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.

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

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.

Visualizing Privacy: Atmosphere and Medium

One battleground of contemporary privacy issues is the world of big data gathered in the so-called digital cloud. This is quite an intangible battleground. The cloud evokes an elusive realm of ever accessible and simultaneously concealed data: a territory of digital data doubles of concrete counterparts that we might touch and smell, but that we cannot harvest for correlations and predictions. The cloud constitutes an all-encompassing realm where data is placeless and liberated from the bodies that generate it.[1] This cloud is a metaphor. It denotes large data sets gathered as digital information on remote servers, in data centers. It shrouds information politics and privacy regulation in the elusive intangibility of metaphoric vapours.

Using the atmospheric, and in particular clouds, to explain data transmission has important precedents in the Western history of art. They can help us to visualize privacy in relation to the ever-mediated world of digital information. For example, we will show how the motif of the Annunciation – the fateful surprise visit of angel Gabriel to Mary to announce her immaculate conception (cf Luke 1.25-38) – evocatively illuminates today’s digital culture that reconciles constant connectivity with (an illusion of) optional privacy. In the Annunciation, the private, the atmospheric and data meet. Figure 1 shows a paradigmatic visual representation: In the privacy of Mary’s chamber a mysterious data transfer permeates her space and her body, communicated by Gabriel and conceptually facilitated by atmospheric props of clouds and rays of light.

Figure 1: Philippe de Champaigne, Annunciation, ca. 1645/8. Oil on canvas, 334 x 214.5 cm, The Wallace Collection, London. Public Domain.

In this post we approach, in three tentative steps, some problems of visualization posed by the plurality of issues inherent in privacy.[2]. First, we will delve into the implications of describing privacy as an atmosphere, by referencing philosopher Gernot Böhme’s description of atmospheres. Second, we use the spaces usually depicted in Annunciation paintings to draw attention to the spatial construction of privacy, in terms of thresholds, furniture, objects and atmospheric components. Third, we will reflect on the element of communication and information transfer in relation to the private setting of the Annunciation. Here, the integration of the cloud as symbol and device contributes to the construction of an atmosphere of privacy. Reading the Annunciation paintings with a view to Durham Peters’ understanding of media as atmospheric conjures up the promising beginning of an exchange between otherwise quite distinct historical and contemporary nexuses of privacy and clouds. The goal of this blogpost is to offer the conceptual intermediary of atmosphere as a possible link in our ongoing efforts to reach a useful conceptualization of privacy – in this case, the relationship between the digital cloud and privacy. To our mind, a more accessible visualization is a key remedy for counteracting that elusiveness of privacy which leaves users open to abuse.



“When we talk about privacy in today’s society, it’s your eye that is looking. It’s your eye that is doing the invasion of privacy,” says Trevor Hughes, President and CEO of the International Association of Privacy Professionals that is devoted to digital privacy related education and regulation. This quote is indicative of the visual vocabulary that permeates digital culture. Delving into the visual representation not of invasion of privacy but of the actual concept itself, Koerner explored the profuse use of the padlock as its visual icon online, in a former blog entry.

In line with the accessible and inaccessible realms suggested by the padlock, at the Centre for Privacy Studies we usually approximate the fluid concept of privacy by thinking with a series of heuristic zones or thresholds that can be crossed and upheld in relation to privacy (Figure 2). These heuristic zones are not a theoretical model, but a research tool. They help us to gain common discursive ground in our interdisciplinary approach to a shared set of historical sources. And while these thresholds between the zones at first glance suggest definitive boundaries, they are in fact constantly renegotiated and they shift with moving bodies, activities, political and social circumstances, seasons, and time. Thus, these constantly changing shapes and conditions of the protean[3] concept of privacy resist the visual vocabulary that often accompanies it. In this reflection, we shall pursue a different spatial trope. What happens if we conceptualize privacy as an atmosphere – an affective atmosphere?[4]

Figure 2: Centre for Privacy Studies, Work Method, Heuristic Zones

The notion of atmospheres has become increasingly popular over the past three decades, championed in particular by philosopher Gernot Böhme. The concept is especially interesting in relation to privacy as it describes a subjective, environmental condition: “atmospheres are always something spatial, and atmospheres are always something emotional.”[5] Atmospheres can be consciously “produced”[6] and they can overwhelm: “Atmospheres fill spaces; they emanate from things, constellations of things, and persons. The individual as a recipient can happen upon them, be assailed by them.”[7] Let us then consider privacy as a matter of atmosphere rather than solid materiality. Let us ponder the hazy atmosphere of privacy. And let us ponder invasion of privacy as a matter of gusts that can dissolve or alter this atmosphere at any moment. A shift from a solid material to an aerial register comes with representational challenges akin to the challenges encountered by artists who want to represent the meeting of the secular and the divine – as it is the case in the visualization of the Annunciation.


Private Space and the Annunciation

The Annunciation is a key liturgical feast in the Christian tradition. The representation of the Archangel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she will bear the son of God, which is at the same time a representation of the immaculate conception of Christ, became a popular pictorial motif from the late Middle Ages onwards.[8] This motif gathers several important – and complex – aspects, and offers a possibility to ponder issues such as God’s agency in the world through the Holy Spirit; the very foundation of the mystery of the Incarnation; as well as Mary as a model believer who is absorbed in withdrawn pious reading or prayer when the angel accosts her, and responds to his surprising message with docile humility. The motif also invites pondering from a privacy angle. Firstly, the scene is set in Mary’s chamber and depictions often abound in thresholds, marked by walls, curtains, windows and doorways (ex: Sandro Botticelli’s Annunciation (1485-92), Figure 3), which establish layered zones of privacy. Secondly, the scene depicts an act of communication that disturbs Mary’s private reading or prayer while establishing a different kind of privacy between woman and angel in a vicarious representation of the vital meeting of Mary and God. Thirdly, the motif hints at a third form of private space – that of the virgin’s womb where the incarnation is about to be initiated. Portrayals of the event prioritize these different dimensions and temporalities in different measures.

Figure 3 Sandro Botticelli’s Annunciation (1485-92). Public Domain.

Late medieval Annunciations such as those by Robert Campin (1428), Rogier van der Weyden (ca. 1440) and Joos van Cleve (1525) engage intensely with Mary’s chamber, detailing her furniture, as well as the paraphernalia of piety.[9] Dealing with specific artworks, some scholars have associated this interior with female domesticity[10] while others read the furnishing as signifiers of spiritual elements belonging to contemporary devotional literature.[11] As a via media between these two readings we suggest that the key spatial signifier here is not the home, but the chamber. Mary has withdrawn to her closet to pray (cf Matthew 6.6). This may be represented as a physical space, but connotations of interiority loom large.

After the late medieval Italian taste for architectural perspective and the more northern predilection for richly furnished rooms, early modern Annunciations seem to have become more focused on the communicative act. This is the case not least in the Annunciations painted by Philippe de Champaigne (1602-74). Perhaps he painted as many as seventeen different versions of the motif, ten of which still exist.[12] In the article ‘A Private Mystery: Looking at Ph. De Champaigne’s Annunciation for the Hôtel de Chavigny’ Bruun has looked at the three Annunciations that have been associated with the Hôtel de Chavigny in Paris, and they will serve us well in this context too (Figures 1, 5, 6).[13] The three paintings all show Mary and Gabriel in an indoor space with enough furnishing to indicate the privacy of Mary’s chamber (respectively a bed, a fireplace and a prie-dieu: reading desk and kneeling cushion in one). They represent the communication between Gabriel and Mary by way of gestures and the communication between heaven and earth by a ray of light emanating from the dove of the Holy Spirit with clouds and angels supporting the celestial message.[14] These three Annunciations reveal a spatial constellation in which Mary’s chamber meets with heaven. Clouds, populated by cherubim and opening up towards rays of divine light, are literally superimposed onto the domestic setting.


Cloud machinery: atmosphere as performative device

While the floor of the room is detailed realistically with varying tile patterns (Figures 1 & 5), instead of a ceiling, the gaze encounters a seemingly infinite upward extension, beyond the domestic realm, into the heavenly. Especially since the quattrocento, the metaphorically vertical movement of saints and angels between the realm of the mortals and of the divine has been conceptualized as facilitated by clouds. In religious theatre productions, particularly in Florence, co-called cloud machinery that developed out of a simple plinth—“a flat pedestal, camouflaged as a cloud”[15]—into a complex, technologically ingenious illusionary system that could be lifted and suspended, thus creating the illusion of flight or ascension from ground to sky. These props were known generally as “cloud” or nughola/nuvola (Italian), nuée (French) or nube (Spanish).[16] The sturdy iron or wood structure and pulley system were hidden by wadding, feathers and painted fabric to create the imitation of a cloud. In art historian Alessandra Buccheri’s words, the props “were used mainly for the representation of the episodes which involved some communication between heaven and earth”.[17] Actors who represented saints, were able to navigate this interface between the worldly and the heavenly—an elusive border of two realms that meet but do not mix—with the help of the cloud machinery: it quite literally lifted them from one realm into the other.

Figure 4: Andrea Mantegna, Tryptich, ca 1463-1464, 86 x 161.5 cm, Uffizi. Public Domain.

