The Rise and Fall of Privacy: An Interview

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

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

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

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

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

Why privacy?

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

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

Can a historical awareness of privacy inform contemporary discussions?

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

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

Tiffany Jenkins and PRIVACY scholars in June 2022

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

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

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

The early modern period was crucial to the birth of privacy

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

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

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

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

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

Conscience […] is the real beginning of privacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What were your biggest insights about privacy and its history?

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

Sounds a bit boring, doesn’t it?

No, it sounds ground-breaking.

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

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

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

Roads not taken and the Reflexive Pronoun in the Edwardian Homilies (1547)

In a sermon-oriented subdivision of the Westminster Case Team at PRIVACY me and two of my colleagues, Lars Cyril Nørgaard and Mette Birkedal Bruun, are reading the official Tudor homilies. That is, the Edwardian Homilies from 1547 and the Elizabethan homilies from 1563 and 1570.

Table of Contents, Certayne Sermons, or homilies, appoynted by the Kynges Maiestie, to be declared and redde, by all persons, Vicars, or Curates, every Sondaye in their churches, where they have Cure, 1547, London.

The homilies were printed sermons, written with the aim to instruct the English in their new religion. As such, they are highly prescriptive texts and enjoyed a wide audience during the Edwardian and Elizabethan reigns. In fact, weekly readings from the homilies during Sunday service was made requisite and preachers failing to comply were met with sanctions during both reigns. So what are the homilies about?

In broad terms, the homilies inform churchgoers how to go about their religious lives: what to do, how to do it and why – and, in particular, they tell church goes what NOT to do, what NOT to think and why. As such, the homilies are prescriptive texts that mark out – or prescribe – the accepted and unaccepted religious inner and outer behavior of the private believer. This is our common interest and focus in the Westminster group; namely, what can the homilies tell us about the Edwardian and Elizabethan private believer?

Yet, as you might imagine, such an intriguing collection of texts also open up for avenues, branches, alleys, nooks and crooks that divert from the main boulevard of research interest. Research is to an infuriating degree about roads taken and not taken. Sometimes we’ll say with Frost:

Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.[1]

But the PRIVACY blog, I think, is a wonderful opportunity to diverge from the main road and for a short span skip happily down a grassy sideway that otherwise would have been left untaken.
For me, in reading the homilies, one such sneaky sideway is paved with questions about reflexive pronouns and the reflexive pronoun ourselves in particular.

It is, perhaps, a curious thing to focus on. And what, really, is the reflexive pronoun? The OED will tell you that a reflexive pronoun is a pronoun that refers back to the subject of the verb and inform you that the core of what we refer to as reflexive pronouns is made up of pronouns ending in –self in the singular or –selves in the plural. Myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourself, etc. These are the most common forms of the reflexive pronoun, though in what the OED refers to as ‘recent’ English, the words me, him, them – all objective personal pronouns – are also known to take on reflexive uses.

Elly van Gelderen, A History of English Reflexive Pronouns, 2000

A more philological, approach, as that taken by Elly van Gelderen in A History of English Reflexive Pronouns: Person, Self and Interpretability, reveals that the reflexive pronoun as we know it only came into common use around 1500. Van Gelderen tracks the development of reflexivity from the Old English me of Beowulf:

No ic me an herewæsmun hnagran talige
not I me on prowess smaller think
guþgeweorca, þonne Grendel hine
ardeeds than Grendel him
‘By no means do I consider myself smaller in prowess and wardeeds than Grendel does himself.’[2]

to the more modern looking Middle English hymself from the mid-fourteenth century poem Gawain and the Green Knight:

Bot Šet he sayde in hymself
‘But still he said to himself.’[3]

and finally to the beginning of the modern use of the reflexive pronoun exemplified in Shakespeare’s 2 King Henry IV

An honest man sir, is able to speake for himselfe.[4]

Gelderen explains that the development is one from adjectival to nounal use as well as a morphologic development from him or him self to the compound himself around 1500.[5]

William Tyndale ,New Testament, Stuttgart Collection, 1526

Myself and himself seem to be the most commonly used among the reflexive pronouns and Gelderen does wonder why some pronouns ‘are reinforced with ‘self’ to function reflexively earlier than others’.[6] One of the latecomers to the ‘self’-reinforcing party is the pronoun ‘our’ in the plural form ourselves. The OED gives the 1526 Tyndale New Testament as its earliest record of ourselves “We have herde hym oure selves.”[7]

Only thirty-one years after the OED’s earliest listing, the Edwardian homilies are printed. In these we find no less than 56 uses of ourselves.

