Domestic animals and private spaces in the early modern period

Many of us have seen the stereotypical image of a peasant house: the lack of divisions, people sleeping all together, sharing the same space with their cattle and other animals. For us at the Centre for Privacy Studies, that representation is often brought up as a way of claiming that there could not be privacy in the early modern period. However, this image was mostly based on medieval reconstructions, and even then, it was not the case for every house – although space was mostly shared, temporary boundaries could be created with less permanent materials, and geographical differences applied to the structure of the house. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, peasant buildings tended to encompass room divisions (although still shared), and a separation between the space for animals and living areas for people was usually the norm. That being said, this separation was not necessarily strict, and a few animals had a better chance of mobility between spaces. A primary example is the dog.

Adriaen van Ostade, Peasants in an Interior, 1661.
Jakob Seisenegger, Emperor Charles V with Hound, 1532.

Dogs could be found inside the houses of people of all social strata. From the sixteenth century onwards, it was common for European nobles to posed for portraits with their dogs. The portrait of Charles V with his hound, painted by Jakob Seisenegger in 1532 (and reinterpreted by Titian in 1533), displays him holding the collar of his hunting dog, who looks at him devotedly. Particular hunting dogs were considered a luxury and were exchanged as presents between nobles. Although being particularly bred for outdoor activities, these dogs could be found inside the houses as well. Keith Thomas, in his famous work Men and the Natural World, gave us English examples of how hunting dogs were indulged, usually eating better than the servants.

Barthélémi Hopfer, Portrait d’une famille strasbourgeoise, c. 1660-1670.

Women were also portrayed with their dogs, hunting and lapdogs alike, although usually they were depicted with smaller dogs. Dogs were also considered great companions to children. Companion dogs, in particular, had broad access to more private spaces: Charles II, known for his love of dogs, had his Spaniels following him everywhere, including the bedchambers of his mistresses.

However, more research is required to know the nuances of the access thresholds for dogs. Another English example described by Thomas shows that it was not unusual for animals to share the table or the bed with their humans, but it was not exactly a well-seen practice: a sixteenth-century woman in her deathbed regretted having spoiled her female dog, saying “Good husband, you and I have offended God grievously in receiving many a time this bitch into our bed” (p. 40).

Hans Asper, Portrait of Cleophea Krieg von Bellikon, 1538

I am very curious about the spaces occupied by animals in the early modern home. Feel free to get in touch if you encountered any interesting historical sources talking about domestic animals in private spaces!


Testing out Voyant Tools with a sample from Lettres Portugaises

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

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

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

Word cloud made using the option to autodetect stop words
Word cloud made using the option to auto-detect stop words

Word cloud made using the option to not remove any stop words
Word cloud made using the option to not remove any stop words

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

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

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

Early Modern Banquets: A Noisy but Tasty Business

What better than a banquet could display power and sociability in early modern courts? As part of my research on SOUND, food culture represents one fundamental aspect in a research focusing on sound, noise and court ceremonial. Early modern banquets were elaborate choreographies intended to display the amphytrion’s power and ability to feed his guests. The participants but also the food itself were staged and required intense, noisy, and elaborate preparations. The various parts of the banquet –from the arrival of the guests, the seating hierarchy, the accompanying entertainments, the dining– were orchestrated like an opera or a theater play, with elaborate sceneries and decorations, unexpected theatrical machines, rains of perfumes and scents. Traditionally, banquets were associated with weddings and celebrated dynastic unions between important families.

Giovanni Battista Lenardi and Arnold van Westerhout, Sugar sculptures of Cybel and Juno, banquet given in Rome by the British Ambassador Roger Palmer, Earl of Castlemaine, 1687

Indoor or outdoor, the preparation required an important number of craftsmen to set up the scenery, decorations, sometimes to build flying tables that appeared magically, cooks, pastry chef, food sculptors realizing edible triumphs in sugar or ice, perfumers, gardeners and florists, food carvers, light designers, plate turners, gilders, and a cohort of servants under the supervision of the master steward and the sommelier, along with musicians, singers, and dancers.

Such events can be read as performance, they include categories such as ritual, ceremony, spectacle, but also political and everyday life. Erika Fischer-Lichte defines performance as ephemeral, unrepeatable and dependent on the co-presence of artists and public. Ephemerality, in the case of a banquet, does not only concern the event itself, but also the food: edible monuments designed as sophisticated triumphs are literally ingested by the guests. The performative act is both artistic and aesthetic, but always includes underlying social and political motivations. The extravagance and the prohibitive costs of such a “food spectacle” were meant to represent the prominent position, the power, and the political ambitions of the host.

Aristocratic banquets since the Renaissance were sophisticated orchestrations of food and luxury objects, with fragile and ephemeral architectures. Born in Italy, sugar sculptures soon conquered all the European courts; they represented the masterpieces of a banquet, soliciting all the senses, combining culinary arts with performing arts, they progressively became an elaborate theatre staging mythological themes. The sculptures were made of solidified sugar, moulded and then chiselled. Saffron and herbs allowed to color them. Banquets were usually organized around a mythological or historical theme, celebrating the guest of honor and the sculptures staged a symbolical and political iconography, often made of animals, garlands, and flowers. The banquet ceremonial was a dramaturgical choreography, built on a precise hierarchy. Every participant was an actor, just as the meal was a theater and the banquet was a discourse on power. Everything in the ritual of the banquet was performance, from cooking to the complex choreography of service, even the act of eating itself.

Pierre Paul Sevin, Banquet table with triumphs and coat of arms of Pope Clement IX Rospigliosi

Early modern banquets were indissociable from a mythological reference to Homer’s banquet of the gods (Illiad 24.25-30), which found place in the garden of the Hesperides and served as a prelude to the Trojan war. Opulence and abundance led to war and destruction: the banquet of the gods staged passions and destructive appetites. Ovid’s Festivals narrated the banquet of the bacchanals (I.391-400 and 6.319-341) and Apuleius’ Metamorphosis the wedding of Cupid and Psyche (IV,24). Banquets during the Renaissance traditionally ended by a merciless plundering of food and decorations as a reminder to Homer’s cautionary tale. Edible monuments were intentionally meant to be devoured and destroyed.

