Turn on, tune in, drop out: On the attentional privacy of 17th century Dutch letter-readers

The following blog post is a revised version of the essay that Emil Stephensen wrote as student for the 2019 PRIVACY summer school.

When Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, visited Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum in 2016, he claimed to have found an iPhone in one of the paintings – more specifically in A Letter Delivered in a Voorhuis (1670) by Pieter de Hooch. This 17th century representation of a woman receiving a letter is one among many representations of epistolarity in Dutch Golden Age art – and there might be something to the comparison between smartphones of today and Dutch letters of the early modern period. The vaguely absent but composed facial expression of someone checking their smartphone is indeed reminiscent of representations of readers and writers of letters in Dutch 17th century art. Both smartphones and letters are pragmatic tools of everyday life and both are used in the sort of individualized, attention-demanding activities so characteristic of modern societies with widespread literacy and high specialization. In this blog post, I want to explore the attentional privacy of letter-readers in Dutch 17th century art. The figures in these representations, most of them women, are calmly attending to something absent within the representational frame of the painting – and doing so with little to no outward expression. The American art critic Svetlana Alpers has described the poised attention of letter-readers in Dutch art as a “vacuum at the center. The letter stands in for or represents events and feelings that are not visible.”[1] In Dutch 17th century art, letters are not yet conceived of as a way of accessing the minds of fictional beings; they are not the signs of transparency and interiority they would become in 18th century sentimental literature and art. Instead, the Dutch letter-readers seem to enjoy a privacy as familiar and opaque as that of a smartphone-gazing stranger on the subway in 2021.

1. Illustration of the EXMF by Dave Gray.

As we plug into what Canadian neuroanthropologist Merlin Donald has called the ‘external memory field’ (EXMF, fig. 1) – “a cognitive workspace external to biological memory (…) usually consisting of a temporary array of visual symbols immediately available to the user” – we are temporarily drawn away from our embodied field of experience and communication[2]. The still-ongoing transition from oral to technologically-mediated modes of thought and communication is both a process of meshing us ever-closer together and dividing or fragmenting our attentional fields into evermore self-reliant units. This might sound like a pretty banal observation – but the attentional privacy inherent in literacy-based technologies has often been perceived as something problematic and deceptive. In early modern Europe, letter-writing was characterized by what Gary Schneider has called an “epistemological anxiety” – letters, due to their materiality and mode of transmission, fostered games of unequal access to information, secrecy, manipulation, delay and interception[3]. In order to overcome this fundamental instability and ambiguousness, commentary on and artistic representations of epistolarity has often evoked bodily or oral presence – in the 16th and 17th centuries through the embodied, face-to-face topoi of classical rhetoric and in the 18th and 19th centuries through a robust association between letter-writing (or literacy in general) and emotional immediacy and authenticity. Evoking a sense of oral presence, Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote of letters in the early 16th century: “as we write we seem to be carrying on a conversation with the dearest of friends in his very presence.”[4]. In the 18th century, sometimes called the ‘golden age’ of letter-writing, the letter genre became a model of emotional authenticity in literary fictions (epitomized by the epistolary novel) and in the visual arts. In Jean Baptiste Greuze’s Girl with Letter (1770) (fig. 2), for instance, a girl sits with a letter in her lap, looking at the viewer with an absent-minded and dreamy gaze. Her state of emotional agitation is emphasized by her untidy appearance, her clothes having seemingly fallen off her body and exposed her breast while reading – she is ‘somewhere else’, absorbed into the world of the letter. But she is not absorbed into the activity of letter-reading itself – the abandoned letter in her lap is there to suggest emotional immediacy, not focused attention.

2. Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Girl with Letter (1770)

In Dutch 17th century paintings of readers and writers, the letter (and the attention required to produce or comprehend it) is interesting in itself. In these representations, epistolarity does not serve as a model of interiority or subjectivity – it is a threshold to the world, a bland communicational instrument. The stress on the attentional absence and fragmentation produced by reading or writing is evident in genre paintings such as Gabriël Metsu’s Woman Reading a Letter (1660’s) (fig. 3) and Pieter Janssens Elinga’s A Woman Reading a Letter and a Woman Sweeping (1670) (fig. 4); paintings which emphasize and explore the attentional disconnect between modern human beings. In Metsu’s painting, a woman reads a letter while her maid, turned against us, holds the envelope in one hand and pulls aside a curtain with the other, revealing a sea piece on the wall. On a basic structural level, the painting depicts two human beings looking into different representations: A painting of a ship in stormy weather and a letter. As the Dutch became increasingly engaged in seafaring explorations and settlements during the 17th century, it is not impossible to imagine that the lady has received a letter from an absent husband. But stripping away the level of trite iconography (we also have a loyal dog), the figures, their expression and their interaction are not particularly suggestive of love, longing or other such strong emotions. While we cannot see the maid’s face, the lady is reading with a poised demeanor and a slight indication of a smile. What is depicted is her action of reading rather than a reaction to something already read and comprehended – the lady’s state of focused attention takes the centerstage and is emphasized by her tilting of the letter toward the window in order to catch the light. As Svetlana Alpers has convincingly argued, Metsu’s work thematizes representation in general: “Metsu frankly acknowledges and plays with the representational character of the letter by placing it among other representational surfaces.”[5]. Instead of portraying human sentiment and outward-directed or worldly action, the painting portrays human beings looking into representations of human sentiment and worldly action. As Alpers also note, even the mirror reflects its own mirroring capacity rather than the world: “The mirror, solipsistically, is enfolded into itself, reflecting only the grid of the adjacent window panes.”[6]. The sort of privacy Metsu is interested in is not the domestic, emotionally charged peephole-privacy of 18th and 19th century art – it is the sealed-off privacy of the human mind as it opts out of immediate reality and tunes in on the EXMF.

3. Gäbriel Metsu, Woman Reading a Letter (1660’s)

The disconnect between occupied minds is even more pronounced in Elinga’s A Woman Reading a Letter and a Woman Sweeping. In this painting, three people are occupied by different tasks: a lady is reading a letter, her maid is sweeping the floor and a man is standing, in another room, at what might be an easel – another portable device which, according to Marshall McLuhan, “deinstitutionalized pictures” and “added much to the new cult of individualism” in early modern Europe [7]. As in Metsu, the painting depicts three minds allocating attention to different things. It also similarly emphasizes representation and representational surfaces: the lady is reading by the window in order to catch the light and the mirror is “enfolded into itself”, reflecting the geometrical patterns of the floor tiles. Only the floor-sweeping maid has a visible, seemingly thoughtless face. The domesticity of the scene is reminiscent of De Hooch’s work with its many openings, doors and mirrors – it suggests a threshold between private and public space rather than a self-enclosed home. In Elinga’s painting, privacy is a situational reality connected to specific attentional practices or actions like reading a letter or working on a painting – not to absolute or permanent categories such as the body, the mind, the home or gender.