For comparison, there are 201 uses of reflexive pronouns in the twelve Edwardian homilies all together, meaning that ourselves, the pronoun that only within a couple of decades had come in to common use in the English language, stands for more than a fourth of all of the uses of reflexive pronouns in the text. It is perhaps not surprising that the more commonly used pronoun myself is less commonly used in the homilies, seeing as that would take the focus from the listening congregation to the preacher at the pulpit. But we might have expected more a more direct addressing of the congregation, for which yourself would do well, or the more distanced himself.

There is, I think, and this is part of my hypothesis concerning the use of reflexive pronoun in the homilies, a rhetorical decision behind not only the ample use of reflexivity, but also behind the use of ourselves specifically. The use of ourselves, it seems, is more than a decision to address the congregation directly.

What I mean is that more than addressing the congregation ourselves seems to express an inclusive concern that aims directly at the inner ‘selves’ of each attentive listener in the audience, while at the same time insisting on the communality and plurality of that ‘selves’ as well. Ourselves speaks both to the private believer him/herself as an individual and to him/herself as part of a common whole. As such, it balances on the fine line between addressing individual self and communal self.

The reflexivity of ‘self’, as we have seen in the examples from Gelderen is in part used to denote a consideration of what one makes about oneself or even to denote what one says or thinks to oneself – that is, an aspect of selfhood, of the interior or inner man.

What I want to posit is that there is an inherent interiority, an inherent focus on the inner self in the reflexive pronoun, but such inherency is difficult to explain when the pronoun takes on a plural form.

As such, ourselves is an almost oxymoronic or self-negating construction in its form. If there is an ‘inherent interiority’ as I posit, in the reflexive pronoun, it seems contradictory that that interiority is expandable from the singular to the plural. And yet, we see examples of exactly such an idea of plural inward uniformity being promulgated across the homilies. This is most clearly done in the homily ‘Agaynst strif and contention’ in which the ideal of complete inward and outward uniformity is repeated with emphasis: ‘you wil be one whole body, of one mynd, & of one opinion in the truth’.[8]

Naturally, the reflexive pronoun has other meanings and can be used differently from the self-oriented examples I have given, but it is this introspective quality that I am interested in.

Reflexive Pronouns in the 1547 Book of Homiles

Among the twelve Edwardian homilies, one in particular struck my mind and sent me out on this byway meandering. What struck me, of course, was its excessive use of the reflexive pronoun. And in particular, the emphatic and abundant use of the reflexive pronoun in John Harpsfield’s homily ‘On the Miserie of All Mankynde’.

Out of the 201 reflexive pronouns in the Edwardian homilies, 47 of them are used in Harpsfield’s text. Looking to the pronouns used by Harpsfield, the preference for the quasi-communal, quasi-individual ourselves is clear: Hym/himself: 10; thy self: 1; themselves: 2; and ourselves: 47.

Types of reflexive pronouns in Harpsfield’s homilie on ‘The Miserie of all Mankynde’


The homily on the ‘miserie of all mankynde’ is the second in the collection, which opens with a homily on the importance of reading scripture.
Harpsfield was a religious writer and theologian at the time and was not known for his reformed views. After the death of Edward, Harpsfield enjoyed success under the Marian reign and equal fall from grace due to his catholic convictions during the Elizabethan reign. Harpsfield’s text is focused on the sinfulness of man and his own inability to cleanse himself of sin. One of the main tenants of the homily is that man is unable to know himself perfectly – only God knows man perfectly – and that despite this inability, it is the duty of every man to examine himself and repent every desire and sinful thought.