Historical examples of such extravagant banquets include the banquet of Cardinal Riario in honor of Eleanor of Aragon in 1473 with the most prodigious triumphs of sugar of huge dimensions representing the story of Hercules, in honor of the future husband of Eleanor, Ercole d’Este; the banquet for their wedding; the banquet for the wedding of Roberto Malatesta and Isabella di Montefeltro; and the banquet offered by Federico II Gonzaga to Henri III of France in 1574 (McIver, 96-97, 141-43). Later examples include Louis XIV week-long festivities at Versailles, Les Plaisirs de L’Isle enchantée in 1664 (Apostolides 1981, Arizzoli-Clémentel 2013); Cardinal Flavio Chigi’s elaborate outdoor banquet with spectacular staging in 1668 to honor the new papal family of the Rospigliosi (Jeanneret 2020); and the scene of the banquet of the gods (Act I, sc. 4-5) in Antonio Cesti’s opera Il pomo d’oro, given to celebrate (belatedly) the wedding of Leopold I and Margaret Theresa in Vienna in 1668 (Read 2015).

Teresa del Pò and Carlo Fontana, Staging of Cardinal Chigi’s banquet in Rome, 1668 (detail)

Teresa del Pò and Carlo Fontana, Final scene of Chigi’s banquet, 1668

But banquets were also a noisy and dirty business. Smells, pots and pans clashing, cooks yelling, hot fire burning, water, stressed servants running around, living animals screeching, all were contributing to make kitchens the loudest place at court. The kitchen was usually separated from the main building, to avoid the racket and the smells, either placed outside –also to minimize the risk of fire, as it was the case at Rosenborg castle– or in the basement. The decorum of the meal choreography stood in strong opposition with the preparations, hidden away to avoid confrontation between the dirty business of cooking and the fine sophisticated moment of the banquet, raising interesting issues around the notion of privacy. Who had to stay in the kitchen to do the dirty and noisy business, who could freely move between the kitchen and the banquet room, and who could attend the banquet itself? By bringing sound into the study of food culture and court, I bring back a focus on everyday practices and high class dining, along with a focus on materiality. Kitchen tools, cutlery, glasses, wine barrels, plates, silverware were all made in specific materials –ceramics, glass, wood, metal– creating specific and highly identifiable sounds related to eating. Reconstructing these sounds gives a new perspective on the ritual of the banquet.

Antonio Cesti, Il pomo d’oro, banquet of the gods (Act 1, sc. 4-5)

Albala, Ken, The Banquet: Dining in the Great Courts of Late Renaissance Europe. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 2007.
Apostolides, Jean-Marie, Le Roi-machine: Spectacle et politique au temps de Louis XIV. Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1981.
Arizzoli-Clémentel, Pierre, ed., Versailles. Paris: Citadelles & Mazenot, 2013.
Dennis, Flora, “Cooking pots, tableware, and the changing sounds of sociability in Italy, 1300–1700,” Sound Studies (2015), 1-22.
Fabbri Dall’Oglio, Maria Attilia, Il trionfo dell’effimero: Lo sfarzo e il lusso dei banchetti visti nella cornice fastosa delle feste nella Roma barocca, lungo il percorso storico dell’evoluzione del gusto e della tavola nell’Italia fra Sei e Settecento. Rome, 2001.
Fischer-Lichte, Erika, The Routledge Introduction to Theater and Performance Studies. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Fischer-Lichte, Erika, The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics. New York: Routledge, 2008
Imorde, Joseph, “Edible Prestige,” in Marcia Reed, ed., The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals. Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, 2015, 101-123.
Jeanneret, Christine, “Un triomphe gastronomique: Performance et banquet dans le jardin de Flavio Chigi”, in Anne-Madeleine Goulet, José María Domínguez, Élodie Oriol (eds), Spectacles et performances artistiques à Rome (1644–1740): Une analzse historique à partir des archives familiales. Rome: Mélanges de l’École française de Rome, 2020 (forthcoming).
McIver, Katherine, Cooking and Eating in Renaissance Italy: From Kitchen to Table. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Pennell, Sara, “‘Pots and Pans History’: The Material Culture of the Kitchen in Early Modern England,” Journal of Design History 11, no 3 (1998), 201-16.
Reed, Marcia, “Court and Civic Festivals,” in Marci Reed, ed., The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2015, 27-71.

Gendering the Renaissance Commonwealth by Anna Becker

Cambridge University Press

On 23 September, the Centre for Privacy Studies welcomed back former colleague Anna Becker, now Professor MSO in the history of ideas at the University of Århus, for a book launch. Anna presented her newly published book Gendering the Renaissance Commonwealth, published by Cambridge University Press in the prestigious series ’Ideas in Context’. This ‘Cambridge School’ historical analysis of gender in the language and the concepts of Renaissance political thought presents a thought-provoking reinterpretation of looking at the period.


This fantastic book kills two birds with one stone. Firstly, it presents a historical analysis of the gendered languages of Renaissance political thought. Doing so, and secondly, it is challenging the dominant narrative on Renaissance political thought.

The dominant narrative of Renaissance political thought is that this period marked the beginning of a sharp separation between a private and a public sphere. The public is the political and reserved to male citizens. The private is the realm of the domestic and reserved to female non-citizens. Becker attributes this narrative to Hannah Arendt’s influential reading of Greek thought in general and Aristotle in particular. The view for Aristotle is that man is a political animal (zōon politikon), who can only reach his true potential in the, the public sphere, the polis, as a citizen. In opposition, the private sphere of the household is simply for social companionship, not unlike any other animal. Becker urges us to free ourselves from this reading, which has influenced many thinkers, first of all Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, and Pocock in The Machiavellian Moment. We must rethink, writes Becker, this simplified division between the public-political-male realm and the private-apolitical-female realm.

Indeed, Renaissance political thought revolved around interpretations of Aristotle’s division between the household and the city. Philosophy, for Aristotle, was divided into practical and natural philosophy. Practical philosophy was divided into three disciplines: ethics, economics, and politics. Moral philosophy in universities were taught according to this distinction. Ethics concerned the self, economics the household, and politics the city. Becker shows in her book that Renaissance thinkers pondered all three disciplines together. In this sense, the household and even the self, were political matters because the well-being of the res publica depended on good mores of individuals and a harmonious family life, res familiaris.

