Testing out Voyant Tools with a sample from Lettres Portugaises

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

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

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

Word cloud made using the option to autodetect stop words
Word cloud made using the option to auto-detect stop words
Word cloud made using the option to not remove any stop words
Word cloud made using the option to not remove any stop words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Hondius, Dienke. 2011. ‘Access to the Netherlands of Enslaved and Free Black Africans: Exploring Legal and Social Historical Practices in the Sixteenth-Nineteenth Centuries’. Slavery & Abolition 32 (3): 377–95. https://doi.org/10.1080/0144039X.2011.588476.

Hughes, Kirsty. 2012. ‘A Behavioural Understanding of Privacy and Its Implications for Privacy Law’. The Modern Law Review 75 (5): 806–36. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2230.2012.00925.x.

Margulis, Stephen T. 1977. ‘Conceptions of Privacy: Current Status and Next Steps’. Journal of Social Issues 33 (3): 5–21. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1977.tb01879.x.

Margulis, Stephen T. 2003. ‘Privacy as a Social Issue and Behavioral Concept’. Journal of Social Issues 59 (2): 243–61. https://doi.org/10.1111/1540-4560.00063.

‘Regulations from the Mahamad 1627[5387] Prohibiting Baptism of Blacks in the Amsterdam Sephardic Community’. n.d. Accessed 11 June 2020. https://archief.amsterdam/inventarissen/scans/334/4.1/start/20/limit/10/highlight/3.

Privautés à l’ancienne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transkribus and the Altona Case Team

In the Altona Case Team at PRIVACY, we are working with two versions of a late 18th century text by Johann Peter Willebrand. The text appears in French as Abrégé de la police, accompagné de réflexions sur l’accroissement des villes and in German as Innbegriff der Policey: nebst Betrachtungen über das Wachsthum der Städte.

Cover page of Abrégé de la police

To make our lives easier,  our team thought that it would be a good idea to run the PDFs through OCR, to have searchable and editable texts that we could work with. However, we got huge differences in accuracy with different OCR tools.

We started with the French version of the text, which we downloaded in PDF format from Google books. First, we tried Abbyy FineReader. This is a very good (proprietary) app to run OCR on scanned text written in modern languages , but when dealing with our early modern material, the results were far from acceptable. Next, we tried Transkribus. For 18th century print French, we could choose three different trained models that were publicly available. We tried all of them, with very different results.

Bellow you will see a screenshot with the four results we obtained with the different tools, displayed side by side.

Comparison of OCR tools: 1) Abbyy FineReader (modern French), 2) Transkribus model French_18thC_Print, 3) Transkribus model LaMOP-Livre_Rouge_1, 4) Transkribus model Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes M2
Comparison of OCR tools: 1) Abbyy FineReader (modern French), 2) Transkribus model French_18thC_Print, 3) Transkribus model LaMOP-Livre_Rouge_1, 4) Transkribus model Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes M2

Clearly the winner was the Transkribus model French_18thC_Print (developed at the KB National Library of the Netherlands).

Then came a surprise: as we fiddled with the Transkribus interface to learn more about this particular model, we discovered that it was one of the models developped by Annemieke Romein, with whom we had a couple of Transkribus workshops online. What a serendipitous discovery!

Now we are even more excited to bring Annemieke for an in-person training at UCPH, in a cooperation between our team at the Centre for Privacy Studies,  and Prof. Gunvor Simonsen, and her team of the ERC project  In the Same Sea: The Lesser Antilles as a Common World of Slavery and Freedom, at the Saxo Institute.

Here is the model’s description on Transkribus:

[Transkribus model French_18thC_Print] is based on printed texts in French (Romantype Font) that was used in Flanders (Low Countries), during the 18th century. The type of sources used for this model, are books of ordinances, which contained the norms (‘laws’) at the time.
This model has been the result of one of the KB National Library of the Netherlands Researcher-in-Residence position 2019. The project was called ‘Entangled Histories’. The books used for this specific model, have been provided by the Bodleian Library Oxford (RECUEIL DES ÉDITS, DÉCLARATIONS, LETTRES-PATENTES, &c. ENREGISTRÉS
AU PARLEMENT DE FLANDRES). For more information regarding the background of the model and how to cite it, please visit: www.https://lab.kb.nl/dataset/entangled-histories-ordinances-low-countries

We look forward to working with Annemieke. If you want to learn more about her work with Transkribus, check out her website caromein.nl or find her on Twitter @CARomein

Bad Air or Germ Invasion?