Title page to the homily by John Harpsfield, Certayne Sermons or Homelies, 1547

This command for self-examination is prevalent in first homily ‘A fruitful exhortation to the readinge of holy scripture’ which opens with the declaration that ‘In these bokes [Scripture] we may learne to know our selfes, how vile and miserable we be, & also to know God, how good he is of hymself; and how he communicateth his goodnes vnto vs, and to al creatures.’[9]  This trope is taken up throughout the first book of homilies. In Edmund Bonner’s sermon ‘On Christian Loue and Charitie’, the trope is elaborated upon and almost as if it were an afterthought the image of a mirror is incorporated:

‘therfore you shall heare now a true & playn descripcion of Charitie, not of mennes imaginacion, but of the very woordes and example of our sauior Iesus Christ. In which descripcion, euery man, (as it were in a glasse) maye considre himself & se plainly without error’.[10]

The simile ‘as if it were in a glasse’ drives on the same idea that is presented in the first homily on holy scripture, but what we see in Bonner’s figure of speech is that the connection between scripture and inward examination is intensified and even objectified. In this sense, the immaterial mind and the daunting task of examining one’s mind is concretised and likened to the action of looking at one self in a mirror. The difference, of course, being that when you look in a mirror you see your outer self, whereas, when you read the bible, you may come to know your inward self.
The figure of speech employed by Bonner is repeated in Harpsfield’s homily on ‘Miserie of all Mankynde’:

‘Here’ referring to the Book of Genesis, Harpsfield writes, ‘(as it wer in a glasse) we may learne to know our selfes’.[11]

In the line above, Harpsfield leads up the elaborated trope, by paraphrasing the trope from the first homily. Harpsfield writes that scripture can

‘teache vs the moste commendable vertue of humilitie, how to knowe our selfes, and to remembre, what we be of our selfes.’[12]

There is an intertextuality here between the first homily on the importance of reading scripture and the second homily on the misery of mankind. Scripture is in a sense the means of detection in Harpsfield’s sermon and therefore paramount in any investigation of man’s inward self and this self, be it interior and individual or a collective state of mind is invoked and verbalized through the first person plural ourselves.

Cecile M. Jagodzinski, Privacy and Print, 1999

These inquiries of course open up sideways of their own – one such is the relation between privacy and reading – Cecile Jagodzinski has investigated this boulevard of inquiry in her book privacy and print and argues that “the emergence of the concept of privacy as a personal right, as the very core of individuality, is connected in a complex fashion with the history of reading.”[13]

Perhaps, there is a connection here between the insistence on reading, the image of scripture as a mirror for self-reflection and the profuse usage of the reflexive pronoun. This, of course, is pure speculation, but the abundant reference to selves, especially the collective/individual ourselves might just be an aspect of the emerging verbalization of personal privacy that Jagodzinski identifies in the relation between interiority and reading.

Where to next?

The Reformation is one of the upheavals that in Jagodzinski’s book leads to an intensified focus on reading and introspection. As we have seen, the homilies encourage both reading and introspection, but interestingly, the two homilies that elaborate most fully on this trope of scripture as a mirror for self-examination were written by Catholics who after Edward’s death quickly turned from reformed ideas and rose to power under the Marian Catholic faith. The Marian state saw the many benefits of the homilies, tools of propaganda as they most certainly were,[14] and Edmund Bonner, author of the 6th homily in Edward’s 1547 edition, collected and wrote a Marian book of homilies published for the diocese of London in 1555 that included both Bonner’s own homily ‘Of Christian loue and charitie’ and Harpsfield’s homily on the ‘miserie of all mankynde’.

Where then is this sidetrack down the reflexive pronoun leading us? It would be tempting to make a case on reformed ideals about the direct relation to God, but the circumstances around the homilies and especially those of Bonner and the Harpsfield require more investigation. Having come down this road so far, it seems silly to turn back and really, the next step, I think, in this small inquiry of mine, will be to compare the Edwardian and Marian Homilies for the uses of the reflexive pronoun and in particular to investigate whether Harpsfield’s Marian homily changes its rhetoric and use of the reflexive pronoun from the Edwardian version.

