Privacy and Loving the Neighbor. Private Property according to Early Modern Lutheran Theologians

My book, Lutheran Theology and Contract Law in Early Modern Germany has been published by Brill in 2019. As the title suggests, it is about the contract law teachings shaped by Lutheran theologians and jurists. The involvement of the theologians with contract law issues might sound weird today, as our secular society is founded on a strong separation between religion and law. However, medieval and early modern society was deeply religious and the salvation of the soul was a crucial problem for every person. Sins could lead to eternal damnation. They had to be confessed at least once a year to the parish priest and punishment should be inflicted. For centuries, in the Catholic Church, priests were trained to guide the Christians in their fight against sins and to determine the right penance. They were also concerned with the moral aspects of legal obligations, including property law and contract law. Fraud in business, illicit appropriation of a thing, and the charging of interest in loans were all sins. The Christian should be instructed on how to avoid these sins and counseled in the solution of the moral dilemmas. The most eminent theologians wrote a multitude of penitential books destined to the education of confessors and penitents. These books also included long discussions about property and contract law problems.


Although in a different way, the Lutheran theologians followed the path prepared by the Catholics. Martin Luther (1483-1546), Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), Johannes Brenz (1499-1570), Johannes Aepinus (1499-1553), Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586), Johann Gerhard (1582-1637) and many other outstanding theologians wrote sermons, moral treatises and other specific works dedicated to the education of pastors and believers. The word privacy was not mentioned in these works. However, the theologians dealt with the ´private´ and more in specific with the right of private property, private contractual autonomy, and private business. In this post, I would like to focus on the right of property according to the early modern Lutheran theologians. The narrative will be rather stylized, but the reader who wants to have more detailed information can have a look at my book.


Privacy is not included in the concept of private property but it can presuppose the right of property. Today, people might take for granted the exclusive ownership of a thing (e.g. house) but this does not hold true in the medieval and early modern period. Private property was indeed a contested right. For example, we can think about the medieval disputes triggered by the Franciscans and other mendicant orders who fought to defend their right to renounce to property and live in a state of voluntary poverty.
In the early modern period, a Protestant sect called Anabaptism aired the view that private property should be forbidden. According to the Bible, the Anabaptists said, Christians should have everything in common and business activities should be prohibited. They appealed to numerous biblical passages like for instance Mark 10:21, sell your goods and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in Heaven or invoked the evangelical spirit of the first Christian community where all things were held in common. This movement spread throughout Europe but was rejected by the main confessions (Calvinists, Lutherans and Roman Catholics) because it was considered to be too radical.


The Lutherans opposed the Anabaptists’ position on communal property advocating instead a conception of private property aimed at considering the needs of the neighbor. Private property, they argued, is a divine institution commanded by the Scriptures. The seventh commandment of the Decalogue, you shall not steal, was employed as the main argument for the defense of private property. The Decalogue was a crucial element of the Lutheran moral system. It was understood as the summary of the divine law, the existential catalog of the Christian duties. Luther and the other reformers maintained that by forbidding the stealing of goods God clearly instituted private property and determined its use.


The law of God, therefore, does not command that properties must be in common but sets out that private property is a divine institution and must be used according to charity. The aim of property is not an egoistic enjoyment but the support of the neighbor. For the Lutherans, this support could be given in two ways: by exchanging goods or by giving alms. Contracts were conceived as instruments to exchange goods in order to benefit the neighbor. For example, the reformers claimed that if one of the parties has goods but no money, he could make a contract of sale with another party. If a party does not have enough money to buy a house and the other party does not need it they can make a lease. If one of the parties is deprived of goods then the other party could help him by almsgiving. When the neighbor needs help he should be sustained by a correct contractual exchange and almsgiving.
This compromise solution allowed the Lutherans to defend private property and safeguard the correspondence with the biblical dictates. They considered faith and charity as core rules for private property. Faith allows men to recognize that private property is a divine institution. The owner of goods has to thank God for his goods or ask Him when they are needed. Charity is the fundamental rule to use the goods. The Christian has to revolve attention on the needs of the neighbor. This could be done by a sale, lease or another contract always considering the needs of both parties so that they both can be satisfied. The right to private property is not given for self-wellbeing but to meet the neighbor’s needs.
I conclude with a speculation on the notion of private that could be carved out from this discussion on the right to property. For the early modern Lutheran theologians, the private was not seen in an individualistic and absolutistic sense, but in connection with God and the neighbor. The Lutherans defended private property, but as an instrument to practice the virtues of faith and charity. Consequently, the rules on the property of goods are not absolute but flexible. They do not guarantee the right to possess goods for the personal satisfaction of the owner so that he could claim his unlimited right to the private. Rather, they guarantee the moral lawfulness of owing goods as long as the neighbor does not need help. When the neighbor knocks on my door, my private goods shall be used to help him. It is, therefore, a softened and flexible notion of private, which does not imply complete isolation from the other but rather a certain opening. The moral norms devised by the Lutheran theologians appeal to the Christian and command him to host the neighbor into his private space when this is necessary.