Good health is the most basic condition for a person to live a thriving life and—as we have been witnessing for the last few weeks with the COVID-19 pandemic—countries desperately need their people to be healthy, too. Otherwise, society goes bonkers. Hence, the importance of public health measures to control and prevent the spread of disease.

Le bonheur, et souverain bien de la vie consiste plus en la bonne santé qu’en tous les biens du Monde, puis qu’elle l’entretien et prolonge, et que sans icelle elle est déplaisante. (Andre le Gros, 1625)

[Happiness, chief wellbeing of life, consists more in having good health than in having all goods of the world, since health maintains and prolongs life, and without health, life is unpleasant.]

Last week, Anni discussed public health measures imposed during times of pandemic, which—though necessary for the greater good—can have detrimental implications for people’s right to live free from interference from the state. She shrewdly compared a 1563 English Plague Order with current measures affecting us right now in 2020 because of COVID-19.

But in addition to imposing rules of quarantine, isolation, and other behaviors, early modern authorities, just like our authorities today, also tried to prevent the spread of disease via less draconian measures, especially by giving advice on how to contain the problem. I am curious to know how advice on prevention worked during the long winded Second Plague Pandemic compared to what we get today from our public health officials.

In a time before the germ theory of disease was accepted, some providers of health care believed that diseases could be passed on by bad, stinky air, which they called miasma. This idea, which already existed in Hippocrates’ time, was expanded and popularized by Galen, and it was also what many health practitioners believed in the early modern period. In the absence of a visible cause for the disease, the idea that miasma was what caused it made a lot of sense: proximity to those infected with the plague led healthy people to become sick, so the bad air in the vicinity of sick bodies was the primary suspect, especially given the stench that inevitably hang around places where the disease struck. Notice below in Nicolas Poissin’s painting The Plague of Ashdod how a character on the right side covers his nose.

La Peste d’Asdod by Nicolas Poussin (1630)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In a treatise with the long name Régime de santé, souverain bien de l’homme en ceste vie, observant les préceptes de Hyppoc. et Gal., avec la manière de se préserver contre la peste, André Le Gros, a graduate from the school of medicine in Paris, talked about how to prevent the plague and how to treat it in people affected. On page 11, he suggests

éviter le mauvais air, et principalement celui qui est gâté et infecté de ceste maladie, et ou elle est, et a été ; se retirer des grandes assemblées et compagnies suspectes, se contenir chez soi si on n’est pressé d’affaires ; se tenir nettement, faire bon feu dans le logis, et aux rues aussi, qu’on doit bien nettoyer et en ôter les immondices, et y jeter souvent de l’eau fraiche et nette; parfumer les maisons et chambres avec bois, herbes et drogues de bonne senteur.

[avoid bad air, especially air that is spoiled and infected with this disease, and [places] where it is and has been; withdraw from large assemblies and suspicious companies; contain oneself at home if one is in no hurry due to business; keep oneself clean, make a good fire in the house and in the streets, too, which must be cleaned well and be rid of trash, and [where] fresh and clean water should be thrown often; perfume the houses and rooms with wood, herbs, and drugs that smell good.]

Today we know that stinky air, though unpleasant, is not the cause of the plague. Bacteria named Yersinia pestis cause the disease.  And the germ theory is now so well established that in popular parlance about our current evildoer—the coronavirus—we give priority to mentioning the microorganism. We are capable of imagining these tiny invaders entering our respiratory system to wreck havoc. Invisible little bodies populating the surface of our skin must be flushed with soap and water, or killed with alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

WHO advice for the public to prevent Coronavirus disease (COVID-19)


Update: A previous version of this post stated that the miasma theory came from Galen, but he in fact expanded upon earlier ideas, including those of Hippocrates. Thanks to Natacha for the correction.