Becker looks more specifically at Machiavelli’s thought in one of the chapters and Jean Bodin’s thought in three other ones. It is not possible to present all the arguments and points that Becker makes, but I shall here select important ones for her overall thesis.

First, Becker explains Aristotle’s divide of philosophy upon which all Renaissance thinkers commented. Italian thinkers, such as Leonardo Bruni (c. 1370 – 1444), Donato Acciaioli (1428– 1478), and Bernardo Segni, were interested in the relationship between the individual, the family, and the state in their commentaries of Aristotle’s Politics and Ethics. These three communities of human life constituted three objects of the practical philosophy called moral philosophy, which sought to regulate all human life. Ethics was concerned with individual mores, Economics with family matters, and Politics with public matters. All three sub-disciplines were related with one another, so there was no sharp distinction between a “private” and a “public” sphere. The debates among Renaissance commentators of Aristotle focused on how to balance the three for a harmonious whole.

When it comes to Machiavelli, he pondered on “private” issues such as family and friendship, using the same vocabulary as his civic humanist contemporaries. However, Machiavelli argued against the accepted narratives. It is not friendship in the citizen body that makes a city great, but the lack of it. Discord, and not concord, makes better laws because conflict leads to greater debates. And the law is needed for good civil life (vivere civile). Friendship, on the other hand, leads to corruption and cronyism. This is the lesson from Florentine history, in which powerful families ruled the city almost to its ruin. By the same token, education should not be left to families because anti-republican families educate their children with these values.

Regarding Bodin (1529/30–1596), one of the main arguments turns to the gendering part of our political vocabulary; what Becker calls the “invention of a tradition.” This new tradition is the husband’s power over his wife. Since marriage and the family are the first stones of the res publica, the commonwealth, and since the trope is that a state is a big family, or a family a small state, the gendering of the vocabulary is here crucial. The private marriage of husband and wife is about power (imperium): the power of the pater familias (family father) over the submissive wife. This construction is particular to Bodin and contradicts Roman law. In the body of Roman law known as Corpus iuris civilis, Roman wives were not subjected to the power of their husband. The seventeenth century was then heavily influenced by this metaphor of the ruler as a father. The divine-right theory was a direct consequence of this idea and the tradition of paternal political power.

We are left hanging in the last chapter, which only a few paintbrushes of what a study of German political thought during the same period would be like. The reader could ask for more on Martin Luther, and how Reformation thinkers interpreted Aristotle’s practical philosophy, but Becker paved the way for this reader to accomplish that on her own using the same method of analysis.

If you want to know more about the book, stay tuned for a podcast episode with Anna Becker. In the meanwhile check our amazing previous episodes!

The benefits of the “workshop volume” and the launching of a CFP – Talking in private: tracing everyday conversations in early modern Europe

Academia is often a solitary pursuit. In that light, the vision of collaborative research implemented at the Centre for Privacy Studies is rather unusual. Within the case teams of the research program, each postdoc and doctoral student is working close together with previously unknown colleagues, something that is certainly both challenging and stimulating.

But the centre’s collaborative endeavours stretch beyond the eleven case teams. For example, since May 2019, a group of Danish and Swedish scholars, covering affiliations to no less than ten different institutions, have been working on a joint volume with the preliminary title Private/Public in Eighteenth-Century Scandinavia. Since yesterday, the entire manuscript is in the hands of our brilliant editors (and co-authors in the volume) Helle Vogt and Sari Nauman. It will soon be submitted to the publisher.

The upcoming volume is a product of a series of workshops. Instead of preparing oral presentations, all participants have taken time to read each other’s work-in-progress beforehand in order to contribute to the discussion of each text. The sessions have, consequently, been marked by joint discussions rather than monologues.

Admittedly, this is not a unique concept. I had my first peak on this academic practice as a doctoral student at Lund University working in professor Svante Norrhem’s research project on French subsidies to Sweden during the early modern era. Together with his colleague Erik Thomson (University of Manitoba), Svante invited a group of scholars specialized in early modern diplomacy, of which they had not met most of them before. The result was a really insightful volume on the role played by subsidies in early modern Europe. As an observer, I was fascinated by this way of conducting research and producing publications.

To my mind, this sort of publication project – let us call it the “workshop volume” – is an underestimated way of making collaborative research in a smaller scale. The workshop functions, ideally but also in my experience, as a kind of writing group, marked by an explorative approach and a significant amount of peer learning. Beside the end product – the volume – it can really offer a boost to individual scholars as we tend to get different comments from people coming in from new environments.

The process of making a workshop volume differs from doing something together with people from your own department or graduate school, with whom you tend to share a lot of common references and underlying assumptions. It also differs from the typical “conference volume”. Indeed, there are many valuable conference volumes out there, but it is something different than collecting thoughtful presentations to let not finalised drafts be formed by discussion along the way of a production process. To be fair, strong departments, stimulating conferences and (most of all!) scholarly journals are fundamental to the academic infrastructure. But as I see it, the workshop volume offers a way of working towards a publication that has its own advantages.

In the case of our soon submitted volume, it all started with a rather general Call for Papers asking for perspectives on privacy, the private and the public, with the geographical area of Scandinavia and the early modern period as the only delimitations. I was myself one of the persons responding to the call. During our sessions, the scope for our volume was narrowed down step by step:

– We gradually shifted from discussing “privacy”, via “private and public”, to a more specific interest for “the private in the public”. That means, roughly, examples of public exposure of the private, or private spaces embedded in an understanding of the public (in various ways, as the volume will demonstrate…)

– Most of us brought texts dealing with the eighteenth century to the table, which it why it made sense to us as a group to arrange the chronological scope accordingly. However, this framework did not exclude contributions related to the seventeenth and the nineteenth century; on the contrary, the contributions dealing with a longer timespan could offer us valuable reference points at both ends that helped us to reflect on changes over time.

– We concluded that most texts related to either spaces or communication, or both. This helped us to stipulate sub-sections of the book, to narrow the thematical scope, and to identify relevant research fields and cross-references.