 

Pedagogical Practices and the Teaching of Historical Privacy

I think we can all agree that privacy is a subject that affects us. In the current socio-political climate, we are facing unprecedented conflicts with social media exposure, the data economy and the sale of personal information, and increasing systems of surveillance, that breaches the thresholds of our private lives. This concern has led to advocating for the protection of privacy, which is in the mind of individuals and governments alike. At the same time, escalating social anxieties related to cyber bullying, terrorism and criminal activities continuously send us the message that privacy can also be a threat. However, the ambiguity of privacy that exists now was evident in the historical past.

This dichotomy of privacy as both a threat and as a quality is at the heart of the Centre for Privacy Studies’ research focus and methodology. Given the role that privacy plays in our everyday lives, it is natural that the subject of privacy and notions of privacy throughout the past have garnered interest from scholars and the wider public. We believe that a historical understanding of privacy is the key to understand how this issue affects us on a daily basis. However, how can we look at privacy in the past without projecting the notion of privacy we carry with us today? This research needs to be performed with care, with flexible ideas of what the concept of privacy entails, informed by an interdisciplinary approach.

As my colleague, Dr Frank Ejby Poulsen, pointed out in his recent blog post, “privacy is however difficult to conceptualise and attempts to do so may lead to everything and nothing.” I agree with Dr Poulsen’s conclusion that conceptualising privacy results in “everything and nothing” and never gets us anywhere. To me, this approach just leads us to chase our tails.

via GIPHY

As a solution, Dr Poulsen brilliantly directs us to Daniel J. Solove’s determination to avoid “an essentialist concept of privacy with a defined ‘core’.” (1) This means we must challenge ourselves to move beyond our own defined or experienced idea of privacy and think about it as having multiple meanings, that may be expressed and visible otherwise through various sources (i.e. people, spaces, objects, feelings, and events).

Approaching privacy in this way may be innovative and good for interdisciplinary scholars engaged in historical research. However, the pedagogical practices and teaching of privacy can be difficult. This is due to the problematic nature of not having a defined concept of privacy, which may be hard for some students (across all education levels) to grasp as they begin, advance, or innovate their studies in history or the humanities. Throughout my academic and professional teaching career, I have found that students are not entirely comfortable with abstract approaches for various reasons.

First, while students can use their experiences as a starting point to explore the past, they are cautioned to avoid imposing their views on people, events, and concepts of the past. These experiences and ideas that are formed throughout their lives are the roots that anchor them and makes them feel comfortable in engaging the historical topics or materials. Next, when you take away their ability to rely on their experiences to study history and then add that to the fact that the subject that they are studying is based on abstract notions, then students are less likely to engage with or be interested in the topic. Finally, in living “in a world darkened by historical amnesia and obsessed with temporalities of futurity”, students confronted with abstract concepts, like privacy, may either feel embolden to make strong assertions through written or verbal arguments or may be constrained in fully examining the topic. (2)

Siep Sturrman writes that teaching early modern history (and applicable to other periods) “calls for promotion and seduction skills: one needs to lure students into the project and, far more importantly, to get them to engage intellectually with it.” (3) Far too often, from my own teaching experience, students are apathetic about studying earlier historical periods because it does not relate to them or is ‘boring’. This is enhanced with the case of students from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities because all too often the sources used to teach these periods are not reflective of who the students are or the environments of their lived experiences. There is, thankfully, a growing trend in academia to address this discrepancy and I know some incredible colleagues who are making these changes within their own courses. The fundamental problem, as Sturrman highlights, is to get students to “engage intellectually” with the historical problem. In my opinion, this requires students to connect with the materials. This connection (be it personally, politically, socially, or politically) not only makes students interested but also make them feel more willing to express their thoughts and to engage with the topic. The confidence in expressing their thoughts will increase critical thinking and lead to students defending their points of views, which is the goal of historical analysis. While privacy may be a subject that allows for this engagement, the abstractness of privacy has the potential to obstruct the connection.

This conundrum brings me to the key part of this post. To teach privacy within historical periods and to have students engage with it intellectually calls for educators to use a combination of traditional pedagogical practices of source evaluation, group discussions, and critical thinking. But, by employing practices of collective reading, incorporating interdisciplinary research, bringing in interdisciplinary scholars, and soliciting personal observations, the chances of success in the intellectual engagement of students is exponentially increased. The exchange within the research seminar with Professor Heide Wunder, that I alluded in my previous post, provides a good example of this approach.

At the end of Professor Heide Wunder’s lecture, the Q&A session provided the first idea of ways in which to teach and think about privacy. Through talking with my colleagues, there were two statements made that really helped to solidify an approach to privacy: privacy is always in relation to something and privacy is most often personal. This reference to considering privacy as personal will be expanded further down.

