Practices of Privacy, the Online Experience

The lockdown efforts started exactly when my colleague Natália da Silva Perez and I were organising the final touches of our upcoming symposium, Practices of Privacy: Knowledge in the Making. With participants coming from several different countries, there was no chance for us to host the event as planned, and we were facing three options: 1) cancelling the symposium; 2) postponing it in the hopes things would eventually return to a modicum of normality; 3) transform it into an online event.

We had spoken many times about academic accessibility and digital possibilities, so we decided to face the situation as an opportunity to venture in that direction. On top of that, with the cancellation of events we were going to participate, we had a little bit more time on our hands to dedicate to this online shift.

Our online platform x the discussions of the Royal Society: academic debates in flux

There was a lot to learn in a short amount of time, but besides the technical hurdles, we needed to make sure that our participants were comfortable and ready to join us in this new experience. The format had to be organised as to enable discussions without overwhelming any participant. As such, from the beginning, we decided to make this an asynchronous event. Thanks to the willingness of our delegates to record their presentations, we were able to create a space online where the participants could watch the talks and join the discussions. To give time for these discussions to flourish, we extended the period of the asynchronous event to cover a whole month (from April 24 to May 31, 2020).

The main issue with an asynchronous event was to guarantee engagement. We had our online platform, with the uploaded presentations and designated discussion spaces, but it is very hard for presenters to feel heard in this kind of environment. We decided to assign discussants for each of the presentations. Each week, some participant would write a question or a comment on one of the presentations as a way to get the conversation started.

Technology enabled these conversations, but brought with it its own hurdles! (image by redlemonade.ie)

A preliminary Zoom meeting took place, in which Prof. Mette Birkedal Bruun introduced the Centre for Privacy Studies, and we talked about what would happen in the weeks ahead. All participants could introduce themselves, giving faces to the names their peers would encounter on the online platform. While we could not yet meet in person, our personal spaces at home had to merge through the tiny Zoom window. After so many of these meetings, most of us are all too familiar with this unique feeling of impersonal intimacy.

Cartoon by Shannon Wheeler (cartooncollections.com).

Many academic colleagues share this experience of suddenly having to switch to online formats. A lot has been said about issues of privacy involving this shift. The irony of discussing historical notions of privacy in the process of knowledge-making in the context of the lockdown had not escaped us.

With that, we headed on to engage collectively with practices of privacy through history. Our discussions were centred around eight panels:

  1. Arts, Secrets, Techniques
  2. Scholarly Practices
  3. Confidentiality and Exposure
  4. Geographical Spaces
  5. Architectural Spaces
  6. The legal, the religious, the political
  7. Writing Lives
  8. Becoming Private

You can see the abstracts of these fantastic papers here. The papers spanned from early modern to contemporary issues of privacy within practices of knowledge production. Artisans, artists, authors, housewives, scholars and scientists, many were the historical actors in these processes. We also had the honour to have Prof. Catherine Richardson as our keynote, who provided a brilliant overview of the intersection between knowledge and privacy practices within her project on the cultural lives of the middling sort.

The online discussions were extremely insightful. The fact that people were commenting from home, with time to elaborate and with the chance to consult their sources and bibliography, meant that the comments and answers were detailed, precise, and of high academic level. These discussions worked almost like a process of open peer-review. However, it also made the process more demanding for the participants than the Q&A of a conventional conference.

Another thing that was lacking was the chance for interpersonal exchanges. With the formalities of the online platform, it was complicated to create a connection with the participant as individuals, and not only academics. After the discussions on the online platform were over, we noticed that there were so many threads and connections among the participants that deserved to be explored further. As such, we created separate Zoom meetings for specialised discussions: Women, Privacy, and Knowledge; Spaces of Knowledge, Knowledge of Spaces; Knowledge and Authorities; and Rituals and Religion. These optional discussions, with a smaller amount of participants engaging in real time, were extremely prolific, with incredible exchanges of sources, literature, and historical perspectives. Most importantly, they also gave us a chance to connect more personally with one another.