4. Pieter Janssens Elinga, A Woman Reading a Letter and a Woman Sweeping (1670)

The privacy of Elinga’s and Metsu’s attentionally occupied figures is bound to a certain type of modern privatized behavior, a habit of minding one’s own business which has only been intensified since the 17th century. The letter-reading scenes are strangely familiar because their ‘cold collectivity’ of disconnected minds occupying the same space is reminiscent of scenes from subway trains, internet cafes or reading rooms. And while we are often made aware of privacy as a positively defined normative or political notion, a value to protect or a goal to achieve, we might also understand it as an unavoidable sociological corollary of modernity, that is, processes such as professional specialization, literacy, technological development and urbanization. As Svetlana Alpers made it clear in her 1983 book The Art of Describing, 17th century Dutch art moved into an increasingly more descriptive mode of representation that would put less emphasis on storytelling and more on attentive observation. Artists such as Metsu, Elinga and De Hooch was attending to and imitating the world with an unprecedented level of scrutiny and observational skill – an activity often mirrored by figures in their paintings who in similar ways are opting out of immediate social reality and tuning into some individualized, attention-demanding activity, be it reading, easel painting, looking at maps, looking through telescope lenses or simply looking away. The attentional privacy of figures in Dutch 17th century might be linked to a distinct trait of modern thinking and behavior: the acknowledgement of the capacity of individual human beings to see, attend to and discern phenomena on their own.



[1] Svetlana Alpers. The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (The University of Chicago Press, 1983), 196.

[2] Merlin Donald. The Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. (Harvard University Press, 1991.), 296-97.

[3] Gary Schneider. Politics, Deception, and the Workings of the Post: Some Features of Epistolarity in Early Modern England. In Explorations in Rennaissance Culture. (Brill, 2002), 99.

[4] Gary Schneider. The Culture of Epistolarity: Vernacular Letters and Letter Writing in Early Modern England, 1500-1700. (University of Delaware Press, 2006), 29.

[5] Alpers, 196.

[6] Ibid., 197.

[7] Marshall McLuhan. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. (University of Toronto Press, 1962), 206.

Cosmopolitanism as transcending the private and the public

This post follows my previous post that presented a biography of Joseph-Honoré Rémy.

Analysing this 1770 pamphlet, Le cosmopolisme, I find a certain view of cosmopolitanism that seeks to transcend the private and the public realms. There are two main points in which this is done. First, with the rhetorical strategy of the ‘cosmopolite’ author inserting himself in a transnational space. Second, with the content of this cosmopolitanism that seeks to inform private and political virtues.


The author is anonymous, but is presented as an Englishman and a cosmopolite. As an Englishman, he inserts himself as a private citizen of a foreign country in the French public realm by taking part in the celebration of the union of the two European powerhouses that are France and Austria. He then criticises heavily his ‘own’ homeland, England, for waging brutal wars. He calls England for a partnership with France now allied with Austria, a partnership in which only commercial and trade competition are allowed.

Dictionnaire de Trévoux 1771

As a ‘cosmopolite’, the author is exercising a different function. The word is very loaded at the time. It appeared in the French dictionary in 1690, but became popular in the second half of the eighteenth century. The 1721 edition of the ‘Trévoux’ dictionary defines a cosmopolite or cosmopolitain. The 1771 edition adds that the current usage is now in favour of cosmopolite and not cosmopolitain. It denotes both a person traveling or for whom no place is foreign, and a philosopher (with an allusion to Diogenes of Sinope).

In this understanding, several author have penned their work using the word ‘cosmopolite’. The author who contributed the most to make it famous is Louis-Charles Fougeret de Monbron (1706-1760) who published Le cosmopolite, ou le citoyen du monde in 1750. The opening lines are very famous and Lord Byron used them as epigraph to his poem ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’:

The universe is a kind of book of which one has read only the first page when one has seen only one’s own country. I have leafed through a large enough number, which I have found equally bad. This examination was not at all fruitless for me. I hated my country. All the impertinences of the different peoples among whom I have lived have reconciled me to her. If I had not drawn any other benefit from my travels than that, I would regret neither the expense nor the fatigue.

Fougeret narrates his travels in search of ‘man’, knowledge, and a true homeland. Reflecting upon the countries and its inhabitants in a cynical fashion, Fougeret concludes that his original homeland, which he hated, is not so bad after all.

This philosophical reflection upon the whole world and the whole humankind in a political setting led to a development of a certain kind of cosmopolitan ideal. Many authors had been appalled by the atrocities committed during the Thirty Years’ War in the seventeenth century. In particular, legal scholars had criticised the lack of legal structure to prevent barbaric acts and protect the individual in international wars. The eighteenth century also saw its share of wars with the Seven Years’ War in particular. The development of the slave trade and the treatment of the inhabitants in the colonies also contributed to developing ideas of natural rights and other criticisms of the current political and legal state of world affairs. Rousseau, who had re-edited and commented upon Saint-Pierre’s Plan for Perpetual Peace, famously wrote about the ‘grandes âmes cosmopolites’ in his 1755 Discours sur l’origine et les fondemens de l’inegalité parmi les hommes.


The first sense of cosmopolitanism was related to the travelling cosmopolitan. In a medical book written in 1775 about bathing waters, the authors write the expression ‘cosmopolitisme’ in italics because it did not exist in the dictionary, in order to describe the action of travelling. The authors warn against the potential risks of excessive travelling and lack of any restraint in experiencing new things, as the exact opposite of the fears, superstitions and restraints of the past, which surrounded the use of bath waters and prevented medical research to see their benefits on health. ‘Notre liberté, notre fureur d’aller, notre cosmopolitisme en tout genre, peuvent devenir excessifs & entraîner bien des inconvéniens’.[1]

A word that appears in parallel with ‘cosmopolitisme’ is ‘cosmopolisme’, which had equally two meanings attached to it. The relation between travelling, the act of ‘cosmopoliter’, and potential health risks are reiterated with the expression ‘cosmopolisme’ as the psychological condition of confused identity that the all too frequent traveller would fall victim of:

COSMOPOLISME. Il faut aimer un lieu ; l’oiseau lui-même qui a en partage le domaine des airs, affectionne tel creux d’arbre ou de rocher. Celui qui est atteint de Cosmopolisme, est privé des plus doux sentimens qui appartiennent au cœur de l’homme.