The cloud machinery influenced quattrocento painters. The relationship between the cloud as performative device and mediating environment can be seen in Andrea Mantegna’s (1431–1506) triptych of The Ascension of Christ, The Adoration of the Magi and The Circumcision (1460-1464). Both the Ascension and the Adoration feature cloud machinery (Figure 4), which supports Jesus in the former, and Mary with the Christ child in the latter. The cherub-embellished, mandorla-shaped, blue ascension clouds differ starkly from the meteorological clouds in the distance: these are white, their consistency is less dense, and their sizes and shapes are more irregular than the machinery’s wadding. Philosopher Hubert Damisch draws attention to the close connection between these painted “ascension tools” and religious theatre: “with all the precision of an ethnographer, Mantegna carefully represented the vertical metal rod, the tip of which upheld a star and a foursome of angels in a cloud of wadding”.[18]

It is intriguing that Mantegna depicted the prop rather than a “real” meteorological cloud. The cloud as performative prop—and as symbol—can here be understood as a veil that discloses information in the very act of obscuring it, as it mediates an otherwise impossible exchange of bodies and of information, between earth and heaven. Böhme’s understanding of atmospheres can be extended to the cloud as connective device: “atmosphere is what is in between, what mediates the two sides.”[19] Like the digital cloud metaphor for digital data, the theatrical cloud machinery enables mobility and communication while partly blurring the hardware that enables the exchange. Both mimic the meteorological cloud that is transcendentally mobile, borderless and locationless, that conceals and reveals.[20]

When we link the concept of the digital cloud as a data transfer medium to the theatricality of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, we arrive at an intriguing set of figurations of an invisible and inaccessible space. In the Early Modern Annunciation paintings discussed above, the clouds are still imbued with a mediating agency, despite no longer being quite so explicitly performative. By creating an intermediate space, the cloud apparatus in Renaissance theatre and in Champaigne’s paintings pre-empted any enquiries into the how of the ascension or message transmission. These historical precedents help us to situate the metaphorical, pseudo-meteorological digital cloud, which so omnisciently umbrellas remote computing and archiving, in a long tradition of clouds enabling communication between two bordering but ultimately distinct realms. The cloud is thus a connective device, or rather a mediating environment, as its responsive nature defies clearly defined boundaries.[21]

Figure 5: Philippe de Champaigne, Annunciation, ca. 1643. Oil on canvas, 215 x 170 cm. Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montrésor. Photograph by Alain Crozemarie (2015). This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.


Atmospheric Medium

Not only does the cloud have a history of representing physically inaccessible regions, but it also has a history of mediating. In media historian John Durham Peters’ words, “the idea that media are message-bearing institutions such as newspapers, radio, television, and the Internet is relatively recent in intellectual history”.[22] Media scholar Jochen Hörisch also emphasizes that “well into the nineteenth century, when one spoke of media, one typically meant the natural elements such as water and earth, fire and air”.[23] In Durham Peters’ understanding, media “are vessels and environments, containers of possibility that anchor our existence and make what we are doing possible”.[24] As ‘bodies without surface’[25] clouds are exemplary of spatial entities that have no clear outlines, no beginning and end, making them dynamic media for information transmittal. Rather than as particular messages per se, media can also be understood as data environments that can be tapped into as they invade or permeate our private spaces.

Despite the joyous aspect, Mary’s portrayal in the Annunciation paintings also evokes John Berger’s – possibly a little crude – differentiation between the perception of women and men in paintings. While man conjures agency – “the pretence is always towards a power which he exercises on others”, he finds that “a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her.” Although the immaculate conception is miraculous, according to the Gospel of Luke, Mary was at first “greatly troubled” but succumbs and says to Gabriel, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Berger’s stereotyping thus resonates strongly with Mary’s role and depiction. She is in her private chambers, this is where she sleeps behind curtains, this is where she reads and prays, her outer piety presenting her inner sincerity – and yet, put simply: the ceiling opens up, amidst clouds and holy light an unexpected guest penetrates her space and nestles a fetus in her womb. If there is privacy in the relation with God through prayer (as she was engaging in just moments before), this moment is different. The affective atmosphere has completely transformed: The heuristic zones of Mary’s self, her body, and her chamber have all been permeated by an atmospheric shift visualized by the clouds and light that question her self-determination and privacy through the revelation of a message.

Figure 6: Philippe de Champaigne, Annunciation, ca. 1639. Oil on wood, 260 x 210 cm. Notre-Dame-du-Port de Clermont-Ferrand. Photograph by Quentineo (2018). This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Inscribed in the conception of privacy as an atmosphere is the notion of energy or agency. This agency is a contextual and performative freedom to reveal and to conceal at will, at any given moment. On the one hand, there is the freedom to adjust the contextual parameters in order to withdraw from others’ presence; on the other hand, there is the power inscribed in dynamic, external agents that can affect our ability to do so.

The powerful image of the Annunciation can help us conceptualize the digital cloud and its traversal of many privacy thresholds. Privacy as an ever-shifting affective atmosphere transforms with information flow, activities, spatial and temporal markers. In terms of privacy, the digital cloud can then be understood as a portal into our bodies through health data; into our souls through documentation of intimate conversations, thoughts, and images; into our finances through bank data; into our political mind through Facebook (Cambridge Analytica); into our homes through the internet of things, etc. The digital cloud permeates our private lives quite literally, as do the divine clouds in Champaigne’s annunciation paintings, as they override the affective atmosphere of privacy in Mary’s chamber.




[1] Natalie P. Koerner, “The Digital Cloud and the Great Outdoors,” The Site Magazine 37, no. Future Legacies (2017): 116–22.

[2] Daniel Solove. Understanding Privacy (Cambridge MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2008).

[3] Jeff Weintraub and Krishan Kumar, Public and Private in Thought and Practice: Perspectives on a Grand Dichotomy (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1997), 2.

[4] While some voices emphasis that all atmospheres are affective (Mikkel Bille, “Review: Gernot Böhme, 2017, The Aesthetics of Atmospheres. Edited by Jean-Paul Thibaud. London, Routledge,” Ambiances. Environnement Sensible, Architecture et Espace Urbain, February 20, 2018,, other focus on the affective aspects in relation to affect theory. For example, in his work on affective atmospheres, Ben Anderson takes a point of departure in Marx’s reconfiguration of the epicurean distinction of air, liquid and earth, and his interest in the affective agency that can be developed with the metaphorical deployment of atmosphere as something that ‘presses’ and ‘envelopes’. The metaphorical potency of the notion of atmosphere rests with its slightly ambiguous, indeed airy, implications when it comes to agency/energy and materiality. See also Ben Anderson, “Affective Atmospheres.,” Emotion, Space and Society 2 (2009): 77–81.

[5] Gernot Böhme, An Aesthetics of Atmospheres, ed. Jean-Paul Thibaud (New York: Routledge, 2016).

[6] Böhme.

[7] Böhme.

[8] David M. Robb, “The Iconography of the Annunciation in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries”, The Art Bulletin 18.4 (1936) 480–526; see also Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary through the Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996): Miri Rubin, Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009);  Gary Waller, A Cultural Study of Mary and the Annunciation: From Luke to the Enlightenment (London and New York: Routledge, 2015).

[9] These works contrast Antonello de Messina’s Virgin Annunciate (1476) which draws the viewer into Mary’s inner life solely by means of her gestures and facial expression.

[10] Annette LeZotte, “Defining Domestic: An Examination of the Characteristics and Function of the Home Setting in Early Netherlandish Paintings”, The Journal of Architecture, Design and Domestic Space 6.1 (2009) 5–17 Jeanne Nuechterlein, “The Domesticity of Sacred space in the Fifteenth-Century Netherlands”, in S. Hamilton and A. Spicer  (eds.), Defining the Holy: Sacred Space in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Farnham: Ashgate, 2006) 49–79

[11] Reindert Falkenburg, “The Household of the Soul: Conformity in the Merode Triptych”, in M. Ainsworth (ed.), Early Netherlandish Painting at the Crossroads: A Critical Look at Current Methodologies (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001) 2–17.

[12] Bernard Dorival, “Les oeuvres de Philippe de Champaigne sur le subjet de l’Annonciation”, Bulletin de la société de l’histoire de l’Art Français (1970; publ. 1972) 45–71 (50).

[13] Mette Birkedal Bruun, “A Private Mystery: Looking at Philippe de Champaigne’s Annunciation for the Hôtel de Chavigny” in Quid est sacra­mentum?: Visual Representation of Sacred Mysteries in Early Modern Europe, 1400-1700, ed. Walter Melion, Elizabeth Pastan, Lee Palmer Wandel (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 606–55

[14] Mette Birkedal Bruun, “A Private Mystery: Looking at Philippe de Champaigne’s Annunciation for the Hôtel de Chavigny,” n.d., 632.

[15] Alessandra Buccheri, The Spectacle of Clouds, 1439-1650: Italian Art and Theatre (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), 2.

[16] Buccheri, The Spectacle of Clouds, 1439-1650: Italian Art and Theatre.

[17] Buccheri, The Spectacle of Clouds, 1439-1650: Italian Art and Theatre, 14.

[18] Hubert Damisch, A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting, trans. Janet Lloyd (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 71.

[19] Gernot Böhme. “The Aesthetics of Atmospheres (Ambiances, Atmospheres and Sensory Experiences of Spaces).” Apple Books.

[20] Parts of the discussion on the digital cloud and the cloud prop developed out of Natalie P. Koerner, “Towards the Meteorological: The Architecture of Data Centres and the Cloud” (PhD diss., KADK, 2019).

[21] Koerner, “The Digital Cloud and the Great Outdoors.”

[22] John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2015), 2.

[23] Jochen Hörisch, Ende Der Vorstellung: Die Poesie Der Medien (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1999), 134, 140.

[24] Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media, 2.

[25] From Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, cited in Hubert Damisch, A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 218, 124, 141, 218, and in John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 256.

Essay: Staying home – an opportunity for privacy or a threat to privacy?

