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

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

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

1. Illustration of the EXMF by Dave Gray.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

[5] Alpers, 196.

[6] Ibid., 197.

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

Ancrene Wisse: the earliest extant use of the word “private” in written English

Why do we talk about privacy using the word “privacy”?

English is the lingua franca of academic knowledge. We use it as a tool to communicate with each other across linguistic borders. So one of the answers to this question is that we use the word “privacy” as a way to explain to each other—in an international context—not only historical events described in English that use this English word, but also events that use other vocabulary and other languages, and that we (as researchers) recognize as being related to what in English we call privacy.

But listening to the History of English Podcast, I recently caught myself pondering a second way of thinking about this question: why this particular word? Or to put it in another way, how and when did the word “privacy” (and related words, like “private”) appear in the English lexicon?

A 13th-century text called Ancrene Wisse can provide some clues to answer this question.

Folio 16 of Ancrene Wisse, Corpus MS 402

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 402: Ancrene Wisse. The marginal note on the left side of folio 16 shows a drawing in the shape of a pointing finger, indicating something of interest in the text. https://parker.stanford.edu/parker/catalog/zh635rv2202

Ancrene Wisse means roughly Anchoresses’ Guide. It is an early Middle English text containing instructions for women who lived as recluses and were known as anchoresses. The first version of this guide was originally written for three laywomen, sisters of noble birth, as spiritual and practical advice for their chosen life of seclusion. The text is believed to have been produced sometime in the early 1200s. The author of the Ancrene Wisse is not known. Attempts at identifying the author have been numerous but inconclusive, and recent scholarship is moving away from the fixation with trying to identify one single author. Some scholars (Savage 2010; Hasenfratz 2000; Millett et al. 1996) argue that the content of the nine manuscripts in English that survive today can be better understood as the collaborative product of many hands and minds, since many people copied, questioned, and improved on the text, including anchoresses themselves.

The first draft of the Ancrene Wisse, which does not survive, does seem to have been written down by one person who had these particular three sisters in mind. This person was likely an educated priest who lived in the West Midlands in England. He had a habit of glossing difficult words within the text itself: when he used an obscure word, he paired it with a more common word that had a similar meaning. He did that for words that he believed were difficult for his readers to understand, as was the case for the many words borrowed from French into English in the centuries after the Norman conquest of 1066 (Melvis 2019). From the way borrowed words appear in glossed pairs in the Ancrene Wisse, it is likely that the writer was trying to clarify their meaning for readers who might not have had extensive knowledge of the French language.

It is in one of these glossed pairs in the Ancrene Wisse that we find the earliest extant use of the word “private” in English. It appears in the following passage:

Hercnith nu, leove sustren, hu hit is uvel to uppin, ant hu god thing hit is to heolen god-dede, ant fleo bi niht as niht-fuhel, ant gederin bi theostre – thet is, i privite, ant dearnliche – sawle fode.

The modern English translation provided in Hasenfratz reads as follows:

Hear now, dear sisters, how it is evil to mention, and how good a thing it is to cover up a good deed, and fly by night as a night bird does and gather by darkness – that is, in privacy and secretly – the soul’s food.

In the passage above, where we see “in privite, ant dearnliche,” the writer implies that the word “privite” (a borrowing from French) and the word “dearnliche” (which had its origins in Old English) had similar meanings. Clever! Paring a newly borrowed word with an Old English one seems to me like an intuitive, swift, and effective way to explain the meaning of the new one (Bergen 2012).

The Middle English Dictionary indicates that the word “dearnliche” comes from the Old English adjective form dē̆rne:

dē̆rnelī(che adv. Also dernlī(che, dern(e)like & dærnelike (Orm.), dearnliche & deorneliche, durneliche. Comp. derneluker.

It gives it the following definitions:

in privacy or seclusion; unnoticed, undetected; helen ~, hiden ~, to conceal (sth.); (b) privately, confidentially; (c) stealthily, slyly; (d) without display; inwardly, deeply.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “dernly” as “secretly” and gives the following examples of usage:

A1200 Moral Ode 77 in Trin. Coll. Hom. 222
Ne bie hit no swo derne idon.

c1400 (▸?c1380) Cleanness l. 697
I compast hem a kynde crafte & kende hit hem derne.

c1440 Bone Flor. 1958
They..went forthe, so seyth the boke, Prevely and derne.

a1627 A. Craig Pilgrime & Heremite (1631) sig. A1
I drew me darne to the doore, some din to heare.

This Old English word dē̆rne eventually became obsolete; today it is no longer part of the English lexicon. Cognates of “pritive” seem to have displaced representations of the sense that used to be attributed to dē̆rne.

The French-derived “privite” is related to other Latin words, such as “privus,” which means “one’s own, individual.” This word has even earlier roots, coming to us all the way back from Proto-Into-European via Proto-Italic.

Proto-Italic *prei-wo- [meaning] “separate, individual,” from [Proto-Indo-European] *prai-, *prei- “in front of, before,” from root *per- (1) “forward.”

Etymonline explains that this sense was acquired due to the semantic shift from something that was “in front of” to something “being separate.”

In hindsight, it makes intuitive sense to me that the earliest source for words like “privacy,” “private,” and their other cognates appear in a book of advice about how to live a life of seclusion. It could have been different, certainly, but it is indeed a fitting topic. What I do find somewhat surprising and quite interesting is that the passage where “privite” appears in the Ancrene Wisse deals with works of charity. More specifically, with the biblical mandate that one should do good deeds without calling attention to them, a topic that we are currently pursuing in the Versailles case team at the Centre for Privacy Studies.

Many more glossed pairs occur in the Ancrene Wisse, which is the earliest extant written source for many words borrowed from French that would become staples of the English language. If you want to have a look at it, you can visit the open access critical edition by Robert Hasenfratz at https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/hasenfratz-ancrene-wisse.



Bergen, Benjamin K. 2012. Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning. Basic Books.

Hasenfratz, Robert. 2000. Ancrene Wisse. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications. https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/hasenfratz-ancrene-wisse.

Mevis, Alice. 2019. ‘The French Lexical Influence on the Development of the English Language: An Analysis of French Loanwords in Three Middle English Religious Texts (1200-1400)’. Ghent, Belgium: Ghent University. https://lib.ugent.be/fulltxt/RUG01/002/789/928/RUG01-002789928_2019_0001_AC.pdf.

Millett, Bella, Senior Lecturer in Department of English Bella Millett, George Jack, and Yoko Wada. 1996. Ancrene Wisse, the Katherine Group, and the Wooing Group. Boydell & Brewer.

Savage, Anne. 2010. ‘The Communal Authorship of Ancrene Wisse’. In A Companion to Ancrene Wisse, edited by Yoko Wada. Boydell & Brewer Ltd.

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.