Qui croirait que l’on peut exercer à Paris le Cosmopolisme, encore mieux que dans le reste de l’univers.
COSMOPOLITER. Parcourir l’univers.[2]

In this sense, cosmopolitanism is related to the act of travelling, but also the reflection that the cosmopolitan, the traveller, experiences when encountering other populations, cultures, and mores: a reflection upon humankind—the universal and the particular.

The earliest eighteenth-century record of ‘cosmopolitisme’ I could find is in a 1756 critique of Rousseau’s Discours sur l’inégalité by Italian mathematician and astronomer Giovanni Francesco Mauro Melchiorre Salvemini di Castiglione (1708—1791). It is also the first reference to a philosophical conception. It is not exactly clear what the author means by ‘cosmopolitisme’ as it is referred to in passing:

Je ne m’arrêterai point à détailler les avantages de la communauté des biens. Ce sujet a été traité par plusieurs auteurs estimables, lesquels l’homme corrompu par les richesses n’a reproché qu’une pauvreté vertueuse & un cosmopolitisme trop profondément raisonné.[3]

This excerpt is taken from a general discussion about ownership. It seems that, in this context, this ‘cosmopolitisme’ is a consideration about the general equality among men in the state of nature, which would justify a ‘community of goods’ to some philosophers, against whom even a corrupt man would only reproach a ‘virtuous poverty’ and a ‘too deeply reasoned cosmopolitanism’. It may be a direct reference to Rousseau’s mention of ‘les grandes âmes cosmopolites’ as quoted above.[4]

However, the first formulated conception of cosmopolitanism is Le cosmopolisme by Joseph-Honoré Rémi (1738—1782), priest in Toul, Meurthe-et-Moselle, and lawyer at the Parlement de Paris. Rémi participated to the first volume on ‘Jurisprudence’ of the Encyclopédie méthodique, project which was meant to be an extension to Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie.[5] Rémi wrote this pamphlet for the wedding of Louis XVI. There are several relevant excerpts for cosmopolitanism, which I will here quote and comment:

Pourquoi le Cosmopolisme est-il donc si rare sous cette planette ? A peine a-t-il un sens parmi nous : la plupart de nos langues si riches en mots honteux & barbares, n’ont rien qui peigne les premiers sentimens de l’homme social. Un sourire risiblement dédaigneux est la récompense de quiconque ose parler d’humanité aux nations. Noble & touchante humanité ! à ton foyer s’allume & s’épure dans nos ames le feu sacré des vertus privées & des vertus politiques (6) ; mais on t’abandonne, on te méprise, on t’insulte avec orgueil, on encense d’odieux Simulacres, & tes temples sont déserts. Nous avons des Maîtres pour enseigner à nos enfans les langues des nations qui n’existent plus ; en est-il un seul destiné à leur apprendre celle de la nature ?[6]

The endnote (6) is explained later in the book with a quotation of Fénelon:

 (N°.6.) Page 25. « J’aime mieux ma famille que moi-même ; j’aime mieux ma patrie que ma famille ; mais j’aime encore mieux le genre humain que ma famille [sic: patrie] ». Telle étoit la morale de ce Fénélon, qui dans une Cour où l’égoïsme national étoit honoré des plus glorieux titres, osa prêcher éloquemment le Cosmopolisme, & érigea à l’humanité un monument digne du siécle de l’Encyclopédie. Le sentiment associé à la raison, n’a jamais rien produit d’aussi noble & d’aussi attendrissant que le Télémaque.[7]

‘Cosmopolism’ is, for Rémi, related to the ‘first sentiments of social man’, which is to say that when man in the state of nature meets another man, he experiences a feeling, which is one of humanity for meeting with another human being. This feeling of humanity is about recognising one another as members of the same species, the same community of human beings, rather than from different communities. Rémi juxtaposes this natural feeling of love towards humanity, ‘cosmopolism’, to another artificial feeling, negative this one, of egoism towards one’s nation. Nation should here be understood as ‘state’, or more rightly ‘kingdom’. This ‘national egoism’ proclaims the superiority of advancing national interest at the cost of human interest. What Rémi alludes to here with ‘national egoism’ are the wars led by Louis XIV in the name of absolutism, whose policies Fénelon criticised.


This feeling of humanity, for Rémi, warrants virtues (‘private virtues’, and ‘political virtues’). According to the dictionary, virtue is a disposition of the soul to do good and avoid evil.[8] So, for Rémi, ‘cosmopolism’ is the doctrine of doing what is good and avoiding what is bad for humanity, both in the private and public (political) spheres. Fénelon is cited as a leading figure of this movement of thought with his work Telemachus, combining sentiment and reason, that is to say humanity as a feeling and a rational argument for the love of other fellow human beings in the world. Telemachus is ‘worthy of the century of the Encyclopaedia’, the work of reference for reason.[9]  This may be for Rémi a reference to how Telemachus, in the novel, fights morally, thanks to his wisdom, the excesses of passions—both his and others’—that lead kings to wars and destroys the lives of his and other’s peoples. Mentor helps him throughout but leaves him with the freedom of choice over his actions. The novel is therefore perceived as an ode to liberty.[10]

Telemachus listening to Mentor
Charles-Joseph Natoire. Télémaque écoutant les conseils de Mentor, 1740, Troyes, Musée des Beaux-Arts.

