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

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

When Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, visited Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum in 2016, he claimed to have found an iPhone in one of the paintings – more specifically in A Letter Delivered in a Voorhuis (1670) by Pieter de Hooch. This 17th century representation of a woman receiving a letter is one among many representations of epistolarity in Dutch Golden Age art – and there might be something to the comparison between smartphones of today and Dutch letters of the early modern period. The vaguely absent but composed facial expression of someone checking their smartphone is indeed reminiscent of representations of readers and writers of letters in Dutch 17th century art. Both smartphones and letters are pragmatic tools of everyday life and both are used in the sort of individualized, attention-demanding activities so characteristic of modern societies with widespread literacy and high specialization.

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

1. Illustration of the EXMF by Dave Gray.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The privacy of Elinga’s and Metsu’s attentionally occupied figures is bound to a certain type of modern privatized behavior, a habit of minding one’s own business which has only been intensified since the 17th century. The letter-reading scenes are strangely familiar because their ‘cold collectivity’ of disconnected minds occupying the same space is reminiscent of scenes from subway trains, internet cafes or reading rooms. And while we are often made aware of privacy as a positively defined normative or political notion, a value to protect or a goal to achieve, we might also understand it as an unavoidable sociological corollary of modernity, that is, processes such as professional specialization, literacy, technological development and urbanization. As Svetlana Alpers made it clear in her 1983 book The Art of Describing, 17th century Dutch art moved into an increasingly more descriptive mode of representation that would put less emphasis on storytelling and more on attentive observation. Artists such as Metsu, Elinga and De Hooch was attending to and imitating the world with an unprecedented level of scrutiny and observational skill – an activity often mirrored by figures in their paintings who in similar ways are opting out of immediate social reality and tuning into some individualized, attention-demanding activity, be it reading, easel painting, looking at maps, looking through telescope lenses or simply looking away. The attentional privacy of figures in Dutch 17th century might be linked to a distinct trait of modern thinking and behavior: the acknowledgement of the capacity of individual human beings to see, attend to and discern phenomena on their own.



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

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

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

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

[5] Alpers, 196.

[6] Ibid., 197.

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

Cosmopolitanism as transcending the private and the public

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

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


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

Dictionnaire de Trévoux 1771

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Mercier, Néologie, 1:131.

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

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

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

[6] Rémi, Le Cosmopolisme, 24–25.

[7] Rémi, 73–74.

[8] Dictionnaire de l’Académie françoise.

[9] Fénelon, Télémaque.

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

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

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

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

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

[15] Edelstein, 59–60.

[16] Fénelon, Télémaque, 1: 230.

[17] Fénelon, 1: 231.

[18] Fénelon, 2: 483-4.

[19] Rémi, Le Cosmopolisme, 19–20.

[20] Voltaire, Candide.

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

[22] Rémi, Le Cosmopolisme, 64.

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

Privacy & Inventories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

[5] White, Gillian. ‘“That Whyche Ys Nedefoulle and Nesesary”: The Nature and Purpose of the Original Furnishings and Decoration of Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire’. PhD thesis, University of Warwick, Centre for the Study of the Renaissance, 2005. http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/1200/.

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


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

SEMFS Conference

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

Marriage of Louis and Marie Antoinette 1770

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

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

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

Biography of Rémy

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

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

Logo Mercure de France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] See https://www.ftc.gov/public-statements/2000/02/privacy-internet-evolving-legal-landscape (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

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

[3] See https://www.commerce.senate.gov/2020/9/revisiting-the-need-for-federal-data-privacy-legislation (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

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

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

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

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

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/16/politics/bush-lets-us-spy-on-callers-without-courts.html and https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/18/opinion/mass-surveillance-isnt-the-answer-to-fighting-terrorism.html (acessed 08 Sep 2021).

[9] https://www.everycrsreport.com/reports/RL31408.html#TOC3_1 (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[10] http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/washington/2006-05-10-nsa_x.htm (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

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

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

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

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

[15] Computer analyst whistleblower who provided the Guardian with top-secret NSA documents leading to revelations about US surveillance on phone and internet communications. See https://www.theguardian.com/world/interactive/2013/nov/01/snowden-nsa-files-surveillance-revelations-decoded#section/1 (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

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

Privacy and the Bed(room)

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

example of the segregation of zones according to access by Gauche

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our project will run from 2021 to 2024.