“Germ Theory of Disease.” In Wikipedia, March 20, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Germ_theory_of_disease&oldid=946550640

Jones, Colin. “Plague and Its Metaphors in Early Modern France.” Representations 53 (1996)

Kannadan, Ajesh. “History of the Miasma Theory of Disease.” ESSAI 16, no. 1 (April 1, 2018). https://dc.cod.edu/essai/vol16/iss1/18

Le Gros, André. Régime de Santé, Souverain Bien de l’homme En Ceste Vie, Observant Les Préceptes de Hyppoc. et Gal., Avec La Manière de Se Préserver Contre La Peste . Ensemble La Protestation d’Hyppoc., Mise En Vers François Par Un Ancien Médecin de La Faculté de Paris. Dédié à MM. de Paris, Par Un Docteur de La Mesme Faculté, 1625. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k5629510w

“Second Plague Pandemic.” In Wikipedia, March 22, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Second_plague_pandemic&oldid=946815591

Afro-Amsterdamers in the 17th Century

Rembrandt van Rijn, Two African Men, 1661
Rembrandt van Rijn, Two African Men, 1661 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the 17th Century, there was a community of people of color living in Amsterdam. This community was linked to the maritime industry: black women established permanently in the city were married to black men who worked as sailors for the VOC and the WIC, the Dutch West and East India Companies. Mark Ponte, who has been studying this community’s traces in the collection of notary deeds at the Amsterdam City Archives, explains:

From the moment the Dutch became active in the Atlantic world, people of African descent came to Amsterdam. Their presence is evident from baptismal and marriage registers and from seventeenth-century notarial deeds. (via Twitter)

The painting above, made by Rembrandt in 1661, most likely depicts two men who belonged to this community of afro-descendents, which was located around Jodenbreestraat, known today as the Old Jewish Quarter. In his article about the topic, Ponte shows the location of this community on the map below, a an adaptation of “Amstelredamum emporium Hollandiae primarium totiusque Europae celeberrimum”, Balthasar Florisz Berckenrode, 1625 (source: Amsterdam City Archives Collection).

Amsterdam in the Seventeenth Century: 1. Huiszittenhuis en turfpakhuizen 2. Leprozenhuis 3. Sint Antoniespoort 4. Pauwegang 5. Vlooienburg 6. Huis Moyses 7. Atelier Rembrandt 8. Ververstraat

It is super interesting for me to get concrete primary evidence of the close proximity of the Afro-Amsterdamer community to the Sephardic Jewish community in Amsterdam, whose archival traces have been the target of my attention. According to Ponte’s article,  women of African descent very often were employed as servants at the houses of Jewish merchants.

This raised so many research questions in my head… Jewish servants working at Christian households and Christian servants working at Jewish households were often the target of unwanted sexual attention by their respective masters, which often resulted in unwanted pregnancies and serious problems for the woman involved. I know this from the work of Elisheba Carlebach (Hamburg and Altona) and Lotte van de Pol (Amsterdam). I wonder now what the archives can tell me about unwanted pregnancies among the community of people of color in Amsterdam. I guess this is a question for my next archival trip!


Carlebach, Elisheva. “Fallen Women and Fatherless Children: Jewish Domestic Servants in Eighteenth-Century Altona.” Jewish History 24, no. 3–4 (2010): 295–308. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10835-010-9114-y.

Pol, Lotte van de, and Erika Kuijpers. “Poor Women’s Migration to the City: The Attraction of Amsterdam Health Care and Social Assistance in Early Modern Times.” Journal of Urban History 32, no. 1 (2005): 44–60. https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144205279198.

Ponte, Mark. “‘Al de Swarten Die Hier Ter Stede Comen’ Een Afro-Atlantische Gemeenschap in Zeventiende-Eeuws Amsterdam.” TSEG/ Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History 15, no. 4 (March 11, 2019): 33–62. https://doi.org/10.18352/tseg.995.

Emotions in Historical Documents

File:Étienne Jeaurat 001.jpg

La conduite des filles de joie à la Salpêtrière : le passage près de la porte Saint-Bernard
Étienne Jeaurat (1699 – 1789)

“Jurors do not and cannot detect remorse or any other emotion in anybody, ever. Neither can I and neither can you. And that’s because emotions are not what we think they are.” This straightforward statement introduces the TED talk You Aren’t at the Mercy of your Emotions–Your Brain Creates Them, by Lisa Feldman Barrett, neuroscientist, psychologist, and professor at Northwestern University (and one of my nerdy heroes!)