[1] Robert Frost, Poems, ‘The Road Not Taken’, Everyman’s Library, 1997

[2]“There is a total of 55 mes in Beowulf and 6 of these would be myself in Modern English. They are listed in (1) above, repeated here as (7), and (8) to (12)” – (Beo 677–8) – Elly van Gelderen, A History of English Reflexive Pronouns: Person, Self, and Interpretability (Amsterdam/Philadelphia, The Netherlands: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2000), p. 33 <> [accessed 6 May 2020].

[3] ((91) Gawain 1198) – Gelderen, 2000, p. 83.

[4] (207) 2 King Henry I, V, i, 50; Gelderen, 2000, p. 112.

[5] “In short, around 1500, the Middle English situation changes to the Modern English one. This is due to the category change of ‘self’ from adjective to noun (‘self’ becomes the head without person features) and to the change in person features of the pronoun from unspecified (but Interpretable) to Uninterpretable. In what follows, I provide evidence that unspecified features
can be Interpretable.” Gelderen, 2000, p. 114.

[6] Gelderen, 2000, p. ix.

[7] John iv. f. cxxiiijv  ‘Ourselves, Pron.’, OED Online (Oxford University Press) <> [accessed 17 May 2020].

William Tyndale, 1526, Stuttgart Collection, Title page.

[8] ‘Agaynst strief and contencion’, p. 100a. I have expanded abbreviations silently and modernized spelling in cases with þ to th.

[9] ‘A fruitful exhortation to the readinge of holy scripture’, p. 7a.

[10] ‘Of Christian loue and charitie’, p. 46b.

[11] ‘Of the miserie of all mankynde’, p.12b. My emphasis.

[12] ‘Of the miserie of all mankynde’, p. 12b. My emphasis.

[13] Cecile M. Jagodzinski, Privacy and Print, Reading and Writing in Seventeenth-Century England (Charlottesville, Va: University Press of Virginia, 1999), Book cover.

[14] J. P. D. Cooper, Propaganda and the Tudor State, Political Culture in the Westcountry, Oxford Historical Monographs (Oxford: Clarendon, 2003).
See in particular chap. 8, pp. 210-247.

Is this 1563 or 2020? Privacy & Plague: Reading a 1563 Plague Order during the Current Covid-19 Crisis

A month ago, I started seeing one of my old sources, a 1563 Plague Order for the City of Westminster, in a new light.
“Maybe this could be of current interest”, I thought, and stored it in a drawer for later thought. As the weeks passed, I pulled the Order out my drawer more and more often. Then, a week ago, I realised with a mix of intrigue and disbelief that the draconic measures of the Elizabethan Plague Order were not just the emergency measures of the early modern state, they were the measures of the modern state. In the week that has passed, the similarities have only become more pronounced. From my home desk, history has seemed to warp and repeat itself. In all this, one thing seems certain: measures for fighting against epidemics have not in their essence changed since the 16th century, but surely, notions of privacy have.

The otherwise little used word “Quarantine”, originally a forty-day period of isolation, has rapidly moved from passive periphery to active centre stage in our daily vocabulary.

Across the globe, the spread of the Corona Virus is intensifying by the day. And country after country joins the ranks of those with citizens that are affected by the contagious disease. Throughout these countries, the dual-method for dealing with the threat of mass contagion is simple: quarantine and a tracking down of every person with whom the sick citizen has had contact. These precautions, the isolation of an individual, either in the individual’s home, or as we have seen, in hotel resorts, hospitals or even a cruise liner, and the searching out of the person’s movements, activities, and daily interactions, are, from society’s point of view, necessary for the common good. But to the individual citizen, they are also direct, physiognomic, spatial, and informational invasions on the individual’s personal privacy.

As such, the legal and health regulatory developments that are presently being instated across the world beg the question: is health a public or a private issue?

According to a recent tweet by the influential eco journalist, Adam Ramsay, the case is clear: “health isn’t private”. [1]

Instead, Ramsay explains, “Everyone’s health relies to some extent on everyone else’s. Healthcare has to be public because health is public.”

