Behind Closed Doors

A History of Private Life Volume III: Passions of the Renaissance

edited by Roger Chartier, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
Harvard University Press (Belknap Press), 645 pp., $39.50

In the late 1920s, Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, the founders of what would soon become known at the Annales school of historians, fired the opening shots of their campaign against traditional historiography. They deliberately rejected what had, since classical times, been regarded as the primary subject matter of history, namely the study of public affairs, wars and diplomacy, politics and administration. To them, this was merely the history of events (l’histoire événementielle), a trivial activity concerned only with the surface of history. In its place, they sought to put the study of enduring structures (la longue durée) and abiding attitudes (mentalités). What mattered were not events, but the deeper structural determinants of human behavior, like the physical habitat in which people lived or the mental assumptions on which they drew.

Sixty years later, the battle still continues. The Annalistes have triumphed in their native country and have made large inroads into the English-speaking world. But the study of public events is still central to the preoccupations of most American and British historians. Having lived in a century marked by revolutions, world wars, genocide, and the Bomb, they understandably find it difficult to dismiss public affairs as mere froth on the surface of history; and it is no accident that, even in France, those who write the history of more recent periods are the most reluctant to divert their attention from government and politics to structure and mentalité.

Meanwhile, however, the Annalistes continue their campaign to redefine the subject matter of history by extending it into ever more intimate aspects of human experience. A History of Private Life represents an important further stage in this process. This huge collaborative venture, handsomely produced and magnificently illustrated, has now been completed in five volumes, running from Ancient Rome to the present day.1 It was planned by the leading medievalist, Georges Duby, and the late Philippe Ariès, whose influential books on childhood and attitudes to death have done so much to alter the direction of modern historical reseach. It has been executed by a large and talented band of predominantly French contributors; and the English translation currently under way will help to introduce a wider public to the flavor of current French historiography.

Admittedly the concept of a history of “private life” is not in itself a particularly new one for the French. As long ago as 1782 Le Grand D’Aussy produced a three-volume Histoire de la vie privée des Français (largely devoted to the subject of food and table manners), while between 1887 and 1902 Alfred Franklin wrote no fewer than twenty-seven volumes of La Vie Privée d’autrefois, on a variety of subjects from dress to cooking. Nevertheless, this latest venture, concerned as it is with such topics as love, friendship, children, books, and houses, is recognizably part of the continuing war against l’histoire événementielle. One can even hear an authentic echo of the voice of Lucien Febvre in the claim by Roger Chartier, the editor of volume three, that it…

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