic aspects. I argue that sound played a crucial role in the appropriation, display, and control of power in those spaces. Speaking or producing sound at court was ultimately a political performance and established protocols of rank, power, and distance. For example, the notions of inside and outside, along with public and private, will be extended: the sound of bickering inside a private room could be heard in the public sphere, just as the sound of music played in public penetrated the private sphere. Aurality, or the shared hearing of written texts, defines a community and includes not only the royal families, but also servants and visitors across several social classes along with animals, carriages, kitchens and food, gardens, entertainments, and music. One part of SOUND will specifically focus on gender and women’s voices at court, including families and children, but also the royal mistresses and morganatic marriages. Studying illegitimate relations sheds light on female agency in a context of transgression and also reveals by contrast what was considered the norm in legitimate marital relations. Did women have specific sonic practices and, if so, how did they differ from male ones?

Funded by Danske Frie Forskningsfond Project 2, SOUND is hosted at the Centre for Privacy Studies and I work in close collaboration with Rosenborg castle and the royal collection.

The Winter Room of Christian IV had four acoustical conduits built between the cellar and the room. Musicians placed in the cellar would play and the visitors were amazed by hearing what they called “invisible music”

Detail of an sonic conduit


Historians seldom use their ears and including sound in historical research brings a complete change of perspective. SOUND will be the first sonic history of court. A focus on sound will provide a new comprehensive analysis of courtly life, by including dimensions that often fly under the radar, such as everyday practices, connections between higher and lower class inhabitants, and gender roles. I will challenge perspectives of space based first and foremost on vision, which is fixed, immediate, and implies distance and perspective. On the other hand, sound is immersive and dynamic; it travels through time and space and therefore involves temporality and humans. I argue that sound also brings a central focus on the body as one of its main producers, and will allow us to consider issues of gender along with social, cultural, and political meaning. Moreover, a soundscape is shared by the community of people hearing the same sounds. However, people can feel both unisonance and dissonance, by hearing the same soundscape but interpreting it diffently, according to their social level or gender. It is my hypothesis, that soundscapes can create a form of exclusion (who can hear the king and who cannot), but they are also inclusive and reach across social classes. The eyes can be closed; on the other hand, the ears cannot: the king cannot prevent his servants from hearing music, secret conversations, or a quarrel.

SOUND may incite an awareness of the relationship between space and sound, but also between noise and silence. Modern post-industrial societies and the media have profoundly altered the relationship between sound and privacy. SOUND will offer analytical tools that enable us to approach these concerns. SOUND will certainly bring 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 that penetrate indoor spaces, but also indoor sounds that spill outside, expanding into surrounding areas. Bringing sound into historical studies creates a change in paradigm: what was once fixed has become dynamic, what was silent can be heard. This new approach will certainly be fruitful, and could therefore be applied to a variety of other spaces from our past and foster a prolific and new research path for sonic history.

Athanasius Kircher, Phonurgia nova (1673), system for transmitting sound as a speaking statue.


Reconstructing soundscapes that no longer exists and listening to it is a challenge. The sound of the past is irremediably lost, along with listening habits. However, a keen scholarly analysis of a variety of sources will allow us to reconstruct the sonic environment of the court. I have identified three types of sources:

1) written texts and archives mentioning sound, such as visitors’ descriptions of both castles, letters, inventories, registers, account records

2) visual sources such as engravings, etchings, but also historical maps to localise the sonic activities depicted

3) artefacts from both courts

Ivory carved horse carriage, skatkammer, Rosenborg

SOUND will consider sounds produced by humans (conversations, quarrels, murmurs, singing, crying, yelling, laughing, male and female voices, adults and children, native or foreign languages, but also sounds produced by the body such as steps, rustling clothes, sick bodies suffering, sex agony, and death), sounds produced by animals (horse hooves, dogs, cats, birds and exotic animals), mechanical objects (bells, carriages, kitchen tools, weapons, craftmen’s tools), artistic sounds (music, dance, theatre, fireworks), and natural sounds (water and fountains, wind, fire). The written sources will be analysed lexically with a thesaurus of words referring to sound, noise, music, listening, and hearing. The visual sources will be studied from the perspective of sound and space: what is making noise in a painting and how does it relate to the site where it is made on a map? Artefacts producing sound can be literally heard and even recorded, giving access to a true sonic reconstruction.