Of course, we also tried out other ideas that didn’t last throughout the process. The point I want to make is that the choices we made were formed organically by the dynamics of the workshops.


CFP on private conversations

My own text in the upcoming volume is exploring practices of talking in private in the early modern society, more precisely in the case of state investigations over Swedish Pietism in the 1720s. Much scholarship has depicted the early modern Scandinavian societies as public scenes, on which all matters were public. In my article, this perspective is turned upside down, and the focus is instead set on what was described as private conversations. The article demonstrates the possibility to explore how people involved in the investigations had practices of talking in private – and arguments for keeping it private.

When arriving to the centre, my new colleague Natacha Klein Käfer was working on an article with partly shared connotations. Her article (for another volume) raises the question how we can understand bonds of confidentiality between healers and patients in early modern societies by reading court records.

With both these articles recently submitted, we are together launching a CFP for delving deeper into these matters in the form of a “workshop volume” preliminary entitled Talking in private: tracing everyday conversations in Early Modern Europe. In accordance with the workshop concept explained above, we are looking forward to a collaborative and open process towards the unexpected!

The workshop will take place 7–8 October 2021, hopefully in person (depending on the corona situation), at the Centre for Privacy Studies, University of Copenhagen.

The deadline for the CFP is 11 April 2021, so there is some time ahead to go through sources, and join our new quest for this kind of private matters in early modern times.

Sound and Privacy


SOUND: Soundscapes of Rosenborg is an innovative research project aiming at listening, hearing and reconstructing the soundscapes of the Danish court. How did the past sound and what can we learn about the court by studying its soundscape? The court is a privileged space to study etiquette, privacy, gender, and rituals through its sonic aspects. I argue that sound played a crucial role in the appropriation, display, and control of power in those spaces. Speaking or producing sound at court was ultimately a political performance and established protocols of rank, power, and distance. For example, the notions of inside and outside, along with public and private, will be extended: the sound of bickering inside a private room could be heard in the public sphere, just as the sound of music played in public penetrated the private sphere. Aurality, or the shared hearing of written texts, defines a community and includes not only the royal families, but also servants and visitors across several social classes along with animals, carriages, kitchens and food, gardens, entertainments, and music. One part of SOUND will specifically focus on gender and women’s voices at court, including families and children, but also the royal mistresses and morganatic marriages. Studying illegitimate relations sheds light on female agency in a context of transgression and also reveals by contrast what was considered the norm in legitimate marital relations. Did women have specific sonic practices and, if so, how did they differ from male ones?

Funded by Danske Frie Forskningsfond Project 2, SOUND is hosted at the Centre for Privacy Studies and I work in close collaboration with Rosenborg castle and the royal collection.

The Winter Room of Christian IV had four acoustical conduits built between the cellar and the room. Musicians placed in the cellar would play and the visitors were amazed by hearing what they called “invisible music”

Detail of an sonic conduit


Historians seldom use their ears and including sound in historical research brings a complete change of perspective. SOUND will be the first sonic history of court. A focus on sound will provide a new comprehensive analysis of courtly life, by including dimensions that often fly under the radar, such as everyday practices, connections between higher and lower class inhabitants, and gender roles. I will challenge perspectives of space based first and foremost on vision, which is fixed, immediate, and implies distance and perspective. On the other hand, sound is immersive and dynamic; it travels through time and space and therefore involves temporality and humans. I argue that sound also brings a central focus on the body as one of its main producers, and will allow us to consider issues of gender along with social, cultural, and political meaning. Moreover, a soundscape is shared by the community of people hearing the same sounds. However, people can feel both unisonance and dissonance, by hearing the same soundscape but interpreting it diffently, according to their social level or gender. It is my hypothesis, that soundscapes can create a form of exclusion (who can hear the king and who cannot), but they are also inclusive and reach across social classes. The eyes can be closed; on the other hand, the ears cannot: the king cannot prevent his servants from hearing music, secret conversations, or a quarrel.

SOUND may incite an awareness of the relationship between space and sound, but also between noise and silence. Modern post-industrial societies and the media have profoundly altered the relationship between sound and privacy. SOUND will offer analytical tools that enable us to approach these concerns. SOUND will certainly bring new insights into private and public spaces and the overlaps between them. The porosity of sound and its power to cross physical boundaries allows us to consider outdoor sounds that penetrate indoor spaces, but also indoor sounds that spill outside, expanding into surrounding areas. Bringing sound into historical studies creates a change in paradigm: what was once fixed has become dynamic, what was silent can be heard. This new approach will certainly be fruitful, and could therefore be applied to a variety of other spaces from our past and foster a prolific and new research path for sonic history.

Athanasius Kircher, Phonurgia nova (1673), system for transmitting sound as a speaking statue.


Reconstructing soundscapes that no longer exists and listening to it is a challenge. The sound of the past is irremediably lost, along with listening habits. However, a keen scholarly analysis of a variety of sources will allow us to reconstruct the sonic environment of the court. I have identified three types of sources:

1) written texts and archives mentioning sound, such as visitors’ descriptions of both castles, letters, inventories, registers, account records

2) visual sources such as engravings, etchings, but also historical maps to localise the sonic activities depicted

3) artefacts from both courts

Ivory carved horse carriage, skatkammer, Rosenborg

SOUND will consider sounds produced by humans (conversations, quarrels, murmurs, singing, crying, yelling, laughing, male and female voices, adults and children, native or foreign languages, but also sounds produced by the body such as steps, rustling clothes, sick bodies suffering, sex agony, and death), sounds produced by animals (horse hooves, dogs, cats, birds and exotic animals), mechanical objects (bells, carriages, kitchen tools, weapons, craftmen’s tools), artistic sounds (music, dance, theatre, fireworks), and natural sounds (water and fountains, wind, fire). The written sources will be analysed lexically with a thesaurus of words referring to sound, noise, music, listening, and hearing. The visual sources will be studied from the perspective of sound and space: what is making noise in a painting and how does it relate to the site where it is made on a map? Artefacts producing sound can be literally heard and even recorded, giving access to a true sonic reconstruction.