‘Please stay home for us!’ Since the outbreak of the corona crisis, healthcare workers from across the world have been successful in crowding social media with this message to the public. Indeed, it seems sensible for the common good to follow their advice, at least out of necessity. Thinking about implications for privacy, as we constantly do at the Centre for Privacy Studies, it seems obvious to ask whether more time at home might not also have positive side effects in terms of privacy. To be sure, long before the modern era, the home has been defined as a private sphere, in opposition to the public square. Along the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, residential buildings have been gradually extended, isolated from each other and become places where an increasing number of people could benefit from certain legal rights to live undisturbed by the outside world (and to some extent even by their closest neighbours). Accordingly, privacy is sometimes described in terms of physical and mental autonomy or solitude, for example as ‘a state of being alone’.[1] With this background, one could imagine that the appeal to stay at home, apart from the apparent problems embedded in transforming it to a place of work, would resonate like a romantic invitation to an existence rich with valuable privacy, whether alone or with family.

Indeed, the corona realities liberate more time for ourselves or our families. But after several weeks almost entirely spent between the walls of our homes, does it really make sense to talk about life dictated by the virus as an existence beneficial for privacy? Although families get more time together – which can surely be valuable in many cases – children have had a rising need to get out. [2] In several countries, public playgrounds have been closed during the strictest lock-downs, and the Spanish government has only recently opened up for children under fourteen to leave their home one hour per diem. [3] As for people living by themselves, the order to stay at home tends to lead to isolation, at least after the first weeks of intense puzzling with crosswords and Netflix consummation. Mental disease, and even suicide rates, are expected to increase as a consequence of rising loneliness.[4]

When I first started to reflect upon how to approach the elusive topic of privacy, which surely escapes too narrow definitions, I was a bit sceptic to approaches that put too much emphasis on the individual’s inner life or a state of solitude. In my efforts to problematise such definitions, I was struck by a stimulating question formulated by Helen Nissenbaum, professor of information science at Cornell Tech: ‘Does a person stranded on an island really have privacy?’.[5] I still find it really difficult to motivate an affirmative reply on that question. Slightly reformulated, it seems to be quite applicable on the quarantine situation: Does a person locked inside his or her home really have privacy? Isn’t rather each family or household stranded on a desert island, although equipped with a decent WiFi-connection?

Professor Helen Nissenbaum (b. 1954)

Helen Nissenbaum has been highly influential in forming US legislation on informational privacy, which is partly based on her concept of ‘contextual integrity’ regarding public surveillance. The basic principle is that no information is private as such; laws must be formulated with regard to its social context. Together with the Canadian philosopher Michael Walzer’s concept ‘spheres of justice’, the framework of contextual integrity urges information gathering to define categories depending on the social norms of various contexts.[6] While Nissenbaum specialises in informational privacy, her heuristic questioning of whether there is reason to speak about privacy on a desert island with one single inhabitant implies that social relations might be an important factor when trying to understand what makes privacy valuable.

Considering privacy as a fundamentally relational phenomenon would suggest that valuable privacy would typically emerge as a response to social experience, in dynamic with others and the outside world. Indeed, this idea coincides pretty well with some creative approaches to study notions of privacy within the field of cultural history, for example as a protest against intrusion (from authorities or fellow citizens), an act of temporary withdrawal from social life or a need to cultivate more intimate relations.[7] This would not exclude the assumption that key moments of experienced privacy are taking place in more or less secluded physical spaces, or while the individual is fully occupied with his or her inner life. But it would encourage scholars in search of privacy to investigate how such moments are related to a social context (authoritarian or friendly) that provokes a need for privacy. It would also imply that long-term isolation might be a threat to privacy.  

If privacy is understood as a response to social experience rather than just in terms of being in one’s private sphere, the social isolation following on the plea to stay at home during the corona crisis may not contribute very well to evoke the values of privacy. But it does seem to suggest a clear-cut distinction between private and public responsibilities during the crisis: the private responsibility being to stay at home; the public responsibility to provide health care to those who need it. From a historical perspective, it might be most peculiar that people are encouraged to be passive. In emergency regulations for seventeenth-century Helmstedt and eighteenth-century Altona – two of the case cities that we are currently researching at PRIVACY – private responsibilities were generally of more active character. In order to prepare for the risk of fire, private people (Privat-Leuten) were ordered to be constantly on guard to provide the city’s functionaries with water and lighting, even in the middle of the night. Today we are barely asked for more than to provide ourselves (and our elderly) with food and toilet paper. Briefly, we are encouraged to fight the corona virus in our distinct private sphere. Having reached a high degree of specialisation and material welfare, today’s Western societies provide its citizens with both physical space and room for action to perform their private lives, in states of emergency as well as under more normal circumstances.


Extract from the fire regulation of seventeenth-century Helmstedt

One thing is sure. Setting our normal lives on hold and staying home gives us quite a unique occasion to ponder and experience what privacy is and what it isn’t. Does it make sense to us, under these extreme conditions, to regard privacy as a state of being alone or as an existence in our private sphere? Or does it rather correspond to our experience that long-term isolation, or the conditions in the private sphere, make it more difficult to experience privacy? We may take the opportunity to try to detect how ‘the corona human’ is seeking his or her privacy. Perhaps by borrowing a dog from the neighbour? It has been widely noticed that dog owners in areas with strict quarantine regulations have been lending out, or even renting out, their dogs to people desperate to get out.[8] The rising interest in dog-walks might satisfy many needs in terms of privacy. It might offer socially overwhelmed family members ‘a time of one’s own’. Obversely, individuals living in self-isolation can get an opportunity to escape their cells, which may help them to live through or, even better, benefit from further days in solitude. A third person might find the dog walking business a joyful way to outsmart the authorities and reconquer his or her autonomy. Perhaps these various efforts to leave one’s private sphere indicate that the state of emergency following on the corona virus is as much a threat to privacy as an opportunity for it? 


[1] E. g. Cambridge English Dictionary, ‘Privacy’. For a rich discussion on theories regarding privacy in relation to freedom and autonomy, see Beate Rössler, The Value of Privacy, Polity Press (Frankfurt am Main 2005) [2001], p. 43–76.




[5] Helen Nissenbaum, Privacy in context: technology, policy and the integrity of social life, Stanford Law Books (Stanford 2010), p. 71.

[6] Helen Nissenbaum, ‘Privacy As Contextual Integrity’, Washington law review, 79:1 (2004).

[7] See for example Barrington Moore, Privacy: Studies in Social and Cultural History, M. E. Sharpe, Armonk (New York 1984), p. xi, 71–73; Diana Webb, Privacy and solitude in the middle ages, Hambledon Continuum (London 2007), p. ix; Julie C. Inness, Privacy, Intimacy, and Isolation, Oxford University Press (New York 1992).


Public Morality or Privacy?

The Coronavirus crisis offers many points of reflection about privacy. My colleagues Anni Haahr Henriksen, Natália da Silva Perez, Natalie P. Koerner, and Natacha Klein Käfer have excellently dealt with many of them. One major issue is represented by the increasing governmental powers of surveillance. Arguing that surveillance will prevent the spread of the novel Coronavirus (COVID 19) governments are starting to use apps, drones, and other forms of technology that erode the citizen’s right to privacy.

It is not a novelty that technology is accused of going against the right to privacy. Ten years ago the founder of Facebook already stated that privacy is no longer a social norm. But now governments can use technology to control the movements of citizens. At the moment, apps and similar instruments seem to be restricted to health needs and time-limited. But what happens if governments choose to use them permanently and for other needs? For example, the police might determine whether the author of a crime was actually on the crime-scene. Public authorities might be able to know where we are and use this information in a trial (e.g. to sanction violations of the lockdown).

What happens if a piece of information about our ‘private’ life becomes public? What happens if public authorities use this information in a civil or criminal process?

These questions about the boundaries between public and private were, albeit in a different way, also discussed in the medieval and early modern period.  Judges might have had to decide whether to use information obtained outside of the trial, without the observance of processual rules, to decide a case. For example, suppose that Titius has claimed that Caius owed him a large sum of money by virtue of a contract concluded in Paris. The judge knows for sure that Caius was not in Paris at that time. The evidence against Caius is therefore false. But is the judge allowed to use this information?

Strictly speaking, processual rules did not allow that. Judges were only allowed to use evidence introduced by the parties. But judges were both legally and morally responsible for pronouncing the right decision. They were not only demanded to comply with processual rules, but also to obey their conscience. They answered for their acts before God. The salvation of the soul was a deep concern and a wrong decision could send the judge’s soul to hell.[1] The dilemma at hand, then, was whether the judge should base his decision on evidence or conscience.

The most influential Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) famously affirmed that the judge exercises a public function and for this reason should only use his knowledge as a public person, not what he knows as a private person. Procedural order must have rigid limits and what the judge knows privately, outside of the trial, must not be used. Aquinas distinguished divine judgment (God knows the truth) from human judgments, which are regulated by processual rules and aim to processual truth. [2] Following the path charted by Aquinas, the Spanish Catholic jurist and theologian Diego de Covarrubias y Leyva (1512-1577) stated that a judge could lawfully pronounce a sentence on the exclusive basis of the evidence, even if this was against what he knew privately.[3]

The great Lutheran jurist Johann Oldendorp (1486-1567) argued instead that the judge should avoid a lie.[4] Saying something that differs from what we know is a lie. If we know that someone is innocent, we have to act accordingly. Aquinas separated a conscience formed through a man’s personal knowledge from a conscience formed according to public judgment.[5] Oldendorp responded that the judge cannot have a double conscience. Conscience cannot be divided. A judge should draw on his conscience. Along the same lines, the Reformed theologian Markus Friederich Vendelin (1584-1652) affirmed that nobody is obliged to condemn an innocent or acquit a guilty publicly or privately (innocentem damnare et nocentem absolvere privatim vel publice, nemo tenetur).[6] What the judge knows in private should correspond to his public decision.