The reference to Télémaque in a pamphlet published for the wedding of Louis XVI, who was then fifteen, is certainly a way of hoping that the young king will follow the pedagogical advice set in the book that Fénelon intended for the education of the dauphin of France, Louis Duke of Burgundy (1682—1712). In search of his father, Telemachus goes to hell and visits Tartarus where he sees bad kings agonising; he then visits the Elysian Fields, where good kings, who govern their people wisely, rest in bliss.[11] Telemachus is considered a work of ‘republican monarchism’ because it ‘combines monarchial rule with republican virtues’.[12] It is a ‘classical republicanism’ that Fénelon develops in Telemachus, that is to say republican virtues from Ancient Greece and Rome. These republican virtues are the interest for the common good and disinterest for riches, or selfish and artificial gains and rewards by the court. In general, the ‘country’ is opposed to the ‘court’ in classical republicanism, as Pocock notes.[13] In Telemachus, Fénelon displays similar ‘classical republican’ virtues. Bétique (Boetica) is a country described in book seven. There, the inhabitants are free and equal, live in accordance with nature, and are disinterested although gold and silver abound since they are of no use for the common good and corrupt. Edelstein’s interpretation of Boetica is that it is not an ‘utopian’ place in the same sense as More’s Utopia or Bacon’s New Atlantis because it is meant to be an example for contemporary society, and is not thought in isolation but with international contacts and with the prospect of perpetual peace.[14] Moreover, Edelstein argues that it is a republican state because the basic political structure is participative, the inhabitants are free and equal, they are ready to fight to defend their liberty, and they shun luxury and corruption in favour of peace, union, and liberty, by wisely using their ‘right reason’.[15]

Considering Rémi’s argument, it seems that a relevant passage in Fénelon’s Télémaque is in book 9, when Mentor addresses various Greek kings after they decided to make peace and avoid waging war:

Tout le genre humain n’est qu’une famille dispersée sur la face de toute la terre. Tous les peuples sont freres, & doivent s’aimer comme tels. Malheur à ces impies qui cherchent une gloire cruelle dans le sang de leurs freres, qui est leur propre sang. La guerre est quelquefois nécessaire, il est vrai : mais c’est la honte du genre humain qu’elle soit inévitable en certaines occasions. … Quiconque préfére sa propre gloire aux sentimens de l’humanité, est un monstre d’orgueil, & non pas un homme : il ne parviendra même qu’à une fausse gloire ; car la vraye gloire ne se trouve que dans la modération & dans la bonté.[16]

Shortly after, Mentor suggests that the Greek kings meet in an assembly every three years to renew their alliance and discuss matters of common interest. Mentor emphasises that being united is the only way to make Greece prosper inside and stronger outside.[17] In other words, Mentor suggests that the kings organise a sort of commonwealth or res publica.

Fénelon makes another direct reference to a ‘universal republic’ in book 17. Mentor advises king Idoménée on how to settle an international dispute between him and another king using arbitration. Mentor then takes a hypothetical example of a republic that the king would consider with horror if there were no laws and no legal institutions, but where each family would use violence against their neighbours to make their own justice, and asks Idoménée rhetorically:

croyez-vous que les Dieux regardent avec moins d’horreur le monde entier, qui est la République universelle, si chaque peuple qui n’y est que comme une grande famille, se croit en plein droit de se faire par violence justice à soi-même sur toutes ses prétentions contre les autres peuples voisins?[18]

Through Mentor, Fénelon argues for a ‘universal republic’, which does not mean a world state with a republican democratic government, but a state of law in international affairs, the same way there is a state of law inside a given ‘republic’. It is an argument against absolutism in that Fénelon emphasises that kings are not above the law, not even regarding internal state affairs. Fénelon’s argument is as much the need for legal settlement in international affairs—and thereby the reduction of wars—as it is the observation that the human race is one ‘family’ and therefore ought to be under a common law.

To Rémi, cosmopolisme is associated with the language of nature, of the very first feelings that men had when becoming social creatures. In other words, in the golden age of the state of nature before the social contract was formed, as described in natural law theories:

Cet heureux sentiment que la Nature inspire aux Individus de même espece ; Instinct sacré dont le Législateur des Chrétiens voulut faire un mérite à l’homme, en l’érigeant en vertu, & la plaçant à la tête de son code immortel ; la Fraternité combattue par les maximes de l’intolérance, & avilie par le fanatisme du zèle, n’a commencée à rentrer dans ses droits que depuis la renaissance des Lettres. Elle doit la gloire dont elle jouit, aux efforts des Cosmopolites. Ramenée par eux dans l’Europe, sous les noms de Bienveillance & d’Humanité, cette vertu pourra s’annoncer à nos neveux comme la fille du malheur & de la Philosophie.[19]

Fraternity—the feeling of being related and belonging to the same family—is a natural instinct that God—the legislator for Christians—inscribed as the first and most important law. Rémi is here referring to love as God’s law, particularly love towards fellow man: ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:39). Rémi then goes on to argue that intolerance and fanaticism have been the enemies of fraternity, and it is only with the ‘renaissance of letters’ and the ‘efforts of the cosmopolites’ that fraternity was brought back. There is no doubt that Rémi refers here to the Republic of Letters, and the fight by ‘la petite troupe des philosophes’ led by Voltaire against religious intolerance, revealed religions, and in favour of humanitarian considerations (see the opening of Candide).[20] It is also exactly the same meaning of the word ‘cosmopolites’ that Rousseau used when writing about ‘quelques grandes âmes cosmopolites’, as seen above.[21] Rémi refers to the same thing: state wars that entail murders and other atrocities that are revolting to reason and nature, but that, nonetheless, are rewarded with the highest honours. It is in that sense that Rémi concludes that this virtue of fraternity, which the cosmopolites brought back in Europe under the names of ‘benevolence’ and ‘humanity’, is the ‘daughter’ of ‘misery’ and ‘philosophy’. The ‘cosmopolites’, the philosophers, reflected upon the calamities of wars due to ‘national egoism’, to produce works of morality and ethics for humankind.

We can take several elements from Rémi’s writings on what seems to constitute cosmopolism for him: nature, humanity, reason, sentiment, the Encyclopaedia, liberty, fraternity, individuality, belonging to the same human species, a sense of equality, and elements of classical republicanism. ‘Cosmopolism’, for Rémi, is the doctrine that ‘cosmopolites’ professed, that is to say the rational natural feeling of fraternity among individuals, because they belong to the same species, against any divisive passions or thoughts, such as national egoism, intolerance, or fanaticism.

If in Rémi’s view, there is sufficient material to form an -ism out of cosmopolitan views on the international order, this does not mean that there was a widely accepted view that ‘cosmopolisme’ actually existed. As Mercier’s Néologie shows, ‘cosmopolisme’ was a new word even as late as 1801. It is not possible to ascertain historically a fixed understanding of ‘cosmopolisme’ or ‘cosmopolitisme’ in the eighteenth century. It is however possible to witness in eighteenth-century writings the rise of a philosophical consciousness of cosmopolitanism. Rémi’s general cosmopolitan sympathy is however not offering any concrete system to achieving this goal, besides an appeal to the king’s good will in foreign affairs, and a prayer to God to enlighten kings.[22] The Revolution will mark the apex of cosmopolitanism considered as a political philosophy.