I first got to know Barrett’s work back in 2017 when I read How Emotions Are Made (a book that covers the TED talk topics in more detail). I picked up her book after reading Patricia Churchland’s Braintrust and A.D. (Bud) Craig’s How do You Feel?. Having been captivated for years by the study of emotions—as an actor, as a historian, and as a person who feels them—I had been in a personal and professional quest to understand the role of our neurobiology in our emotions.

Barrett is referring to the trial and conviction of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013. The final verdict gave Tsarnaev the death sentence rather than life in prison, in part because the jurors did not think that he felt remorse for killing and hurting so many people. The New York Times reports that “Only two jurors believed that Mr. Tsarnaev had expressed sorrow and remorse for his actions” while “Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun and renowned death penalty opponent, [believed] that he was ‘genuinely sorry’ for what he had done.” Jurors interpreted Tsarnaev’s emotional expression in one way, a catholic nun interpreted it in a diametrically opposed way.

Who is right?

Well, according to Barrett, both and none. This is because emotions are not an independent reality that exists outside of the brain of the interpreter: an observer’s brain creates the emotion that the observer thinks comes from the person being observed. In this context, the jurors—weighted down by the responsibility of granting someone the right to live or die—brought their own emotional baggage into their interpretation of Tsarnaev’s emotions, and a majority of them interpreted him as being remorseless. Helen Prejean, a leading humanitarian who has been fighting for the abolition of the death penalty for years, also brought her own baggage into her interpretation, judging the accused as experiencing remorse. The bottom line: it is impossible to disentangle someone’s emotional expression from the observer’s  interpretation of that expression. Emotion is co-created by observer and observed. After learning about these insights by Barrett and her team, I started to think of historical documents in a different way…

Take the example of women accused of prostitution in old regime France. They were incarcerated at the Salpetrière in order to mend their morals and atone for their sins. In order to be deemed worthy of eventually being released, a woman had to show signs of true contrition during her long stay at the hospital. Her freedom depended on signs of sincere conversion, and her continued incarceration was justified by signs of pretense. But of course, it was not easy to distinguish sincere repentance from pretended repentance!

Consider the case of the sisters Jeanne and Madelaine Thibault, discussed by Philip F. Riley in A Lust for Virtue. They had been incarcerated at the Salpetrière in 1698 “for having committed the double sin of prostitution with priests and then the sin of sacrilege by receiving the sacraments to mask their evil commerce.” (p. 58) Madeleine was freed after 4 years, but her sister Jeanne had to stay for 10 years before she was released in 1708. Riley notes that Jeanne’s wardens were quite suspicious of her behavior, and in 1705, they attested that her good behavior was due to her having learned of her father’s death, and not due to true repentance for her sins. I am left to wonder how the wardens’ own ideas about each sister might have influenced their interpretation of sincerity or pretense.

Now we know from Barrett that it is hard—actually, impossible—to unambiguously detect remorse in someone’s face. In the case of remorse in historical documents, there is an added layer of camouflage: the words of the scribe. For a historian interested in people of lower social rankings, who very rarely left accounts written by themselves, this insight it an eye opener. Indirect sources on poor people’s lives are all that I have to work with, but I have to be extremely sensitive to what I infer based on these indirect, and often unsympathetic, written accounts.

Greetings, Personal Space, and Privacy


Greetings can be weird.

When you are new in town, greetings can put you in awkward situations because of unknown tacit conventions of the new cultural environment. I was once at a party in Montréal and the topic of greetings came up, each of us outsiders reporting on awkward moments where greetings went wrong in the new town. I had been living in Québec for a while and had noticed that people would often greet each other by offering their left cheek for a kiss. I had also noticed that people who came to Montréal from elsewhere in Canada were more likely not to kiss as a greeting, but rather shake hands or just wave, sometimes hug. In my experience until then, coming from São Paulo, I had seen most people offer the right cheek for a kiss when greeting someone, which sort of trained me to also do the same, allowing for a seamless greeting experience of the cheeks fitting nicely. But that habit was tricky, because in Québec, with people trained to offer the other side of their faces for the kiss, a polite greeting would very often almost turn into a kiss on the lips, which was not the desired goal! I had to retrain myself on how to greet people.