PRIVACY CONFERENCE: Early Modern Notions of Privacy and the Private

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

Registrations are open until May 31 on the PRIVACY webpage.


DAY 1 -Wednesday, 2 June 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DAY 2 – Thursday, 3 June 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DAY 3 – Friday 4, June 2021


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

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

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

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

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

Languages of Privacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1    Houaiss 2001, p. 1553, quoted in Marcos Barbai and Maria Moreira, ‘A escrita de verbetes para a ENDICI: privado e privacidade’, Entremeios, Revista de Estudos do Discurso 13 (31 August 2016): 290, https://doi.org/10.20337/ISSN2179-3514revistaENTREMEIOSvol13pagina283a299.

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

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

4    For further discussion of the history of these words in English, see Natália da Silva Perez, ‘Ancrene Wisse: The Earliest Extant Use of the Word “Private” in Written English’, Centre for Privacy Studies (blog), 18 January 2021, https://privacy.hypotheses.org/1402.

5    Robert Hasenfratz, Ancrene Wisse (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), pt. 3, l. 308, https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/hasenfratz-ancrene-wisse.

6    ‘privé, privée, priver, se priver’, in Dictionnaire de français Larousse, n.d., https://www.larousse.fr/dictionnaires/francais/priv%c3%a9/64013.

7    ‘Privauté’, in Trésor de La Langue Française Informatisé, accessed 10 January 2021, https://www.cnrtl.fr/definition/privaut%C3%A9.

8    Ernst Robert Curtius, ed., Li quatre livre des Reis; die bücher Samuelis und der Könige in einer französischen bearbeitung des 12. jahrhunderts, nach der ältesten handschrift unter benutzung der neu aufgefundenen handschriften kritisch (Dresden: Gedruckt für die Gesellschaft für romanische literatur, 1911), 66, http://archive.org/details/liquatrelivredes00curt.

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

10    Stanza 200, verse 12. According to the footnote to verse 12, several manuscripts spell it ‘priuete.’ Le Renclus de Moiliens, Li romans de Carité et Miserere du renclus de Moiliens: poèmes de la fin du XIIe siècle, ed. A.G. van Hamel (Paris: F. Vieweg, 1885), 243, http://archive.org/details/liromansdecarit01bartgoog.

11    ‘Handvest van de Grondrechten van de Europese Unie, Titel II, Artikel 7’, 26 October 2012, https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/NL/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX:12012P/TXT&from=EN.

12    ‘Dèclaråcion Dès Dreûts d’ l’ome Po Tos Lès Payîs Dè Monde’, n.d., https://www.ohchr.org/EN/UDHR/Pages/Language.aspx?LangID=frn2; ‘Universele Ferklearring Fan de Rjochten Fan de Minske’, n.d., https://www.ohchr.org/EN/UDHR/Pages/Language.aspx?LangID=fri; ‘Universele Verklaring van de Rechten van de Mens’, n.d., https://www.ohchr.org/EN/UDHR/Pages/Language.aspx?LangID=dut.

Privacy Studies Journal Inaugural Conference 26-28 April 2021

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

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

Monday 26 April


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

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

16:40-17:00 Discussion


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

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

17:50-18:10 Discussion

Tuesday 27 April


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

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

15:40-16:00 Discussion

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

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

16:55-17:15 Discussion


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

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

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

18:30-19:00 Discussion

Wednesday 28 April


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

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

16:10-16:30 Discussion

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

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

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

18:30-19:00 WRAPPING UP

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

See you there!