‘Cosmopolitisme’ only enters the dictionary (Littré) in 1873.

[1] Bordeu et al., Recherches sur les maladies…, 65.

[2] Mercier, Néologie, 1:131.

[3] Castillon, Discours sur l’origine de l’inegalité, 164.

[4] Rousseau, Discours sur l’origine de l’inégalité, 138–9.

[5] s.n., Encyclopédie méthodique. jurisprudence.

[6] Rémi, Le Cosmopolisme, 24–25.

[7] Rémi, 73–74.

[8] Dictionnaire de l’Académie françoise.

[9] Fénelon, Télémaque.

[10] Dédéyan, Télémaque; Cuche, Le Télémaque de Fénelon.

[11] Fénelon, Télémaque, vol. 2, book XIX, 395.

[12] Riley, ‘Fénelon’s “Republican” Monarchism’, 78.

[13] Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment, 401–22.

[14] Edelstein, The Terror of Natural Right, 58.

[15] Edelstein, 59–60.

[16] Fénelon, Télémaque, 1: 230.

[17] Fénelon, 1: 231.

[18] Fénelon, 2: 483-4.

[19] Rémi, Le Cosmopolisme, 19–20.

[20] Voltaire, Candide.

[21] Rousseau, Discours Sur l’origine de l’inégalité, 101.

[22] Rémi, Le Cosmopolisme, 64.

[23] Mallet du Pan, Mercure Britannique, 4:461.

Joseph-Honoré Rémy and his 1770 pamphlet ‘Le cosmopolisme’

SEMFS Conference

On 8th-10th September 2021, the Society for Early Modern French Studies held its annual conference ‘Public and Private/Public et Privé’ online. The Centre for Privacy Studies was co-organiser, and several PRIVACY scholars presented their work. Assistant Professor Lars Cyril Nørgaard presented his research on private penitence. PhD-candidate Bastian Felter Vaucanson presented his research on spiritual intimacy in the correspondence between Mme Guyon and Fénelon. Professor Mette Birkedal Bruun was the keynote speaker with a presentation of the Centre for Privacy Studies and her research on the vocabularies of privacy and the private. I presented my original research on privacy based on my previous work on cosmopolitanism (my PhD thesis at the EUI, an article on cosmopolitan rhetoric, and a chapter on 18th-century French cosmopolitanism). My paper focused on a little known work of cosmopolitanism published in the second half of the eighteenth century in France. I analysed this work in relation to the uses of the vocabularies of ‘cosmopolite’ and ‘cosmopolitanism’, and demonstrated how cosmopolitanism transcended conceptions of the private and the public.

Marriage of Louis and Marie Antoinette 1770

In 1770, an anonymous pamphlet was published with the title Le cosmopolisme. It was written on the occasion of the marriage of the Dauphin Louis and Marie Antoinette. In the forewords, someone pretends to be the translator of a work written in English by an Englishman, whom he calls a ‘cosmopolite’. In reality the whole pamphlet is written by someone not yet known in the Parisian literary circles, but who would then make a career. His name was Joseph Honoré Rémy.

My research on Rémy shows that there is very little secondary literature on him. The only work I could find is the database of journalists in the Dictionnaire des journalistes, which is online. There is a list of primary sources where Rémy is mentioned, and it presents a summary of his life.

In this post I present a biography of Rémy. In my next post I will present my analysis of Rémy’s Le cosmopolisme as a cosmopolitanism transcending the private and the public realm.

Biography of Rémy

Joseph Honoré Rémy (also spelled Rémi) was born in Remiremont in 1738 and died in Paris in 1782. After studying philosophy and the humanities he decided to pursue an ecclesiastical career and studied theology. He never received his tonsure and became only abbot in Toul. The rest of his life he would be known as ‘l’abbé Rémi’ (abbot Rémi). However, he had little interest in church matters. He wished to become a man of letter (homme de lettres). Therefore he went back to Paris. He followed lectures in law and befriended practitioners until he himself could practice as barrister at the Parlement de Paris.

He was a member of a Freemason Lodge called ‘Les Neuf Soeurs’, established in 1776 to gather artists and scientists. Since the statutes of the Lodge obliged its members (in particular lawyers, doctors, and surgeons) to assist the poor and the needy, and a general duty of humanity, I think it explains why Rémy was known to defend cases free of charge in favour of victims of injustice who were too poor to hire a barrister. In my paper I add new knowledge to Rémy’s biography with my research on this lodge.

Logo Mercure de France

Rémy worked as the right hand of famous publisher Charles-Joseph Pancoucke (1736-1798) and wrote many articles and reviews as editor of his Mercure de France, the most important magazine in pre-revolutionary France.

Rémy participated several times to the Académie’s oratory prize with several eloges: unsuccesfully in 1769 with an Eloge de Molière, but received an accessit (certificate of merit) in 1771 for Eloge de Fénelon, and an honorable mention in 1773 with Eloge de Colbert, which was published. He won the prize in 1777 with Eloge de Michel de l’Hopital. It created a controversy with the Sorbonne’s Faculty of Theology, which censored the work.

The same year Rémy published Le cosmopolisme, he published a “translation” of what is supposed to be a sequel to Edouard Young’s (1683-1765) Nights, which had been translated into French in 1769. Young’s Les nuits was popular, and Rémy wrote under the pseudonym of “un mousquetaire noir” a satiric version of what he considered a bathetic work. In 1772, Rémy published a collection of various legal works under the title Le code des François. He also wrote several articles for the Rémy wrote several articles Répertoire universel et raisonné de Jurisprudence and collaborated to editing the complete works of Voltaire.

When Rémy died in 1782, he was working on an encyclopedic work that was thought as adding to the existing Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert. His collaborator finished editing the first volume on “Jurisprudence” of the Encyclopédie méthodique following Rémy’s work, and also used Rémy’s research for the second volume.

In my view, Rémy was an important figure of the Parisian literary scene, as can be inferred from multiple mentions of him, and especially his death, in the Mémoires secrets. He was at the centre of many literary circles and was known to be an erudite. Therefore, I consider his early pamphlet Le cosmopolise, as capturing his Zeitgeist regarding eighteenth-century French cosmopolitanism.

In my next post I will present my analysis of this cosmopolitanism based on Rémy’s pamphlet Le cosmopolisme.

