Early Modern Political Privacy: The Pragmatic and Conceptual Development

Upon my arrival at the Centre for Privacy Studies (PRIVACY) last month (September 2019), I was frequently asked about my approach to and interest in privacy. The proposal that I had put together for my interview and for the Centre focused on privacy within European court culture, paying particular attention to the concept of political privacy and how it can be identified within court culture. In the course of conversations with my colleagues and the Centre director, the main question that arose was: how are you looking at political privacy? This fundamental question shifted my focus from the traditional view of court culture to one encompassing different heuristic zones of privacy. Thus, began my journey of exploring the pragmatics, semantics and conceptual understanding of ‘politics’ and ‘private/privacy’ and the formation of the concept of ‘political privacy’ within my own research.

As I mentioned in the post, “Why privacy studies?”, throughout my doctoral research the focus on public spectacles and the public nature of the monarchy ultimately led me to ask about the private nature of the monarch, privacy within the very public European courts, and privacy within public spectacles. The public/private divide and debate has been going on for decades now, maintaining the traditional notions about the public and political sphere and the public nature of monarchy, court, and politics. However, I want to re-examine and perhaps deconstruct the dominant nature of the public sphere and illuminate the extent to which privacy and the private played a significant role, notably by women, in challenging the centralization of government, influencing sociability, shaping political culture, and questioning royal authority. Studies, including Heide Wunder’s research, have highlighted that women “exercised authority and political power” within the household, marketplaces and within the court, as well as influencing politics, thus challenging the customary view of women’s limited participation and providing a basis for political privacy. (1) This political influence has relied heavily on early modern “personal relations” and personal communication, which is another expression that needs to be analysed. (2) Hence, the need to establish the pragmatics and semantics in developing the concept. It was recently pointed out that political privacy potentially encompasses three specific aspects: privacy as an intrinsic element within political systems, privacy of an individual/institution becomes a politicised matter, or private interactions that had political significance. Of course, examining these three aspects within a specific case study is a large undertaking. I would eventually like to examine all three aspects in different studies. However, for the moment, I am interested in the private interactions/situations that have public consequences. Therefore, I am viewing political privacy as the informal, unseen, unheard actions and interactions of monarchs, court agents, diplomats, and families that attempted to influence policies, encourage religious conformity, shape identity and perceptions, and transform political authority.

“Ritratto di famiglia, Minerva, Amilcare e Asdrubale Anguissola”, Sofonisba Anguissola, c. 1559, Nivaagaards Malerisamling, Denmark

As a member of the interdisciplinary Dresden case team, I am using my expertise in court and political culture and the history of monarchy, combined with the site-based analysis approach of PRIVACY to examine the “notions of privacy at the interface of realm and household” within Dresden. (3) Additionally, I will examine this theme in a comparative study of the complex Holy Roman and German electoral court culture with the English royal court. It was during the initial phase of team discussions that my colleague and I identified parallel interests pertaining to Anna of Saxony. What we are trying to ascertain is whether the political and scientific networks forged through correspondence influenced the legal, cultural and political landscape within Dresden. Through applying the concept of political privacy, I have wondered if the extensive collection of correspondence and multiple interactions that Anna of Saxony had with other elite and royal women and men influenced political policies, strengthened or damaged foreign relations, and contributed to a civic, individual and rulership identity?

“Grundriss der Stadt Dresden”, Anton Weck, c. 1529

For example, in 1577 Elizabeth I of England sent letters to nine German princes, and one to Electress Anna of Saxony in Dresden. (4)

“The Procession Portrait of Elizabeth I”, Unknown, c. 1600, Sherborne Castle, Dorset

The discovery of the letter’s existence and the method of delivery illuminates its exceptional nature in that the Electress’ letter was sent among those designated for male ruling authorities in Germany. While it was not unusual for Elizabeth I to write to other noblewomen or consorts, the context surrounding the letter to Anna of Saxony are quite interesting. During the 1560s and 1570s, England and the Protestant territories in Europe were in discussions through ambassadors about the establishment of an alliance to combat conflict in the Netherlands and the French Wars of Religion. (5) August of Saxony, was at the centre of the “theological and political fracture” that threatened the Protestant alliance. The nine letters sent in 1577 included one sent to August of Saxony.

 

“Anna of Denmark [1532-1585], Electress of Saxony”, Lucas Cranach, c. 1565, Kunst Historisches Museum, Vienna
The original letter to Anna is based at the Sächsisches Staatsarchiv in Dresden, which my team members and I will be visiting in two weeks time, and I look forward to discovering its contents. However, based on my previous research on Elizabeth I and what I have been learning about the German electoral courts and Anna of Saxony, my hypothesis is that Elizabeth was writing Anna to seek help in persuading August to fall in line. Additionally, the uniqueness and informality of the letter could suggest a form of private communication that attempted to encourage religious conformity or unity.

The correspondence of Anna of Saxony is filled with possibilities to explore how private communication, especially between women, had political repercussions across Europe. I look forward to seeing what the archives will reveal next in my work on exploring political privacy. Furthermore, I welcome suggestions, feedback and ideas pertaining to the information provided herein. Please leave a comment below or feel free to send me an email.


(1) Heide Wunder, He is the Sun, She is the Moon: Women in Early Modern Germany, London: Harvard University Press, 1998, 162 & 166. 

(2) Florian Kühnel, “‘Minister-like cleverness, understanding, and influence on affairs’: Ambassadresses in Everyday Business and Courtly Ceremonies at the turn of the Eighteenth Century”, in Practices of Diplomacy in the Early Modern World c. 1410-1800, eds. Tracey A. Sowerby and Jan Hennings, Abingdon: Routledge, 2017, 131. 

(3) From original Dresden case study description composed by Professor Mette Birkedal Bruun and core scholars of the Centre for Privacy Studies.

(4) David Gehring, “Elizabeth’s Correspondence with the Protestant Princes of the Empire, 1558-1586”, in Elizabeth I’s Foreign Correspondence: Letters, Rhetoric, and Politics, eds. Carlo M. Bajetta, Guillaume Coatalen and Jonathan Gibson, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 196.

(5) E. I. Kouri, England and the Attempts to Form a Protestant Alliance in the Late 1560s: A Case Study in European Diplomacy, Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1981.


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