Broadly speaking, we might identify this form of logic as a “common good” sort of argument that reminds us of the prevalence that the benefit of the many takes over the benefit of the few.

At the Centre for Privacy Studies we investigate notions of privacy in early modern Europe in the period between 1500-1800. Needless to say, the question of how to contain and abate mass epidemics was an issue of concern in this period also. My own focus at the Centre is on the City of Westminster during the rule of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), whose reign saw several visitations of the plague.

You might ask what the plague in the 16th century has to do with a virus epidemic in 2020. Well, for one, they have the quarantine in common. Second, they share a similar rhetorical focus on “the common good” as well as a complementing vilification of private interest. Finally, they share a fundamental shift in the balance of power between individual and state. A shift that is perhaps best understood as an invasion or annexation of territory that the state had more or less formally relinquished to the private citizen, but in cases of emergency reclaim to their absolute domain. It is difficult to talk about rights and privacy in 16th century England, but we might, by negative inference, be able to detect the thresholds that the state saw fit to regulate and invade in emergencies. Thresholds that it might not otherwise have bothered with.

The 1563 Plague Order for City of Westminster:

[2]”Fyrst we wyll and command you in the name of our sayde soueraigne Ladye … to … shutte up both … doors and wyndowes towards the streates or common ways by the space of fortie dayes.”

This command is from the Plague Order, issued in March 1563 by the Secretary of State, William Cecil. It commands the civic officials of Westminster to shut up any houses with infected members, placing the sick and their households in quarantine.

In the Order, clear rules for disregarding the quarantine are delineated. That is, should a member of the household be let out – or should a visitor or customer be let in – that same person would be “committed to the upstockes” for about seven days and then brought to the “common gayle” to remain there for a full forty-day quarantine.

[3] Picture from Siobahn O’shea’s blogpost “How bad were the medieval stocks?”
The measures, quarantine in the case of sickness and corporal punishment in the case of disregarding the quarantine, might seem draconic to modern ears. Yet, in China and Italy, two of the most severely infected countries to take measures against the present Covid-19 epidemic, corrective regulations have been passed to discipline those that trespass against their quarantine – or even misinform the health authorities about their activities. The need to assess whom an infected individual might have infected unawares is an important part of containing the spread of the virus, but it is also information that is fraught with details about our private lives. Details we might not want to share either with the authorities or even with family members. There is no evidence in the 1563 source that any such care towards detecting potentially infected individuals took place.

In 1563, quarantine measures were still relatively new in England.[4] And, as we have seen ample evidence of in the past months of Covid-19 coverage, quarantine is still very much in use. Some things however, have changed since 1563.

As stated, quarantine was still a new measure in 1563 and with new visitations, new means were developed to perfect quarantine measure. One of the improvements was the building of pesthouses, or of pest fields, as in the case of the parish of St. Martin’s in the Field. Pesthouses were places to which sick members of a household could be sent for the remaining duration of their life, or in some happy cases, the duration of the quarantine. The infected households in question would still be shut up, but with a significantly smaller risk of catching the disease themselves. Before the pesthouses were used, households would simply be shut up with all of the inhabitants inside, sick or not.

So, in a household of, say, seven, even if only one person were ill, the entire household would be put under quarantine until the house was opened again forty days later. How many, we might wonder, would survive such conditions?

The local parishes of Westminster were at the core of organising everything from shutting up houses, taking away the dead, detecting the infected, collecting money for charity, and doling out “victuell and fuell” to the “persons shutte up and forbidden to come abrode.”[5] The number of deaths during the 1563 plague are fraught with uncertainty, but based on the parish registers of Westminster and London, scholarship on the period estimate a 1000 deaths per week for several months.[6] According to John Charles Cox’s The Parish Registers of England, the parish of St. Martin in Field noted a total of 177 burials in 1563, “145 of which are followed by the word peste.”[7] This might not seem like a daunting number but according to the parish registers, yearly burials would be in the tens and twenties, not in the hundreds. This is evident in Cox’s table over burials between 1562 and 1564 in five nearby London parishes.