Weapons, Skatkammer

Bringing soundscape studies into research on privacy and the burgeoning field of court studies offers an entirely new perspective. SOUND will use theoretical approaches from sound studies, musicology, and history, connecting them for the very first time. Soundscape studies have proven to be a fruitful approach and have produced substantial scholarship. Sonic materialism proposes a new model to analyze sounds by considering hearing, advocating a new sonic epistemology. It highlights the dynamic materiality of sounds and their relationship with the bodies producing them. The reconstruction of sounds from the past based on written sources has generated a flourishing scholarship in early music and theatre studies since the 1960s along with thriving early music and theatre performances based on the fruits of historical research. It includes the reconstruction of unwritten practices such as improvisation, performance practices, acting, and the restitution of early pronunciations. Such methods can easily be applied to sounds in a broader context.

The Porcelain Cabinet, Rosenborg


The most innovative idea of this project is to realize a sonic history of the court, that will be published as a monograph. An other outcome will be the realization of an immersive and spatialized exhibition with soundscapes at Rosenborg Castle in 2023. These exhibitions are a more evocative and exciting means to present everyday life at the court, not only in the eyes of the audience but also in their ears, giving them an enhanced perception of what the past was like and how it sounded. In a society that is ever more disconnected from its past, it is important today more than ever to come up with new ideas for the dissemination of history, an aspect to which this project will contribute. Studying the past allows us to understand its legacies in the present: SOUND will study the Danish court during the reigns of Christian IV, Frederik III, and Christian V (1606–1710, or from Rosenborg’s construction as a country house by Christian IV, through its use as a royal residence until 1710), first as an elective monarchy and from 1660 onwards as an absolute monarchy. As such, it represents an archetypal place of power with refined systems of representation and control, but also a thriving site of social, cultural, and intellectual exchange, with an enduring legacy today. Understanding these dynamics will lead us to understand people and their relation to power and culture, enabling us to question the way contemporary soundscapes and sonic practices contribute to our own relationship to power. Even today, sound remains a tool used to display power, from political rallies and national celebrations to the use of loud music to torture prisoners of war. At a societal level, Rosenborg is a major landmark and museum. Its popularity among visitors attests to its importance today. As such, it represents the perfect medium to communicate history in a vivid way.

Sounds profoundly shape our experience of a place, yet we seldom pay attention to them. An interesting consequence of the lockdown of society in spring 2020 was the extreme reduction of noise pollution. Suddenly, everyone was listening and hearing better, being aware of the quality of our soundscapes, once that almost all industrial noises had disappeared. This unprecedented experience gave us a little insight in how the soundscapes of the pre-industrial world sounded like.

Secret practices, public threats: Colonial fears and Afro-Brazilian traditions in the 18th century

Nuno Marques Pereira, a Portuguese priest, wrote about his pilgrimage to Brazil in a book published in 1728. As he was staying in a slave owner’s farm, Pereira was shocked by the sounds of the calundu, an African-Brazilian rite that incorporated dances and prayers. Pereira found it unacceptable that his host would allow the slaves to perform such “idolatrous rites”, especially when one of the conditions to keeping slaves was that they had to be brought to the Catholic faith, “removing from them all their rites and gentile superstitions”.

In the original: “Também he certo, que por direito especial de huma Bulla do Summo Pontífice se permittio que elles fossem cativos, com o pretexto de serem trazidos à nossa Santa Fé Catholica, tirandose-lhes todos os ritos, e superstições Gentílicas, e ensinandose-lhes a doutrina Chritãa’ (p. 117).

Pereira was particularly concern about the music being played at the calundu, describing the drums as “such thunder that it seems like the Devil commanded them to play his triumph through the sound of these hellish instruments, to show how he is victorious in these lands” (p. 117-118). The priest told his host that the lack of punishment for idolatry would lead to their downfall, and the host agreed to gather the instruments, then built a great bonfire and burned them all.

