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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 comprises the “first fragments of a new kind of history, which has yet to be written.”

By suggesting that the history of such subjects as food or sexuality is as worthy of study as the Reformation or the Thirty Years’ War, the editors of A History of Private Life do no more than reflect the values of our own time. For in the Western world we have come increasingly to esteem private life and to look to it for our deepest satisfactions. We think it important to demarcate a part of experience which is the individual’s own business, and with which others have no right to interfere. We regard privacy as something precious which the law should respect. We pull our curtains and do not like to be spied upon. We value personal choice and admire the moral autonomy of those who can resist the pressure of collective opinion. We also think that we have the right to choose our own friends and the company we keep, rather than being forced to share our griefs and pleasures with those who happen to live or work in the same neighborhood.

This modern assumption that individuals are most likely to find happiness away from the public sphere, among their families and friends, at weekends or “away from it all,” contrasts strikingly with the prevailing values of most past ages. To the Greeks and Romans, for example, privacy was essentially a negative state, a condition of deprivation and exclusion. The private domain of household, women, children, and slaves was wholly inferior to the public world of army and forum. From architecture to athletics, everything important in human achievement belonged to the public sphere. In later periods of European history, privacy was equated with secrecy, concealment, and a shameful desire to shelter from the gaze of the community. As one seventeenth-century English preacher put it: “The murderer and the adulterer are alike desirous of privacy.” In the eighteenth century Denis Diderot saw the proliferation of furniture containing secret compartments as a sign of the age’s moral deterioration. Virtually all utopian writers, from Thomas More onward, have been hostile to privacy, the desire for which they condemn as an antisocial instinct. The young Tahitians of Diderot’s Supplement to Bougainville’s Travels even copulate in public, urged on by spectators. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau a society with no privacy would be a society with no vice.

Something of this unfavorable attitude to privacy still survives today. A private soldier is an inferior who holds no rank, while someone acting in his private capacity has less authority than a public official and is assumed to be more likely to put self-interest above the public good. Any modern institution that sets a high value on collective life, whether school or church or business corporation, remains intolerant of the individual’s attempt to escape collective surveillance. Nevertheless, the modern world has undoubtedly seen a major shift away from the predominantly negative conception of private life toward a new, much more positive one.

Such a shift, however, can only occur after the public and private domains have been clearly separated; and it is the growth of such a separation which is the underlying theme of the third volume of A History of Private Life. In the previous two volumes, the definition of “private life” presented a severe problem to the contributors, who were well aware of the danger of anachronism inherent in any attempt to apply to the remote past a concept of privacy which was essentially the invention of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. The Victorian middle classes presupposed a clear separation between the workplace and the home. Family life was an intimate and inviolable domain, whose privacy was to be respected. The state, by contrast, was a wholly public matter, in which private interests played no part.

Such a distinction between public and private makes some sense when applied to ancient Greece, with its clear separation between the polis and the household, or to classical Rome, where the public world of the res publica contrasted with the private domain of the family and paterfamilias. But it is much harder to draw in the Middle Ages, when public power was fragmented and privatized, so that justice became inseparable from private property and the ruler’s private household from the government of the state. With no clear distinction between work and leisure and most actions performed under the gaze of others, private life in medieval times was inevitably an elusive affair. Domesticity, intimate friendships, personal prayer, and a sense of human individuality all existed, but only in the interstices of medieval society.

Nevertheless, the contributors to these volumes are surely right to maintain that there can never have been a time when the distinction between private and public was wholly unintelligible, even if the definition of what is private has varied through the ages. Medieval people may have shared beds with strangers and kept a close eye on other people’s doings. But they had their privies and their private parts and they prosecuted eavesdroppers. It is hard to find a society where people seek absolutely no form of concealment when engaging in sexual intercourse or relieving themselves.^2 Yet conventions on such matters differ, as a Western visitor to India will soon discover. The notion of sexuality and the human body as the most intimate of all domains was much enhanced by early Christianity, as Peter Brown showed in the first volume of the series. The concept of private property was stimulated by the development of trade, while the idea that we all have inner selves which are more truly us than our outward actions is a cultural construction, greatly assisted by Christianity and, later, Romanticism.

The history of private life, therefore, is not the story of the growth of a single entity. Rather it is the history of shifting classifications. The definition of what is private is specific to each society and has no continuous history. Topics come in and out of focus; and the boundary between public and private is more distinct at one time than another. The subject also involves drawing social and regional distinctions, for the privacy enjoyed by the inhabitants of a North European middle-class suburb is not available (or even desired) by their contemporaries who inhabit the teeming streets of Naples or Marseilles, where people work, sit, gossip, and play, and washing hangs out of the windows. The history of private life is nothing if not a protean subject.

But it would be wrong to worry too much about the conceptual difficulties inherent in the whole venture, for the justification of this series is that its guiding theme has been sufficient to stimulate a marvelous range of ideas, information, and pictorial matter about a host of fascinating, if loosely related, topics. Although the contributors are at pains to emphasize that theirs is not just another history of daily life in the past, they inevitably deal with many of the subjects that one might have expected to find in a older-style social history, as well as with others that are more novel. Every volume has something to say about marriage, children, sexuality, family life, and death. Each discusses food and drink, table manners, dress, the care of the body, furniture, housing, and “private space.” Consideration is also given to friendship, convivial groups, and changing forms of sociability. Finally, the series offers a history of the interior life: emotions, beliefs, reveries, and religious devotion.

The third volume has a strong central argument. It covers a particularly important period in the history of privacy, namely the sixteenth to late eighteenth centuries. (The absurd subtitle, Passions of the Renaissance, is an unhelpful interpolation by the American publisher.) For Philippe Ariès, the genesis of private life as we know it had two essential features: first, the “deprivatization” of the medieval state and the making of a clear separation between public affairs and private interests; second, a change in forms of sociability, away from the undifferentiated mingling of street, castle, and village to the more restricted sociability of the family and the individual.3

  1. 1

    Histoire de la vie privée, edited by Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1985–1987), five volumes.

  2. 3

    Ariès, however, seems to have changed his ideas on this subject in response to discussion with his colleagues. The argument in his introduction to the present volume is by no means wholly coherent, which is hardly surprising since parts of it appear to have been written by others on his behalf after his death.

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