[8] John Charles Cox, The Parish Registers of England, p. 145.
To some extent, the 1563 Plague Order informs us of how the state reacted in the face of emergency – quarantine measures, punitive regulation and organisation of poor relief for the quarantined, but it doesn’t tell us anything about how the people reacted. Did they keep the quarantine? And if not, how were such trespassing detected and monitored?

Looking into praxis – Newman’s work on the 1636/37 bubonic plague:

The early modernist, Kira L. S. Newman, seeks to answer some of these questions in her excellent research on the bubonic plague in 1636-1637 London and Westminster.

The question of whether or not quarantined citizens respected their quarantine is answered with a resounding “no” in Newman’s sources. Watchmen were posted outside houses and on corners to keep an eye on the infected households and make sure that none left or entered. In fact, Newman’s sources show a whole list of necessary occupations taken on by the local parishes. The sources from the parish of St. Martin in the Field are particularly detailed and describe the expenses towards a whole corpus of personnel: “nurses, watchmen, bearers and searchers.”[9]

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Newman’s investigations show that it was not the poor, nor the wealthy, that broke their quarantine, or tried to bribe the searchers not to report on an infected member of the house – or bribe the watchmen to look the other way when customers and visitors came calling. No, it was the industrious middleclass. The tailors, the shoemakers, the shop keepers, the innkeepers and other forms of small business owners whose livelihood were pulled from down under them with the severe restrictions on mobility and heavy death tolls in their clientele.

Newman writes that “There was a conspicuous absence of the poorest from the Session Rolls.”[10] The poor, she argues, would be given food and fuel free of charge and therefore might have had less incentive to disregard quarantine orders. But not all poor people had a home or space to share that was theirs. What did the poor people that rented rooms do? The answer to this question is vividly given in the 1563 plague order: they were not shut up. They were shipped out.

Rhetoric and vilification:

“And further, where it is evidently knowen that in the sayde Citie of Westminster, there be greater numbers of people inhabytyng, and as it were swarmyng in every rome, than can reasonably have their sustentation by their honest labours or trade of lyvyng, by reason that for gredinesse and lucre many owners or tenauntes of houses, do take into them other inhabitants and famylyes, to dwell in some part of theyr chambers, shoppes, cellers, or leanetoos, paying for the same also such excessyue weekly, or other kynde of rentes, as they can not mayntayne them selves in sekyng the same by sundry kyndes pf disorder”.[11]

This section of the order is so strikingly rich in its portrayal of the social situation in Westminster. Its portrayal of private property and private greed vs. public good reveals a system that did not have the state apparatus to deal with overpopulation, nor, significantly, the means to contain the spread of the infection. The reasons for Westminster’s overpopulation are compound. For one, Westminster was the seat of power. When Westminster was not visited by the plague, parliament, the royal court and the legal courts were open for courtiers and those with political and legal affairs from all of the country. The wealthier of these would have houses in Westminster for this specific purpose. Similarly, the well-connected would stay with wealthy friends. Everyone else would have to rent houses, rooms, or beds according to their means and status. In turn, such activity brought in servants or demanded that temporary servants be taken on for the duration of a stay, meaning that those in need of a job, or wanting to sell their goods at the market would flock to Westminster too.

Unlike the lockdowns of France, Spain and Italy, the City of Westminster was not shut up nor locked down. Much like Boccacio’s group of imaginative noblemen and women in The Decameron, the rich fled to their country houses and the poor remained.

All those that in the state’s eyes were “swarmyng in every rome” were sent back to where they came from. And those that defied these orders, perhaps in an attempt to make some extra money by continuing to lend out their “shoppes, chambers, cellars or leanetoes” were publicly shamed for their private interest – their “greedinesse and lucre”. Additionally, those that did rent a place, be it in a shop or chamber – were deeply vilified in the Lord Secretary’s description. It is unthinkable by the logic laid out in the Order, that such persons would be able to sustain themselves by an honourable profession. The Order’s careful wording evoke powerful images of greedy self-interest and dehumanised hordes of criminals, endangering the health of the city. The connection that Lord Burghley forges between greed and private interest is by no means novel. In the Acts of Parliament, we see an even more directly expressed vilification of private interest as “private greed”, “lucre”, “profit” and “gayne”. The table below gives an overview of non-formulaic priv*-words, in the Acts of Parliament from 1547 to 1603.[12]

The diagram shows the number of occurrences of priv*-words (words that have their root in the Latin privatus) across the reigns of Edward VI (1547-1553), Mary Tudor (1553-1558), and Elizabeth I (1558-1603).