The second day of Professor Wunder’s visit consisted of an intensive research seminar, which illuminated the pedagogical potential of teaching about privacy and discuss how we could develop the notion of privacy in relation to notions of secrecy and intimacy. The seminar began with Wunder sharing her journey, through her research, from examining 12th-century multi-ethnic populations (i.e. Baltic and German people) that settled in East Prussia. This overview was followed by a discussion of each PRIVACY member’s research and Wunder’s generous suggestions of further sources to consider within their own historical investigations. Through presenting various topics via disciplinary scopes (architectural, legal, social/cultural, political and religious histories), the exchange between PRIVACY scholars and Wunder illuminates the ways in which privacy can be used but also how disciplinary perspectives can inform interdisciplinary characterisations of privacy. Furthermore, the experience highlighted how privacy was fluid and can be identified in all fields through different markers and expressions. Using the approach within the classroom would help students to refine and articulate precise questions that are crucial for historical studies. This personal connection and generous exchange drew us in to actually think about privacy, not in a defined context, but as a fluid and collaborative exploration.

The final section of the research seminar was, in my opinion, the best and most insightful part. Wunder provided a copy of a letter (included in her book) that was written in August 1783 between Sophie von La Roche to Elise zu Solms-Laubuch. (4) It was at this point that Wunder asked us to read the source together, after appointing our colleague to read it aloud. Next, she asked us: “In relation to the notion of privacy, what stands out for you?” Immediately discussions ensued and really pushed us to analyse hidden meanings that point to privacy or how descriptions articulate what was private. By asking the group for our personal observations, she allowed us to utilise our experiences and to look for points of significance for us.

What resulted from this was having our eyes opened to the possibilities of employing privacy in a variety of ways and the different ways in which we can identify privacy within the evidence. Through reading the letter, we were able to identify physical and metaphorical boundaries that signified the construction or designation of private spaces within a public space. We noticed the privacy that was inherent in everyday work and public practices, as well as privacy in relation to family and time shared between people. This particular pedagogical practice was particularly successful because it involved people coming from different backgrounds and specialisms, applying interdisciplinary approaches. If implementing this in a classroom or university setting, this practice could be combined with interdisciplinary readings that would encourage students to think beyond one specific discipline. Utilising the two statements about relational privacy and privacy as personal, this exercise would tap into individual life experiences, and each participant could see something unique that provokes further discussion. Through encouraging students to think about privacy in these two ways (privacy as relational and personal) helps students formulate questions and establish a strong starting point to engage with and contribute to how privacy is historically conceptualised and characterised.

This reflection has allowed me to delve further into my research and apply new (to me) ideas that have already helped me to form the theoretical underpinnings of political privacy. I can attest from first-hand experience to the benefits of the collective engagement with sources in the classroom. Therefore, in summary, I would encourage researchers, teachers, and professors to utilise the traditional pedagogical approaches in historical studies in an interdisciplinary way to effectively teach and efficiently research various historical subjects, especially ones that may involve abstract concepts.

The pedagogical practices and teaching of privacy (and similar topics) discussed here is definitely something to consider and to foster a dialogue about. What do you think?


(1) Daniel J. Solove, Understanding Privacy, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008, 8; see also Daniel J. Solove, “Conceptualizing Privacy”, California Law Review, 90:1087 (2002), 1099–1123.
(2) Siep Stuurman, “Exploring the Limits of the Thinkable”, in David Conroy and Danielle Clarke (eds.), Teaching the Early Modern Period, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 77.
(3) Ibid., 76.
(4) Heide Wunder, He is the Sun and She is the Moon: Women in Early Modern Germany, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998, 63.

Traduire privacy : Vie privée ou sphère privée ?

Dans mon dernier billet, j’ai présenté, en anglais, mes réflexions méthodologiques sur l’étude historico-philosophique de la privacy. J’ai ensuite présenté la méthode de travail du Centre for Privacy Studies, définie par son directeur, Mette Birkedal Bruun. Je souhaite dans ce présent billet, écrit en français avec une bonne raison, aborder le problème soulevé par mon collègue Michael Green, concernant la traduction des concepts utilisés pour l’analyse de la privacy.

Tout d’abord se pose la question de traduire la notion de « privacy ». A première vue, il est logique de traduire privacy par vie privée parce que nous avons en droit un « right to privacy » correspondant au « droit à la vie privée ». Deux questions se posent, cependant, avec ce choix. D’abord, il limite la compréhension de privacy à une notion moderne et contemporaine liée à l’apparition de ce droit. En ce sens, une étude de la privacy ou vie privée se limiterait à l’évolution de cette notion moderne et contemporaine. Certes, elle pourrait ne pas se borner à une conception juridique et inclure l’histoire des idées avec le développement de la notion de droit de l’homme, de l’individu, du soi. Mais, il n’en reste pas moins que c’est une limitation de la notion de privacy. Il est donc nécessaire de déterminer dès le début qu’il ne s’agit pas d’une histoire du droit à la vie privée lorsque l’on parle de vie privée, tout comme a history of privacy n’est pas a history of the right to privacy.

En outre, l’histoire de la vie privée a une histoire elle aussi. Au dix-septième siècle, on s’intéresse à l’étude de la vie privée des personnes dans le passé. La seconde moitié du dix-huitième siècle montre un engouement pour la vie privée.

On s’intéresse par exemple à la vie privée des Romains. Cela montre que la notion de vie privée commence à s’installer dans les esprits.