PRIVACY CONFERENCE: Early Modern Notions of Privacy and the Private

The Centre for Privacy Studies is looking forward to welcoming all to the online conference “Early Modern Notions of Privacy and the Private”, taking place on June 2-4, 2021.

Registrations are open until May 31 on the PRIVACY webpage.


DAY 1 -Wednesday, 2 June 2021

11:00—11:10 – Søren-Peter Olensen (The Danish National Research Foundation) – Welcome – Opening address;
11:10—11:30 – Mette Birkedal Bruun (Centre for Privacy Studies) – Opening presentation;
11:30—11:40- Frank Ejby Poulsen (Centre for Privacy Studies) – Practicalities and Online etiquette

11:40—12:15 – Joachim Eibach (Historisches Institut, Universität Bern) – The Open House: Communication Practices in and around the Domestic Sphere (Chair: Sari Nauman)
12:15—12:30 – Joachim Eibach Q&A Session
12:30 – 1.15 – Lunch break

1:15—1:50 – Paul Taylor (The Warburg Institute, University of London) – Iconography and Privacy in Seventeenth-Century Holland (Charir: Fabio Gigone)
1:50- 2:05 – Paul Taylor Q&A Session
2:05—2:20 – Break

2:20 – 2:55 – Alec Ryrie (Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University) – Alone with God: the practice of ‘public’, ‘private’ and ‘secret’ prayer in Reformation England (Chair: Lars Nørgaard)
2:40 – 2:55 – Alec Ryrie Q&A Session
2:55 – 3:10 – Break

3:10 – 3:45 – Elaine Leong (The Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin/University College London) – ‘In Parcels Transmitted’: Recipes, Knowledge Circulation and Privacy in Early Modern England (Chair: Natacha Klein Käfer)
3:45 – 4:00 – Elaine Leong Q&A Session
4:00 – 4:15 – Break

4:15 – 4:50 – Angela Vanhaelen (Department of Art History and Communication Studies, McGill University, Montreal) – Vermeer’s Secret Sphere: Domesticity and Global Sex (Chair: Christine Jeanneret)
4:50 – 5:05 – Angela Vanhaelen Q&A Session

5:05 – 5:35 – Mette Birkedal Bruun – Wrap up and discussion

DAY 2 – Thursday, 3 June 2021

10:3011:00Check-in + Meet and Greet
11:00—11:15 – Jesper Jakobsen (Centre for Privacy Studies) – Welcome to the second conference day (questions + Online etiquette brush up)

11:15—11:50 – Claudia Opitz Belakhal (Departement Geschichte, Universität Basel) – How and why did the private sphere become a space of emotions? (Chair: Natalie Patricia Koerner)
– Claudia Opitz Belakhal Q&A Session
12:05—12:45 – Break

12.45 – 1.00 – Check-in
1:00—1:35 – Karl Härter (The Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory, Frankfurt am Main) – Ordering Privacy? The Implications of Early Modern Police Ordinances for Private Areas of Life (Chair: Paolo Astorri)
1:35 – 1:50 – Karl Härter Q&A Session
1:50 – 2:05 – Break

2:05 – 2:40 – Ben Kaplan (The History Department, University College London) – Quietly in His Own Home”: The Language of Privacy in Early Modern Freedom of Conscience Laws (Chair: Johannes Ljungberg)
2:40 – 2:55 – Ben Kaplan Q&A Session
2:55– 3:10 – Break

3:10 – 3:45 – Fabrizio Nevola Department of Art History and Visual Culture, University of Exeter) – Private lives in a public Renaissance: spaces and practices (Chair: Sanne Maekelberg)
3:45 – 4:00 – Fabrizio Nevola Q&A Session
4:00- 4:15 – Break

4:15 – 4:50 – Ann Thomson (Department of History and Civilization, European University Institute) – Expressing oneself in the early 18th-century republic of letters: what can and can’t be said in private correspondence (Chair: Frank Ejby Poulsen)
4:50 – 5:05 -Ann Thomson Q&A Session

5:05 – 5:35 – Sari Nauman and Søren Frank Jensen (Centre for Privacy Studies) – Wrap up and discussion

DAY 3 – Friday 4, June 2021


10.30—11.00 Check-in + Meet and Greet
11:00—11:10 – Marie Louise Nosch (President of the Danish Royal
Society of Sciences and Letters) – Opening
11:10—11:20 – Mette Birkedal Bruun and Søren Frank Jensen (Centre for Privacy Studies) – Welcome to the PRIVACY Master Class

11:20 —11:40 – Jelena Bakić: Privacy and Paratext in Renaissance Italy (Chair: Bastian Felter Vaucanson)
11:40 —12:20 – Jelena Bakić discussion
12:20 —13:00 – Lunch break

13:00 —13:20 – Liam Benison: Dissimulation as a Form of Early Modern Privacy: A Utopian Perspective (Chair: Frank Ejby Poulsen)
13:20—13:40 – Liam Benison discussion
13:40—13:55 – Break

13:55—14:15 – Anna McGee: Looking Up and Crossing Over: Art at the Threshold in the Palazzo Medici, Florence (Chair: Natalie Patricia Koerner)
14:15—14:35 – Anna McGee discussion
14:35—14:50 – Break

14:50—15:10 – Annemie Leemans: Leonardo da Vinci and privacy – a new approach in Leonardo Studies (Chair: Oskar Rojewski)
15:10—15:30 – Annemie Leemans discussion
15:30—15:45 Wrap up

Health care under suspicion? Early modern scandals and the creation of fear

During my research on the oral history of my own community in Southern Brazil about health and healing practices in the first half of the twentieth century, I remember hearing from my interviewees that, “back in the day”, the hospital was a place that you would go to die. Less than a matter of precarity – which could be the reality of several facilities -, people would only go to the hospital as a last resort. Fractures, diseases, and other ailments were first taken care of by local healers and home remedies. It was not necessarily a lack of trust in the medical help, and more a culture of taking care of one another within the community whenever possible. That perception of the hospital had changed by my parents’ generation, but it stuck to me how health care could be seen in a myriad of ways depending on the cultural, economic, and historical context.