Pereira’s pilgrimage book is one of the first literary descriptions of a calundu. The tradition, however, can be found throughout most of Colonial Brazil, as Laura de Mello e Souza has shown in her work O Diabo e a terra de Santa Cruz. Most calundus happened in secret, which exacerbated the colonial fear of the “demonic” powers at play during the rites. Discussing how “private” these practices could be is, therefore, very complex. The fact that slaves still could maintain such “private religion” was definitely perceived as a threat, as shown by Pereira’s account. However, the priest also showed us that at least some slave owners were aware of these practices and tended to turn a blind eye – to the despair of religious authorities like Pereira. But is there privacy when others are aware (yet deliberately not acknowledging) what is happening?

Can this be consider privacy?

The calundu served multiple functions for the Black community in this context, providing religious and health support to the participants. Commonly, the organizer of the calundu was also a healer, who used herbs, rituals, and prayers, with hybrid references from Indigenous, African, and European knowledge. As such, it is not surprising that Souza’s main sources to explore the historical nuances of the calundu came from Inquisitorial records: in an attempt to control these “powerful yet mysterious” practices, many of these healers were accused of witchcraft.

In his writing, Pereira described Black healers as inspired by the devil, which would explain why they were sought out to heal illnesses of demonic origins. For instance, he mentions that when a man engaged with a sinner woman, the man “begins to complain; and no doctor nor surgeon can discover the illness, because it is of a different nature, caught from a pot from hell. […] In the end, there is no cure for him, no remedy that can treat him. Then comes a devil’s emissary, and says to him that if he wants to have health, he should look for a Black healer (or rather, a sorcerer) […].

Compendio narrativo do peregrino da America, p. 125.

Growing up in Brazil, this idea of Black healers being the only ones being able to treat certain ailments (mostly believe to be of supernatural origins) was still passed onto me as a child. Coming from a small town of German immigrants in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, I remember stories of people who believed to have been bewitched having to travel to a different city to seek a Black healer to remove their curse.  We can still see how practices that had to be kept secret due to persecution and prejudice managed to survive within their own “private networks”, while also branching out and blending with the broader local context. At the same time, these prejudices that put the keepers of such knowledge under suspicion also remain very much present. Colonial ideas, practices of resistance, and knowledge exchanges are all intertwined in the ramifications of Latin American history.

To explore the different dimensions that privacy takes in the history of Latin America, the Centre for Privacy Studies is now launching a series of online seminars, called “Historical Notions of Privacy in Latin America”. Every last week of the month, we will gather to discuss a work-in-progress that deals with Latin American history in relation to privacy. The inaugural seminar will take place now on September 22, 2020. The event is open, and we welcome everybody to join! Feel free to register at the PRIVACY website.

Visibility, Respectability, and Privacy: Black and White in 17th Century Amsterdam

Privacy involves the ability of regulating access to oneself: this is the working definition that I have been using in my historical research when I focus on bodily integrity, especially when my interest is a question of sexual, reproductive, or bodily privacy more in general. I am inspired by Margulis (1977 and 2003), whose contributions focus on sociological research questions, as well as on other authors’ contingent definitions of privacy for purposes of research in other disciplines (for example: Hughes, 2012).

For me, this working definition has been useful for historical studies because I need to attend to the fact that the concept of privacy, as we know today with its resonance as a human right, did not exist yet in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, the periods I focus on. Which does not at all mean that people then didn’t need privacy! While it is rare for me to find explicit mentions of privacy as such in my historical sources, I can most definitely find evidence of people—of all echelons of society—struggling and striving to regulate access to themselves in whatever way they could.

This brings me to more recent research questions that emerged from my research on the Sephardic Jewish community of early modern Amsterdam, the Portuguese Nation. How was the issue of visibility related to practices of privacy for a community like them?

Arriving in the city after fleeing anti-Jewish oppression and persecution in the Iberian Peninsula, the members of the Portuguese Nation were very interested in blending in among the rest of Amsterdam… in being present in the city as respectable denizens, even visibly so (some of them even managed to buy their citizenship rights), but not as a persecuted religious minority. As a community, they had scant interest in calling attention to themselves as different… at least not different in the wrong ways.