The Centre for Privacy Studies sends a heartfelt thank you to all participants! What an incredible journey! We are very happy to confirm that the in-person event will take place on March 4-5, 2021 (if the circumstances allow). In the meantime, we will work collectively on the future publication based on the symposium papers. In other wonderful news, Practices of Privacy will have its second edition in March 2022! The call for papers is already opened for the symposium Practices of Privacy: Vestiges of Dialogue. Hope to see you there!

Epidemics and the issue of private knowledge

News revealed that there was a point during the spread of Covid-19 in Italy when there were not enough respirator valves for all the patients that required treatment. When the original manufacturer could not supply extra valves, volunteers developed improvised solutions. Cristian Fracassi and Alessandro Ramaioli made use of 3D printers to create a version of the medical device. According to a report by The Verge, they initially got in touch with the manufacturer to request the blueprints but were refused, being told that the file was the company’s private property. Without the blueprints, Fracassi and Ramaioli had to reverse-engineer the device in order to print unauthorized copies of the patented valve. After successful tests, they donated 100 of these 3D-printed valves to the hospital. Speculation about a possible lawsuit for infringement of the patent caused online outrage, raising the question of how we deal with proprietary knowledge in case of emergency such as the current pandemic.

Keeping potentially life-saving knowledge in “private” seems to be a very contemporary issue. Having patents on crucial medication or equipment is now the “norm” of the medical and pharmaceutical industry. In academic circles, efforts to make science more open must face the ever-present question of profit, as well as the assurance of status and influence within knowledge communities. It is such a present concern, but while reading about the 3D-printed valves and the issue of bypassing patents, I could not help but remember one of the healing practitioners I came across in my work on privacy and health in early modern Dresden.

This practitioner was the Leipzig physician Caspar Kegler (c. 1461-1537). I had encountered Kegler’s name in many of the manuscript pharmacopoeias I have been collecting to understand early modern medical networks. His name always appeared in plague remedies, showing that he had a surprising level of specialization for an early-16th-century doctor. However, it was only through the work of Erik A. Heinrichs that I was able to really understand the impact of Kegler’s recipes in the circulation of medical knowledge in the 16th and 17th century.

After becoming a doctor in 1511, Kegler established himself as a remedy maker, producing and selling his medicines at his shop at the Leipzig City Hall. This activity was usually exclusive to apothecaries, so a physician taking over this market was not common at the time. He advertised his remedies in cheap prints like pamphlets and booklets, a new endeavor in the Leipzig print market. He took the chance to seek printers to spread his “plague regimens” after Duke Georg I of Saxony enforced a ban on Luther’s works in 1521. Printers were in need of new “popular” texts to disseminate after the reader-grabbing Lutheran texts were banned. By using the more accessible forms of print, Kegler was able to spread healing knowledge to the literate laypeople, gaining popularity thanks to the accessible tone of his medical treatises and pamphlets.

Kegler, Caspar: Eyn Nutzlichs vnd trostlichs Regiment wider dy Pestilentz; Leipzig [1529]. A digitized version can be found on the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek online catalog

Kegler also counted on the endorsement of local authorities. He stressed in his prints how the Leipzig city council requested his regimens to be published as a way to help the population in the face of a series of epidemics in the early 16th century. In the 1529 version, he proclaims that Duke Georg I himself urged him to divulge his medicines. Kegler was trusted to give medical advice to the masses, providing health regimens as well as spiritual guidance. On top of that, he offered new medicines for the plague.

Opening of the 1529 Leipzig edition

Epidemics tend to push the boundaries of medical knowledge, making people desperate for new solutions. Kegler’s new medicines incorporated learned alchemy and artisanal techniques. In the hands-on space of the laboratory, Kegler was able to refine his recipe for aqua vitae, a potent distillate which was particularly popular in times of plague. His medicines relied on experimentation to prove their efficacy, instead of the traditional reliance on the authority of ancient-Greek methods. This rhetoric worked well with its intended audience since Kegler continued to highlight the experimental aspect of his concoctions in all subsequent prints. Alchemical/experimental medicine was about to take over the medical discourse of 16th-century Germany.

