Privacy, Secrecy, and Cryptography in the Early Modern Period

Cryptography has been a tool for secrecy for millennia. As a way of ensuring information confidentiality, cryptography served to maintain military, diplomatic, occult, and personal knowledge restricted to people with the decoding key – or those determined enough to crack the code.

Giambattista della Porta‘s De furtivis literarum notis (1563)

In the past (as today), cryptography was tied to different material components. From Egyptian carvings, Ancient Greek Scytales, and even alleged hidden tattoos, attempts to pass on information in a concealed way continuously depended on clever use of substances, mediums, and devices. One of the game-changing tools of early modern cryptography was the cipher disk.

The first appearance of the cipher disk in a descriptive text was in the work of the humanist Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472). In his treatise De Cifris (1467), he described two concentric disks, divided into cells containing letters and numbers. The larger disk was used for the plaintext, while the inner ring was for the ciphertext. The use of the disk allowed a much more accessible polyalphabetic cipher, which became one of the most robust forms of encryption for centuries to come.

Opuscoli morali di Leon Batista Alberti gentil’huomo firentino

The use of encoding and decoding devices also implied that access to them needed to be restricted. This added layer of secrecy resulted in very interesting strategies of concealment. A great example is a ciphering machine used in the court of Henry II of France, which was disguised as a book.

Musée d’Écouen

These layers helped to ensure secrecy, which was fundamental for early modern strategic communication. However, do these efforts of secrecy correlate with a concern over privacy? After all, most of the subjects deemed worthy of such level of concealment dealt with very public matters, such as political arrangements and war efforts.

The philosopher Sissela Bok provides a useful distinction between secrecy and privacy. In her work Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation, Bok describes how secrecy and privacy are entangled, but not equivalent.

“Having defined secrecy as intentional concealment, I obviously cannot take it as identical with privacy. I shall define privacy as the condition of being protected from unwanted access by others—either physical access, personal information, or attention. Claims to privacy are claims to control access to what one takes—however grandiosely—to be one’s personal domain. Through such claims, and the counterclaims they often generate, people try to reinforce or expand this control.

Privacy and secrecy overlap whenever the efforts at such control rely on hiding. But privacy need not hide; and secrecy hides far more than what is private. A private garden need not be a secret garden; a private life is rarely a secret life. Conversely, secret diplomacy rarely concerns what is private, any more than do arrangements for a surprise party or for choosing prize winners.

Why then are privacy and secrecy so often equated? In part, this is so because privacy is such a central part of what secrecy protects that it can easily be seen as the whole. People claim privacy for differing amounts of what they are and do and own; if need be, they seek the added protection of secrecy. In each case, their purpose is to become less vulnerable, more in control.” Bok, Secrets (1989), p. 11.

The relationship between secrecy and privacy is crucial for our work at the Centre for Privacy Studies, as it is present in so many early modern sources. During the symposium Practices of Privacy: Knowledge in the Making, we explored how secrecy was a tool for privacy, but also discussed that the existence of secrets depended on a significant level of privacy to be secured. In early modern Europe, cryptography and secrecy also become entangled with contemporaneous philosophical and theological debates, so issues of religious confession and approaches to the natural world had a significant impact on how strategies and techniques of concealment developed. As such, the interplay between privacy, secrecy, and cryptography is crucial for understanding how privacy was created in particular environments.

On January 28, the seminar Historical Notions of Privacy in Latin America will address one of the main figures in the history of early modern cryptography: Johannes Trithemius. Professor Francisco de Paula de Souza Mendonça Júnior will present his work-in-progress on Trithemius’ Polygraphia. More information can be found on PRIVACY’s website:

What’s in a name? Privacy and the Hermitage Hunting Lodge

As an architectural historian with a PhD on the residential system of Charles of Croÿ, one of the highest noblemen of the Low Countries, I am especially interested in how spatial privacy (in the sense of ‘being alone’) was reflected in the court culture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In combination with a passion for the detective work in archives, sorting through sources to find that indispensable piece of evidence, I am also interested in digital humanities and how they can be used as a tool to improve our research and articulate new hypotheses.

The blue staircase leading to the dining hall on the first floor of the hunting lodge.

Two months ago I arrived at the Centre for Privacy studies to start as a postdoctoral researcher, in association with the Royal Danish Academy. As a member of the interdisciplinary Copenhagen case team, I will combine my expertise in court architecture and digital humanities to examine how privacy evolved at the court of the Danish monarchs, especially at Copenhagen castle and the first Christiansborg. Together with one of the core scholars of the Centre for Privacy studies Peter Thule Kristensen, I will examine how foreign ambassadors were received at the royal residence, and how much access these foreign visitors were granted to the royal apartment. Were there particular thresholds that could not be crossed?

One of the lanes leading to the Hermitage.