Some of the community members were very affluent; there were many merchants among them. They had servants, and some of the servants were African or of African descent. Now, I am trying to dig primary sources that could show explicit traces of the status of these servants. The Portuguese Nation seems to avoid using the word for slave in their notarial records and other archives after the second decade of the seventeenth century, possibly because of “the Dutch and Amsterdam authorities’ wish that slavery and slaves would be absent from Dutch soil, possibly to avoid controversy about the ambivalent status of slaves.” (Hondius 2011, p. 380)

In the Dutch Republic, slavery was not explicitly legal, but not explicitly illegal, either. It seems law about this was quite messy, there didn’t seem to exist any unified, straight forward body of legislation that stated that nobody was a slave. Local legislation did most of the heavy lifting. Dienke Hondius has a compelling article showing the legal and social practices that shaped the legal status of slavery in the Netherlands, including racializing legal processes that slowly contributed to congealing different privileges according to skin color. In that article, she explains that people of color in the Dutch Republic “were named and described by their skin colour as swarten and swartinnen, negros and negerinnen, and their legal status was often uncertain.” (p. 380)

Could it be that the Portuguese Nation was blending in with the local practices when they started to avoid mentioning “escravos,” adapting their language to something more acceptable when describing their servants?

One of my next projects involves exploring this and other questions related to privacy and visibility, and one particular set of community rules is my starting point, the haskamot of “20 de Tamus 5387” (1627). These rules dealt with the conversion and burial rites of “pessoas negras e mulatas” [black and mulatto people] in the Amsterdam Sephardic community. I am interested in asking how the color of someone’s skin shaped people’s practices that determined whether they could be a member of the community.

Detail of a document from 1627 written by the leaders of the Portuguese Nation regulating baptism and burial rites for people of color. Courtesy of the Amsterdam City Archives, licensed CC-BY
Detail of a document from 1627 written by the leaders of the Portuguese Nation regulating conversion and burial rites for people of color. Courtesy of the Amsterdam City Archives, licensed CC-BY

For me, rather than trying to single out the Sephardim of the Portuguese Nation to blame for racism, instead I am interested in examining how they were inserted in a whole system of belief that was in formation, and that ended up contributing to what today we recognize as racism. This system of belief racialized servitude, slowly congealing social practices into law, shaping the idea that white skin was connected to ruling and dark skin to submission. Conversely, I also look for traces where people of color resisted this process.

This is the case of Juliana, described in a notarial document as a “negerinne from Recife who came to Amsterdam with her owner the merchant Eliau Burgos sometime between 1654 and 1656 (Hondius 2011, p. 381). Once in Amsterdam, Juliana refused to follow her master in his desire to move to Barbados, causing him to protest in a notarial record. She was claiming her freedom.

My task now is to verify if, and how, the primary sources available to me relate to this hypothesis that links bodily privacy and visible signs, like skin color. I’ll let you know in a future publication!



Hondius, Dienke. 2011. ‘Access to the Netherlands of Enslaved and Free Black Africans: Exploring Legal and Social Historical Practices in the Sixteenth-Nineteenth Centuries’. Slavery & Abolition 32 (3): 377–95.

Hughes, Kirsty. 2012. ‘A Behavioural Understanding of Privacy and Its Implications for Privacy Law’. The Modern Law Review 75 (5): 806–36.

Margulis, Stephen T. 1977. ‘Conceptions of Privacy: Current Status and Next Steps’. Journal of Social Issues 33 (3): 5–21.

Margulis, Stephen T. 2003. ‘Privacy as a Social Issue and Behavioral Concept’. Journal of Social Issues 59 (2): 243–61.

‘Regulations from the Mahamad 1627[5387] Prohibiting Baptism of Blacks in the Amsterdam Sephardic Community’. n.d. Accessed 11 June 2020.

CfP Panel “Privacy and Republicanism” at the Venice World Multidisciplinary Conference on Republics and Republicanism

The Centre for Privacy Studies (PRIVACY) is inviting paper proposals for a panel at the second edition of the Venice World Multidisciplinary Conference on Republics and Republicanism 11-13 June 2021.