Billedresultat for de la vie privée des romains d'arnay"

La seconde question qui se pose, à mes yeux, concerne la corrélation dans les deux langues de ce que signifient privacy en anglais et vie privée en français. Linguistiquement parlant, les deux ont en commun le mot issu du latin privatus. Privacy en anglais, est composé de l’adjectif private (du latin privatus, privatum) et du suffixe –acy. Selon le Oxford English Dictionary, la definition de privacy est : “The state or condition of being alone, undisturbed, or free from public attention, as a matter of choice or right; seclusion; freedom from interference or intrusion.” L’origine du mot viendrait d’une erreur de copie de privity en 1534.

Vie privée est dans le dictionnaire Trésor de la Langue Française sous « vie »: «  [Constr. avec un adj. ou un compl. prép.] Part de l’activité humaine, de l’existence d’une personne ou d’une collectivité envisagée du point de vue de l’activité exercée, des occupations. » Pour « privé » : « 1. Dont seuls quelques particuliers peuvent faire usage; où le public n’est généralement pas admis. […] 2. Qui appartient en propre à une ou à plusieurs personnes. […] 3. Qui a lieu dans l’intimité, sans public; qui concerne un petit nombre de personnes. […] 4. Qui est d’ordre strictement personnel; qui ne concerne pas les autres. […] − Vie privée. Anton. vie professionnelle, publique*. »

Comme je l’ai argumenté dans mon précédent billet, privacy ne peut se résumer à un concept au sens philosophique du terme. Par conséquent, le problème est moins celui de la traduction d’un concept et des considérations que cela entraîne. Concept qui, de toute façon, n’existait pas à l’époque que nous étudions (1500-1800) au sens où nous l’entendons aujourd’hui.

La définition anglaise commence par la notion « d’état » ou « de condition », dans laquelle on peut se trouver « hors de l’attention publique » « par choix ou par droit ». On peut remarquer l’absence de spécification sur le sujet en question : une personne ou un groupe de personnes. On peut aussi remarquer l’absence de spécification sur la nature de cette « attention publique » : regard, ouïe, odorat, savoir, connaissance d’un secret, etc. Vie privée pourrait se résumer à « part de l’activité humaine, de l’existence d’une personne ou d’une collectivité envisagée du point de vue de l’activité exercée, des occupations » « qui est d’ordre strictement personnel ; qui ne concerne pas les autres ». Il me semble que nous pouvons retrouver les mêmes éléments dans les deux langues concernant la condition ou l’état d’absence d’attention extérieure, et le fait qu’il puisse s’agir d’une personne ou d’un groupe de personnes.

Noisy sphere Cette traduction me paraît aussi bonne parce qu’elle évite la conception de « sphère privée », aussi utilisée en allemand, Privatsphäre. L’idée de « sphère » en elle-même suppose une délimitation. Hors, c’est le propre même d’une étude sur la vie privée de questionner la notion de délimitation. Les limites peuvent être négociées, repoussées, superposées. D’autre part, la notion de sphère implique, même inconsciemment, l’image d’un espace. Cependant, on peut trouver des exemples de privacy sans espace, comme le recueillement dans la prière par l’action d’un voile ou de joindre les mains. L’espace physique, la sphère, est minimale voire inexistante, mais la distance à l’autre est immense.

Pour la traduction de household, en revanche, « sphère domestique » me semble propre. Le foyer ou la maison ne sauraient correspondre car il faut comprendre un ensemble de personnels outre la famille. Ces personnes forment une sphère répondant à l’espace domestique proprement dit, ou s’étendant avec ces personnes lorsqu’elles sortent de cette espace.

Si nous comprenons « vie privée » selon cette définition, il me semble que cela soit une bonne traduction de privacy. Il reste alors à se poser la question avec Philippe Ariès : « Une histoire de la vie privée est-elle possible ? »

[1] Philippe Ariès, ‘Pour une histoire de la vie privée’, in Histoire de la vie privée, ed. Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby, vol. 3: De la Renaissance aux Lumières, 5 vols (Paris: Seuil, 1986), 7–19.

Emotions in Historical Documents

File:Étienne Jeaurat 001.jpg

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

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

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

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

Who is right?

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

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

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

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

Privacy at Sea

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

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

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

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

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

Gabriel Bray, “Four Marines Eating Pease”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Experiencing Archives and Researching Privacy: A Reflection on PRIVACY Interdisciplinary Team Research

As I mentioned in my previous post, between the 23rd and 28th of October, PRIVACY’s Dresden case team visited the Hauptstaatsarchiv Dresden and the SLUB Dresden to finally engage with the manuscripts we were longing to explore. From day one we knew this would be a unique experience. Visiting new archives can lead to feelings of both anxiety and excitement. It was my first time visiting a German archive, and my limited German vocabulary could potentially make the archival visit difficult. Besides, this was a new experience for all of us, since it was the first time we visited an archive as an interdisciplinary team – for some of us, the first experience at an archive at all.