This idea came back to me while I was studying the suspicion over acts of charity by nobles — particularly noblewomen — in the court of Louis XIV, and I noticed that there was this apparent concern over charitable acts at the hospitals. As we can imagine, hospitals in this context were different from what we know today. As Susan Broomhall explains in her chapter The Politics of Charitable Men, early modern French hospitals were institutions that, beyond health concerns, offered poor relief to “passers-by, paupers, the sick, aged, children, the elderly and mentally ill, as well as the first line of response in epidemics” (p. 137). Hospitals at the time were mostly secular institutions, which depended a lot on charity efforts. Institutions led by noblewomen offered not only monetary support but also caring staff to the hospitals. However, rarely these women would do the work themselves — they were primarily responsible for sending maids and nurses to attend to the patients and paupers. These efforts were seen as part of their responsibility as pious Christians and were commendable, both among peers and the population at large. Hospitals were meant as a safe haven for the most disenfranchised people. But scandals could always shake that image.

Infirmary of the Hospital of Charity, 17th-century illustration. This hospital in Paris, France, was founded by the Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God in the 17th century. Members of this Roman Catholic order are seen receiving and tending to patients. This religious hospital was demolished in 1935 to make way for the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Paris. This artwork, from around 1639, is by French artist Abraham Bosse (c.1602-1676). METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

The conviction of Marie-Madeleine-Marguerite d’Aubray, Marquise de Brinvilliers in 1676 shook life in court, particularly due to the direct involvement of the nobility in poisoning plots. She was accused of poisoning her father and her two brothers as well as plotting to poison her sister and sister-in-law, all with the help of her lover, the army captain Godin de Sainte-Croix. This not only instigated the poisoning paranoia in court but also put acts of charity under scrutiny. How could people separate between sincere generosity and public masking of nefarious private intentions?

The figure of the poisoner imposed upon Madame de Brinvilliers was carefully constructed in trial — both the testimonials of witnesses and the annotations of the interrogations stress the depravity of her character. In addition to the poisonings, she was accused of having committed incest, having illegitimate children, maintaining several love affairs, having abortions, and mistreating servants, among several other offences. She was also described as unwilling to perform charitable acts, going so far as actively resenting them. In the records, Madame de Brinvilliers was said to have wanted to poison her sister because her donations to charity were depleting the family’s fortune. This portrait of Madame de Brinvilliers seems to carefully oscillate between destroying her individual reputation while trying to preserve the charitable ideal for noblewomen. However, the accusations against her brought forth a new fear involving acts of charity.

Portrait of the Marquise after her imprisonment by Charles LeBrun

Rumours had spread that Madame de Brinvilliers had been performing acts of charity for nefarious purposes.  Accounts described how she would visit paupers in public hospitals under the guise of charity in order to experiment with her poisons. According to these rumours, she added poison to patients’ food or distributed poisoned pastries to the poor, subsequently analysing the effects in order to calculate the exact quantities of poison to be used later on her family. These rumours not only reflect a fear of the misuse of charity and its effects on vulnerable subjects but also reveal a different anxiety — the fear of human experimentation.

Ravaisson, Archives de la Bastille, vol. 6, 396.

At the time, the norm was that only royal practitioners were allowed to perform experiments on human beings, and even then, only on convicted criminals. Alisha Rankin, in her recently released book The Poison Trials, adds nuance to the developments in human experimentation, showing how antidote tests on humans spread across continental Europe during the sixteenth century. This fear of underground activities using vulnerable people for experiments or rituals was crucial for legal developments during the Affair of the Poisons. This much larger scandal involved plots for murdering Louis XIV and reinforced the idea that “pious noblewomen” enacting charity could be more dangerous than it seemed. 

If even the king was not safe, what can be said about the paupers at the hospital? In a moment of political crisis, even the very few resources available to the poor were seen as potentially untrustworthy. However, with the sources at hand, it is not possible to say how much the Affair of the Poisons actually impacted people receiving the relief efforts at the hospital and how they evaluated their own safety, or how much of it was more of a reaction from the authorities projecting onto their situation.

It is important to mention that there was no conclusive evidence of poison experimentations at the hospitals made by noblewomen, and according to the investigation led by the police chief la Reynie, the suspicion was sustained by rumours. However, that does not mean that experiments at hospitals did not take place. These experimentations tended to be with less deadly substances than poison, usually testing the extent of the efficacy of certain medications. In the eighteenth century, William Withering, for example, was outspoken about only administering his digitalis preparation for dropsy to his paying customers after carefully testing on his charity patients.

An Account of the Foxglove, and Some of Its Medical Uses, p. 2.

The fear of experimentation becomes more than granted when looking at early modern colonial experiences. Londa Schiebinger’s book Secret Cures of Slaves shows how colonial relations and the knowledge circulation within the Atlantic trade impacted medicine as we know. Her nuanced approach can be found in this illuminating piece for The Conversation, detailing how experimentation took place in colonial environments.

This broader contextualisation of the flow of medical knowledge in the Atlantic world made me thing of Brazilian natives communities, which in the early modern period were brought to Europe as curious specimens, and have taken the brunt of epidemics across centuries. Many missions sent to their territories used the disguise of care to exploit their people and their land. With the challenges they have historically faced, it would be understandable for them to be fearful of current relief and vaccination efforts in the thick of the Covid pandemic. This assumption, however, does not coincide with what we have heard from representatives of the indigenous communities themselves. About the Covid vaccinations taking place in Brazilian indigenous communities, the president of the Mainumy association, Arlete Viana dos Santos Guajajara actually declared that these efforts bring hope to the community, despite the distortions created by fake news in Brazil:

“For me and I believe also for many relatives, the arrival of this vaccine within indigenous territories is a sign of hope that our people will live longer. Because this damn disease has already killed many, many of us. So, for us, it is a great hope to have our people alive for a longer time. It is a pity that there is a lot of fake news. There are people who think they are living just to spread these fake news, both in Brazil and around the world. So, this ends up getting in the way of the issue of vaccination within the territories. But, as leaders, we have this role of actually articulating and denying these fake news within the territories. How can we do that? Calling relatives, talking and explaining how the vaccine works. Anyway, doing our part for the good of our entire population, because this vaccine is our hope for survival.”

Picture by Thales Renato Ferreira – Prefeitura de Sao Leopoldo

The indigenous experience in Brazil is varied, and opinions will of course differ, but Guajajara’s quote reminded me of how easy it is to project fear onto a community that might be dealing with a situation in very different terms. This brought me back to the charity patients amid the poisoning fear, for whom I have not found a voice to echo here until now. To what extent this fear created by political unrest of the poison scandals affected them? Was the fear of human experiments something that they harboured themselves or something that the authorities latched upon at the height of the investigations? But more importantly, how these more vulnerable communities took care of each other in such times of suspicion and political crisis?