“Italy, Rome, Scala Santa: Passion of Christ sculpted by Ignazio Jacometti (1854). Jesus is showed to the crowd by Pontius Pilate.”

Early modern theologians and jurists also brought Pontius Pilate into this debate. Pilate knew that the high priests had handed Christ over to him out of jealousy. Should he have used this (private) information and acquitted Christ? According to the famous Wittenberg theologian, Friederich Balduin (1575-1627), Pilate knew that the high priests’ accusations were false and that he had condemned an innocent to death.[7] Some years later, Johann Steller (1641–?), a jurist from Jena, affirmed instead that Pilate should be excused because he was acting as a magistrate and therefore had to follow the accusations of the high priests. [8]

Conscience or evidence? The Helmstedt Lutheran theologian, Conrad Horneius (1590-1649) observed that the judge who ignores what he knows privately can be a liar and condemn an innocent to death. On the other hand, however, considering the life of a private man in a judgment could destroy processual order and lead to the dissolution of the state. [9] To Horneius, judicial powers should be regulated by processual rules that forbid judicial arbitrariness. These rules must have limits that safeguard private life.

Early modern scholars continued to debate this issue without providing a definitive answer. Nonetheless, their contribution can help us to reflect on the possible outcomes of the Coronavirus crisis. Overwhelming judiciary powers might sound morally promising: they might be instrumental in avoiding an unjust sentence or help to convict a criminal that otherwise would not be punished. But they can also lead to a devastating invasion of privacy. Which aspect should be prioritized? The moral necessity to pursue truth or the defense of our privacy?

Public authorities are starting to use apps that control our movements in order to prevent the spread of the novel Coronavirus. Through these apps, authorities are able to know about our location. Should this information become public or should it remain private? Should the law grant public authorities the right to use this information in a trial?

Our privacy is proportional to the powers the public authorities have to control us. An increase in their powers means a decrease in our liberty. By admitting these apps as legal means of proof, the states will build extensive surveillance systems. They will collect and use our geolocation data. On the other hand, the restriction on our liberty might also have positive effects. Digital surveillance might facilitate the repression of crimes and help judicial authorities to avoid the conviction of an innocent.

There is a tension between privacy and public morality. Privacy might prevent the public authority from pursuing the common good (in this case the public health). As such, it might be seen as a selfish right. But, then, why is it so important for us?

[1] James Q. Whitman, The Origins of Reasonable Doubt. Theological Roots of the Criminal Trial (Yale University Press, 2008); Wim Decock, ‘The Judge’s Conscience and the Protection of the Criminal Defendant: Moral Safeguards against Judicial Arbitrariness’ in Georges Martyn and others (eds.), From the Judge’s arbitrium to the Legality Principle (Duncker & Humblot, 2013), 69-94.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, IIaIIae, q. 67, a. 2.

[3] Judit Bellér, ‘De insontibus non condemnantis. Conflitti di coscienza del giudice nella giurisprudenza tardo-medievale’ (1991) XXI, n.2, Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica, 299-300. Diego de Covarruvias y Leyva, Variarum ex iure pontificio regio, et caesareo resolutionum (Venetiis, 1565), lib. 1, 7-10.

[4] Johannes Oldendorp, De iure et aequitate disputatio forensis (Francofurti, 1611), 137–138.

[5] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, IIaIIae, q. 67, a. 2.

[6] Markus Friederich Vendelin, Philosophia moralis, (Hardervici, 1654), 685.

[7] Friederich Balduin, Tractatus de casibus conscientiae (Wittenbergae, 1628), 1174.

[8] Johann Steller, Defensus Pontius Pilatus (Dresdae, 1674), tertium caput nn. 92–100.

[9] Conrad Horneius, Philosophiae moralis sive civilis doctrinae de moribus libri IV (Francofurti, 1633), 629.

Hutcheson’s moral philosophy and privacy

Bernard de Mandeville

In my previous post, I laid the foundation for considering the study of moral philosophy as an important part to understanding notions of privacy at a particular time and place. I argued that, if we understand privacy as keeping private information secret from other people’s knowledge, some motivation for doing this might be to avoid reprobation from others. Now, this reprobation is related to a conception of morality. Therefore, the study of morality at a place and time gives a good orientation as to what was considered publicly

acceptable and what was hidden from public knowledge. As the Anglo-Dutch philosopher Bernard de Mandeville (1670–1733) provocatively argued in The Fable of the Bees (1714), morality is a social construct.[i]

We can identify two sources of moral authority in Scottish eighteenth-century society: The church and the university. I shall focus on the university for no other reason than my personal interest. It should be noted, however, that ministers of the church received their education at the university. Therefore, my focus on the university also bears some rationale.

Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746)

As previously argued as well, this explains why there was strong political interests at play for controlling influential positions in the church and at universities. The Chair of Moral Philosophy was one of the most important ones, since the holder taught future elites in the church and state administration about moral virtues and duties, what is morally ‘right’ and what is morally ‘wrong’. Francis Hutcheson (1694—1746) was appointed at the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the university of Glasgow in 1729 as a result of Islay’s influence over factional rivalries.

It is easy to know what Hutcheson taught in moral philosophy because he published a textbook for his students, first in Latin, then translated into English. He was the first to introduce teaching in English at the university. The Latin textbook was published in 1742 in Glasgow by Robert Foulis as Philosophiae Moralis Institutio Compendiaria.

A short introduction to moral philosophy (2nd edition 1753)

The translation, A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy, in Three Books, Containing the Elements of Ethicks and the Law of Nature was printed posthumously in 1747 in Glasgow by Robert Foulis as well. In the following, I shall use the facsimile editions prepared by Bernhard Fabian, volume IV of the Collected Works of Francis Hutcheson, Georg Olms Verlag, Hildesheim-Zürich-New York, 1990.

I shall now focus on Hutcheson’s teaching regarding human nature and print and censorship. These two foci are guided by the research interests of my colleagues working on privacy for the Glasgow case. Natacha Klein Käfer and Natália da Silvia Perez investigate body-snatching and dissecting: post-mortem privacy. It is therefore relevant to understand how morality regarded the body, the soul and human beings in order to understand how these were treated. Jesper Jakobsen investigates print culture and regulation. It is therefore relevant to understand what morality regarded as worthy of expression in printed or uttered words.

Hutcheson’s moral philosophy

For Hutcheson, moral philosophy is the ‘commanding art’ which dictates how other arts must follow. Moral philosophy is the art of regulating the whole life (p.1). Therefore, it is interesting to look at how the notion of privacy in moral philosophy is determined. The chief point to be inquired in moral philosophy, according to Hutcheson, is what course of life is according to nature, wherein is happiness, and what is virtue (p. 2)? Hutcheson implies that following what is ‘natural’ or ‘nature’ is a way to achieve happiness, or else by being ‘virtuous’. It also has to be specified what happiness and virtue are. One could here infer, that hiding shameful vices is unnatural; so, in this sense, privacy is unnatural.

Human nature

There is no explicit notion of privacy, but it can be inferred from several elements. The first element, perhaps, is that human nature was formed by a Deity (p. 2). Looking at human nature, thus, requires looking at what God intended for humans. Looking at our natural senses and perceptions gives us a sense of what nature intends for us. Therefore, we must first look at the ‘constitution of nature’, rather than God’s will directly, in order to find about our first notion of duty (p. 2). This is important because it implies not to look at texts—the Old Testament and the New Testament. Rather, it requires an empirical enquiry following a scientific method. Through this, we discover the will of the design of our Creator as to our conduct (p. 3).

In this understanding, Hutcheson follows the path of his predecessor at the Chair of moral philosophy, Gershom Carmichael (1672–1729). Carmichael made Pufendorf’s De officio hominis et civis (1672) the set text in moral philosophy at Glasgow, which Hutcheson also followed.[ii] Pufendorf’s work was widely used for teaching moral philosophy at European universities.[iii] Carmichael was influenced by Pufendorf (1632—1694) in discussing natural law with a focus on this life and not the after life, in examining the external manifestations of human conduct.[iv]

Human nature consists of a soul and a body. If we want to understand notions of privacy in human nature, therefore, it has to go along the lines of body and soul. One may note here, that the separation of soul and body implies an understanding of bodily privacy and soul privacy.


Concerning the body, Hutcheson is curt; it is better explained by physicians and anatomists. Hutcheson notes only that the human body is superior to other animals because of possessing senses and has a certain dignity in being erected (p. 3). What is interesting is that the body decays if it is not properly taken care of. Food obviously, but also against ‘dangers from without, by cloathing, shelter, and other conveniencies” (p. 4). Hutcheson means probably a minimal existential threat from nature: protecting from the cold, from rain and wind, etc. But clothing and shelter are elements of bodily privacy. Even if not meant as such, they are basic elements in protecting the body from external dangers. In this sense, it is more bodily safety than privacy.

What matters is the soul, to Hutcheson. Regarding death, Hutcheson is not concerned with the body, but only the soul, which must be cultivated in a certain way by piety and devotion to God: ‘Hence the hopes of future happiness after death, and a strength and firmness of soul in all honourable designs. Hence the soul shall be filled with the joys of Piety and Devotion; and every good mind shall expect every thing joyful and glorious under the protection of a good Providence, not only for itself but for all good men, and for the whole universe’ (p. 38). Hutcheson answers to the metaphysicians, that he only considers the structure of the universe that points towards an artificial intelligence, a Creator, who must have a just moral government over his creatures (p. 101). Since happiness and misery do not necessarily come to the virtuous and the vicious in this life, it must be in the other.

