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.

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NOTES:

[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.

Arendt on privacy

In this post, I would like to summarise Hannah Arendt‘s views related to privacy. In her 1958 book The Human Condition, Arendt develops her understanding of the public realm and the private realm, and what characterises our modern condition, the rise of the social realm.

As the title of her book indicates, Arendt’s interest is the human condition, or what it means to be human. The human condition is not human nature, but what humans do—their activities—and making sense of our life-world. Arendt sums up human activities in the concept of vita activa, as opposed to vita contemplativa. As the Latin suggests, this is an ancient conception inherited from the Romans. They considered the vita contemplativa as superior because it was dedicated to contemplative matters, while vita activa was about providing necessities. Karl Marx famously inverted this hierarchy, making the vita contemplativa a mere superstructure and the vita activa the real matter of human life.

Arendt differentiates vita activa into three types of activities: labour, work, and action. Labour concerns the activities that support life; it is about providing sustenance. Work is the activity of producing unnatural artefacts. Our interdependent activity is what Arendt calls “action”; they are interactions with other people that require initiative and not simply routine behaviour.

Labour is not distinctively human since animals also share this part with us. Work and action make us human, but only action requires the presence of a society of others in order to exist. Action takes place in the public realm and not the private realm, because the public realm is the only where there is freedom.

Arendt is hopeful about the possibility of action in the public realm, and the most important of all actions being thought. When there is political freedom, there is the possibility of thought. And when there is thought, there is political freedom. Thought is done by being by oneself, in solitude or in a private community, but it is expressed to others, in the public realm. Arendt seems to reserve this activity to scientists, and certainly not to statesmen who have as little freedom as people from the street, in their ability to act.

The public and the private realms

For ancient Greeks, freedom only existed in the public realm, insofar as only in the public realm there was an expression of the political and the possibility of equality. The realm of the public is the space of appearance, this is where one sees and is seen. It has a performative value. Through action, people distinguish themselves, by deeds or by words. So, the public space was where there was a space of freedom, and not the private space.

For Arendt, modernity is constituted by the rise of the social realm, which changes this separation between an unfree private realm and a free public realm. On the one hand it sent speech to the private realm, and, on the other, it introduced labour to the public realm. Modernity has so much modified our understanding of the private and the public that we no longer agree with ancient Greeks that privacy is idiotic since only a public political life is worth living, nor do we agree with ancient Romans that privacy is a temporary privation, a retreat from public life. In short, classical Greek and Roman thought considered the public realm, the polis or civitas the only place where man would be free. (Arendt, 38) Privacy is no longer thought of as a deprivation of the highest human capacity and “modern privacy” becomes a necessary shelter for the intimate.

Arendt names Rousseau in particular as the intellectual figure behind privacy as a retreat from social pressures, both of the household and of society at large. Society excludes the possibility of action because it requires a certain behaviour from its members. Behaviour has replaced action in the social realm because society requires conformism. Statistically, the more people there are, the less likely it is that some will deviate the social norm. Uniform behaviour “lends itself to statistical determination, and therefore to statistically correct prediction”, what liberal economists called then the “invisible hand” guiding self-interests towards a single common interest (Arendt, 43-44). “A complete victory of society will always produce some sort of ‘communistic fiction,’ whose outstanding political characteristic is that it is indeed ruled by an ‘invisible hand,’ namely, by nobody.” (44-45)

Action is characterised by two fundamental aspects: plurality and unpredictability. Plurality entails that men are equal, but also distinct.

Private realm: property

It is with respect to the public that the term “private” takes its significance. Originally it has a privative sense: to live privately means to be deprived of the essential things for a truly human life. One is deprived of the possibility to achieve something more permanent than life by being deprived of an ‘objective’ relationship with others that relate and separates through a common world. Privacy is a privation of others. For the others, private man does not exist since he does not appear. (58)

In modernity, this deprivation of “objective” relation to others has led to the mass phenomenon of loneliness. The reason for this is that mass society destroys not only the public realm but the private as well. It deprives men of their private home

The social and the private

The rise of the social coincided with the transformation of the private care for private property into a public concern. Society, when it first entered the public realm, was an organisation of property-owners who claimed the protection of their private property from the public. In other words, property-owners wanted to accumulate more wealth. According to Bodin, government belonged to kings, and property to subjects, and it was the duty of the king to govern the commonwealth for the common wealth. When wealth became private capital, the possibility to accumulate wealth became so vast that private property became close to the permanence inherent to the common world. (68)

But common wealth can never become common in the sense of the common world. It remains strictly private.