Although we are left with more questions than answers, I think it is an important exercise to bring history together with the present struggles. By looking at the past, we can see how challenging situations developed, how people responded to them, and what pitfalls can be avoided. By looking at the present, we historians can also be reminded that the past is made of multiple voices, and sometimes it is too easy to run on assumptions if we do not make an effort to listen to the whispers amidst the shouting.

Privacy in an Early Modern Prison

Leonora Christina, daughter of the Danish King Christian IV, was imprisoned in the Blue Tower of Copenhagen castle from 1663 to 1685, as she was suspected of having knowledge of her husband’s betrayal of the Kingdom. After her release from prison in 1685, she wrote a record of her 22 years in the Blue Tower, addressed to her children and known as Jammers Minde (translated into English as Memoirs of Leonora Christina).[1] The manuscript disappeared for several decades, until it came back to light in the nineteenth century and it was published in 1869. It is now considered one of the most important works written in seventeenth-century Denmark.

Portrait of Leonora Christina Ulfeldt by Gerrit van Honthorst (Frederiksborg Museum)

One of the approaches at the Centre for Privacy Studies is to look for priv*-words, analysing the context in which they appear and see if they tell us anything about early modern notions of privacy. Doing this analysis on the text of Jammers Minde shows that these words are particularly used in the context of the process against Count Corfitz Ulfeldt, Leonora’s husband.

“I was suspected of being privy to an act of treason for which he has never been prosecuted according to law, much less convicted of it, and the cause of the accusation was never explained to me, humbly and sorrowfully as I desired that it should be” (p. 89)


During the interrogations she was asked who visited her husband when they stayed in Bruges, which was a question she could not answer, since he received his guests in a “private chamber”, where she was not admitted. This gives an interesting insight into privacy in the marital relations of the seventeenth century. During another interrogation she goes on to tell her interrogators that her husband would never keep anything secret from her that concerned them both.

Imprisonment can be considered one of the most far-reaching infringements of privacy. Throughout history many famous persons have been subjected to periods of detention, although in early modern times this might have had a slightly different dimension. Analysing the text there is reference to different heuristic zones: Leonora’s cell or her chamber, her body and her mind.

At the moment of her arrival to the Blue Tower, Leonora Christina is forced to give up all her possessions and clothes, and is searched by one the ladies of the Queen:

“She had formerly sought for letters on the private parts of my person” (p. 99)


The Blue Tower of Copenhagen Castle


We also get a glimpse of the environment where Eleonora Christina spent the 22 years of her imprisonment through her memoirs. She was apparently put in the Blue Tower that was part of Copenhagen castle, located on Slotsholmen (more or less the same site of the current Christiansborg). She was put into a room referred to as the “Dark Church”, a horrendous space without windows meant for the worst criminals.





“I found before me a small low table, on which stood a brass candlestick with a lighted candle, a high chair, two small chairs, a fire-wood bedstead without hangings and with old and hard bedding, a night-stool and chamber utensil. At every side to which I turned I was met with stench; and no wonder, for three peasants who had been imprisoned here, and had been removed on that very day, and placed elsewhere, had used the walls for their requirements.” (p. 110)

She stayed in this room for seven years, accompanied by several ladies who kept her company in order of the Queen. The company did not, however, ease her captivity. Several times in her record she brings up the annoyance of their chatting and the attempts she made to silence them.

“I was never more glad than when the gates were closed between me and those who were to guard me. Then I had only the woman alone, whom I brought to silence, sometimes amicably, and at others angrily and with threats.” (p. 94)


An undeniable threshold was indeed established by the gates of her prison. According to her description, the “Dark Church” had two doors with locks which separated her from the prison governor. Despite being an obvious spatial threshold, this did not at all contribute to Leonora’s privacy. The doors were opened or closed off by the governor or prison warden and she did not have any control to this effect. According to Altman control and the freedom to make oneself accessible or inaccessible to others is essential in the notion of privacy.[2] While architecture is often a boundary between different private and public realms by doors, walls and windows, there is no opportunity for spatial privacy at prison. Leonora Christina does however protect her mind and her sense of self by putting up an additional boundary or ‘wall of defence’ she found in God.

“I have ever clung steadfastly to God, who has been and still is my wall of defence against every attack, and my refuge in every kind of misfortune and adversity.” (p. 95)


When King Christian V ascended the throne, Leonora’s circumstances somewhat bettered, as she was moved to the room above the “Dark Church”. Newly whitewashed this room too had a stench upon her arrival. While there was a window towards the vaulted ceiling of the space, she now reports four doors with locks, separating her from the staircase.

“He then affixed locks to the door of the outer chamber, and to the door leading to the stairs; he had, therefore, four locks and doors twice a day to lock and unlock.” (p. 150)


The window allowed her to hear some of the courtly life that was going on just outside her prison walls and when rope-dancers performed in the castle square she even managed to catch a glimpse by building a construction of the sparse furniture in her cell.

“So I took the bedclothes from the bed and placed the boards on the floor and set the bed upright in front of the window, and the night-stool on the top of it. In order to get upon the bedstead, the table was placed at the side, and a stool by the table in order to get upon the table, and a stool upon the table, in order to get upon the night-stool, and a stool on the night-stool, so that we could stand and look comfortably, though not both at once.” (p. 205)


As part of the easing of Leonora’s captivity after the coronation of Christian V, a new and lower window was put in the prison on 25 July 1674. She was given material to pass the time, an outer apartment and some money to dispose of for herself.

On 19 May 1685 Leonora Christina was finally released from prison, never having confessed to any of the accusations.

Leonora Christina in the Blue Tower of Copenhagen Castle. A commemoration by Kristian Zahrtmann, 1891 (SMK, Royal Collection of Paintings and Sculptures, KMS 1436)


[1] Ulfeldt, Leonora Christina, Memoirs of Leonora Christina, daughter of Christian IV of Denmark, written during her imprisonment in the Blue Tower at Copenhagen 1663-1685, translated by F.E Bunnett (London: Henry S. King & Co, 1872).

[2] Altman I., “Privacy Regulation: Culturally Universal or Cultural Specific?” Journal of Social Issues 33, 3 (1977) 66–84 (67).

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: https://teol.ku.dk/privacy/events/events-2020/online-privacy-seminar-historical-notions-of-privacy-in-latin-america/

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!