Weapons, Skatkammer

Bringing soundscape studies into research on privacy and the burgeoning field of court studies offers an entirely new perspective. SOUND will use theoretical approaches from sound studies, musicology, and history, connecting them for the very first time. Soundscape studies have proven to be a fruitful approach and have produced substantial scholarship. Sonic materialism proposes a new model to analyze sounds by considering hearing, advocating a new sonic epistemology. It highlights the dynamic materiality of sounds and their relationship with the bodies producing them. The reconstruction of sounds from the past based on written sources has generated a flourishing scholarship in early music and theatre studies since the 1960s along with thriving early music and theatre performances based on the fruits of historical research. It includes the reconstruction of unwritten practices such as improvisation, performance practices, acting, and the restitution of early pronunciations. Such methods can easily be applied to sounds in a broader context.

The Porcelain Cabinet, Rosenborg


The most innovative idea of this project is to realize a sonic history of the court, that will be published as a monograph. An other outcome will be the realization of an immersive and spatialized exhibition with soundscapes at Rosenborg Castle in 2023. These exhibitions are a more evocative and exciting means to present everyday life at the court, not only in the eyes of the audience but also in their ears, giving them an enhanced perception of what the past was like and how it sounded. In a society that is ever more disconnected from its past, it is important today more than ever to come up with new ideas for the dissemination of history, an aspect to which this project will contribute. Studying the past allows us to understand its legacies in the present: SOUND will study the Danish court during the reigns of Christian IV, Frederik III, and Christian V (1606–1710, or from Rosenborg’s construction as a country house by Christian IV, through its use as a royal residence until 1710), first as an elective monarchy and from 1660 onwards as an absolute monarchy. As such, it represents an archetypal place of power with refined systems of representation and control, but also a thriving site of social, cultural, and intellectual exchange, with an enduring legacy today. Understanding these dynamics will lead us to understand people and their relation to power and culture, enabling us to question the way contemporary soundscapes and sonic practices contribute to our own relationship to power. Even today, sound remains a tool used to display power, from political rallies and national celebrations to the use of loud music to torture prisoners of war. At a societal level, Rosenborg is a major landmark and museum. Its popularity among visitors attests to its importance today. As such, it represents the perfect medium to communicate history in a vivid way.

Sounds profoundly shape our experience of a place, yet we seldom pay attention to them. An interesting consequence of the lockdown of society in spring 2020 was the extreme reduction of noise pollution. Suddenly, everyone was listening and hearing better, being aware of the quality of our soundscapes, once that almost all industrial noises had disappeared. This unprecedented experience gave us a little insight in how the soundscapes of the pre-industrial world sounded like.

Secret practices, public threats: Colonial fears and Afro-Brazilian traditions in the 18th century

Nuno Marques Pereira, a Portuguese priest, wrote about his pilgrimage to Brazil in a book published in 1728. As he was staying in a slave owner’s farm, Pereira was shocked by the sounds of the calundu, an African-Brazilian rite that incorporated dances and prayers. Pereira found it unacceptable that his host would allow the slaves to perform such “idolatrous rites”, especially when one of the conditions to keeping slaves was that they had to be brought to the Catholic faith, “removing from them all their rites and gentile superstitions”.

In the original: “Também he certo, que por direito especial de huma Bulla do Summo Pontífice se permittio que elles fossem cativos, com o pretexto de serem trazidos à nossa Santa Fé Catholica, tirandose-lhes todos os ritos, e superstições Gentílicas, e ensinandose-lhes a doutrina Chritãa’ (p. 117).

Pereira was particularly concern about the music being played at the calundu, describing the drums as “such thunder that it seems like the Devil commanded them to play his triumph through the sound of these hellish instruments, to show how he is victorious in these lands” (p. 117-118). The priest told his host that the lack of punishment for idolatry would lead to their downfall, and the host agreed to gather the instruments, then built a great bonfire and burned them all.

Pereira’s pilgrimage book is one of the first literary descriptions of a calundu. The tradition, however, can be found throughout most of Colonial Brazil, as Laura de Mello e Souza has shown in her work O Diabo e a terra de Santa Cruz. Most calundus happened in secret, which exacerbated the colonial fear of the “demonic” powers at play during the rites. Discussing how “private” these practices could be is, therefore, very complex. The fact that slaves still could maintain such “private religion” was definitely perceived as a threat, as shown by Pereira’s account. However, the priest also showed us that at least some slave owners were aware of these practices and tended to turn a blind eye – to the despair of religious authorities like Pereira. But is there privacy when others are aware (yet deliberately not acknowledging) what is happening?

Can this be consider privacy?

The calundu served multiple functions for the Black community in this context, providing religious and health support to the participants. Commonly, the organizer of the calundu was also a healer, who used herbs, rituals, and prayers, with hybrid references from Indigenous, African, and European knowledge. As such, it is not surprising that Souza’s main sources to explore the historical nuances of the calundu came from Inquisitorial records: in an attempt to control these “powerful yet mysterious” practices, many of these healers were accused of witchcraft.

In his writing, Pereira described Black healers as inspired by the devil, which would explain why they were sought out to heal illnesses of demonic origins. For instance, he mentions that when a man engaged with a sinner woman, the man “begins to complain; and no doctor nor surgeon can discover the illness, because it is of a different nature, caught from a pot from hell. […] In the end, there is no cure for him, no remedy that can treat him. Then comes a devil’s emissary, and says to him that if he wants to have health, he should look for a Black healer (or rather, a sorcerer) […].

Compendio narrativo do peregrino da America, p. 125.

Growing up in Brazil, this idea of Black healers being the only ones being able to treat certain ailments (mostly believe to be of supernatural origins) was still passed onto me as a child. Coming from a small town of German immigrants in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, I remember stories of people who believed to have been bewitched having to travel to a different city to seek a Black healer to remove their curse.  We can still see how practices that had to be kept secret due to persecution and prejudice managed to survive within their own “private networks”, while also branching out and blending with the broader local context. At the same time, these prejudices that put the keepers of such knowledge under suspicion also remain very much present. Colonial ideas, practices of resistance, and knowledge exchanges are all intertwined in the ramifications of Latin American history.