Manuscript with Kegler’s advice on the use of Aqua Vitae (Ludwig VI. von der Pfalz Rezeptsammlung – Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 192; 1570–1572 [Nachträge bis nach 1579], 198r)

Kegler’s resourcefulness and innovative use of new technologies could be seen as similar to the efforts of the 3D-print specialists using their machinery to develop the missing pieces to save lives today. However, we cannot neglect the fact that Kegler’s whole enterprise relied heavily on secrecy.

His pamphlets contained several recipes for plague remedies. These recipes became so popular that they were copied into manuscript pharmacopoeias, surviving in several German archives. However, his most potent and famous medicines were kept as a family secret. When asked to reveal how to prepare his famous “plague electuary”, Kegler instead explained that the complex process required specialized equipment and unique ingredients (including unicorn horn), being too hard to replicate without first-hand supervision. However, there is no definitive evidence that the recipe was ever revealed even to skilled specialists outside of the Kegler family. Secrecy was Kegler’s way of maintaining ownership of his recipe, making “Doctor Caspar Kegler’s Electuary” a branded and recognizable remedy in the following decades. After Kegler’s death, his family continued to advertise his remedies, issuing reprints of his pamphlets as well. His sons continued the secrecy trope, saying that only Kegler’s children had the correct original formula.

Manuscript copy of Kegler’s Plague Regimen (Rezeptsammlung – Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 204; 4. Viertel 16. Jh., 190v)

This healing knowledge was seen as private property of the Kegler family, and they made use of their political influence in order to keep it this way. In Dresden, Caspar Kegler the grandson gained the favor of Elector Christian II. Christian II praised Kegler’s electuary, proclaiming that only Dr Caspar Kegler’s descendants had the correct recipe, while also giving Caspar Kegler the grandson sole privilege to print his grandfather’s work. To this day, although there are recipes that claim to be Kegler’s unicorn electuary, it is impossible to verify if they are accurate since the original has never been revealed. The strict secrecy of the Kegler family and the supporting privileges received from their political patrons turned “Dr Caspar Kegler’s Electuary” into forgotten knowledge.

Pharmacopoeia claiming to have the recipe of Kegler’s Electuary (Arzneibuch – SLUB Mscr.Dresd.App.2975, 1550-1586, 5v)

On the other hand, Kegler’s open recipes being copied and adapted in subsequent manuscripts show us that knowledge grows as it is shared. I think the past has a lot to reveal about the question of proprietary knowledge. By looking at how societies dealt with knowledge being “private property”, we can inform the decisions we make today. Who benefited from private knowledge in the past? What were the consequences of private knowledge to those societies? How tragedies and emergencies affected how knowledge was treated? Posing these questions to the past can illuminate the paths we are taking for the future marked by the pandemic. Kegler and other examples from history show us that humans are resourceful, and even the hardest of times can be the grounds for important discoveries. It is up to us to not let our knowledge be forgotten.

Charity as Healing: Dealing with Demonic Possession in Seventeenth-Century France

Last October, the Centre for Privacy Studies organised a symposium in collaboration with the Centre de recherche du château de Versailles, called “Conspicuous Privacy: Charity in Versailles under Louis XIV”. The idea behind this event was to tackle the conflicting role of charity in the court of Louis XIV. Charitable acts were expected, as a Christian duty, to be performed humbly in private. However, at the same time, they were used as a tool for ostentation and political manoeuvre. As the event description puts it: “There is an apparent paradox between the normative privacy of charitable acts, and the public flaunting of these acts that happened in reality.”

My presentation at this event focused on how charity could be understood as public masking of private intentions during the Affair of the Poisons. Madame de Brinvilliers, a noblewoman involved in a poisoning plot, was said to pretend to perform charity at the hospital in order to experiment the efficacy of poisons on the paupers. Hospitals were a central focus of charity, but they were also a place where people were extremely vulnerable, which exacerbated the anxieties of the time – such as the fear of poisoners. In such a context, the charity that was closely associated with healing could also be considered suspicious or dangerous.

Adam Elsheimer ( 1598 ). Wellcome Images L0015276

While working at the hospitals and healing the sick was considered an important charitable act, charity was also seen as a form of healing. Nobles would donate to religious institutions asking for prayers or masses to heal a loved one. Good actions were seen as purifying the soul, and therefore, acted to cleanse one’s body. I am very curious about this tangled reciprocity between charity and healing. Could this be a useful tool to explore how charity existed in this threshold between private duty and public performance?