Vagrants, day-labourers, season workers and their families were, according to the Plague Order, thrown out of their homes, be they rented or lent. Those with permanent settlement in Westminster on the other hand were, if suspected of being infected, shut up in their home, or in the case of servants, in the home of their master. In the first case, such action robbed citizens of the roof over their heads. In the latter case, it robbed citizens of their personal mobility.

The Plague Order from 1563 is unambiguous and unapologetic in its intrusion into private property. The privacy to do what you want – with and in – your property or lodging is unflinchingly interfered by the authorities when the state is in a state of emergency.

Health Status – to be or not to be publicly marked?

With 21st century eyes, these actions are very serious potential violations to personal freedom and privacy. But that does not mean that 21st century governments have not enforced similar measures in states of emergency. In Denmark, we have all been encouraged to work from home and stay indoors and in this moment of writing, all shops, cafés, bars and restaurants are being shut down.

An Emergency Act was passed this week in the Danish Parliament. The Act was passed with a unanimous vote across the political parties. One thing, however, was fiercely debated before the Act was put through; namely, the inviolability of private property. In the Act, the government wants to have the possibility to grant officials the right to search and enter private property without a search warrant. The permission has not been put into use, but it is now in the government’s arsenal, should circumstances call for such drastic measures.

Turning to another example of state muscle-flexing, the French prime minister, Emmanuel Macron, has declared war on the virus and placed the entire country under a 14-day lockdown. During this lockdown, non-essential excursions will be fined.

In the province of Hangzhou, as reported early this month in the New York Times, a new system of classification is introduced to control citizen’s movement and determine their virus status and thereby assess their right to mobility. [13] The app, Alipay, is used to give citizens a health code: Green is good and gives free access to public space and transport, yellow means seven days’ isolation and red results in a 14-day quarantine. The status of your health is based on your movements and the people you have been in contact with. All trackable through the app. As with so many of the measures now put in place, we find historical equivalents. None are found in the 1563 Plague Order, but the Plague Order from 1578, not directed at plague in Westminster but in the countryside, gives an Elizabethan example of publicly marking health status. In the order, it is explained that those quarantined at their farms are allowed to care for their livestock and manure their fields. But it is also noted that such persons “be neverthelesse retrained from resorting into companie of others either publicaly or privately during the said time of the restraint, and to wear some marke in their uppermost garments, or beare white rods in their hands at such time as they shall goe abrode”.[14]

In the case of the app Alipay, used in China, the concerns in terms of privacy and mobility tracking are of course significantly more far-reaching. Emergency Acts are rushed through parliament in countries across the world and as much as such emergency legislation is for the benefit of the common good, citizens also voice valid concerns.

Privacy in a State of Emergency

In a recent article in the L.A. Times, the newspaper answered a question about governmental infringement on the private sphere: “What can the government force people to do in the name of containing the coronavirus?”[15] We might notice the overt hostility and scepticism in verbal phrasing of the question. The word “force” springs to our attention, but also the formulation “in the name of” indicates a deep mistrust towards state interference. What this question brings to mind is the monopoly on legitimate violence vested in the state. The monopoly on legitimate violence is one of the defining aspects of Max Weber’s understanding of statehood. The 1563 Plague Order and the rampant Covid-19 crisis reminds us that this monopoly is constantly negotiated across the different zones of society as perception of what pertains to the public domain expands and contracts. In France, parliament started out by advising its citizens to stay indoors and avoid social engagements and physical contact. Because the initial advisory precautions have been disregarded, the state has now enforced a strict curfew that the law enforcement is tasked with controlling the adherence to. And even more dramatically, the Spanish government has now called in the military to patrol the streets and ensure compliance to the official regulations on personal mobility. [16]