To explore the different dimensions that privacy takes in the history of Latin America, the Centre for Privacy Studies is now launching a series of online seminars, called “Historical Notions of Privacy in Latin America”. Every last week of the month, we will gather to discuss a work-in-progress that deals with Latin American history in relation to privacy. The inaugural seminar will take place now on September 22, 2020. The event is open, and we welcome everybody to join! Feel free to register at the PRIVACY website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Hughes, Kirsty. 2012. ‘A Behavioural Understanding of Privacy and Its Implications for Privacy Law’. The Modern Law Review 75 (5): 806–36.

Margulis, Stephen T. 1977. ‘Conceptions of Privacy: Current Status and Next Steps’. Journal of Social Issues 33 (3): 5–21.

Margulis, Stephen T. 2003. ‘Privacy as a Social Issue and Behavioral Concept’. Journal of Social Issues 59 (2): 243–61.

‘Regulations from the Mahamad 1627[5387] Prohibiting Baptism of Blacks in the Amsterdam Sephardic Community’. n.d. Accessed 11 June 2020.

CfP Panel “Privacy and Republicanism” at the Venice World Multidisciplinary Conference on Republics and Republicanism

The Centre for Privacy Studies (PRIVACY) is inviting paper proposals for a panel at the second edition of the Venice World Multidisciplinary Conference on Republics and Republicanism 11-13 June 2021.

The title for the panel is “Privacy and Republicanism“.

(detail) Ambrogio_Lorenzetti_-_Effects_of_Good_Government_in_the_city

In the very name of republicanism is the idea of “public,” a “public thing” that people have in common. By definition, then, there also is a “private thing.” Early modern discussions of “scientia politica” or “scientia civilis” derived from Aristotelianism and his distinction between oikos and polis. Was the distinction so sharp and where did thinkers make them? Private virtues can only be of value if displayed in public. How did the theoretical works on the private/public divide compare with practice in republics? Did republican city-states have particular architectures allowing for or negating privacy? How did republican art represent privacy?

This panel seeks to gather multidisciplinary contributions on privacy and republicanism. The focus is particularly on Early Modern Europe, but contributions on contemporary issues, earlier period, and other regions are welcome.

Proposals and contributions may include following topics:
– an analysis of priv-words in texts pertaining to the republican language (privatus, privé, privy, privauté, Privatrat, etc.);
– distinctions between private and public in these texts and where we can find thresholds;
– other semantic oppositions between private and common, professional, evident, together with others, etc.;
– connecting conceptual history to social practice (Were there special places where these linguistic developments took place? Was political language shaping behaviors in private and public spaces?)
– rethinking the opposition oikos/polis and gender (public man/private woman, private sphere and political theory, particularly “republican motherhood”);
– methodological considerations on how to study “privacy” in the history of political thought (e.g. how we understand privacy and how we apply it to different linguistic areas);
– difference between republican privacy and liberal privacy or monoarchical privacy;
– the role of theology and law in shaping privacy in republican thought (private prayers and virtues, legal duties and obligations);
– moral philosophy and questions regarding the display of private wealth in the public arena (luxury and commerce in republicanism or the private sphere and the common good).

To apply:
Please send your paper title and an abstract (300 words) as well as a CV (2-3 pages) to frank.ejby.poulsen(at) by 15 August 2020.

The speakers whose proposal are accepted will be expected to engage in a dialogue to enhance the cohesion of the panel. In case of successful application, it is possible to apply for a bursary to attend the conference.

Privautés à l’ancienne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practices of Privacy, the Online Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cartoon by Shannon Wheeler (

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Private Right and Common Good

On Wednesday, June 10, 2020, Professor James Gordley gave an outstanding (virtual) lecture at our Centre for Privacy Studies.

James Gordley is an expert in comparative and contract law. He studied in Chicago and Harvard, and was professor at the University of California (Berkeley), before coming to Tulane University (New Orleans).  In 1991, he published the Philosophical Origins of Modern Contract Doctrine with Oxford University Press. This work reshaped the way of thinking about the history of private law. Before Gordley, only a few historians had investigated the impact of the theology of Thomas Aquinas and the late scholastics on the field of contract law.

A few years later, in 2006, James Gordley authored Foundations of Private Law. Property, Tort, Contract, Unjust Enrichment. In this book, he expanded the original thesis of the crucial importance of the Aristotelian Thomistic tradition for the development of modern private law. In 2013 he published The Jurists: A Critical History. Here, he explored the history of Western legal thought from the Romans till nowadays.

Among his innumerable articles, I would like to remember Law and Religion: An Imaginary Conversation with a Medieval Jurist published in California Law Review Vol. 75, 169-183. Gordley tried to imagine a conversation between a modern student of law and a fourteenth-century law professor in Bologna. This article, I believe, is very thought-provoking. I quote here a few passages from the introduction:

James Gordley’s lecture was about private right, common good, and how these two fit together. I will give here a brief account of the lecture with no aim of completeness. Private right and common good were in harmony in the writings of the late scholastics. Modern liberalism disrupted this harmony. Aquinas used the word ius to mean what one was allowed to do. Aquinas and other medieval theologians and jurists demanded restitutio of the stolen thing as a requirement for obtaining forgiveness. Salvation was only granted through confession of sins. In order to be absolved in the confessional, the Christians had to return things they had stolen. Restitutio also concerned honour, reputation etc. Therefore, commenting upon Aquinas Francisco de Vitoria proposed to use the term ius, ius (right) as what one is allowed to do.

Nineteenth-century scholars focused on the will of the right owner: the owner can do what he wants from his property. Contemporary jurists criticized this theory because it does not explain the limits established by the law. The law can limit contracts and property. A contract is not always enforced according to the will of the parties. On the other hand, the late scholastics argued that property is not an absolute right. The limits of the rights are delimited by justice. For example, a contract is limited by the equality of commutative justice. The innovation of nineteenth jurists, Gordley concluded, was not to introduce the concept of will, but it was to leave out the consideration of justice.

With regard to public good, Gordley affirmed that the late scholastics defined it according to three common features. Human beings live in a community because the human being is a social animal. The choice to be in the community is voluntary, but it is the only choice man can do. A community must also choose his form of government: monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy. Once this choice has been made, people must stick to it. There is a right to resist against the tyrants when they no longer rule for the common interest but for their private interest.