Now after our return to Copenhagen, I can say that this collective approach to archival research was more enriching than I could ever expect. My anxiety about the German language was counter-acted by being with colleagues that spoke German. Just by listening to their interactions with the staff of the archive, I could already feel my German vocabulary expanding. Furthermore, just engaging and examining the manuscripts that were often in German increased my knowledge of early modern German. By the end of the visit, I could actually look at the manuscripts and get a good sense of what information was contained within the sources. Fellow researchers facing manuscripts for the first time could count on my experience with paleography. We could rely on each other, share findings, and go through the materials more efficiently together. The experience conjured images of us as Marvel characters, each with particular superpowers that left us strong yet vulnerable, but together we were a powerhouse.

Depictions of Moritz and August of Saxony in the “Fürstenzug” or “Procession of Princes” mural in Dresden, photo by D. Neighbors

Working together as an interdisciplinary team also helped with how we looked at the manuscripts and how we could identify privacy within the materials. Coming from different historical fields, we had different approaches to the sources. Furthermore, employing our different specialism and backgrounds allowed each of us to examine the same source and identify different aspects of a particular manuscript: our legal historian would see something differently than our cultural historian, while our architectural historian would add nuance to the religious historian’s interest. This interdisciplinary approach allowed us to pull back the layers of a particular source to extract more details, revealing new ways of identifying privacy within that manuscript. These discussions would increase the value of the manuscript, making our argument more nuanced and well-rounded in the process.

Dresden team with Dr Eckhart Leisering examining the catalogue of materials at the Sächsisches Staatsarchiv

During the course of our visit to Dresden, we did manage to explore the Residenzschloss, which was actually the residence for August and Anna of Saxony as seen in the picture below.

“Kurfürst August von Sachsen (1526-1586)” and “Kurfürstin Anna von Sachsen (1532-1585)”, Lucas Cranach, c. 1564-1565, Rüstkammer, Ina.-Nr. H94 and H95, Residenzschloss, Dresden

The entire week we had worked with letters and manuscript sources that examining architecture evident and material objects related to our case study helped illuminate a lot about the people and location that are the focus of our research. The visit was definitely illuminating as we saw objects that were part of the imagery and identity of August and Anna but were also part of the everyday living, which suggests a level of intimacy and therefore privacy. We also saw instruments that were used in the scientific and medical endeavours. These endeavours were a huge part of who August and Anna were, but it reveals who they were as private individuals.

 

“Moritzmonument”, Hans Walther II, c. 1533-1555, Residenzschloss, Dresden (Monument depicting Moritz “handing the Saxon electoral sword to his brother August…their wives positioned slightly to the rear”)

 

Cups with coat of arms of Elector August of Saxony and Electress Anna of Saxony, Nicolaus Solis/Hans Selber, c. 1580-1584, Residenzschloss, Dresden

We came away with some incredible manuscript material and images that would not have been possible if we had been working individually and only with a single disciplinary focus. Furthermore, the team dynamic was strengthened and thereby allowing us to collaborate and work together more confidently and efficiently. I would encourage scholars and institutions to consider the immense value of this approach. By engaging in archival research as an interdisciplinary team it saves time, money, and is good for an individual’s overall wellbeing, as well as strengthening research and knowledge development. In fact, the trip has already cultivated connections and a partnership, particularly with SLUB-Dresden, that has us envisioning a future exhibition featuring the work we have done collectively and individually. The potentiality of the exhibition would also highlight the value and importance of interdisciplinary research and working collaboratively.

Gaming pieces depicting Elector August and Electress Anna of Saxony, Lucas Cranach the Younger, c. 1565, Rüstkammer, SKD, Inv.-Nrn. H 49, H 50, Residenzschloss, Dresden

With our archival research experience fresh in our minds, we returned to the PRIVACY headquarters for a brilliantly engaging seminar with Prof. Heide Wunder about family secrecy and privacy. The intersection of these two events resulted in even more knowledge and details that helped us to strengthen our argument. Serendipitously, the way the research seminar was conducted provided a rare opportunity to engage in discussions surrounding privacy within manuscripts and evidence. In my next post, I will explore Prof. Heide Wunder’s seminar and the pedagogical potential of collective reading of sources in the process of teaching privacy.

Greetings, Personal Space, and Privacy

 

Greetings can be weird.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Towards a history of privacy: conceptual and methodological considerations

If privacy is a highly debated topic today, particularly in the USA, it is mainly because of increasing concerns in the last two decades regarding the rise of digitalization, on the one hand, and surveillance promising security against “terrorism,” on the other. As a look at the surge of the term “privacy” in an n-gram Google books search shows, this had been a rising concern since the 1960s.

Alan F. Westin published the first seminal book on privacy in 1967, Privacy and Freedom, which influenced several legal reforms in the 1970s and 1980s in the USA. He devised a taxonomy with four different states of privacy: solitude, intimacy, reserve, and anonymity. The central issue was already the interception of communications, physical and increasingly electronic. In a similar vein, the growing use of the internet triggered concerns regarding a seemingly limitless invasion of privacy. Jeffrey Rosen published The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America in 2000, and The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age in 2004, with an emphasis on privacy in a digital world. James B. Rule in 2007 Privacy in Peril, offered an account of the tradeoff involved between privacy and security or other conveniences by individuals willingly giving electronic information to government and corporations.

