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 (Volume two in this series contains a hilariously poignant account by a fifteenth-century friar of the problems involved in trying to preserve modesty while attending to natural needs on a crowded pilgrim galley in the Mediterranean.) 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

The early modern period was thus a time of contradictory tendencies. On the one hand, in the rural villages and among the lower classes of the towns, public and private remained as undifferentiated as ever; there was little privacy in the lives of the poor. On the other hand, the educated upper and middle classes developed new forms of private conviviality, based on reading and conversation; they also displayed a growing preoccupation with individual taste, personality, and the inner life of the mind. By the eighteenth century, many of the older communal forms and loyalties had declined, to be replaced by a sharper distinction between public life, which was the business of the state, and private life, which individuals were entitled to conceal from others and to shape as they pleased.

In the introduction Ariès identifies three central causes of this change. First, the centralized state, stretching out into the localities and increasingly distinct from private interests, superseded the authority of the local communities. Secondly, the spread of the printed book and the progress of literacy encouraged silent reading and solitary reflection. Thirdly, new forms of religion, both Protestant and Catholic, stimulated personal piety and the introspective examination of the individual conscience.

Ariès also indicates some of the main symptoms of this rise of private life. There was a new modesty of the body, as sundry acts of personal hygiene ceased to be performed in public. (The influence of the social historian, Norbert Elias, for whom the growth of privacy in such matters was the essence of the “civilizing process,” runs through the whole volume.4 ) There were the new literary forms of the private diary and autobiography (sometimes written in shorthand so as to ensure secrecy). There was a growing taste for solitude as a means of personal solace and pleasurable escape. There was more emphasis on the importance of personal friendship. There was the expression of individuality by means of sophisticated tastes in furniture, decoration, food, and drink. Finally, there were changes in domestic architecture, with the construction of more rooms, each with its own specialized function, and the creation of separate space for the increasingly private activities of eating, sleeping, and talking.

The rest of the book is an elaboration of these ideas, though it cannot be said that they are consistently or systematically treated. The dozen or so contributors have apparently been allowed to approach the subject in whatever way they please. Jean-Louis Flandrin, for example, offers an enjoyable chapter on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century changes in table manners and the preparation and serving of food. He has much to say about new styles of gastronomy and connoisseurship and he brings out the growing importance of taste as a central principle of social distinction. But the relevance of his subject to the book’s theme is less obvious. Perhaps his point is that privacy and concealment are encouraged by the growth of social differentiation and the knowledge that standards and tastes are no longer shared by everyone.

Some of the other contributors provide straightforward and unsurprising treatments of familar matters. François Lebrun has nothing very new to say in his discussion of the relationship between communal devotion and personal piety during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. He argues that “individualism and the inner life were at the heart of reformed theology,” but he rightly points out that the Counter-Reformation also fostered highly personal forms of private prayer and devotion. Both movements thus helped to internalize piety. The individual Catholic, however, believed in the communion of saints and thought of the living and the dead as part of one large community, whereas the Protestant’s relationship to God was ultimately that of the solitary person.

Jacques Gélis’s chapter on “The Child: From Anonymity to Individuality” is a disappointingly uncritical rehash of the ideas put forward by Ariès nearly thirty years ago in his Centuries of Childhood.5 Novel and exciting at the time, the notion that it was not until the early modern period that the child was “discovered” has been subject to much subsequent criticism and it deserves more probing treatment than it gets here.

On the other hand, some excellent essays more than justify the volume. Roger Chartier writes, not for the first time, on the growth of literacy and the rise of solitary reading. He argues that nothing did more to emancipate the individual from group control and traditional ways of life and thought than this new means of private access to other forms of experience. The library became a place of retreat and books encouraged private thought and reverie, whether religious, as with works of devotion, escapist, as with the novel, or even pornographic, as with Samuel Pepys, who bought L’escholle des filles “in plain binding,” read it at night in his chamber, having an erection while doing so, and then “burned it, that it might not be among my books to my shame.” Here, if anywhere, is truly private experience.

Jean Marie Goulemot’s essay on “Literary Practices: Publicizing the Private” is particularly interesting on the role of the eighteenth-century novel as a form of intrusion into the privacy of fictitious characters, with the reader cast in the role of voyeur. Whereas real-life memoirs were seldom very intimate documents, omitting, as they usually did, the whole of the author’s childhood and concentrating on his external actions, the novel deliberately presented itself as a violation of private space, an exposure of the most intimate thoughts and feelings of supposedly real people on whose doings the reader could spy. The private realm thus became a subject of fiction before it entered autobiography. Rousseau’s Confessions revealed what had hitherto been kept silent by autobiographers, but not by novelists.