Finally, Professor Gordley delineated the relationship between private right and common good.  Thomas Aquinas also used ius to mean the virtue of justice and not not the objective right.  Following Aristotle, he distinguished between general justice and particular justice. Justice is to preserve happiness. Particular justice is either distributive or commutative. Thus, ius both meant general justice and the right that belongs to a particular person.

Aristotle described general justice as part of every virtue. Justice is a complete virtue. Aquinas explained that the good of any virtue is the common good towards general justice. All acts of virtue pertain to general justice insofar as they direct man to the common good. Thus, the preservation of a private right is directed towards the common good. Every virtue contributed to the happiness of the state. The good of any virtue can be referred to the common good.

This was a very short sketch. Professor Gorgley’s lecture was much more complex and fascinating. We were really honoured to have him at our centre. For those of you who are interested, the lecture will be published in our podcast.



Private academic debates and public knowledge: Hermann Conring’s analysis of the Holy Roman Empire at the University of Helmstedt

I wish to present my on-going research on another case I work on, Helmstedt 1620-1681. During this period, the University of Helmstedt was one of the most important ones in Germany. The university opened officially in 1576 and closed definitely in 1810. Studying the life at the university and the city is interesting from the point of view of privacy because it was religiously liberal by the days’ standards and formed a closed community with its own laws inside the city. This provoked many tensions. The production of knowledge is one of our foci, and here the interesting part is the relation between private lectures and public lectures, private lives and public lives of professors, and the publication or dissemination of novel ideas.

I presented recently the beginning of my work on Hermann Conring (1606-1681), a professor at Helmstedt, at the symposion “Practices of Privacy”, organised by my wonderful colleagues Natália da Silva Perez and Natacha Klein Käfer, who had to re-organise the whole conference to an online discussion platform.

In 1641, a student of Conring’s defended publicly a dissertation called ‘exercitatio’ On the Roman-German Emperor, based on Conring’s private lectures. These student theses were usually printed and published. The argument was that the German kings had no claim to continue the Roman empire. A year later, a book entitled New Discourse on the Roman-German Emperor was published under Conring’s name, but without the name of the publisher or the place. It was almost a fac-simile of the dissertation. Conring disavowed strongly authorship for this book in 1644 by publishing his own work, The Roman Empire of the Germans. He also claimed that the dissertation was the student’s own work, not reflecting entirely his views. However, the argument, which was a controversial one at the time, is roughly the same in all versions, and many sentences are similar. Fasolt in various articles and The Limits of History has therefore argued that Conring was the real “author” of all three. Conring’s 1644 book is, however, more detailed, more academic in its referencing and added resources.

There is no doubt that the New Discourse is Conring’s, if not in ownership, at least in meaning and spirit. We have therefore a case and a question mark, which have been investigated by Constantin Fasolt in several articles and a book. Why did Conring refused authorship for the Discursus Novus, and the Exercitatio? What Fasolt investigated was the question of authorship, and the question of meaning and intent by Conring. Building on this secondary literature and analysis, I want to investigate the question of privacy in developing knowledge and ideas, and the relation to public knowledge in 17th-century Helmstedt. It is a presentation of a work-in-progress by formulating thoughts and hypotheses for future analysis of primary sources. But before presenting the case, let me introduce you to Conring.

Hermann Conring

Hermann Conring (1606-1681)
From wikicommons

Hermann Conring was born in 1606 in Norden, Ostfriedland, and died in 1681 in Helmstedt. He can be considered as a typical “Renaissance man”: he was a polymath and applied the method of the humanists in his studies. He studied philosophy in 1620 in Helmstedt, with interruption due to the war and the plague. In 1625-1631 Conring studied in Leiden natural science and medicine. In 1632, Conring returned to Helmstedt as professor for two chairs (to save the university money) Natural Philosophy and Rhetoric. In 1636 he became professor of medicine and, in 1650, professor of politics (Politik). He taught and supervised students in philosophy, medicine, law, and politics.

Problem of the time

Holy Roman Empire 1648 (from wikicommons)

In 1642, when The New Discourse was published, the Thirty Years’ War was still decimating Europe. The Holy Roman Empire, led by the House of Habsburg, was the overall political organization ruling a collection of different states. Helmstedt was part of the Principality of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel ruled by the House of Welf, part of the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg. The Holy Roman Empire got its name from the claim of being the successor of the Roman empire. The German kings considered themselves successors of the Roman emperors and held their power from them. They would go to Rome to be crowned by the Pope.

Private lecture

In the catalogue of courses offered at the University of Helmstedt for the semester 1640, Hermann Conring gave a private lecture ‘Domi differet’ entitled De republica Germanica. Private lectures, unlike public ones that took place in the university building, took place at the professor’s home. Professors were called ‘Braut, Beer, und Küchen’ professors because students paid to live in their large house and were fed. They also followed the professors’ lectures in their private houses. My colleagues Natalie Patricia Körner and Johannes Ljungberg are working on the professors’ houses.

Conring’s house in Helmstedt (my own picture)

You can read more about the professors’ houses in Das Athen der Welfen, Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, 2010, the third part “Der Professorenhaushalt” p. 129-167 is dedicated to this topic. Also, Elizabeth Harding, Der Gelehrte im Haus: Ehe, Familie und Haushalt in der Standeskultur der frühneuzeitlichen Universität Helmstedt (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2014), writes about the professors’ houses.


On 8 May 1641, Conring’s student name Bogislaus Otho von Hoym submitted Exercitatio de imperatore Romano Germanico, (Exercise on the Roman German Emperor), a public examination at the University of Helmstedt, presided by Conring. These public defenses were different than today’s in that they were supposed to demonstrate that the student had understood the professor’s lectures. The author of the dissertation was either the student entirely (rarely), the professor entirely (rarely), or both. In any case it was always based on the professor’s lecture and therefore the dissertations reflects the professor’s views. Otherwise, the student would not pass the examination. These dissertations were printed for the public defence.