The first Christiansborg was actually completely newly built by Christian VI (r. 1730 – 1746), one of the great builders among the Danish monarchs. Unfortunately most of his architectural gems did not survive the test of time, with one notable exception: the Hermitage hunting lodge, north of Copenhagen.[1] So on a sunny day in October, I strapped on my walking boots and followed in Christian VI’s footsteps through the magnificent hunting park, filled with over 2000 deer, to the hunting pavilion on the highest point of the park. Long lanes crossing the entire park facilitated the hunt, as they allowed to spot deer from afar. Most of these lanes still exist today, and make for a beautiful walk to my destination: the Hermitage. The name alone alludes to the function of the building: for the King to be alone or ‘en ermitage’, in solitude, like a hermit.

The hunting lodge was never intended to be lived in, but was rather conceived as a setting for the lavish banquets that accompanied the royal hunts. The exterior shows a compact and symmetrical design, located at the centre of several divergent lanes. The decoration reflects its original function, with deer heads holding up the terrace on the back façade and plenty of windows oriented towards the different lanes. Being invited to hunt was a privilege ever since the sixteenth century. Only the lucky few were extended an invitation, since the hunting activities and accompanying banquets provided direct access to the monarch.[2]

A stove surrounded by little mirrors in one of the rooms of the hunting lodge.

Up until today the pavilion is property of the Danish Royal Family, and it is usually closed for visitors. I was able to join the students of the Royal Danish Academy for an exceptional visit, getting an extraordinary look inside the building. Recently restored, the vibrant colours and lush decoration give an impression of what the interior must have looked like in the eighteenth century. The lodge was built by architect Lauritz de Thurah, who also worked on the interior of the first Christiansborg castle, together with German architect Elias David Hausser and Nicolai Eigtved. The first floor of the lodge features beautifully decorated rooms, with the Queen and the King’s rooms provided with Chinese decorations and black window frames. What struck me the most were the tiny mirrors incorporated in the wall decorations of the different rooms. Our guide and Royal Academy colleague Mathias Mentze suggested that they might have been used to reflect the green landscape outside the windows, therefore really ‘pulling the greenery in’. A very interesting hypothesis, if you think that the color green was preferred for the decoration in most of the private lodges and rooms of Frederik II (r. 1559 – 1588) in the sixteenth century.[3]

The dining hall on the first floor of the hunting lodge.

The compact pavilion was built for the reception and entertainment of guests during the royal hunts. Everything was put in to place to host the most magnificent banquets: food supplies were brought directly into the base of the building, where the kitchens were located. The prepared food was put in a hoisting apparatus and transported to the second floor, to the main dining hall. This complex piece of machinery meant that the staff did not have to go up the stairs to serve the guests, the banquet appeared – almost magically – from the ground up through the apparatus, reverse deux ex machina style. An inventive piece of machinery thus insured the privacy between the monarch and his guests and the staff that stayed in the kitchen. A similar apparatus is known through drawings of the reception of Charles V and his son, the future King Philip II in the residence of Mary of Hungary in Binche. An anonymous drawing of the ground floor salette shows the famous apparatus rotating the food under the sound of thunder and flashing lightning.[4] This anonymous drawing gives a wonderful insight in the architectural language of Jacques du Broeucq, architect of the palace at Binche.

The “enchanted room” (salle enchantée) of the palace at Binche built for Mary of Hungary in 1549 (Royal Library of Belgium).

With this visit to the only remaining building commissioned by Christian VI, I hope to connect it to the architectural language of the first Christiansborg and especially the spatial characteristics of the royal apartment.



[1] Grinder-Hansen, Poul. Eremitageslottet. København: Gads Forlag, 2013.

[2] Christianson, John R., ‘The Spaces and Rituals of the Royal Hunt: King Frederik II of Denmark (1559-1588)’, in Beyond Scylla and Charybdis. European Courts and Court Residences Outside Habsburg and Valois/Bourbon Territories 1500-1700. Vol. 24. Publications from the National Museum, Studies in Archaeology & History, edited by Bøggild Johannsen, Birgitte, and Konrad Ottenheym. Copenhagen: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2015, p. 159-170.

[3] Grinder-Hansen, Poul, ‘Im Grünen: The Types of Informal Space and their Use in Private, Political and Diplomatic Activities of Frederik II, King of Denmark’, in Beyond Scylla and Charybdis. European Courts and Court Residences Outside Habsburg and Valois/Bourbon Territories 1500-1700. Vol. 24. Publications from the National Museum, Studies in Archaeology & History, edited by Bøggild Johannsen, Birgitte, and Konrad Ottenheym. Copenhagen: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2015, p. 171-182.

[4] De Jonge, Krista, ’Le langage architectural de Jacques Du Broeucq: entre Rome et fontainebleau’, in: Le château de Boussu. Vol. 8. Etudes et Documents, série Monuments et Sites, edited by De Jonge, Krista, and Marcel Capouillez. Namur: Ministere de la Région wallonne, 1998, p. 161-187.

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!