What we might conclude from looking at epidemic induced states of emergency from 16th century England to the present day globalized world is that in cases of emergency the public sphere becomes more elastic as it expands to regulate more and more aspects of society. At the Centre for Privacy Studies we are particularly interested in notions of privacy in the overlaps and thresholds between different societal zones. A visualization of these societal zones in a non-emergency state could look something like this:

But as the headline of the L.A. Times article manifests, the proportional interrelation between the zones undergoes a significant, if not dramatic, shift in cases of emergency:

Naturally, the measures against epidemics have changed, but quarantine and disciplinary actions towards those who disregard the quarantine remain core measures, and have been so for over five hundred years.

During this period, our notion of privacy in northern Europe has changed dramatically, especially in the past two hundred years. And worries about what the state might force you to do are expressions of this. But predominantly, citizens seem to agree with Adam Ramsay: Health is a public issue. Such status legitimises the expansion of the public sphere in cases of health emergency today and historically. The question then is whether our more developed and legally manifested notions of privacy even matter in emergency situations. When it comes to state nullification of private spheres, be they personal, informational or spatial, has the situation over the past five hundred years merely changed from ignorance to informed consent?

Leaving that polemical question to linger, I will thank you for your attention. Please comment and please share any sources you might be working on that, like the 1563 Plague Order, gives you that crazy sense of being in a warped space-time continuum.

Sources Cited:

[1] @AdamRamsay (Adam Ramsay), “The Coronavirus is an important reminder that health isn’t private. As a species we live in herds. Everyone’s health relies to some extent on everyone else’s. Healthcare has to be public because health is public.“, Twitter, 28 Feb. 2020,

[2] Wyllyam Cecill Knight, High Stewarde of the Citie of Westminster, and Ambrose Caue, Knight, Chauncelour of the Duchye of Lancaster, Two of the Priuie Counsell to the Quenes Moste Excellent Maiestie, to the Baylyffe, Headboroughs, Constables, and Other Officers within the Sayde Citie … Greeting Knowe Ye That Our Sayde Soueraigne Lady the Quene, Hauyng Compassion of the Estate of That Her Citie, Because of the Long Visitation Thereof with the Plague …, Early English Books, 1475-1640 / 1881:05 ([S.l.] : Jmprinted by Richard Jugge, Printer to the Quenes Maiestie, Cum priuilegio Regiae Maiestatis, [1563], 1563).

[3] Siobhan O’Shea, ‘How Bad Were the Medieval Stocks?’, Interesly, 2018 <> [accessed 6 March 2020].

[4] Kira L. S. Newman, ‘Shutt up: Bubonic Plague and Quarantine in Early Modern England’, Journal of Social History of Crime, Corruption, and States (Spring 2012, pp. 809-834), p. 809.

[5] Wyllyam Cecill Knight, 1563.

[6] J. Charles Cox, The Parish Registers of England (London Methuen, 1910), p. 144 <> [accessed 16 March 2020].

[7] Cox, 1910, p.145.

[8] ibid.

[9] Newman, 2012, p.811

[10] ibid. p. 823

[11] Wyllyam Cecill Knight, 1563.

[12] The data is mined from The Statutes of the Realm: Printed by Command of His Majesty King George the Third, in Pursuance of an Address of the House of Commons of Great Britain. From Original Records and Authentic Manuscripts, 10 vols (Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1810), iv, part I <> [accessed 30 October 2019].

[13] Paul Mozur, Raymond Zhong, and Aaron Krolik, ‘In Coronavirus Fight, China Gives Citizens a Color Code, With Red Flags’, The New York Times, 1 March 2020, section Business <> [accessed 17 March 2020].

[14] Wyllyam Cecill Knight, 1563.

[15] ‘Q&A: What Can the Government Force People to Do in the Name of Containing the Coronavirus?’, Los Angeles Times, 2020 <> [accessed 3 March 2020].

[16] ‘Coronavirus Spain: Government Sends in the MILITARY to Police the Streets amid Lockdown | World | News | Express.Co.Uk’ <> [accessed 19 March 2020].








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