Meeting of Louis XIV, King of France and of Navarre, and Philip IV, King of Spain
Meeting of Louis XIV, King of France and of Navarre, and Philip IV, King of Spain, on the Isle of Pheasants in the Year 1660 by Charles Le Brun (1619–1690) and Edme Jeaurat (1688–1738)
Source: https://library.princeton.edu/versailles/item/905

Greeting conventions intersect with conventions of personal space, and for us humans they seem to change depending on a lot of variables: region of the world, social occasion, differences of gender, hierarchy, sometimes even by the mood of the people involved. A friend of mine recently told me about an international professional occasion gone weird. After a productive conversation with a potential client, she offered her business card, and when the two people were parting, she offered a firm handshake as a final greeting. The man with whom she had been conversing—older and from a different region of the world than the one she came from—at first shook her hand, but after a split second of hesitation, smiled awkwardly, and offered a hug in addition to the handshake. She was slightly surprised, but in the quickness of the moment, she responded to the hug as if it were normal. But she was left with a weird feeling because, even though hugging was normal where she came from, she knew from experience that this was not the case in the place where she was, where people rarely hugged each other in professional occasions.

Regarding this anecdote, I waver between an innocuous interpretation, and a more grudging one: was the man—being aware of the cultural difference between himself and my friend—trying to culturally adapt to the situation by offering a hug? Or did he misinterpret my friend’s upfront and confident demeanor as flirting, then try to take things from the professional realm into the personal with his awkward hug?

When we greet someone, we temporarily shrink the bodily distance that we normally keep between us and other people. This can put us on alert mode. In his book The Spaces Between Us, neuroscientist Michael S. A. Graziano compares the function of this buffer region around our bodies to bubble wrap: it is a sort of layer of protection that arises because some of our brain capacity is dedicated to constantly monitoring the region around our body. Graziano spent the 1990s studying peripersonal neurons and peripersonal space (which had been first described by Giacomo Rizzolatti and colleagues in the 1980s). According to Graziano, our bodies use different sensory inputs—vision, touch, audition, perhaps even smell—all in combination with our memory to keep track of the safety of our bodies, making sure that we maintain a minimal distance from potential threats to our wellbeing.

This is not unique to humans. Graziano credits biologist Heini Hediger as a pioneer on the study of proxemics on other animals. When Hediger was director of the Munich Zoo, he transformed cages into environments that attended to the needs of the animals that inhabited them:

More than just having territories, animals partition their territories. And this insight turned out to be particularly useful for zoo husbandry. An animal’s territory has an internal arrangement that Hediger compared to the inside of a person’s house. Most of us assign separate functions to separate rooms, but even if you look at a one-room house you will find the same internal specialization. In a cabin or a mud hut, or even a Mesolithic cave from 30,000 years ago, this part is for cooking, that part is for sleeping; this part is for making tools and weaving, that part is for waste. We keep a neat functional organization. To a varying extent, other animals do the same. A part of an animal’s territory is for eating, a part for sleeping, a part for swimming or wallowing, a part may be set aside for waste, depending on the species of animal. (Graziano 2018, p. 14)

As a historian interested in questions of bodily privacy, I am constantly confronted with the idea that privacy is a Western concept. People with more radical positions, who I have once in a while encountered in casual conversation, even go so far as to say that this purportedly Western concept is culturally imposed on other cultural environments of the world, where people are prone to live more communal lives and not worry about privacy so much.

But the need to protect one’s body from harm is not a cultural imposition from the West. It is a widespread need that spans across many species. I am left with an empirical question: what is the relationship between this buffer space around our bodies—which arises from the need to protect oneself from physical danger and which is present in many species beyond humans—and the need for a safety buffer zone around ourselves that has a more emotional nature, which we sometimes associate with the concept of privacy?

In my next post, I will talk about what I have been learning from Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work on the social construction of emotions and put it in conversation with what I learned from Michael S. A. Graziano’s work on peripersonal space.

Graziano, Michael S. A. The Spaces between Us: A Story of Neuroscience, Evolution, and Human Nature. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018.