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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; and secondly of literary works, chansons de geste and romances, that reflect life in the mirror of fiction, which always, to a greater or lesser degree, distorts reality. After that, they have to make the best they can of what remains of great, usually ruined buildings, eked out with what the archeologist’s spade can uncover. As both authors stress, this was an age of communal living; so, all in all, it is not surprising that, even with the eye glued to the keyhole, it is seldom easy to discern much that is essentially private or personal about what the mob (Duby’s word) is up to inside.

This communal mode of living, in particular in the aristocratic households of northern France, is at the center of Duby’s attention in the first chapters of the book. He draws an illuminating parallel between the organization of a lordly household and the more sophisticated organization of a great Benedictine abbey. Both had their daily rituals, necessary to the maintenance of order in a large society. Like the abbot, the lord stood in the relation of paterfamilias to the company assembled under his roof. His chief servants, like the officials of an abbey, headed departments; the seneschal was his chief major-domo in his hall, the butler looked to the wine, the chamberlain looked after the beds, the robes, and other precious items stored in the chamber, the second and more private of the rooms of the residence.

This was a male-dominated society, and the lord lived surrounded by his comrades in arms, kinsmen and vassals, but (here unlike the monastery) it was not of course exclusively male. The lord needed a partner, a wife to bear him heirs, who would have charge of all that pertained to the women and young children. Under the lady, the women lived a carefully segregated life, watched and guarded, for their good name reflected the honor of the house. The romances make it clear enough, however, that there was room and to spare even in this gregarious society for clandestine amours, though I am not sure that Duby’s label for the women’s quarters, the gynacaeum, with its overtone of the Roman seraglio, is entirely happy. Well-born women had a public as well as a separate part to play, for the lord’s daughters were vital pawns in his strategy of family advancement, and needed to be exhibited.

Dominique Barthélemy here takes up the story, with a learned and careful examination of the significance of the kinship ties, founded in planned marriages, that formed the essential links between great households and the clans that gathered in them. Centering her discussion around Marc Bloch’s views, as expressed in his classic Feudal Society, she argues convincingly that kinship, at least down to the end of the twelfth century, was a more vital relationship than vassalage (the relation of sworn follower or tenant to his landlord). And though the genealogical literature has tended to concentrate on the paternal lineage she suggests that the conjugal nuclear family, with its connections radiating out on both the paternal and the maternal sides, was the true hub of dynastic strategy. This leads her into a discussion of marriage, both as a political bond and as a partnership, and of the effects of the Church’s demand for a larger say in its regulation. In clerical insistence on the express consent of the bride to her union, we encounter a first formal concession to the individuality of will in the “second sex.”

Both Duby’s and Barthélemy’s contributions are professionally learned, the latter’s the more emphatically so (which makes it from time to time quite hard reading). What they say in the end tells us more about the history of groups, of solidarities and their power struggles, than about what we would normally call private life. The nature of the evidence makes this largely inevitable; we should not conclude that in this gregarious, communal world people did not harbor more intimate thoughts, simply that the centuries have washed away most traces of them. Later in the book, however, both authors add tailpieces (though they may not be consciously conceived as such) to what they have said, and these add importantly to the picture’s private dimension.

Combining, in a most imaginative way, architectural and archeological evidence with the descriptions in romances and chronicles of the interiors of halls and castles, Bathélemy shows how, within structures whose design seems at first sight to be dictated by the somber needs of defense, space for comfort and greater privacy could be created. The residence built alongside the stone tower has been too often forgotten; so has the use of temporary partitions and curtains to divide space. As time went on the vassals, who had once spent so much time under the seigneurial roof, began to disperse to fortified houses of their own; and improved building techniques made it possible to fit more rooms into a more concentrated structure.

Increased prosperity and better technology thus made it possible to cater to a need for greater privacy, which, as Duby complementarily argues, was genuinely felt. Both the anchorite, quitting the monastic community for a greater solitude, and the knight errant, riding out into the waste, were beginning to sense such a need. So also, in a different way, was the canon, establishing himself in a private house within the cathedral cloister. A new tolerance of the body, a new emphasis on private prayer and on confession in the religious sphere, reflected the advance of the same aspirations toward autonomy and individualism. With William of St. Pathus’s picture of Louis IX, praying alone and sleeping, watched by a single servant, in the wardrobe, an inner sanctum off the chamber of the royal palace, we are at last fully in a private world.

Philippe Contamine’s essay, “Peasant Hearth to Papal Palace: The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries,” carries forward Barthélemy’s exploration of the aristocratic residence and widens the social scope of the inquiry. The potential of space depends on the number of people using it, and that is why Contamine starts out from the hearth about which the humble family (say four to six persons) gathered, and on the basis of which they were taxed; one building might contain more than one “hearth.” In dealing with rural dwellings, he is careful to take account of the rural economy of the relevant region and to explain the relation of types of houses to status—the cotter’s hut and the partitioned long house of the sharecropper or peasant farmer, which housed beasts at one end and men and women at the other.