‘… all things related to this mortal state are fleeting, unstable, corruptible’ (p.90). In the last hour, what is important is the enjoyment to have acted virtuously, which gives the joyful hope of a happy immortality.

A nightwatchman disturbs a body-snatcher who has dropped the Wellcome V0010463

This may be important for the treatment of bodies after death. The body of a non-virtuous person may be less regarded. The commerce of cadavers and their public dissections in front of medical students may not be considered immoral when performed on convicts and executed criminals.

Moreover, this view has consequences for the behaviour of a person both in public and private, as Hutcheson requires practice and exercise for the soul in the form of ‘piety and devotion towards God, adoration of his perfections, prayers, confession of sin, and pious desires, and vows of obedience’ (p. 91). However, natural desires and passions are not evil in kind, they may be of use in life, either to the person or to mankind (p. 91). What matters is the moderation and whether they are pernicious to society: moderate desire of self-preservation, a moderate relish for sensual pleasures, frugality and liberality, moderate desire of power, moderate desire of fame, some anger, etc. (pp. 95-98).

Regarding print and censorship

Hutcheson considers print and censorship indirectly. It can be deduced from what he writes on speech, since Hutcheson writes that speech includes ‘communicating our sentiments, viz. common writing’ (p. 196). The general principle regarding speech is that it is a gift given by God to mankind, setting it above other animals, together with the other gift of reason. That speech is related to reason is not fortuitous in Hutcheson. As Hutcheson wrote in the advertisement to the students or preface, his textbook serves as an introduction to ancient philosophers, in particular Aristotle and Cicero. Maccari-Cicero They both have written about rhetoric as being speech in the service of reason and truth. Hutcheson takes a similar point of departure. Since speech is a gift from God, it must be used the way God requires it of us. This indication can be found by looking at our ‘nature’, which requires of us to use speech in line with the ‘common interest’. We must use speech with truth and fidelity in conversations otherwise we lose this advantage of social life (pp. 195-196).

Hutcheson draws a distinction between natural and artificial speech, by which he means speech, or use of signs, that was intended by the author to someone or not. In the case of natural speech, there is no reason to demand any veracity from the author. Artificial speech is the one intended for someone else (pp. 196-97), and there is an obligation not to hurt one’s neighbour without a just cause. In this case there are some ‘laws of speech and writing’. First, ‘Where others have a right to know the whole sentiments of the speaker, he is obliged not only to speak truth but to reveal the whole truth’ (p. 198). This may be in a court of law, or in a classroom. Second, ‘Tho’ others may have no peculiar right to know our sentiments, yet when we speak to them, we should say nothing but what agrees with our sentiments according to common interpretation which obtains among men of understanding’ (p. 198).  This is so because speaking contrary to one’s sentiments makes one guilty of lying or falsehood. Hutcheson insists particularly on the fact that maintaining veracity in all our conversation is important to society. Therefore, it is unlawful to use false speaking in any small motives in life (to pacify anger, to comfort the sorrowful, to obtain any advantage or avert evils not of the highest kind). However, it is allowed to deceive in some circumstances, particularly in the case of entertainment (198-99). Works of fiction are playing with our notion of truth and veracity in order to entertain.

Moreover, there are sacred duties in the use of speech:

  • ‘that we study to make our speech profitable to others, in recommending and cherishing, admonishing, exhorting, comforting, and sometimes reproving sharply, and all these shewing an hearty intention of doing good’. (201)
  • ‘to reconcile friends… to prevent animosities, or to compose them’ (201).
  • avoid hurting the characters of others, avoid spreading false calumnies, but also ‘conceal the secret fault of others, unless he be forced to divulge them to prevent the seducing the innocent, or to avert some publick evil’. This may be difficult regarding men who are publicly infamous already.

Hutcheson makes one final note regarding the effect of speech on the speaker and the listener, which may move them in delight or aversion. The case here is when obscenity is involved. Obscenity is when the speaker or the hearers delight or are depraved by speaking about the dissolute temper in others because it kindles a like vicious passion in the minds of the hearers (p. 202). It is ‘hateful and detestable’.

In summary, there is no clear mention of how and when to censor speech. However, one can take several general guidelines. When a printed text is intended for communication to others, it must be close to the truth, not deceive, and not hurt the character of others. Works of fiction, however, may deceive as long as they are not obscene and do not hurt anyone’s character.

Hutcheson actually gives an example of something that he finds ‘censurable’, but the word meant ‘reprimandable’ or subject to blame. The ‘censurable’ part is Plato’s Republic, when he writes that states should overtake the parents’ role as educators. ‘This natural love of the sexes, and equally natural love of offspring, shew that Plato and some other excellent writers are justly censurable, for departing too audaciously from nature, in appointing their states to be supplied in new subjects by children unknown to both the parents…’ (257)

Some further directions for research

Hutcheson beyond the classroom

Were Hutcheson’s views discussed in cafés, salons, in the media. Where should we look? The Scot Magazine is a good start.

What has been the impact of Hutcheson’s ideas on his students, and what has been the impact of his students on social norms? How to assess them? This would require, first, looking at the students enrolled in moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow. There are archives for this. Second, it would entail selecting those who have published or whose ideas have been recorded in some way (correspondence, diary, debates in societies, etc.).

Commercial society, morality, and privacy

The discussion of virtue and vice related to commercial society was an important one at the time. It was not as obvious to contemporaries as it is today, that a commercial society was a viable and successful one. Here comes the discussion from Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees regarding selfish interests working for the public good. For Mandeville, greed is good. Accumulating wealth, luxury, indulging vices enable work for many people and make a commercial society prosper. This view influenced one of Hutcheson’s brightest students, Adam Smith (1723—1790), but also David Hume (1711—1776).

If the common good requires a functioning commercial society where citizens are ‘merchants’ (i.e. depending on one another for their survival, and not autarkic individual), then morality needs to be redefined. Displaying wealth, indulging vices, may no longer be frown upon, and no longer belong to the realm of the private. Hence, it may be possible to formulate a working hypothesis regarding the relationship between capitalism, morality, and privacy.


[i] Hutcheson commented on Mandeville’s work in his correspondence, published in 1729 as ‘Thoughts on Laughter and Observations on “The Fable of the Bees”’.

[ii]  James Moore, Michael Silverthorne (eds.), Natural Rights on the Threshold of the Scottish Enlightenment : The Writings of Gershom Carmichael, Liberty Fund: Indianapolis, 2002, p. 74.

[iii] Ibid. P. 77.

[iv] Ibid.

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.

Privacy, Corona and the Padlock

These are extraordinary times to reflect on privacy, as the corona virus has sent us into isolation. Worldwide, millions of people are struggling with a privacy that was not a choice: lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, quarantines, curfews and isolation are a new public reality that has put privacy issues under strain. In this blog entry, I will reflect on the effect of Covid-19 on privacy – a volatile concept that is hard to define or visualize and therefore difficult protect.

Fig. 1: Shutterstock stock footage for “privacy”











Privacy denotes that experience which withdraws from the eyes, the ears, the hands and the judgement of others. Privacy also withdraws from definition and visualization. As a complex, multilayered and shifting concept, it resists being pinned down, be it verbally or visually. In stark contrast to this inherent ambiguity, privacy is usually visualized with a padlock in the media. A google image search – and more precisely, a stock photo data bank search – for “privacy” results mostly in padlock related images. Figure 1 shows how (digital) privacy is often pictured with a variation of a padlock that is composed of “0” or “1” symbols, in reference to the binary digits (bits) underlying all digital information. Photos, as opposed to renderings, often feature simple metal padlocks – the kind you can buy or borrow at public libraries or swimming pools for your locker.

If we read stock images as modern-day emblems – and the Shutterstock or Getty websites as a modern-day interpretation of Cesare Ripa’s famous 1645 emblem book Iconologia – then the visual communication of privacy is linked to the archetypical padlock. This choice of an icon that is tied to binaries, such as open or closed, mine or not mine, accessible or inaccessible, inside or outside, is somewhat surprising, because privacy relies precisely on all the nuances that lie between these kinds of opposing extremes.

Fig. 2: Cesare Ripa, Iconologia, 1645







Instead of privacy, the padlock evokes confinement – two states that have become strange bedfellows during the current corona crisis, which is dominated by headlines related to lockdowns. Private homes are taking on a new meaning during this pandemic: rather than places of refuge for our “right to be let alone”[1] they are now standing in for office space, day cares, schools, gyms, restaurants, cafés, etc. Most importantly, they are places of confinement: The home is now the only place where millions of citizens globally are allowed to be.[2]

Relating to the context of both privacy and corona, the padlock played a ghastly role in a past pandemic.  During the devastating bout of bubonic plague in 1665 in London (75000 plague deaths in London that year), the home as prison was a dreadful reality. Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Dafoe devotes a significant portion of his account of the plague in A Journal of the Plague Year (1719), to those who were locked into their homes because of the disease. For example, the narrator remembers the following anecdote:

At another house, […] a whole family was shut up and locked in because the maid-servant was taken sick. […] so the door was marked with a red cross, a padlock on the outside, […] and a watchman set to keep the door, according to public order.[3]

The family was thus doomed to infection: locked in, to death, at home. Some such prisoners escaped by distracting or even killing their guard, and by fleeing through back doors, back alleys and neighbors’ gardens. The narrator is empathetic “as the people shut up or imprisoned so were guilty of no crime, only shut up because miserable.”[4]

While in 1665 the looming danger of a closed padlock and terminal confinement in private terrified the public, today, the privacy padlocks are opened to monitor and contain the virus: Amidst the deeply troubling accounts of exponentially increasing death tolls, overwhelmed hospitals, a collapsing global economy and ever-tightening lockdown rules, there is little room for coverage about privacy infringements.[5] Yet these transgressions are the side effects of global collaborations between cellphone companies, social media corporations, public transport providers and governments. In many countries, anonymized cellphone metadata is currently helping governments to monitor citizen movement.[6] For example, in France and in Germany this metadata is used to assess curfew and social distancing adherence. Spain, South Korea, China, and Taiwan have launched apps to track Covid-19 cases and to provide their citizens with information on whether they have come into close contact with known carriers.[7] In these instances, private data becomes public as individuals’ health status and personal movements are revealed.