Interestingly, cases of possessions were among the ailments that could require charity as healing in early modern France. One of the most well-known cases of possession in seventeenth-century France was the one involving the Ursuline nun Jeanne des Anges. In the 1630s, the superior of the Ursuline convent in Loudun was said to be possessed by several demons, having to undergo numerous exorcisms. Jeanne became notorious for her suffering at the hands of demonic forces and for her faith throughout the laborious process of trying to remove them.[1] In her memoir, charity is shown as being a key part of her battle against the demons:


“One night during my prayer, as I prayed to Our Lord to let me know his will on this subject, I was told internally that I had to fight this demon by acts of charity, patience, and submission; with those, I would get over it.”[2]


After having all demons expelled from her body, Jeanne made pilgrimages that attracted a broad public. The notoriety of this case fostered a cult-like following of the nun who went through so many miraculous exorcisms. She began to act as a miracle-worker, and  her fame allowed her to meet Richelieu and King Louis XIII.

Scene from Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s movie “Mother Joan of the Angels”, also known as “The Devil and the Nun”, from 1961.

She became a consultant in cases of possession or ecstasies, as her intimate experience with exorcisms would enable her to identify which effects had a divine origin and which were of demonic influence. In the records of these consultations, Jeanne continued to stress the role of charity in dealing with cases of possessions and illusions. After examining the case of a nun from a convent in Pontivy who was having visions, Jeanne had divine revelations, in which a voice said that the woman was under a dark influence. The angelic voice also pointed out the need for charity to save the woman from the devil.

The charity referred here seems to be two-fold. One the one hand, there was the need for charity towards the woman, in the form of spiritual guidance by the priests and nuns around her. On the other hand, there was the need for charity by the nun, as the engagement in charitable acts would help to keep her illusions away. Jeanne also dedicated herself to charity after her exorcisms in order to make sure that the supernatural evils could not return to her body.

This seems to indicate that there is a different private dimension to charity. Beyond being a Christian duty, charity appears to have a direct power within the body, being intimately related to control over one’s own personhood in the face of supernatural challenges.

In the future, I aim to compare healing as charity and charity as healing from Catholic and Protestant examples to see how it can help us understand the interplay between health, faith, and privacy in the early modern period. For now, I am pleased to inform that the event “Conspicuous Privacy” will result in a published special issue! More information will follow here on the blog and on PRIVACY’s website.



[1] More information on the whole phenomenon of the possessions of Loudun can be found in Michel de Certeau’s “The Possession at Loudun”. Sarah Faber also described in amazing detail the events surrounding Jeanne in particular.

[2] “Une nuit, pendant mon oraison, comme je priais Nostre-Seigneur de ma faire connoistre sa volonté sur ce sujet, il me fut dit intérieurement que je devois combattre ce démon par les actes de charité, de patience et de soumission, et, qu’avec cela, j’en viendrois à bout.” (Soeur Jeanne des Anges, supérieure des Ursulines de Loudun, XVIIe siècle : autobiographie d’une hystérique possédée, d’après le manuscrit inédit de la bibliothèque de Tours. Paris : G. Charpentier et Cie, 1886, p. 148.)

Privacy at Sea

Last week, on November 7, my colleague Jesper Jakobsen invited me to a seminar at the Saxo Institute (University of Copenhagen). In this seminar, Dr Catherine Beck was presenting her work “Understanding madness at sea in the eighteenth-century British Royal Navy”. After working on a project about superstitions surrounding shipbuilding at the Arquivo Municipal de Vila do Conde in 2015, I was very excited to get in touch with sea-related research again.

In her presentation, Dr Beck discussed how the idea of “madness at sea” was portrayed in surgeon’s logs and court martial transcripts of the late-eighteenth-century British Royal Navy. Discipline, obedience, and self-care were crucial to survival in the context of a Navy vessel, especially due to the limited space and only occasional access to land. Life at sea was tough, and sailors were generally perceived as being resilient, but also superstitious and naïve. At the shore, sailors represented almost the opposite of the Enlightenment ideals, being associated with drunkenness and absence of “reason”. In a certain way, to the world outside the ship, sailors were already “mad”. So what would constitute “madness” at sea?