Even among peasants he finds signs of the same gradual extension of amenities that offered a measure of space, comfort, and privacy that Barthélemy observed earlier in aristocratic dwellings. The houses at Montaillou, as described to the Inquisitors, were “fairly sophisticated”; besides the foyer/kitchen most had a bedroom or two, a cellar, a storeroom, and outbuildings. Urban housing was, naturally, varied. The very poor probably occupied no more than a single room in a larger building. The houses of the “common people,” artisans and shopkeepers, huddled directly onto the street; the front room often served as a shop or studio, with a living room behind, facing into a court or garden. There were usually two floors, giving in all perhaps one thousand square feet of living space. Many had private wells, and, more commonly than one might expect, a private latrine. Hygiene and modesty were both matters of some concern.

The houses of the greater bourgeoisie, like the town houses of the aristocracy, might be almost on a palatial scale. Jacques Coeur’s house in Bourges, besides the inevitable counting rooms for business, had four halls, and a whole series of chambers with fancy names (the chambres des galéries, the salle des mois de l’an, and so on). In such houses there would be rich tapestries and paintings on the walls, chandeliers, carved furniture, perhaps a gaming room; peacocks strutted in the courtyard. This was a kind of house that offered its master a real scope for independence, in the privacy of his study or his bedroom; but the basis of its design was not private retreat but social intercourse. For we are still, as Contamine reminds us, in an age when an individual’s “power, prestige and wealth were reflected first of all in the numbers of people who moved permanently in his orbit.” That is why the apex of his account is his description of the great palace that the popes built for themselves at Avignon. It was at once a fortress, a palace with all the facilities necessary for the display expected of a princely court, the headquarters of a bureaucracy, and the private dwelling place of the Patriarch of the West, with his personal steamroom and bathtub installed at the bottom level of the “Tower of the Wardrobe.”

Contamine’s contribution makes a fine companion piece to Barthélemy’s chapter, “Civilizing the Fortress.” Danielle Régnier-Bohler’s “Imagining the Self: Exploring Literature” might be expected to be a companion piece to Duby’s exploration of the appeal of solitude. It is not really that (though Regnier-Bohler does consider solitude and the solitary man in fiction), and it is perhaps the least satisfying contribution to the book. Partly this is so because of the nature of the source material; imaginative literature, especially a literature in which mythology is as important as it is in medieval romance, can never offer a precise reflection of life. But still more it is so because the author has tried to put too much in. The bewildering flurry of allusions to too many works assumes a knowledge that the general reader cannot possess, and leaves too little space to defend interpretations that may seem controversial to a reader who can recognize some of them. There is a great deal here about literary symbols, the symbolism of space and enclosure, of the orchard, of the bed, of the gynacaeum (now showing signs of drifting loose from its castle moorings); and about secret signs and codes (were these really as hermetic as is hinted?).

But there are some excellent things to be found in this “exploration,” in spite of a certain amount of higher nonsense. The treatments of clothing and nudity, of the consciousness of the body and its language, of the idea of modesty, and of the part all these have to play in the articulation of self-awareness are revealing and perceptive. Particularly well presented are the developments in literary handling of the inner monologue and of conversation (especially between couples alone); and the emergence of first-person literature. Literary experiments with ways of expressing personal feelings and judgments are surely of major importance in the history of private life.

France and French society have been the principal concern of all the essays so far mentioned; the two that remain, by Charles de la Roncière and Philippe Braunstein, turn south to late medieval Italy. (Braunstein also touches on German society.) Their two essays complement each other superbly, and are the masterpieces of this book. Many of the themes of de la Roncière’s “Tuscan Notables on the Eve of the Renaissance” are ones that have been raised in other sections. His discussion of the importance of patrilineage and of the claims of kinship covers, in a different setting, similar ground to Barthélemy’s essay, and there are striking parallels between what he has to say of the development of domestic architecture in Italy and what Contamime traces in France. But the rich vein of “private” source material at his disposal—personal journals (ricordanzi), correspondence, the sermons on family life of the observant friars—allows him to give a picture more complete and far more intimate.

Studying an urbanized society, he is able to portray vividly the breadth and the layers of personal acquaintance. The family remains the heart of private life, but the friends and neighbors, the companions in the groups in which the young and unmarried associated (consortiere, brigante), and the friendships of the workplace crowd onto the scene too. We see neighbors sitting on benches near their homes, discussing the past, their travels abroad, women (via Boccaccio). Writers with an interest in family life such as Alberti enable us to picture the group at their evening meal; we even begin to catch the tone of intimate wrangling in the master bedroom: “I have nothing to wear. You neglect me…. Everyone thinks I’m ridiculous” (Fra Paolino). And in the section entitled “The Sophistication of Sensibility” we are ushered into a sphere of private life to which we have not before been admitted: the intimate emotions that people actually expressed. “You love me in a special way” (Michele Verini writing to his uncle Paolo); “how can I describe those two months of anxiety, with no news of them?” (Alessandra Strozzi, of her absent sons); “even as kids we were pals, we were friends, as you well know” (Florentine correspondent, 1415). The tones of poignancy and nostalgia, those two peculiarly personal sensations, ring in our ears for the first time.