Typical corona stock footage. This image is for example used by the Danish police to visualize Covid-19.









Some of the extraordinary efforts, that are only legal during “states of emergency”, have brought to light previously undisclosed data hoarding practices. For example, Covid-19 responses have revealed to the Israeli public that since 2002, Shin Bet, the country’s Internal Security Agency, has been collecting cellphone metadata. This includes subscriber identity, the identities of call recipients and initiators, account payments and geolocation information.[8] So far, Shin Bet had “never disclosed details about what information it collects, how that data is safeguarded, whether or when any of it is destroyed or deleted, who has access to it and under what conditions, or how it is used.”[9] Now this data trove has come into the limelight, because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized Shin Bet to use the data to identify and inform citizens who were in close contact with known virus carriers.

The virus has turned private data – the geolocation and the health of individual citizens – into a public concern, as individuals now depend on society to act on their behalf. This attitude resonates with a Hong Kong-based technology lawyer’s explanation of the use of private data for China’s “close contact app”: “data is not seen as something to be locked down, it’s something that can be used.”[10] Also outside China, the accepted use of private data in a public health emergency point to a shift in perception: Governments or corporations, usually seen as inappropriately gathering and using private data on citizens and consumers, are now the ones who can safeguard individuals by appropriating private data and imposing protective measures on the population.[11] In 1985, sociologist Barrington Moore Jr. described the reason for this type of fluidity about the preservation or privacy in psychological terms:

The desire for privacy, in the sense of protection or escape from other human beings, emerges when an individual becomes subject to social obligations that that individual cannot meet or does not want to meet. On the other hand, this desire for privacy can evaporate if the person develops a feeling of dependence on the people who are the source of the onerous obligations.[12]

While the corona crisis has created a (temporary) shift in the perception of privacy and data politics, it has also brought privacy and solitude, usually a desirable quality enjoyed only rarely, into an uneasy excess. Much media coverage has been devoted to the loneliness caused by prolonged solitary stays at home in lockdown. But beyond seclusion, there is a more drastic implication to a privacy: Without other people and a public life, meaninglessness quickly prevails. In the confining privacy of our homes, even if it is experienced with family members, we suddenly feel that deprivation inherent in privacy, that is at odds with the usual positive connotations of privacy as human right. Hannah Arendt reminds us that during the Greek and Roman antiquity, before Christian ideals of interiority came to the fore, privacy was on par with privation: “the absence of others”[13] was a total deficit. A private life was a life that could never amount to anything concrete. In private, the human being could not fully appear. She explains that

everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. For us, appearance—something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves—constitutes reality. Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest forces of intimate life—the passions of the heart, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses—lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence unless and until they are transformed, deprivatized and deindividualized, as it were, into a shape to fit them for public appearance. […] The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves.[14]

Can we understand the usage of anonymized data for corona curbing measures as a way of bringing ‘deprivatized and deindividualized’ private actions out of their ‘shadowy’ existence into meaningful and useful public reality? The virus, which spreads beyond all thresholds that demarcate private and public life, disrupts not only everything that forms part of our public lives – work, entertainment, educational and health institutions, parliaments, etc. – it also reconfigures previously unquestionable privacy needs. Although an open padlock might be more appropriate, the corona virus is visualized as a sphere surrounded by spikes. The visuals vary in color and in detail: a few resemble massage balls, some feature furry spikes, others sprout small clusters of suction cups. A Covid-19 virus closeup image tells us nothing about exponential contagion rates, death tolls, respirator shortages, inflatable temporary hospitals, closed borders in a borderless Europe, indefinitely staying at home, cancelled weddings and postponed funerals. Thinking with Arendt, this image remains as unreal as the data produced by a life spent completely in private.

Fig. 4: Privacy and Covid-19: The author enhanced a Shutterstock photo used for visualizing digital privacy: The privacy padlock is unlocked by an incoming stream of Covid-19 renditions to release a steady flow of digital data











Covid-19 then has a double effect in relation to our private lives: First, it confines many of us to the private realm of our homes which are now subject to a pre-capitalist multiplicity of activities and the eyes of our co-workers and friends through cameras and screens. Second, as the widespread, virus-caused “state of emergency” has affected the management of private data, citizens seem relatively willing to trade the ownership of their private data for the greater good – especially because this data is now immediately and non-commercially useful in unprecedented ways. Temporarily, our public lives are lived from home and our private data is treated as belonging to society at large.

In Dafoe’s account of the London plague, public authorities could lock in citizens into their private homes turning houses into jails. Households could also lock themselves in, turning private property into fortresses. Today, private data is unlocked for public health. And private homes are unlocked to cater for a variety of functions, far beyond private leisure and inhabitation. Dafoe’s capitulation on the desolate imprisoning of plague-ridden households rings true also for today’s unlocking of private matters under governments in states of emergency: “But it was authorized by a law, it had the public good in view as the end chiefly aimed at, and all the private injuries that were done by the putting it in execution must be put to the account of the public benefit.” The current unusual situation of quarantine and movement monitoring once again draws attention to privacy as an ever-shifting construct, that continuously requires close contextualization and care.





[1] (Warren and Brandeis, 1890, p. 193).

[2] At the time of writing, Italy alone charged 40 000 of the 60 million curfewed inhabitants with lockdown violations. See for example: Lorenzo Tondo, “Italy Charges More than 40,000 People with Violating Lockdown,” The Guardian, March 18, 2020, sec. World news,

[3] “A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe,” accessed March 25, 2020,

[4] “A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe.”

[5] See for example: “Commission Tells Carriers to Hand over Mobile Data in Coronavirus Fight,” POLITICO, March 23, 2020,

[6] During a public health emergency, GDPR (Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation) changes. See for example “Coronavirus Adds an Extra Layer of Challenge to Collection and Handling of Health Data Under the GDPR,” CPO Magazine, March 23, 2020,

[7] For a collection of instances of data infringement in response to Covid-19 see “Tracking the Global Response to COVID-19 | Privacy International,” accessed March 22, 2020,

[8] David M. Halbfinger, Isabel Kershner, and Ronen Bergman, “To Track Coronavirus, Israel Moves to Tap Secret Trove of Cellphone Data,” The New York Times, March 16, 2020, sec. World,

[9] Halbfinger, Kershner, and Bergman.

[10] “China Launches Coronavirus ‘close Contact’ App,” BBC News, February 11, 2020, sec. Technology,

[11] For more, see “The Value and Ethics of Using Phone Data to Monitor Covid-19,” Wired, accessed March 25, 2020,

[12] Barrington Moore Jr., “Privacy,” Society 35, no. 2 (February 1998): 287–99.

[13] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd ed. (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), 58.

[14] Arendt, 50.

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.

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).

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.

“Second Plague Pandemic.” In Wikipedia, March 22, 2020.

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].








Reforming the Morality of Private Business. The Early Modern Lutheran Theologians on Loans at Interest

Today usury consists in lending money at excessive rate of interest. At the threshold of the sixteenth century, usury was the practice of lending at interest. Whatsoever interest in a loan, not only a high rate of interest, was prohibited. The interest prohibition originated in the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church. This prohibition continued to be effective among the Lutheran reformers but it underwent profound changes. In this post, I will give a brief and general overview of these changes and its implication for private business. The reader who wants more information can consult my book Lutheran Theology and Contract Law in Early Modern Germany.

Medieval canonists and theologians pointed out many reasons against lending at interest, but here we only focus on one: the famous passage of Luke 6:35, where Christ ordered to lend hoping for nothing. This passage was incorporated in a canon law norm forbidding the practice of interest. As lending should be gratuitous, a different type of contract was invented: the sale of annuity. This contract produced effects similar to a loan, but it was a sale and therefore, according to several theologians and canonists, it was lawful. In sixteenth-century Germany, a special form of this contract was very popular: the so-called five per cent contract. In this operation the investor lent to the entrepreneur the capital, to use for business, with a clause that guaranteed that the investor would recoup not only the capital but also a fixed part of the profits of the entrepreneur (5% of the invested sum).

In his first sermons on usury, Martin Luther (1483-1546) condemned the five per cent contract as a usurious contract. He repeated the teachings of the canonists: loans should only gratuitous. Besides, he added that the entrepreneur looks at his private interest forgetting the neighbour and therefore he is acting against the precept to love the neighbour. A few years later, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558), considering the nature of this contract, a sale and not a loan, legalized it. Even though this contract was formally defined as a sale it was in substance a loan. Practically speaking, lending at interest was legal. This created a fundamental problem for Luther’s disciples: to condemn the five per cent contract or to approve it; to refuse the secular law or to accept it. How was one to reconcile the interest prohibition with the new law of finance? The theologians argued that not every loan at interest is forbidden.  Only if charity towards the neighbour is offended, does a loan at interest go against the interest prohibition. They did not prohibit every loan at interest in general, as did their Catholic colleagues, but left to the individual Christian to choose whether a contract is against charity and thus a violation of the interest prohibition.