The Public realm: the common

The term “public” signifies two phenomena:

  1. Everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity;
  2. Public is the world of common things and common stories.

Everything that is seen and heard by us and others constitute appearance, and, for us, appearance is what constitutes reality. Compared to the reality of what is appearance, everything that is of the intimate is uncertain and shadowy. Everything that is part of the “intimate life”, “the passions of the heart, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses”, are uncertain and in the shadow until they are “deprivatized” and “deindividualized” into a shape that is fit for public appearance. (50) The deprivitization is what occur in artistic transformations through storytelling. “But we do not need the form of the artist to witness this transfiguration. Each time we talk about things that can be experienced only in privacy or intimacy, we bring them out into a sphere where they will assume a kind of reality which, their intensity notwithstanding, they never could have had before.” (50) Pain, however, is only with difficulty communicated to the public, it get hardly an appearance at all.

It is certainly the case for some private experiences that are not expressed in some documents that can be conserved for the historian to consult. However, how can there be words expressed on matters of the intimate life? Artists have difficulties enough transcribing their own intimate life into a sharable experience, so few could possibly “deprivitize” their intimate life. As a result very little is retrievable for the historian unless it is in the public sphere.

Our feeling of reality depends on appearance, and therefore on the existence of a public realm where things can appear in light out of the darkness of the private. In this sense, the public defines the private. What is worthy of bright public light is relevant, it is what can be tolerated, so the irrelevant becomes automatically a private matter (51). However, that does not mean that all private matters are irrelevant. Some relevant matters can only survive in private and die in public: love for instance. (51) As a result, some things considered irrelevant by the public realm can have an extraordinary appeal for people, and they may adopt these as a way of life. Such is the modern enchantment with “small things” that people cultivate in the privacy of their home. (52)

“Second, the term “public” signifies the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it (52). It is the man-made world, not nature. The world relates and separates at the same time, like a table relates and separates people sitting around it. (52) The problem that mass society then pose on the public realm is not so much the increased number of persons involved, “the fact that the world between them has lost its power to gather them together, to relate and to separate them.” (Arendt, 53) Historically, only “Christian brotherhood” has kept together a community of people who had lost their interest in the common world.

This “worldlessness” as a political phenomenon is only possible under the assumption that the world will not last (54). “If the world is to contain a public space, it cannot be erected for one generation and planned for the living only; it must transcend the life-span of mortal men”. (55) “Without this transcendence into a potential earthly immortality, no politics, strictly speaking, no common world and no public realm, is possible.” (55)

The polis for the Greeks and the res publica for the Romans, were the guarantees against the futility of individual life and provided a space for permanence. The modern age marks the rise of society to public prominence and as Adam Smith notes, men of letters were drawn to public admiration and monetary rewards. Public admiration is also something used and consumed, as well as status. (56)

“Yet, even if these needs, through some miracle of sympathy, were share by others, their very futility would prevent their ever establishing anything so solid and durable as a common world.” Public admiration does not constitute a space in which things are saved from destruction by time. As a result, monetary rewards, itself also futile, becomes more “objective” and more real. (57)

The reality of the public realm relies on the simultaneous presence of innumerable perspectives and aspects. One could call it diversity. “Being seen and being heard by others derive their significance from the fact that everybody sees and hears from a different position.” (57) “Only where things can be seen by many in a variety of aspects without changing their identity, so that those who are gathered around them know the see sameness in utter diversity, can worldly reality truly and reliably appear.” Differences of position and variety of perspectives are what guarantee the reality of a common world.