These printed dissertations often ended with a separate set of briefly stated theses called corollaria. It is not exactly certain what they are, but they may be points, which validity the examined student had to prove. Questions that could be asked to the student to answer and substantiate.

Fasolt concludes that the Exercitatio was not a regular dissertation, destined to be forgotten as soon as defended. It dealt with a potentially explosive constitutional question about the legitimacy and origins of the Holy Empire. It must reflect Conring’s views during his lecture. However, Conring refuted being the author of the Exercitatio in his own publication later, De Germanorum imperio Romano.

Discursus Novus
Discursus Novus

The unauthorised published version of the Exercitatio, the Discursus Novus, is very similar except for some minor typographical details, as Fasolt’s analysis shows. Interestingly, some misprints were corrected, but others were not. For Fasolt, the two major differences are the first page with a different title and only Conring’s name, not the student’s, and the absence of corrolaries at the end. As Fasolt notices, this transforms the nature of the work from an obscure academic dissertation by a student to get a degree at the university, to a book, which reached a wider audience beyond the university.

This is most likely the main reason for provoking Conring’s anger, besides not getting paid for the book and the alleged ‘greed’ of the coward printer. As Conring remarked 30 years later, his radical ideas about the nature of the Holy Empire were exposed to the general public with an ‘insolent title’ that was ‘dangerous at a time when war was still raging’ (see Fasolt).

We do not know the circumstances of the publication of the New Discourse. Had von Hoym a hand in it? Was it someone who knew Conring’s lecture and the dissertation and thought it should reach a wider audience? Was it meant as a malicious way to expose Conring and his radical ideas, create trouble for him? Was it Conring himself, who tested the waters with his ideas, but then refuted the book?

We do have public expressions of Conring’s dissatisfaction with the New Discourse. In the preface to his De Germanorum imperio Romano he calls the book a ‘primitive supposititious child’, and was appalled by the damage done to his reputation. He claimed that he wanted nothing but the peace and quiet of his academic life, but now he was forced to leave his research and studies in medicine to write an answer to this book. As Fasolt notes, this should be taken with a pinch of salt. Conring did constantly show an interest in the legal and historical matter of the Holy Empire, by teaching and presiding students’ examinations on that topic throughout the 1630s.

Conring’s poem in Lampadius’s work

Moreover, as von Moeller notes, Conring started being interested in this topic after meeting and befriending Jacob Lampadius in 1632, who was then Counsel of the duke of Braunschweig. (61) A few years earlier, when Conring was a student at Helmstedt, Lampadius was teaching constitutional law. Conring expressed in his conversations with him his eagerness to study thoroughly and precisely the circumstances of the German empire. (62) Lampadius gave him the doctoral dissertation defended in Heidelberg under professor Reiner Bachoff (Bachofius) about the jurisdiction of the German empire. This gave him an overview of the latest state of the constitution. Conring liked the book so much that he asked Lampadius to work anew on it and publish it. 2 years later, Conring published it with a different title: De republica romano-germanica. He added 2 other small papers by Lampadius and de Thou’s description of Germany from (from his Historia sui temporis), published by Johann Maire in Leyden. Conring did not mention himself as editor, but he wrote 8 couplets to praise the work at the beginning. In these, Conring expressed for the first time the pride concerning its past, the pain concerning its present, and the faith in its future. Formerly, Germany had conquered Rome, the mistress of the world, and had taken the name and the power of the Romans. Today, the situation is dire and Germany is being defeated, but there is still hope: “tempus erit quondam, post cum sua busta resurgens hinc repetet vultus, juraque prisca dabit.” (my translation: there will be a time, some day, when, after having risen from its tomb, it [Germany] will return to appearances and it will surrender to the ancient laws.) Many years later, in 1671, Conring re-edited Lampadius’s work and added some supplements after he had made it often the basis of his lectures.

I have yet to examine this work and compare it to Conring’s own.

De Germanorum imperio Romano

Early 1644, and about half a year after Conring had a copy of the New Discourse, he published De Germanorum imperio Romano liber unus or One Book on the Roman Empire of the Germans. The subject is the same as Discursus Novus, but it is more detailed and better structured and argued. It has more quotations from primary and secondary sources.

The argument developed in De Germanorum imperio Romano is seemingly different from Discursus Novus and Exercitatio. The Exercitatio and Discursus novus arrived at the conclusion that the Roman Empire had either ceased to exist or been reduced to a shadow of its former self and the German Empire had risen in its place. De Germanorum imperio Romano distinguished between Germans and the Roman Empire, implying that there was no German Empire and concluding that the Roman Empire still existed. The German kings had a right to rule over the Roman empire and Conring accused the papacy of usurpation of imperial rights.

Or so it would seem. As Fasolt notes, Conring’s understanding of the ‘Roman Empire’ is double. When meaning the vast empire of beyond the city of Rome, Conring actually argued that it was defunct. In the second sense only, does Conring argue that it still exists: and it is limited to the city of Rome. So Fasolt sees two differences between the Exercitio and De Germanorum imporio Romano:

1.      Papacy’s control over city of Rome might be legitimate in Exercitio. In De Germanorum imperio Romano it is not.

2.      In Exercitatio, German kings were wasting their time when seeking control over the ‘Roman empire’ (understood as the city of Rome). In De Germanorum imperio Romano they were not.

Privacy analysis

Using the heuristic zones, what does this tell us?

First of all, it tells us that Conring’s real thoughts are absolutely private to him. We only have the external manifestations in the written words.

Second of all, we do not have any record of what he actually lectured in the privacy of his professor’s house to his students. We can only assume from the Exercitio and the published New Discourse, that this may have been the content of his lecture. We can also assume that he used Lampadius’s work for his lectures. We can deduce from the Exercitio and how Conring reacted to the Discursus Novus that what made him react was not the content, which was identical, but the extension of the audience beyond the university. By his own account, the Discursus Novus reached a wider readership in Italy, France, Spain, and England. At the time of the Thirty years war, Conring may have feared that his views could be used and misused as political weapon.

Exploring how legal and historical arguments moved from a private lecture of a few students destined to civil service, some of them noble as von Hoym, to a public defence by a student in the close community of a university, and then to a vaster public readership in Europe is what I shall focus on in the coming months.

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.