The new theory derived in great part from a reinterpretation of the precept of Luke 6:35. Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) interpreted the precept of Luke 6,35 as only concerning the lending to indigents. In this way, he eliminated business transactions from the range of application of the prohibition on lending at interest. Similarly, Johannes Brenz (1499-1570) interpreted the precept of Luke 6,35 as not pertaining to every Christian but only the poor. We read here an excerpt from his sermons to Luke 6,35: if the love for the neighbour is really true, it does not only bring with it that civil form of justice, making you lend to somebody from whom you hope something in return; it also makes you lend to the needy and poor, from whom you hope nothing in return. Everyone in fact loves himself so much that he desires to receive a loan when he is oppressed by necessity or poverty, even if he cannot repay it. (…) If the precept of Luke is to relieve the poor and lend to them gratuitously, will it be illicit to use civil contracts, in which returns are equal, with the rich people and those who possess lands? Shall I lend hoping for nothing in return even to the rich and those possessing lands? Not at all. The rule of love asks me to love the enemies when I am turned towards the enemies, as we said earlier, while at the same time I must love the friends when I am turned towards them. The same is true in a loan: when I am turned towards the poor, I have to take care of them as much as I can, but, by the same token, when I am turned towards the rich, land-owners and those possessing other things, I will be allowed to use civil contracts with them.

Thus, Brenz distinguished two categories of people, the rich who can practice the five per cent contract and the poor to whom it is forbidden. Johannes Aepinus (1499-1553) went further and proposed a threefold classification: the beggars, the working poor and the rich. Alms regard the first class, loans are for the second class, and business contracts can be stipulated among people of the third class. The effect of the new interpretation is that Luke 6,35 only concerns gratuitous loans to the poor. Private business can be practiced as long as it is between rich people.

To Urbanus Rhegius (1489-1541), in order to be usurious, a loan must not only provide a charging of interest but also harming the neighbour. Therefore, the Christians are called to apply the five per cent contract according to natural law and Christian charity. Charging interest is only forbidden when it harms the other contracting party. With an emphatic expression, Rhegius wrote that the Christian must firstly have before his eyes natural law and the love for the neighbour. Aegidius Hunnius (1550-1603) and Johann Gerhard (1582-1637) similarly held that the passage of Luke 6,35 should be interpreted as forbidding only the loans that harm the neighbour. It occurs especially with the loans at interest towards the poor.

Before concluding an agreement the businessman must ascertain the qualities of the other contracting party. The loan could only be concluded if the debtor could afford it. What happens then if the rich become poor because of an unexpected circumstance? The theologians responded that charity as a moderator and director shall mediate between the parties, and after consideration of the circumstances shall order to remit the interest or also the principal. Indeed, as Gerhard explains, when men of the third class are reduced to the second class, then loans towards them must be gratuitous, and when they are reduced to the first class, they are should be helped with alms. The solution was, therefore, the remission of debt when the debtor cannot repay it because of an unexpected negative circumstance.

In sum, the Christians are responsible to make sure that charity is observed. They have to protect the other contracting party from damages, and assist him in case of necessity. This is a judgment that concerns the detailed circumstances of every agreement. The Christian has to decide whether his private business is against charity. Charity implies the mitigation of law under particular circumstances. Christians must decide whether to apply the law, whether to execute a certain financial operation or whether to enact a specific contractual term on the basis of charity.

Roman Catholic theologians and canon lawyers built an absolute prohibition against lending at interest, established in the canon law. But then by way of exceptions, they allowed many financial transactions. The Lutherans placed the Scriptures at the center of the system. From an absolute prohibition of interest, the theologians devised a prohibition to harm the neighbour by charging an excessive interest rate. This prohibition was especially geared in favor of the weaker party, the poor. The Lutherans stressed the responsibility of the single Christian to avoid damaging the other contracting parties in the concrete situation while the Roman Catholics permitted a larger number of financial techniques by the authorization of priests, who circumvented de facto the strict prohibition. Once these authorities gave green light the conscience could be free to pursue one’s interest, unconcerned for the real situation of the other party.

As we have seen in our precedent post, for the early modern Lutheran theologians private property should be moderated by charity. The private is not absolute but depends on the needs of the neighbour. Here it is the same. Private business is not entirely private. The Christian has not to look at his private interest only but also keep into consideration the other contracting party. If this party has not enough means to support the contractual risks the agreement should not be concluded. If this party suffered damage for an unexpected negative circumstance the other should assist him. It is the Christian conscience, informed by the Gospel, who must take this decision.

Privacy and Moral Philosophy

What does privacy have to do with moral philosophy? A lot, depending on how we conceptualize privacy. Privacy was a word people used in the eighteenth century, albeit not in the exact same way as we do today. The notion of a ‘right to privacy’ did not exist, neither legally nor in the minds.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, privacy is defined as ‘1. the state or condition of not being alone, undisturbed, or free from public attention, as a matter of choice or right; seclusion; freedom from interference or intrusion’. One may note a particular legal and political undertone is this definition with the word right and choice, the words freedom and the liberal definition of liberty as freedom from interference or intrusion. Privacy is also the avoidance of publicity, protection from public knowledge. Again a legal and political understanding.

If we look at Nathan Bailey’s 1730 Dictionarium Britannicum, ‘privacy’ is identified as stemming from the French privauté, meaning ‘familiarity’, but also retirement or secrecy. French dictionaries at the time also defined ‘privauté’ as ‘familiarité’. Privacy as privauté is not of our concern here.

A Dictionary of the English Language 1755 If we look at the 1768 edition of Samuel Johnson’s A dictionary of the English language, privacy is defined as stemming from ‘private’ and designating 1) the state of being secret, secrecy, or 2) retirement, retreat, or 3) privity, grand familiarity, joint knowledge, or 4) taciturnity. ‘Private’ stems from the Latin privatus, meaning 1) not open, secret, 2) alone, not accompanied, 3) being upon the same terms upon the community, particular, opposed to public, 4) particular, not relating to public, 5) in private, secretly, not in public.

One may notice the absence of any legal or political connotation, except perhaps that it denotes something ‘secret’ and ‘retired’ from others. It is first in Brandeis and Warren’s 1890 article on ‘the right to privacy’ that we have a clear legal notion of a ‘right to be left alone’. This right to privacy, also adds to other rights defined in the American and French declarations in the late eighteenth century.

Now, there is clearly a cultural, philosophical, and political change in minds that explains the notion of rights. But, what about the notion of privacy? And why study the history of moral philosophy in particular for an intellectual history of this notion of privacy?

Rubens, Adam and Eve, 1628-29

In the Book of Genesis, the reader learns that God created Adam and Eve, the first human beings. They were free to do what they wanted and prosper in the Garden of Eden to create humankind. God made them in his image. However, God forbid Adam and Eve to eat fruits from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as well as the tree of life. Tricked by a snake, Eve ate a fruit from the tree of knowledge and offered it to Adam. As a result, they gained knowledge of good and evil. With this knowledge came shame, the shame to discover they were naked. They hid their genitals from each other. They equally tried to hide from God as they knew they did something wrong and disobey his command. God found out, and, fearing they could also eat from the tree of life and become immortal like Him, He banned them from Eden to suffer on earth.

If we think about privacy in this well-known story, we can see that knowledge of good and evil is tightly related to secrecy and publicity. The reason for retiring and concealing something shameful is the fear of judgement and knowledge by others. It is a moral judgement we are here interested in, not legal judgement. One would also hide and conceal something illegal in the fear of being sentenced as a result, but that is not of our concern here.

My hypothesis, then, is that looking at how people conceived morality determined how people acted in public and in private. I am here conceptualizing privacy with a restriction to being a state of privation from others, a retreat from others, therefore a voluntary act. It is others’ knowledge of one’s actions. We acquire knowledge through our senses: sight, hearing, smell, and to a certain extent touch and taste.

If someone choses to retreat from other people’s senses, the retreat is voluntary. If the retreat is voluntary then there is a reason for it: a will to keep something away from others. This will is thus influenced by something, which may be a certain public image as opposed to a private one. It may also be that there is a will to keep something away from others. Society may frown upon the condition of solitude because it is suspect: someone may be hiding something contrary to moral standards.

Moreover, if there is a will, it also supposes that the person is alive, but what about after death and the will of the person? This touches upon questions as wide ranging as opening a private diary, and opening a cadaver to gain knowledge of the soul or the body. This will to retreat also imply that we study how the person in question understands this retreat and privacy. Closing one’s eyes and joining hands in prayer in the middle of a crowded room may not seem like privacy to us, but might be for the person. By the same token, this person may believe to be alone and thus away from the knowledge of others, but not of God. A private conduct may also be influenced and not considered as privacy by this person.

The teaching of moral philosophy at the university in the early modern period may seem remote from social realities. It is difficult to assess the real impact and it is certainly limited to a society’s elite. However, since society was hierarchically organized, it is relevant to study the elite’s mind-set in order to understand the rules according to which it ruled lesser ‘classes’ or estates. Studying at the university was reserved to a certain elite in the eighteenth century, and this was also true of Glasgow.