The title for the panel is “Privacy and Republicanism“.

(detail) Ambrogio_Lorenzetti_-_Effects_of_Good_Government_in_the_city

In the very name of republicanism is the idea of “public,” a “public thing” that people have in common. By definition, then, there also is a “private thing.” Early modern discussions of “scientia politica” or “scientia civilis” derived from Aristotelianism and his distinction between oikos and polis. Was the distinction so sharp and where did thinkers make them? Private virtues can only be of value if displayed in public. How did the theoretical works on the private/public divide compare with practice in republics? Did republican city-states have particular architectures allowing for or negating privacy? How did republican art represent privacy?

This panel seeks to gather multidisciplinary contributions on privacy and republicanism. The focus is particularly on Early Modern Europe, but contributions on contemporary issues, earlier period, and other regions are welcome.

Proposals and contributions may include following topics:
– an analysis of priv-words in texts pertaining to the republican language (privatus, privé, privy, privauté, Privatrat, etc.);
– distinctions between private and public in these texts and where we can find thresholds;
– other semantic oppositions between private and common, professional, evident, together with others, etc.;
– connecting conceptual history to social practice (Were there special places where these linguistic developments took place? Was political language shaping behaviors in private and public spaces?)
– rethinking the opposition oikos/polis and gender (public man/private woman, private sphere and political theory, particularly “republican motherhood”);
– methodological considerations on how to study “privacy” in the history of political thought (e.g. how we understand privacy and how we apply it to different linguistic areas);
– difference between republican privacy and liberal privacy or monoarchical privacy;
– the role of theology and law in shaping privacy in republican thought (private prayers and virtues, legal duties and obligations);
– moral philosophy and questions regarding the display of private wealth in the public arena (luxury and commerce in republicanism or the private sphere and the common good).

To apply:
Please send your paper title and an abstract (300 words) as well as a CV (2-3 pages) to frank.ejby.poulsen(at) by 15 August 2020.

The speakers whose proposal are accepted will be expected to engage in a dialogue to enhance the cohesion of the panel. In case of successful application, it is possible to apply for a bursary to attend the conference.

Privautés à l’ancienne

This blog post is adapted from part of a paper I would have presented at the European Social Science History Conference 2020, which was postponed to 2021 due to the measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. I thought it would be a nice idea to share it with you here, rather than let it stay inside my proverbial drawer.

This research is a small part of my larger effort to locate and contextualize concrete instances of religious advice about sexual privacy given to women throughout the seventeenth century in France. Here, I am looking into the use of the word “privauté” in two different versions of a very popular book, Introduction à la vie devote, by St. François de Sales. These two versions were published 76 years apart. I am comparing these two versions of the book to examine a shift in the usage for the word privauté. I am curious about how this shift affected language used in the context of religious instructions.

If you speak French, you already know this, but for those of you who are wondering, the French word privauté does not translate directly to the English word privacy. It shares some of the sense of the English privacy, but the connotations of privauté are more specific: they relate to intimacy, familiarity, closeness, trust. And not always in a positive sense.

I am using two of the approaches sketched by Mette in her paper “The PRIVACY work method.” First, I examine the relationship between the term privauté and some of the concepts encompassed by it. Second, I make a semantic map of this word in context, to see whether it is being used in a positive or negative sense, and to search for oppositions that the word might acquire in use.

Let me tell you a little bit about the history of privauté throughout the seventeenth century.

In the Thresor de la Langue Francoyse, edited by Jean Nicot 1606, the word is spelled privauté or privoité under the main rubric privé. The definition refers to the latin word consuetudo, which evokes the meaning of custom, habit, use, usage, convention, way, tradition, experience, social intercourse, companionship, familiarity, conversation. Another latin word is also used in the definition, namely familiaritas, which refers to intimacy, close friendship, familiarity.

In Dictionnaire universel contenant generalement tous les mots francois, by edited by Antoine Furetière in 1690, the word is spelled privauté, and has a very concise definition: great familiarity. A couple of examples evoking a negative connotation are given as illustration:

  • Husbands do not like that others have privautés with their wives.
  • Important people often find unpleasant the privautés that their jesters take with them.