Night Alarm, Prepare for Action, 19th-century caricature

Looking at her medical and legal sources, Catherine Beck could identify different “marks of insanity”. Acting in inexplicable ways, incoherent speech, and non-conforming appearance were associated with madness, but also physical signs like red eyes, indigestion, and fevers could be indicators. Interestingly, these marks alone would not necessarily be correlated to insanity at first glance. Madness at sea was less a matter of the “acts”, and more a matter of the “actor”. Similar symptoms would be understood differently depending on the ranking, responsibilities, and social background of the individual. The accumulation of several “marks of insanity” was crucial to a sufficient diagnosis. These contingencies of diagnosis were also related to the individual’s usefulness within the ship. Official diagnoses of madness were mostly used for temporary discharges after trial, in order to avoid executions that would waste experienced sailors.

These sources, however, have their limitations. The cases that came to court were the ones in which the individual’s actions became too extreme, and some trials show that the person’s mates usually managed the symptoms by themselves, creating dynamics to protect the “mad” person and each other. This idea of social dynamics within the ship being a critical factor in how the individual was treated led me to think that these dynamics probably played a massive role in the creation of privacy at sea.

Gabriel Bray, “Four Marines Eating Pease”

While high-ranking officials would have their own quarters, most of the crew had to share their space. As someone who lived for almost a year in a student commune that was just a large room filled with bunk beds to accommodate people, I can imagine that the sailors would find ways of creating privacy, just as us students did. While the materials (or lack thereof) onboard imposed difficulties, sailors improvised walls with sheets and created spatial definitions for themselves. Even in crowded sleeping quarters, one’s own hammock became their private space.

Ship deck, 1768, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

In his work “Boys at Sea: Sodomy, Indecency, and Courts Martial in Nelson’s Navy”, B.R. Burg describes how sailors would use the ship’s space to try to conceal acts of sodomy. Efforts to keep sodomy as private as possible in the Navy would take place especially due to article 29 of the Articles of Wars, which dictates: “If any person in the fleet shall commit the unnatural and detestable sin of buggery and sodomy with man or beast, he shall be punished with death by the sentence of a court martial”. But given the spatial constraints, where would people engage in sodomy?

Sodomy trials show that members of the fleet would take advantage of any chance of seclusion, using any spatial nooks that could conceal them. A particularly important element of privacy at sea was darkness. Burg describes how the trials regularly mention the need to “grab a lantern” when people suspected of being committing sodomy were found. “Hidden places” were a bit harder to come by. Usually, the spaces described are between the ship’s guns, behind chests, or in burrows between shipboard gears (p. 66). However, the information we have at hand are of those cases in which people failed to conceal themselves. Or more importantly, they failed to conceal themselves from the wrong people. It is safe to assume that just as crewmates accommodated their mentally ill colleagues, they also found ways of providing privacy for other acts as well.

Privacy was not (and could not be) a matter of isolation from the others. Privacy was the systems created to allow everybody “their space” – not necessarily physical, but also mental. These dynamics of privacy did not depend only on spatial definitions, but of intentional acts that enabled one’s privacy: to turn one’s back, to avoid looking at something, to use one’s own body to become the “wall” for someone else, to ignore or keep secret information about others.

I am by no means a specialist in maritime history, so I would love to hear from my fellow historians about what kind of dynamics of privacy at sea they see in their sources. Any comments are more than welcome, but please bring your best “privasea” puns or keep them at bay.

Settling things like gentlemen – duelling as private justice?