The professorial chair was subject to political scrutiny, even if to a lesser

Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746)

extent at Glasgow compared to Edinburgh and other Scottish universities. The eighteenth century saw an increasing patronage by the crown and politicians over the church and universities.[1] The politics of the church and the university is important because it shaped the ideas and values of the Scots. The most influential persons who managed to monopolise patronage were Archibald Campbell, first earl of Ilay, and, after 1743, third duke of Argyll (1682-1761), and afterwards Henry Dundas, first Viscount of Melville (1742-1811).[2] Francis Hutcheson’s appointment at the Chair of Moral Philosophy in 1729 was the result of Ilay’s decisive influence over factional disputes.[3]

This is the first step for building my research programme on privacy as it relates to moral philosophy. I start from the hypothesis that moral philosophy is significant for understanding privacy because it defines the standards by which people judged one another. It formed their ‘moral sense’ in a way. The next step is to look at the actual teaching of moral philosophy. I work on the Glasgow case together with my colleagues at the Centre for Privacy Studies, and I focus on Francis Hutcheson’s teaching of moral philosophy. A third step would be to collect sources and information about how his teaching spread through society by looking at his students and if and how his ideas were discussed in society.

[1] Roger L. Emerson, ‘Politics and the Glasgow Professors, 1690-1800’, in The Glasgow Enlightenment, ed. Andrew Hook and Richard B. Sher (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 1995).

[2] Emerson, 22.

[3] Roger L. Emerson, Academic Patronage in the Scottish Enlightenment: Glasgow, Edinburgh and St Andrews Universities (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 96–97.

This post is based on the paper I presented at the 49th Annual Conference of the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 8-10 January 2020 at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, United Kingdom : “Natural, Unnatural and Supernatural”.

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.

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.

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.

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.)

Speculations on the Private Life of a Fictive Milkmaid

Fig. 1: Johannes Vermeer, Milkmaid (1657/1658)

A problem we often come across at the Centre for Privacy Studies is how to extract the truly private from our sources. Can a letter ever really be a source of private information, considering that the most private notes would usually be burnt? Similarly, how much insight can we gain from paintings of private homes? This question was raised during a seminar at the Centre on the private in early modern Dutch paintings of interiors. The paintings explored in this seminar somewhat intimately reveal the private context of Dutch upper-class homes. Some of them display privately exhibited luxury, for example Pieter de Hooch’s Leisure Time in an Elegant Setting (1629–1684), where gilded leather hangings feature prominently, or Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (1670–71), which shows a bejeweled lady writing a possibly private letter in the company of her maid in a handsome interior. The implicit self-staging of the patrons inevitably stands at odds with privacy and makes these interior paintings a difficult source for privacy studies. The truly private – the messy, the embarrassing and the ugly – is likely to have been removed from view, hidden behind curtains, inside coffers and beyond the picture frame.

Johannes Vermeer’s Milkmaid (1657/1658) is especially evocative in terms of the hidden, the secret and the private. The painting has remained an important narrative object for 360 years.[1] Like the Mona Lisa, the Milkmaid seems to carry a secret, an intriguing story, hidden behind a thick layer of paint. Onlookers have speculated profusely for three-and-a-half centuries about the milkmaid’s private life,[2] or rather her employer’s. Since the milkmaid was depicted at work, if there was a secret hidden somewhere in the adjacent private world of the painting, then it was most likely linked to her master.

As the truly private is mostly concealed from view, I will engage in an exercise of speculation informed by the existing art historical analysis of the Milkmaid and some of the actual or overpainted objects in the painting as a starting point to (re)construct the potential or imagined private life in a Dutch home in the early modern period. To initiate this conjecture on the private, we might imagine Vermeer’s painting as a contemporary photograph. While portraying the milkmaid, Vermeer the photographer might have instructed his assistant to “remove that dishcloth from the nail on the wall.” And if you picture it hanging there as in my photoshopped version (Fig. 2) – it does interfere disadvantageously with the milkmaid’s cotton bonnet.

But even beyond the possibly removed objects from the actual scene, the painting’s own materiality embodies hidden entities. Previous detectives of privacy have examined the painting through x-rays to uncover two paint-cloaked objects: A world map and a clothes basket had for some time coexisted with the milkmaid, before Vermeer painted them over and replaced the basket with a foot warmer. The latter, simultaneously conjuring sentiments of warmth and the lack thereof, has been written about extensively in terms of iconography that evokes a woman’s sexuality, since the coals inside the little box would not only warm her feet but all other body parts hidden underneath her layered skirt.[3] The foot warmer may thus have accentuated the prevailing reputation of kitchen maids – and especially milkmaids – as sexually available.[4] Next to the footwarmer there is a tile of cupid[5] and of a travelling man with a walking stick – two males with pointy devices, at least one of them most certainly aimed at a female (heart). With these loaded symbols in mind, I will now dive into two speculations on privacy to go beyond common clichées and to endow both the painter and the subject with more subtle storytelling and agency respectively.

Fig. 2: Speculative Enhancement of the Vermeer’s Milkmaid

Speculation 1 (based on the x-rayed, overpainted objects):

At first, Vermeer, relatively well-off and possibly a little biased when it came to lower working-class people, whose lives were naturally transmitted via stereotypes, imagined the milkmaid in love with a sailor when he saw her wistful smile.[6] He painted the map behind her, as a clue for the onlooker to the “back of her mind” – her love, out in the world, while she waited in another family’s home, tending to their dairy until her love would return and marry her. The girl is a symbol of virtuous work – diligence and patience. The clothes basket conjures more work, and there is no cupid lurking to distract her from her patient wait. This version would have been a little flat: the milkmaid as a stereotype condemned to a life on hold, her only realm of action entirely determined by her employers, for as long as her sailor was at sea, himself subject to the volatilities of the weather and a captain.

Speculation 2 (based on the objects that were added later):

The type of foot warmer that Vermeer then replaced the basket with, also appears in several paintings by Pieter de Hooch. For example in A Mother with Two Children and a Maid with a Pail by a Fireplace, 1675–1680 (Fig. 3), with which de Hooch depicted his day’s emphasis on womanhood as nurturing: The lady of the house is nursing her baby, with one foot resting on a foot warmer, while her older daughter is petting the cat, mimicking her mother’s gestures. In this picture, a maid carries in a bucket – she is part of scene, but clearly outside the nursing realm of her employer’s family.

Fig. 3 Pieter de Hooch, A Mother with Two Children and a Maid with a Pail by a Fireplace, 1675–1680

Inspired by the role of the foot warmer in nursing activities, one might conjecture that the simplistic, first speculation contained a grain of truth. Possibly there was in fact an absent lover, but he had left the milkmaid pregnant before he continued his travels. She then found herself in the precarious position of having to confess, begging to keep her job. And to spin the narrative further, into the maid’s workplace, maybe this shameful revelation secretly suited her employer, as his wife was unable to nurse – to her great distress, as at the time, middle-to upper-class women were expected to nurse their children, “rather than rely on a wet nurse.”[7]

In early modern Dutch society children were especially beloved[8] and they were often depicted in paintings of domestic interiors. Children would have been running around, but Vermeer, who had an unusually high number of children – eleven – barely ever painted any.[9] Unlike in de Hooch’s painting, in the Milkmaid, the mistress of the house as well as any children are absent. In the photoshopped version (Fig. 2), I have included them, borrowing them from The Van Moerkerken Family, ca. 1653–54, by Gerard ter Borch the Younger. The child in this rendering has most likely just about outgrown nursing, but may – like the toddler Catharina Hooft in Frans Hals’ portrait from ca. 1620 (Fig. 4) – feel quite attached to his wet nurse. In this speculative scenario, the child would have been pulled away from the wet nurse / milkmaid by an irritated mother (her nursing shortcomings amplified by her son’s affections for the maid), and Vermeer would have been left to wonder about the maid as he continued to paint her, without a map, without a basket, but with the milk jug and a foot warmer. Possibly he glimpsed her wet nursing her master’s child before she laced up and rushed in for her sitting. Or maybe she was called away from Vermeer by the cries of a child, which was not hers, nor her duty to feed. The cloth on the wall of my visual alteration might then have been a nursing cloth rather than a dishcloth.

Fig. 3: Frans Hals, Catharina Hooft and Her Nurse, ca. 1620

And this is where the true privacy of such a painting might rest, in the clues the objects give us. Some of them are loaded with iconographic meaning beside their actual meaning. The gazes and facial expressions also give us hints, as does the vantage point of the onlooker. Had Vermeer bent down to greet the little boy when he noticed the optimal (unusually low) angle for his painting? True privacy remains in the speculative realm. Can this speculation exercise teach us about privacy and its construction in the early modern period, beyond the conjuring of a family’s dirty laundry or my possibly overly empathetic projection? Privacy – like the milkmaid’s dress and the painting’s coats of paint – is best described in terms of layers. The layers of privacy are always laced with speculation. They are shifting and difficult to uncover. We might see through them with the help of x-rays and other means, but through the reading between the lines, the guessing at what has not been written down, and the imagining of whispers, we, as historians, can turn restrained speculation into a probing tool.


[1] It fetched the second highest price at an auction of 22 of Vermeer’s 35 paintings in 1696, off the estate of the original owner’s son in law, Jacob Dissius.

[2] Walter Liedtke, “Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) and The Milkmaid,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–, August 2009,

[3] Liedtke.

[4] Liedtke.

[5] H. Rodney Nevitt, Jr., “Vermeer’s Milkmaid in the DIscourse of Love,” in Ut Pictura Amor: The Reflexive Imagery of Love in Artistic Theory and Practice, 1500-1700, vol. 48, Intersections (Brill, 2017).

[6] During Vermeer’s lifetime, painters such as Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer himself began to represent maids more neutrally than their predecessor who emphasized the easy sexuality associated with maids. See also “The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer,” accessed January 28, 2020,

[7]  See also Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (University of California Press, 1988), 540.

[8] Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches.

[9] Children are only pictured in The Little Street, c. 1657–1661 and in The View of Delft, c. 1660–1663.