These two dictionaries lead me to infer that the core of meaning of privauté remained stable, that is closeness and intimacy, but the implications of using this word might have changed by the end of the seventeenth century. Let me now show how this plays out in the two versions of the religious book Introduction à la vie devote.

First, let me give you some information about the 2 books.

Introduction à la vie devote was written by François de Sales in the beginning of the seventeenth century. The second book is actually an adaptation (or a sort of cultural translation) of the original. This adaptation was written by the Jesuit Jean Brignon in 1695 and is called La conduite des personnes du monde à la perfection chrétienne, ou introduction à la vie devote [in English it would be something like Conducting People of the World to Christian Perfection, or Introduction to the Devout Life]

Introduction à la vie devote was an extremely popular book among Catholics in France and Europe, and had as its target audience people who lived “in the world,” as opposed to professional religious people who took vows and lived in seclusion. As the name suggests, Introduction à la vie devote was a practical book for the uninitiated on how to live a devout life. The book’s intended audience was both men and women, but as Nancy Jayne Bowden and others have shown, the advice in the book was particularly palatable to women:

  • the content of the book was suitable to women’s practical needs;
  • the tone of the writing provided them with opportunities to exercise religious agency in their everyday life, and finally;
  • the writing style was welcoming to a female reader, since it is structured as a conversation between a spiritual director and his devotee, a woman called Philotée.

In 1695, the Jesuit Jean Brignon adapted the content of Introduction à la vie devote into a version of French that, in his opinion, would be more pleasant to the reader of the end of the 17th century. His reason for this was that the French language had changed over the course of that century. In Brignon’s opinion, despite containing precious advice, François de Sales book sounded archaic and no longer attracted as many readers as it deserved.

Whether Brignon’s assessment was fair or not… well… it is a longer discussion, outside of the scope of my post today. But in any case, Brignon’s cultural translation gives me an opportunity to comparatively study the language of sexual privacy in religious advice from the beginning and from the end of the seventeenth century.

The 1619 edition of the Introduction a la vie devote is considered the definitive version of the text because it was the last one personally revised by Francois de Sales. I consulted the text contained in the Complete Works by Francois de Sales, edited in Annency.

(For more information on the convoluted editorial history of this book, there is a paper titled “Quatre siècles d’éditions de l’Introduction à la vie dévote” by Viviane Mellinghof-Bougerie.)

The word privauté is used 10 times in the Francois de Sales’ definitive edition. I found only one instance of privauté in Jean Brignon’s version: all the other instances were adapted to a different vocabulary. Let’s take a closer look:

FS: Philothee, nostre esprit s’addonnant à la hantise, privauté et familiarité de son Dieu, se parfumera tout de ses perfections. [Philothee, if our spirit give itself to the search, privautés and familiarity of its God, it will be perfumed by all of God’s perfections.]

JB: Et si nous faisons nôtre ame à traiter ainsi familierement avec Dieu, elle prendra toutes les impressions de ses divines perfections. [And if we make our soul deal so familiarly with God, it will take all the impressions of God’s divine perfections.]

FS: … certaines privautés et passions indiscrètes, folastres et sensuelles… […certain indiscreet, passionate and sensual privautés and passions…]

JB: certaines libertez indiscretes, badines, et sensuelles [certain indiscreet, playful and sensual liberties…]

FS: … la fause amitié provoque un tournoyement d’esprit qui fait chanceler la personne en la chasteté et devotion, la portant a… a des petites, mais recherchees, mais attrayantes contenances, galanterie, poursuitte des baysers, et autres privautés et faveurs inciviles… [… the false friendship provokes a whirlwind of spirit which makes a person falter in her chastity and devotion, carrying her to … small, but refined, attractive behaviors, gallantry, pursuit of kisses, and other privautés and uncivil favors…]

JB: Et l’amitié mondaine a un certain flux de paroles douces, molles , passionnées & pleines de flateries sur la beauté , sur la bonne grace , & sur de vains avantages naturels. [And worldly friendship has a certain flow of sweet, soft, passionate & flattering words about beauty, about good grace, and about vain natural advantages.]