“If the sameness of the object can no longer be discerned, no common nature of men, least of all the unnatural conformism of a mass society, can prevent the destruction fo the common world, which is usually preceded by the destruction of the many aspects in which it presents itself to human plurality. This can happen under conditions of radical isolation, where nobody can any longer agree with anybody else, as is usually the case in tyrannies. But it may also happen under conditions of mass society or mass hysteria, where we see all people suddenly behave as though they were members of one family, each multiplying and prolonging the perspective of his neighbor. In both instances, men have become entirely private, that is, they have been deprived fo seeing and hearing others, of being seen and being heard by them. They are all imprisoned in the subjectivity of their own singular experience, which does not cease to be singular if the same experience is multiplied innumerable times. The end of the common world has come when it is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in only one perspective.” (58)

In my next post I shall reflect upon Arendt’s conception of privacy in relation to the rise of the social media realm.

Sound and Privacy

WHAT

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

WHY

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.

HOW

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

OUTCOME:

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.

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 redlemonade.ie)

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 (cartooncollections.com).

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 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.

Exercitatio

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

https://books.google.dk/books?id=V1AAAAAAcAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_atb&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
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.

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

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

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

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

Professor Helen Nissenbaum (b. 1954)

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

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

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

 

Extract from the fire regulation of seventeenth-century Helmstedt

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

 

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

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/parenting/coronavirus-quarantine.html

[3] https://www.thelocal.es/20200423/what-we-know-about-new-rules-for-taking-children-outside-during-lockdown

[4]https://ki.se/en/nasp/the-coronavirus-risk-for-increased-suicide-and-self-harm-in-the-society-after-the-pandemic

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

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

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

[8] https://www.thelocal.es/20200319/why-everyone-in-spain-wishes-they-had-a-dog-during-the-coronavirus-lockdown
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/27/nyregion/dog-walking-coronavirus.html 

Public Morality or Privacy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hutcheson’s moral philosophy and privacy

Bernard de Mandeville

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

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

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

Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746)

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

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

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

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

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

Hutcheson’s moral philosophy

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

Human nature

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regarding print and censorship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some further directions for research

Hutcheson beyond the classroom

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

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

Commercial society, morality, and privacy

https://gph.is/1qsIq9b

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

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


 

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

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

[iii] Ibid. P. 77.

[iv] Ibid.

Epidemics and the issue of private knowledge

News revealed that there was a point during the spread of Covid-19 in Italy when there were not enough respirator valves for all the patients that required treatment. When the original manufacturer could not supply extra valves, volunteers developed improvised solutions. Cristian Fracassi and Alessandro Ramaioli made use of 3D printers to create a version of the medical device. According to a report by The Verge, they initially got in touch with the manufacturer to request the blueprints but were refused, being told that the file was the company’s private property. Without the blueprints, Fracassi and Ramaioli had to reverse-engineer the device in order to print unauthorized copies of the patented valve. After successful tests, they donated 100 of these 3D-printed valves to the hospital. Speculation about a possible lawsuit for infringement of the patent caused online outrage, raising the question of how we deal with proprietary knowledge in case of emergency such as the current pandemic.

Keeping potentially life-saving knowledge in “private” seems to be a very contemporary issue. Having patents on crucial medication or equipment is now the “norm” of the medical and pharmaceutical industry. In academic circles, efforts to make science more open must face the ever-present question of profit, as well as the assurance of status and influence within knowledge communities. It is such a present concern, but while reading about the 3D-printed valves and the issue of bypassing patents, I could not help but remember one of the healing practitioners I came across in my work on privacy and health in early modern Dresden.

This practitioner was the Leipzig physician Caspar Kegler (c. 1461-1537). I had encountered Kegler’s name in many of the manuscript pharmacopoeias I have been collecting to understand early modern medical networks. His name always appeared in plague remedies, showing that he had a surprising level of specialization for an early-16th-century doctor. However, it was only through the work of Erik A. Heinrichs that I was able to really understand the impact of Kegler’s recipes in the circulation of medical knowledge in the 16th and 17th century.

After becoming a doctor in 1511, Kegler established himself as a remedy maker, producing and selling his medicines at his shop at the Leipzig City Hall. This activity was usually exclusive to apothecaries, so a physician taking over this market was not common at the time. He advertised his remedies in cheap prints like pamphlets and booklets, a new endeavor in the Leipzig print market. He took the chance to seek printers to spread his “plague regimens” after Duke Georg I of Saxony enforced a ban on Luther’s works in 1521. Printers were in need of new “popular” texts to disseminate after the reader-grabbing Lutheran texts were banned. By using the more accessible forms of print, Kegler was able to spread healing knowledge to the literate laypeople, gaining popularity thanks to the accessible tone of his medical treatises and pamphlets.