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

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


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

More specifically on political thought, in 1650 Conring published Theses Miscellaneae de civili prudentia, (Miscellaneous theses on civil prudence), which is his major work in political thought.https://external-content.duckduckgo.com/iu/?u=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.uni-muenster.de%2Fimperia%2Fmd%2Fimages%2Freligion_und_politik%2Fkleinefaecher%2Ffittosize_1024_536_bc0e90aa26afd84523b2059a0a27d99d_m13_1_reiseanleitungen.jpeg&f=1&nofb=1

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


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

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

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

Private condition, private fortune, private life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Private interest, private property v. public good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can we make of this small study of priv-words in Conring’s comments on Machiavelli with regard to Conring’s political thought and the intellectual context of his time? It is important to understand the context of the reception of Machiavelli in seventeenth-century Germany. Machiavelli was linked to the introduction of the concept of “reason of state”, which had been debated in Italy (ragione di stato) and France (raison d’État). The first German discussion started with Arnold Clapmar’s De arcanis rerumpublicarum libri sex (1605) and contributed to three debates within discussions of politica : Staatsrecht based on Bodin’s sovereignty and Roman law; Tacitism; and political Aristotelianism.[20] Conring’s Animadversiones take place within this context. The identification of status with respublica emerged at the end of the seventeenth century; status meant “standing” as opposed to actio and mutatio and could refer to three things: 1) the power of the ruler; 2) the political system of the commonwealth; 3) the legal and social status of a person.[21]

https://external-content.duckduckgo.com/iu/?u=https%3A%2F%2Fcdn.philasearch.com%2FA09454%2FE00737%2F0073700012.jpg&f=1&nofb=1We can confirm Dreitzel’s argument that Conring disagrees with the idea of reason of state as conserving the power of the ruler. Rather COnring considers the reason of state to be the Aristotelian notion of good life of the citizens, or what the upholders of politica christiana thought was gute Policey.[22] Dreitzel notes: “Following the common interpretation of status as ‘standing’, and continuing both the Roman law and scholastic doctrines concerning governing and the duty of rulers, ‘reason of state’ doctrines had, from the beginning, serious implications for the discussions of the principles governing the conduct of subjects and ‘private’ individuals within society. This enlargement was reflected in Clapmar’s definition of arcana: every science, every ‘conditio in rebus humanis‘ had to have its own arcana; thus there were also ‘arcana privata, hoc est, intima consilia communis privataeque vitae in luce hominum feliciter et decore instituendae‘ [private mysteries, that is, the innermost counsels of communal and private life which ought to be instituted felicitously and decorously before the eyes of men], which differed from the secret arts of using power, preserving a dynasty, or commanding an army.”[23]

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

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

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

[3] Noah Dauber, ‘Anti-Machiavellism as Constitutionalism: Hermann Conring’s Commentary on Machiavelli’s The Prince’, History of European Ideas 37, no. 2 (June 2011): 102–12, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.histeuroideas.2011.01.005.

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

[5] Conring, ‘Animadversiones’, 1017.

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

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

[8] Conring, ‘Animadversiones’, 1012.

[9] Conring, 1015.

[10] Conring, 1013.

[11] Machiavelli, ‘Il Principe’, 121.

[12] Machiavelli, The Prince, 7.

[13] Conring, ‘Animadversiones’, 999.

[14] Machiavelli, ‘Il Principe’, 135.

[15] Machiavelli, The Prince, 24.

[16] Conring, ‘Animadversiones’, 1019.

[17] Machiavelli, The Prince, 41.

[18] Machiavelli, ‘Il Principe’, 149.

[19] Machiavelli, The Prince, 57.

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

[21] Dreitzel, 172.

[22] Dreitzel, 175.

[23] Dreitzel, 175–76.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portrait of the Marquise after her imprisonment by Charles LeBrun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture by Thales Renato Ferreira – Prefeitura de Sao Leopoldo

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

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

Privacy in an Early Modern Prison

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


The Blue Tower of Copenhagen Castle


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





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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Photo by Anete Lusina from Pexels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[13] https://journalhistoryknowledge.org.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Folio 16 of Ancrene Wisse, Corpus MS 402

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 402: Ancrene Wisse. The marginal note on the left side of folio 16 shows a drawing in the shape of a pointing finger, indicating something of interest in the text. https://parker.stanford.edu/parker/catalog/zh635rv2202

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 https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/hasenfratz-ancrene-wisse.



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. https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/hasenfratz-ancrene-wisse.

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. https://lib.ugent.be/fulltxt/RUG01/002/789/928/RUG01-002789928_2019_0001_AC.pdf.

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.