Spying on the Neighbors

A History of Private Life Vol. II: Revelations of the Medieval World

edited by Georges Duby, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
Harvard University Press (Belknap Press), 672 pp., $39.50

In the foreword to the first volume of the ambitious new series on the history of private life from classical times to the present day, Georges Duby, the survivor of the two original coeditors, wrote thus: “Our subject was fraught with peril. The ground we hoped to explore was untouched. No one had sifted through or even identified useful source materials.” The pride in the conception that he and Philippe Ariès had envisaged is entirely justified; the claim to novelty, at least on the basis of this second volume, is perhaps just a little exaggerated. What it presents is not so much something entirely new as a very skillful blend of two well-established branches of historical study: the history of everyday things and what has come to be called the histoire des mentalités.

What gives the volume its unity is not so much a rigorous definition of the subject, private life, as a consistency of concentration on a series of very interesting, interrelated themes: living space, and the degree of privacy that it can afford; family relationships, with special references to the nuclear group that centers around a single married couple; relations between the sexes (both amorous and domestic); attitudes toward the body and nudity; the sense of individuality and self-perception. How far this goes toward constituting an inclusive list of what makes up private life is certainly debatable. The label “private” does have one great advantage, however. Because the relations of man and wife, and of mother and children, are inextricably personal, it ensures that woman’s part will be given its due attention, without the role, position, and influence of women being hived off into a special category called women’s history.

Summing up the overall object of the book, Duby uses a nice analogy; what he and his colleagues are seeking to do, he says, is to put eyes to keyholes, “so as to spy out what happens in other people’s houses, and tell the neighbours about it.” Given the chronological limits of this present volume (from c.1000 to the early sixteenth century), this means that, despite the common themes, there is an inevitable imbalance between the kinds of treatment offered in it by different authors in different sections. This is not a fault but simply a reflection of the unevenness of the sources available, at different points in the period and in different places, for peeping through keyholes. For the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, enough intimate information survives in the form of tax records, personal account books, diaries, and correspondence to equip Charles de la Roncière and Philippe Braunstein adequately for this kind of domestic detective work, and they go about it very shrewdly.

Duby himself and Dominique Barthélemy, however, concentrating on the period c.1000–c.1300, are not so fortunately placed. Their principal written sources consist, first, of chronicles, composed almost exclusively by ecclesiastics whose calling set them apart and also prejudiced their view of some of the most important matters that the authors wish to pry into;…

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