FS: … et les privautés dangereuses, ne les appellés pas simplicités ou naifvetés… [… and dangerous privautés, do not call them simplicity or naiveté…]

JB: N’appellez pas les privautez dangereuses, des simplicitez & des naïvetez d’une ame innocente… [Do not call dangerous privautés by the name of simplicity and naiveté of an innocent soul…]

FS: On recite devant des filles les privautés indiscretes de telz et de tells… [Reciting in front of girls the indiscreet privautés of such and so…]

JB: L’on raconte devant les jeunes personnes les familiaritez indiscretes et dangereuses de tels & de tells… [Saying in front if young people indiscreet and dangerous familiarities of such and so…]

FS: … par exemple, si je blasme la privauté de ce jeune homme et de cette fille, parce qu’elle est trop indiscrete et perilleuse… [for example, if I blame the privauté of this young man and this girl, because it is too indiscreet and perilous…]

JB: Par exemple, s’il s’agit de quelque familiarité entre deux jeunes personnes… [For example, if it is about a certain familiarity between two young people…]

FS: L’amour et la fidelité jointes ensemble engendrent tous-jours la privauté et confiance… [Love and loyalty together always make for privauté and trust…]

JB: L’amour & la fidélité produisent ensemble une douce & familière confiance… [Love and loyalty together produce a sweet and familiar trust…]

FS: … et quant aux enfans du monde, leurs choleres sont generosités, leurs avarices, mesnages, leurs privautés, entretiens honnorables… [… and as for the children of the world, their anger is generosity, their miserliness, care for the household, their privautés, honorable intercourses…]

JB: Mais à l’égard des enfans du siécle, leur colere est une générosité, leur avarice une sage œconomie, et leurs manières trop libres sont une honnête conversation. [But with regard to the children of the century, their anger is generosity, their greed wise economy, and their excessively free manners are an honest conversation.]

When I compared the changes between Francois de Sales and Jean Brignon, I noticed that:

  • Privauté in the singular is very close to familiarity. Privautés in the plural was more variedly adapted: liberties, advantages, excessively free manners. These terms all point to euphemism: these words are used when the author wants to avoid using an expression with a more explicit meaning—for example, sexual intimacy or lasciviousness, which in fact seems to be the underlying connotation in many of the instances above.
  • Notably, the only occurrence of privautés in Jean Brignon’s adaptation is privautés dangereuses, an expression that he keeps from Francois de Sales original.
  • Privauté in the singular can be somewhat neutral: its valence will be quite dependent on the immediate context. Privautés in the plural is used mostly for intimacy that has a negative sense, basically, intimacy that should not be happening.

Regarding the semantic mapping of privauté, I noticed that the connotation the word acquires in these contexts listed above is most often related to “being together with others” and “public”, but I would not go as far as to say that it necessarily indicates opposition to them. That is because the meaning is very related to intimacy. Intimacy contains both the sense of being apart from others but also together with others. Intimacy refers to a selection, an ability to regulate, who these others are.

Thus, for the spiritual director giving advice in the books, privauté(s) as intimacy must be reserved for spiritual beings, that is, God.

When intimacy occurs in the physical realm, it was only permitted within the limits of marriage. We can see this from the fact that privauté et confiance (changed into douce et familiere confiance by Jean Brignon) appears in the section of the text dedicated to Advice for Married People.

Privauté(s) appears seven times with a negative sense in François de Sales’ text, and usually it indicates illicit intimacy, most likely of a sexual nature:

  • certaines privautés et passions indiscrètes
  • privautés et passions
  • privautés et faveurs inciviles
  • privautés dangereuses
  • privautés indiscretes
  • je blasme la privauté de ce jeune homme et de cette fille
  • leurs avarices, mesnages, leurs privautés, entretiens honnorables

Nowaways, privauté is not a particularly common word, but its diachronic changes in meaning over the seventeenth century are interesting: they give me possible leads for written expressions about sexual privacy (or lack thereof) in Versailles 1682-1715.

That is all for this half of 2020, folks. Our blog team will have a break during the month of July, so we will see you back in August for more  on privacy studies. Have a nice summer (or winter, if you are in the South of the planet)!