Kegler, Caspar: Eyn Nutzlichs vnd trostlichs Regiment wider dy Pestilentz; Leipzig [1529]. A digitized version can be found on the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek online catalog

Kegler also counted on the endorsement of local authorities. He stressed in his prints how the Leipzig city council requested his regimens to be published as a way to help the population in the face of a series of epidemics in the early 16th century. In the 1529 version, he proclaims that Duke Georg I himself urged him to divulge his medicines. Kegler was trusted to give medical advice to the masses, providing health regimens as well as spiritual guidance. On top of that, he offered new medicines for the plague.

Opening of the 1529 Leipzig edition

Epidemics tend to push the boundaries of medical knowledge, making people desperate for new solutions. Kegler’s new medicines incorporated learned alchemy and artisanal techniques. In the hands-on space of the laboratory, Kegler was able to refine his recipe for aqua vitae, a potent distillate which was particularly popular in times of plague. His medicines relied on experimentation to prove their efficacy, instead of the traditional reliance on the authority of ancient-Greek methods. This rhetoric worked well with its intended audience since Kegler continued to highlight the experimental aspect of his concoctions in all subsequent prints. Alchemical/experimental medicine was about to take over the medical discourse of 16th-century Germany.

Manuscript with Kegler’s advice on the use of Aqua Vitae (Ludwig VI. von der Pfalz Rezeptsammlung – Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 192; 1570–1572 [Nachträge bis nach 1579], 198r)

Kegler’s resourcefulness and innovative use of new technologies could be seen as similar to the efforts of the 3D-print specialists using their machinery to develop the missing pieces to save lives today. However, we cannot neglect the fact that Kegler’s whole enterprise relied heavily on secrecy.

His pamphlets contained several recipes for plague remedies. These recipes became so popular that they were copied into manuscript pharmacopoeias, surviving in several German archives. However, his most potent and famous medicines were kept as a family secret. When asked to reveal how to prepare his famous “plague electuary”, Kegler instead explained that the complex process required specialized equipment and unique ingredients (including unicorn horn), being too hard to replicate without first-hand supervision. However, there is no definitive evidence that the recipe was ever revealed even to skilled specialists outside of the Kegler family. Secrecy was Kegler’s way of maintaining ownership of his recipe, making “Doctor Caspar Kegler’s Electuary” a branded and recognizable remedy in the following decades. After Kegler’s death, his family continued to advertise his remedies, issuing reprints of his pamphlets as well. His sons continued the secrecy trope, saying that only Kegler’s children had the correct original formula.

Manuscript copy of Kegler’s Plague Regimen (Rezeptsammlung – Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 204; 4. Viertel 16. Jh., 190v)

This healing knowledge was seen as private property of the Kegler family, and they made use of their political influence in order to keep it this way. In Dresden, Caspar Kegler the grandson gained the favor of Elector Christian II. Christian II praised Kegler’s electuary, proclaiming that only Dr Caspar Kegler’s descendants had the correct recipe, while also giving Caspar Kegler the grandson sole privilege to print his grandfather’s work. To this day, although there are recipes that claim to be Kegler’s unicorn electuary, it is impossible to verify if they are accurate since the original has never been revealed. The strict secrecy of the Kegler family and the supporting privileges received from their political patrons turned “Dr Caspar Kegler’s Electuary” into forgotten knowledge.

Pharmacopoeia claiming to have the recipe of Kegler’s Electuary (Arzneibuch – SLUB Mscr.Dresd.App.2975, 1550-1586, 5v)

On the other hand, Kegler’s open recipes being copied and adapted in subsequent manuscripts show us that knowledge grows as it is shared. I think the past has a lot to reveal about the question of proprietary knowledge. By looking at how societies dealt with knowledge being “private property”, we can inform the decisions we make today. Who benefited from private knowledge in the past? What were the consequences of private knowledge to those societies? How tragedies and emergencies affected how knowledge was treated? Posing these questions to the past can illuminate the paths we are taking for the future marked by the pandemic. Kegler and other examples from history show us that humans are resourceful, and even the hardest of times can be the grounds for important discoveries. It is up to us to not let our knowledge be forgotten.