A further contribution to the separation of public and private was the development of a rigid code of manners which created a gulf between the outer mask and the inner person, whose true thoughts remained private and inaccessible, camouflaged by a veneer of punctilious civility. This is the theme of a splendid chapter by Jacques Revel, who draws upon what is most useful in Norbert Elias’s concept of the internalization of rules of bodily behavior and takes it further by relating Renaissance conventions of physical comportment to later teaching about refined behavior. Whereas Erasmus had regarded gesture and bearing as important because they were outward signs of the inner dispositions of the soul, later theorists laid all their emphasis on the external image and the concealment of the inner self. Not surprisingly, the eighteenth century would see a reaction against the falsehoods and hypocrisies implicit in this concept of good behavior. Moralists inveighed against its transparent insincerity, and the early Romantics urged the importance of the true civility which came from the heart. When stretched too far, the gap between public forms and private sentiments proved unacceptable.

During the seventeenth century, however, the quest for privacy was still the great concern of the educated classes. In an impressionistic essay Orest Ranum admirably evokes the increasing tendency of individuals to seek personal privacy in special places: small private gardens, studies, closets, and cabinets. They guarded their secrets in lockets and caskets; and they preserved symbolic reminders of their intimate relationships in miniatures, portraits, posies, rings, and locks of hair. The need for intimacy had become to them one of life’s basic needs.

The volume thus illuminates a variety of topics in the history of privacy and private life. But it does so for the most part in an evocative rather than rigorously analytic way. Many central aspects of the subject, for example the increasing separation between home and work, go without systematic discussion. Vital economic changes are largely ignored. Instead, contributors have been allowed to concentrate on some distinctly narrow or local aspects of the general theme. Arlette Farge, for example, writing on “The Honor and Secrecy of Families,” devotes disproportionate space to the working of the lettres de cachet in eighteenth-century France, the system of arbitrary arrest which enabled families to hush up scandal and preserve the honor of their line by secretly incarcerating those offenders whose crimes, if revealed, would have brought them into public disgrace. This is an interesting slant upon the new concern for privacy, but a rather specialized one. Similarly, Alain Collomp, in his chapter “Families: Habitations and Cohabitations,” devotes much of his space to the stem family of southern France, in which two or more generations of a family and their spouses lived in the elders’ house and evolved rituals, hierarchies, and roles that “made cohabitation less difficult and reduced the opportunity for conflict.” Yves Castan, in his less than wholly lucid treatment of “Politics and Private Life,” relies heavily on the court records of Toulouse.

Daniel Fabre has a first-rate account of the eighteenth-century campaign against charivari, the rituals of derision in which the community, acting through local youth groups, expressed its hostility to the remarriage of widows or to other kinds of disparate married unions. Fabre shows the growth of resistance by the Church and the parlements to the assertion by the neighborhood of its traditional right to control the private choices of individuals. This is a valuable demonstration of the growing belief that married couples were entitled to their privacy, but it too is largely based upon selected archives in southern France.

The sad truth is that a series whose first volume ranged from Rome to Byzantium and from Gaul to northern Africa has steadily narrowed in its geographical scope. In his introduction to volume three, Ariès remarks that England was “the birthplace of privacy,” but there is no treatment of England here, any more than there is of Holland, even though Dutch paintings of domestic intimacy figure prominently among the fascinating and wonderfully informative illustrations. The text is overwhelmingly concerned with France.

In his epilogue, Roger Chartier attempts belatedly to justify this contraction of focus. It is only natural that French historians should want to write about France, he says. Besides, France is a particularly interesting case in the history of the redrawing of the boundary between public and private. “It is legitimate to approach the history of private life in the early modern era through France, because all the major factors influencing that history can be observed there.” So no doubt they can. But it is only in the last chapter that the reader is told that this was the intention. Until that point, the fiction is preserved that the project has a universal range.6 If the desire for privacy is a panhuman trait, as Barrington Moore has argued,7 then its history deserves less parochial treatment than this.

The greatness of Marc Bloch and Lucian Febvre was partly that their preoccupations were not confined to national boundaries. We can admire the zeal with which their successors continue to do work based on their doctrines and we can wonder at the entrepreneurial efficiency with which this large enterprise has been produced: no comparable British or American project would have seen the publication of all five volumes in the space of only two years. But even in the bicentenary of 1789, we must hope that French historians will not imply that the history of their country is the history of the world.

This Issue

November 9, 1989