Braunstein, with his chapter “Towards Intimacy,” in a sense takes up where de la Roncière breaks off. What gives his more eclectic essay its special quality are its penetrating insights and the vividness of the examples that the author has drawn together to illustrate them. Opening with a discussion of personal journals and family memoirs, he sagely warns against exaggerating the measure of personal quality in them; often their object was to measure (self-flatteringly) public achievement rather than private feeling. Nevertheless, after 1400 the nonutilitarian element in these books begins to loom larger—memories of travels, of youthful love affairs, of incidental events in which the writer became caught up. A kind of parallel development can be seen in portraiture, in greater realism and especially in a new informality. The patron who would once have been portrayed in a pose of formal authority or piety is now shown in his home or at his workplace; or it may be a picture of father and son, catching a glance of affection that is entirely personal to the subjects. Dürer’s self-portraits offer an analogue in another medium to first-person accounts and such self-examination as Petrarch’s Secret Book.

Clothing and identity were also, Braunstein shows, seen as related in quite subtle ways, and men began to lay aside old fears about nakedness and to take a healthier interest in the body, the last layer of clothing about the individual persona. Poggio was astonished by the communal bathing that he witnessed at Baden, and pruriently interested, but it struck him as strange, not shocking. Analogously, retreat into the private study, to commune with that inmost part of all, the self—or with God—came to be seen as natural, especially to the sage or the mystic. The room, adapted for study and meditation, in which both Ghirlandaio and Dürer chose to paint Saint Jerome was modeled on the studiolo, the private sanctum of the Italian notable in his town house or contado villa. Thus Braunstein closes on the theme that has been consistently dominant among those pursued in this volume, the interrelation of private space and private life.

This volume offers a very full, richly variegated picture of the life, in different places and at different periods, of the Middle Ages. It has lavish and well-chosen illustrations to match the text. It is no ground for criticism that its geographical scope is limited, that for instance little is said about the private lives of Englishmen, or Spaniards, or southern Italians. Private life is a subject that the historian cannot hope to illumine except by deep probing on a relatively narrow front. Nevertheless there are some striking omissions, which remind us of how difficult it is to define what private life really means and to separate it from the public sphere into which it is continually blending. About work, which for most people is integrally and intimately related to private life, the contributors (with the exception of Charles de la Roncière) say curiously little, unless it is women’s work. Traveling and its contacts, which might have been expected to loom quite large in an account of a time when pilgrimage was popular and lordship incessantly itinerant as a great seigneur traveled from hall to hall and castle to castle, also receive scant attention (though Braunstein does offer one marvelous evocation, through the account of Fabricius Faber, of the discomforts of a pilgrim vessel, and of the hazards of relieving oneself at night at sea).

Perhaps most remarkable of all is the absence of almost any reference to the very substantial medieval literature on the virtues and vices, those keys to personal moral conduct. This omission stands out clearly in the selectivity of treatment accorded to personal human weakness. Working down through the seven deadly sins, I find in this volume ample attention to pride, lust, and vanity; but anger, gluttony (with its special subsection, drunkenness), and sloth (with its special subsection, accidie or melancholy) are decidedly skimped. The crude health of these vices in the Middle Ages is amply attested; read Piers Plowman‘s account of the unpleasingly personified Glutton drinking himself out of mental and bodily continence in a London tavern, and of his majestic farting. But perhaps it may here be fairly answered that private life is too varied a canvas for everything ever to be included. The authors of this book have set themselves enough to do in grappling with the particular themes that they have chosen to study, and they have done that very well.

Which brings me to one last point. The history of private space and of the means by which it is created is a topic amenable to systematic treatment; the history of what goes on inside it, of what one sees when one looks through the keyhole, is much less so. In the end the history of private life brings one back to the private person, “alone in the midst of others,” and to affections, and gossip, that relate to singular persons, not the crowd.

This makes the history of private life a very particular kind of social history. Isaiah Berlin, in an essay written in 1953, used Archilochus’ contrast between the fox that “knows many things” and the hedgehog “that knows one big thing” to clarify a distinction between two very different historical approaches. “There is a great chasm,” he wrote, “between those on the one side, who relate everything to a single vision, one system less or more coherent and articulate” (the hedgehogs), and “on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause” (the foxes). Because it comes back ultimately to the personal and to the articulation of individuality, the drive of the history of private life is centrifugal rather than centripetal, toward the foxes. Up to now, the great French historians of this century have on the whole been hedgehogs, and very important hedgehogs, masters of category and system and synthesis. It will be interesting to see if this book, whose authors include some of the best French medieval historians now writing, heralds a metamorphosis in the process of development, of hedgehogs into foxes.

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