In his 2008 book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, Jonathan Zittrain showed how the transition to a web 2.0 also involved a transition from a “Privacy 1.0” (data gathered by and stored in government and corporate databases) to a “Privacy 2.0” (data created and freely shared by individuals). In that spirit, in Constitution 3.0: Freedom and Technological Change, edited by Jeffrey Rosen and Benjamin Wittes in 2011, leading US scholars imagine the state of things to come and suggest policies and legal solutions to issues related not only to technological advances in surveillance but also neuroscience and genetics.

In conceptualizing privacy, these works have in common that they consider privacy as a valuable good from an individual point of view, an individual right that needs protection. Of course, I do not contend that we should not see privacy as a right that needs protection, but as a historian, and particularly an intellectual historian, this present conceptualization is problematic and is the starting point of a Foucauldian interrogation on a “history of the present.” How did we come to consider privacy as a human right? It was not present in the 1789 Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, but is in article 12 of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Privacy is however difficult to conceptualize and attempts to do so may lead to everything and nothing. Daniel J. Solove, in his 2008 Understanding Privacy, noted this difficulty and suggested a new taxonomy different from Westin’s (information collection, processing, dissemination, and invasion of privacy). Solove suggests avoiding an essentialist conception of privacy with a defined “core.” Instead, one should consider Wittgenstein’s theory of language and “family resemblances” when studying privacy. Rather than looking at one issue, Solove suggests a bottom-up approach by understanding “privacy as a set of protections against a plurality of distinct but related problems” (p. 171). This set of related problems forms a cluster of disparate notions that we solely for practical purposes unite under the common denomination “privacy.”

As a parenthesis on Wittgenstein, one may note that he exiled himself in Skjolden, Norway, in a secluded and isolated hut, which was visible to all in the village downhill. A sort of “conspicuous privacy.” This points the finger on one issue, which is also identified by many book covers and also the logo chosen for the Centre for Privacy Studies: an external eye witnessing the “private.”Eye dilate

Now, a key issue in intellectual history concerns the methodological and conceptual characterization of the object of study, typically a concept, idea, any intellectual production. Consider liberty. One could chose to define liberty first, and then look to the past to identify how the defined liberty was used and thought of, and how the concept was formed. This way of writing history, however, runs the risk of anachronism. As Quentin Skinner showed in Liberty Before Liberalism, one may overlook other conceptions of liberty, a neo-Roman or neo-Republican conception, than the one determined by the dominant paradigm of liberalism. The issue is this: writing the history of an intellectual object has two occupations. First, writing the history of the object in the past. Second, writing the history of the formation of the object in the past–how we got this object today.

Privacy is no different and is a typical case of an object of study, for which the word did not necessarily exist in the past or rarely occured. As Ferdinand de Saussure put it, an object has two components: a signifié (signified), or the concept that a word is designating, and a signifiant (signifier) or the word that designates the concept. Now a historian looks at sources, documents, that prove the existence of an object in the past. However, looking at the word is only looking at one side of the object when it is an intellectual one. A concept may exist before a word appears to define it. Also, the same word may designate a different concept than the one we have today. One could see this as making the object of study two dimensional rather than one-dimensional.

Of course, the concept of privacy obeys the same methodological considerations for the historian. From an intellectual historian’s point of view, it is, therefore, a double endeavor: investigating how past human beings thought of privacy, and investigating how the notion itself developed and became a word. For the first endeavor, we often lack a word, so there is a need to consider alternative methods. For the second, we lack a clear conceptualization of what notions to look for that will create the word. A quick look again at Google books shows the beginnings of the use of the word “privacy” and a peak in the mid-17th century after the end of the English civil war.

Moreover, privacy is more than just a concept. It is also a feeling and a condition.  Beate Rossler has theorized three dimensions of privacy: decisional privacy (the privacy of actions), informational privacy (the proper “right to privacy” or “right to be left alone” from Warren and Brandeis), and local privacy (the traditional private home separate from the public). That may be a third dimension to understanding privacy as an object of study. Privacy is, therefore, a great case for a truly interdisciplinary study program and deserves to be expanded into a whole field of study: privacy studies.

The Centre for Privacy Studies opted for an ambitious methodological and theoretical approach while maintaining a firm and clearly delineated bottom-up case-based study. Centre director Mette Birkedal Bruun published two papers on the centre’s working method. One is “Privacy in Early Modern Christianity and Beyond: Traces and Approaches” Annali Istituto storico italo-germanico/Jahrbuch des italienisch-deutschen historischen Instituts in Trient 44 (2018/2), 33-54. Another one is available on the Centre’s homepage. We understand privacy both as a quality and a threat from the perspective of all parts involved. In order to examine family resemblances, we not only analyze the stem “priv” in a corpus of texts–“priv- words”, i.e. words like “ “private,” “privacy,” “privy,” in various languages–but we also use a semantic mapping of words related and/or opposed to “private”–such as “common,” “professional,” “public,” etc. We also use heuristic zones to delineate the intersection, exclusion, and overlap of various spheres of privacy:

By examining how some problems related to privacy occurred at different places and times, we want to present a micro-historical observation of the human condition. All these cases could then serve for the basis of a bigger macro-analysis of the variations in thinking of and living with privacy.