Privacy and Moral Philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rubens, Adam and Eve, 1628-29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746)

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

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

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

[2] Emerson, 22.

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


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

Afro-Amsterdamers in the 17th Century

Rembrandt van Rijn, Two African Men, 1661
Rembrandt van Rijn, Two African Men, 1661 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the 17th Century, there was a community of people of color living in Amsterdam. This community was linked to the maritime industry: black women established permanently in the city were married to black men who worked as sailors for the VOC and the WIC, the Dutch West and East India Companies. Mark Ponte, who has been studying this community’s traces in the collection of notary deeds at the Amsterdam City Archives, explains:

From the moment the Dutch became active in the Atlantic world, people of African descent came to Amsterdam. Their presence is evident from baptismal and marriage registers and from seventeenth-century notarial deeds. (via Twitter)

The painting above, made by Rembrandt in 1661, most likely depicts two men who belonged to this community of afro-descendents, which was located around Jodenbreestraat, known today as the Old Jewish Quarter. In his article about the topic, Ponte shows the location of this community on the map below, a an adaptation of “Amstelredamum emporium Hollandiae primarium totiusque Europae celeberrimum”, Balthasar Florisz Berckenrode, 1625 (source: Amsterdam City Archives Collection).

Amsterdam in the Seventeenth Century: 1. Huiszittenhuis en turfpakhuizen 2. Leprozenhuis 3. Sint Antoniespoort 4. Pauwegang 5. Vlooienburg 6. Huis Moyses 7. Atelier Rembrandt 8. Ververstraat

It is super interesting for me to get concrete primary evidence of the close proximity of the Afro-Amsterdamer community to the Sephardic Jewish community in Amsterdam, whose archival traces have been the target of my attention. According to Ponte’s article,  women of African descent very often were employed as servants at the houses of Jewish merchants.

This raised so many research questions in my head… Jewish servants working at Christian households and Christian servants working at Jewish households were often the target of unwanted sexual attention by their respective masters, which often resulted in unwanted pregnancies and serious problems for the woman involved. I know this from the work of Elisheba Carlebach (Hamburg and Altona) and Lotte van de Pol (Amsterdam). I wonder now what the archives can tell me about unwanted pregnancies among the community of people of color in Amsterdam. I guess this is a question for my next archival trip!

Sources:

Carlebach, Elisheva. “Fallen Women and Fatherless Children: Jewish Domestic Servants in Eighteenth-Century Altona.” Jewish History 24, no. 3–4 (2010): 295–308. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10835-010-9114-y.

Pol, Lotte van de, and Erika Kuijpers. “Poor Women’s Migration to the City: The Attraction of Amsterdam Health Care and Social Assistance in Early Modern Times.” Journal of Urban History 32, no. 1 (2005): 44–60. https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144205279198.

Ponte, Mark. “‘Al de Swarten Die Hier Ter Stede Comen’ Een Afro-Atlantische Gemeenschap in Zeventiende-Eeuws Amsterdam.” TSEG/ Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History 15, no. 4 (March 11, 2019): 33–62. https://doi.org/10.18352/tseg.995.

Charity as Healing: Dealing with Demonic Possession in Seventeenth-Century France

Last October, the Centre for Privacy Studies organised a symposium in collaboration with the Centre de recherche du château de Versailles, called “Conspicuous Privacy: Charity in Versailles under Louis XIV”. The idea behind this event was to tackle the conflicting role of charity in the court of Louis XIV. Charitable acts were expected, as a Christian duty, to be performed humbly in private. However, at the same time, they were used as a tool for ostentation and political manoeuvre. As the event description puts it: “There is an apparent paradox between the normative privacy of charitable acts, and the public flaunting of these acts that happened in reality.”

My presentation at this event focused on how charity could be understood as public masking of private intentions during the Affair of the Poisons. Madame de Brinvilliers, a noblewoman involved in a poisoning plot, was said to pretend to perform charity at the hospital in order to experiment the efficacy of poisons on the paupers. Hospitals were a central focus of charity, but they were also a place where people were extremely vulnerable, which exacerbated the anxieties of the time – such as the fear of poisoners. In such a context, the charity that was closely associated with healing could also be considered suspicious or dangerous.