One of the main advantages of working together in a “laboratory of the humanities” is how we instigate each other to think outside our disciplinary boxes. “Privacy” is an excellent catalyst to this kind of interdisciplinary discussion, especially in historical terms. At the Centre for Privacy Studies, we are continually questioning the different ways in which each of our research specialities encompasses aspects of privacy and how we can approach these aspects in a non-anachronistic way. One of the methodologies proposed by the Centre for Privacy Studies is to identify priv* words (“private”, “privacy”, and other variations) in early modern sources, and to analyse in what context they are used. In my case, my first instinct was that I had never encountered any priv* words within my German sources. The words “Privat” or “Privatheit” were not commonly used in early modern German dialects (with few exceptions). My research is mostly on popular healing practices, so most of the books and treatises I examined would use terms like “Geheim” when talking about things that could be considered “private.” But on further inspection, one of my sources was hiding a priv* word right under my nose.

In one of the chapters of my PhD thesis, I worked on the treatise “Magiologia: Christliche Warnung für dem Aberglauben und der Zauberey.” Written by Bartholomaeus Anhorn von Hartwiss – a Lutheran pastor from Switzerland – and published in 1674 in Basel, this treatise described in detail the use of charms and ritual healing by the population. Since my focus at the time was on how this kind of practice was depicted in religious writings by Lutheran and Catholic authorities, I missed the minutia of a chapter of this treatise dealing with the morality of duelling.

Gioacomo de Grassi, True Art of Defense (1594)

In this chapter, Anhorn described how duelling is unchristian and goes against the laws of both God and Men. The justice of a duel would imply that God would have to interfere in defence of the innocent during the fight, therefore testing God’s will. Even if the righteous person wins, they still have taken a life, which is always a sin. After legal and theological arguments, Anhorn stated that duels should be forbidden as a form of proving innocence, but also as a practice to resolve disputes, to compare strength, to entertain, and to perform private retribution.

Anhorn, Bartholomaeus. Magiologia: christliche Warnung für dem Aberglauben und Zauberey. Basel: Johann Heinrich Meyer, 1674, p. 383.

The idea of “private” retribution (Privat-Raach) is fascinating in the context of duelling. We usually think of duelling as a matter of honour, as one-on-one combat to clear someone’s name. That would require formal arrangements, mostly with witnesses and established parameters for the fight: an ordeal of “gentlemen”.

Joachim Meyers Fäktbok (MS_A.4º.2), 1560s.

A duel between gentlemen would be a more “private” form of enacting justice or of settling between parts. The judicial system was slow and required proof that sometimes would be impossible to provide in cases of defamation. In this case, the “private” justice provided by the duel would have the desired public consequence of clearing a dispute or a personal offence that would affect how the community at large perceives the individual. However, Anhorn seems to be talking about this kind of duel more in item 1 in the list above (when the fight to death is not decided by a judge), or even 2.b (a duel as a way to resolve disputes). So why is he highlighting “Privat-Raach” in his list?

It turns out the term “Privat-Raach” seemed to be in vogue in the late 17th century. One of the first sources I found using the term is from 1644, the “Vinculum gratiae, Das ist: Heiliges und Starckes Bandt Deß Innerlichen und Eusserlichen Gottesdienstes der Glaubigen im Newen Testament”, by Wilhelm Christoph Heim. In this treatise, Heim wrote directly against the idea of justice as “an eye for an eye”, and stressed that the Scripture warns us against such private retributions (“Personal Privat-Raache”, p. 121). For Heim, the true Christian should prefer to suffer injustice than to let himself be moved by impatience (“Der gläubige Mensch soll ihm viel tausendmal lieber unrecht tun / als sich zur Ungedult und Privat-Raache bewegen lassen”, p. 123). In late 17th century legal sources, Privat-Raach seems to refer to all forms of vigilante justice.

Following my own stereotypical view of duels as nobles drawing each other’s blood for honour, I never thought of duelling as a form of vigilante justice. While I was surprised to find duels listed among practices like soothsaying, healing by prayers, and harvest rituals in a treatise against superstition, it makes sense that the idea that God would look down to ensure the victory of the righteous part could be seen as superstitious. Besides, if duelling were enacting one’s own sense of justice, it would go against divine punishment and undermined due process by the legal system. It would be interesting to investigate what is happening during the late 17th century that instigated the discussion over the morality of “private retribution”, and how it relates to other forms of judicial control in German-speaking areas during the same period.

Please leave any ideas or comments below, and disagreement is more than welcome. We can always settle things like gentlemen.