This is what a scientific research program in the humanities aims to achieve: to provide society the tools to understand itself and the human condition in order to make better-informed decisions for the future. However, humankind does not understand universally the concept of “privacy” in the same way. Barrington Moore wrote a seminal anthropological and historical study comparing an Eskimo community, classical Athens, the Old Testament, and Ancient China. The first issue lies in the translation of this cluster we call “privacy” in other languages and in wondering with Moore whether it is universal at all. In my next post, I shall consider “privacy” in the French language as an example.

Settling things like gentlemen – duelling as private justice?

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

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

Gioacomo de Grassi, True Art of Defense (1594)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early Modern Political Privacy: The Pragmatic and Conceptual Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Why privacy studies?

As a center of excellence funded by the Danish National Research Foundation, the Centre for Privacy Studies gathers together interdisciplinary scholars to pursue notions of privacy within their respective fields. In September 2019, the Centre for Privacy Studies welcomed a new cohort of scholars from across the world to develop innovative research that furthers the field of privacy studies.

Four scholars from the PRIVACY team got together to discuss their research journey into notions of privacy. Natália da Silva Perez, who has been working as a postdoctoral researcher for a little over one year at the Centre for Privacy Studies, got together with new colleagues Frank Ejby Poulsen, Natacha Klein Käfer, and Dustin Neighbors to chat about each of their takes on privacy studies.

Frank Ejby Poulsen: For the most part, intellectual historians emphasize the written word as the source for their analysis; the field is mostly a text-based discipline. There are two main methods, the contextualist “Cambridge School” approach, or the Begriffsgeschichte approach. They both consider concepts from the perspective of the written language.  Notwithstanding, there has been a growing interest in including other types of sources; often, visual representations. Quentin Skinner is an example of this when he analyses Hobbes’s frontispieces for De Cive and Leviathan as summaries of the books’ arguments in one picture. Of course, he is not the first one to include sources that are not made of words as a source for intellectual history; e.g. Lucien Braun comes to mind, or Roland Barthes have worked on images in (the history of) philosophy.

Intellectual history, writ-large, focuses on productions of the mind–intellectual productions. The mind does not solely produce words. This is why I became interested in this project. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the “concept” of privacy had much more to do than the mere written theoretical concept “privacy.” It is much more than that, it deals with emotions, feelings, spatial, intimate cognitive processes. Intellectual history needs to expand in order to touch on these topics.

Helmstedt Merian 1641
Colored engraving of Helmstedt by Merian in 1641 first published in the “Topographia Germaniae” in 1654 (public domain)

In my work, I examine interactions between intellectual productions and privacy, including the intellectual production of privacy. For example, at the University of Helmstedt (or Academia Julia), professors went from living the life of a bachelor to living in private households linked to the university. They were citizens of the city university inside the city of Helmsted. For me, it is interesting to have the opportunity to explore the relationships that were fostered by this environment. Professors gave public lectures under the university’s control, and private ones with little control for a fee. Paul Nelles has studied the teaching of historia litteraria in the 18th century. Professors recruited students through pamphlets and their wife and children were also involved in the recruitment. Practical knowledge and fashionable topics were taught in private. Professors’ households also offered lodging, meals, and other services for students-they were called “Bier, Brot und Küche” professors. Many “new sciences” were taught in private before they were taught in public. Can we talk of a market capitalization of knowledge? I hope to investigate that in my research here at PRIVACY.

Natacha Klein Käfer: I work in the field of charm studies and I was drawn to the idea of privacy studies because of the many methodological and theoretical challenges that these areas of inquiry share. Charm studies is a contentious discipline because our historical sources are always in between established categories: we study practical, everyday activities, like the use of amulets or short prayers, all of which were seen by their users as facilitating cures and helping with daily problems. This kind of popular knowledge is always in between religion and heresy, between medicine and superstition. Privacy Studies is similar: privacy is almost always defined as being in relation to something else, you know it when you see it, but it is difficult to define. I like that here at PRIVACY we work together to develop methods to identify historical notions of privacy in new ways. Privacy, in the sources and periods I study, most often depended on the practicalities of how people lived their lives. I focus a lot on local healers. These were keepers of private knowledge from people in their communities, and were often put in situations where they had to protect private information, like in the case of a witch trial.

“Beschwörer” from the frontispiece of the book “Magiologia: christliche Warnung für dem Aberglauben und Zauberey” Basel, 1674.

It is interesting for me to see historical instances of what happens when the secrets of the community go out and reach the ears of authorities. When I look at my sources, when I examine healers involved in witch trials, for example, I see that there is a concern about who is entitled to have or share certain private information, not only among the elite, but also among the common folk. The concern over private data being shared predates the idea of privacy as a right. So in my analyses, I am drawn to the consequences of privacy and also the negotiation of privacy between individuals and communities.