Adam Elsheimer ( 1598 ). Wellcome Images L0015276

While working at the hospitals and healing the sick was considered an important charitable act, charity was also seen as a form of healing. Nobles would donate to religious institutions asking for prayers or masses to heal a loved one. Good actions were seen as purifying the soul, and therefore, acted to cleanse one’s body. I am very curious about this tangled reciprocity between charity and healing. Could this be a useful tool to explore how charity existed in this threshold between private duty and public performance?

Interestingly, cases of possessions were among the ailments that could require charity as healing in early modern France. One of the most well-known cases of possession in seventeenth-century France was the one involving the Ursuline nun Jeanne des Anges. In the 1630s, the superior of the Ursuline convent in Loudun was said to be possessed by several demons, having to undergo numerous exorcisms. Jeanne became notorious for her suffering at the hands of demonic forces and for her faith throughout the laborious process of trying to remove them.[1] In her memoir, charity is shown as being a key part of her battle against the demons:


“One night during my prayer, as I prayed to Our Lord to let me know his will on this subject, I was told internally that I had to fight this demon by acts of charity, patience, and submission; with those, I would get over it.”[2]


After having all demons expelled from her body, Jeanne made pilgrimages that attracted a broad public. The notoriety of this case fostered a cult-like following of the nun who went through so many miraculous exorcisms. She began to act as a miracle-worker, and  her fame allowed her to meet Richelieu and King Louis XIII.

Scene from Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s movie “Mother Joan of the Angels”, also known as “The Devil and the Nun”, from 1961.

She became a consultant in cases of possession or ecstasies, as her intimate experience with exorcisms would enable her to identify which effects had a divine origin and which were of demonic influence. In the records of these consultations, Jeanne continued to stress the role of charity in dealing with cases of possessions and illusions. After examining the case of a nun from a convent in Pontivy who was having visions, Jeanne had divine revelations, in which a voice said that the woman was under a dark influence. The angelic voice also pointed out the need for charity to save the woman from the devil.

The charity referred here seems to be two-fold. One the one hand, there was the need for charity towards the woman, in the form of spiritual guidance by the priests and nuns around her. On the other hand, there was the need for charity by the nun, as the engagement in charitable acts would help to keep her illusions away. Jeanne also dedicated herself to charity after her exorcisms in order to make sure that the supernatural evils could not return to her body.

This seems to indicate that there is a different private dimension to charity. Beyond being a Christian duty, charity appears to have a direct power within the body, being intimately related to control over one’s own personhood in the face of supernatural challenges.

In the future, I aim to compare healing as charity and charity as healing from Catholic and Protestant examples to see how it can help us understand the interplay between health, faith, and privacy in the early modern period. For now, I am pleased to inform that the event “Conspicuous Privacy” will result in a published special issue! More information will follow here on the blog and on PRIVACY’s website.



[1] More information on the whole phenomenon of the possessions of Loudun can be found in Michel de Certeau’s “The Possession at Loudun”. Sarah Faber also described in amazing detail the events surrounding Jeanne in particular.

[2] “Une nuit, pendant mon oraison, comme je priais Nostre-Seigneur de ma faire connoistre sa volonté sur ce sujet, il me fut dit intérieurement que je devois combattre ce démon par les actes de charité, de patience et de soumission, et, qu’avec cela, j’en viendrois à bout.” (Soeur Jeanne des Anges, supérieure des Ursulines de Loudun, XVIIe siècle : autobiographie d’une hystérique possédée, d’après le manuscrit inédit de la bibliothèque de Tours. Paris : G. Charpentier et Cie, 1886, p. 148.)

Speculations on the Private Life of a Fictive Milkmaid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

[2] Walter Liedtke, “Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) and The Milkmaid,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–, August 2009, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/milk/hd_milk.htm.

[3] Liedtke.

[4] Liedtke.

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

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

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

[8] Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches.

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

 

Pedagogical Practices and the Teaching of Historical Privacy

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

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

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

via GIPHY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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