Natália da Silva Perez: During my PhD work, I realized something curious about the three women playwrights in whose work I focused: none of them had children. For instance, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz says in a famous autobiographical letter that she had no inclination to marriage… that is why she decided to become a nun. But being a nun was also what enabled her to become a prolific writer, with several volumes of prose, poetry and drama published within her lifetime in Spain and New Spain. Perhaps counter-intuitively for us nowadays, the cloister was precisely what gave her the freedom to cultivate her mind. Another case is that of Lady Jane Lumley, a noblewoman whose father was close to the royal circle in England. She was not what we would recognize as a professional writer, but she was definitely a scholar, a researcher, and someone with a curious mind, and a very privileged education. In the privacy of her father’s household, she and her siblings received an erudite humanist education. They lived in an environment that fostered intellectual development… they had the best resources available for their learning… And them I also have the example of Madame de Villedieu, who was the first female playwright to have one of her plays featured at the court of Louis XIV. She spent many years of her life longing for the love of a man who did not love her back, so she didn’t have any family, nor did she get married until quite late in her life. These three women were from the elite (sure, Lady Lumley was at a much higher status than Sor Juana or Mme. de Villedieu, but even these two were not from lower echelons of their society; they had connections). The fact that they were privileged enabled them to study and write (helped perhaps by the fact that they ended up not raising children). Then, at the end of my PhD, my question was: how was it for women of lower strata of early modern societies? How did they conciliate their need to provide for themselves with their obligations of motherhood? What if they did not want to have children? That is why I decided to study sexual privacy for poor women.

Dustin Neighbors: Coming from the USA via the UK, I did not grow up with a cultural connection to royal history and monarchs. As a historian of monarchy and court culture, I have always been curious and interested in the unspoken loyalty and the magnificence of rulers of the past, and the interactions between rulers and their people. Throughout my doctoral research, I focused on the details and points of contact through public royal spectacles, ceremonies, public events, and itinerant monarchies, which afforded agency and authority to rulers. Public processions and itinerant monarchies were what instigated the idea of political privacy. Consequently, the question that I arrived to at the end of my doctoral research was: if rulers were so public, did they have privacy or have private moments? Private moments, for someone like Elizabeth I of England, had larger public consequences, as well as impacting early modern sociability and political culture.

“Queen Elizabeth I receiving two Dutch ambassadors”, unknown artist, c. 1575, Neue Galerie, Kassell, Germany.

For instance, during a hunting excursion in 1564, Elizabeth I engaged two French diplomats in a political discussion surrounding the possession of territory in France, that once belonged to England. This private moment highlights the discussion of political issues and its eventual public consequence of further damaging foreign relations with France. However, private was not just about the unseen and unheard but also about the designation of private spaces. Hunting was a public event, but with no one else involved in the hunting excursion except the Queen and the diplomats, the act of hunting and its environs became private spaces. The private exchanges that dealt with politics (broadly speaking) is why I want to study and develop the notion of political privacy. Is this a thing? Is it visible within the evidence? By expanding my research to examine the European royal and electoral courts, I am able to explore the similarities and differences that privacy had in shaping royal power, foreign relations, political and court culture in the early modern period.

So what will this blog be? Just as we began this discussion, this blog will be the home for notes during our respective research journeys… Here, we will jet down our unfinished (or even polished) thoughts, as we explore notions of privacy as they emerge in our work. We look forward to contributing to the dialogue on privacy studies and to fostering interdisciplinary conversations in the humanities and beyond.

Centre for Privacy Studies

The Danish National Research Foundation Centre for Privacy Studies (PRIVACY) was established in September 2017 through a generous grant of 50 Mio. DKK (approx. 6.7 Mio. Euro) from the Danish National Research Foundation (DNRF).

The PRIVACY research team will examine how no­tions of privacy shape relations between individuals and society across diverse historical contexts. We are particularly interested in indications of privacy as a quality and threat: in the emergence and development of the idea that too little privacy threatens the individual while too much may ruin society.

PRIVACY focuses on the period 1500–1800 that sees critical changes in individuals’ relationship to society. It brings together the fields of Church History, History of Architecture, Legal History and History of Ideas.

PRIVACY’s scholarly goals are grounded in the overall aim to launch privacy studies as a new re­search field.

We aim to develop:

  • systematized historical knowledge of dynamics that shape, induce or curb privacy in society.
  • an interdisciplinary method equipped to grasp such dy­namics.
  • a strong and vibrant international research environment dedicated to high-profile historical research and equipped to incite a much broader investigation of privacy.

PRIVACY brings together the fields of Church History, Architectural History, Legal History, Social History the History of Ideas in a novel interdisciplinary approach based on disciplinary integrationand site-based analysis.

Our principal focus rests with the period 1500-1800. The wider aim of PRIVA­CY is, however, to mobilize knowledge of past notions of privacy as a resource that can help decode the intrica­cies of present concerns related to the indi­vidual’s place in society.

PRIVACY is hosted by
The Department of Church History, The Faculty of Theology, University of Copenhagen

in association with:
The Faculty of Law, University of Copenhagen
The School of Architecture, Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservations (KADK), Copenhagen

and in collaboration with:
The Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, Institute of History of Ideas and Sciences at Lund University, Sweden
Institut für Geschichte und Theorie der Architektur, ETH Zürich, Switzerland
The Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel, Germany
Institut d’Histoire du Droit, Université Paris II, France
The Subject Group Political Thought and Intellectual History, University of Cam­bridge, United Kingdom