A room of one's own in the era of the communal

Privacy and Solitutude
January 4, 2008

If we were tempted to think of privacy as a characteristic of modernity, Diana Webb's Privacy and Solitude swiftly disabuses us of this notion. Focusing on the Middle Ages, Webb traces the "medieval antecedents" of modern attitudes to privacy by exploring both the religious and secular realms.

The medieval Christian tradition, unlike Roman religion, emphasised asceticism and contemplation, and attached a positive meaning to solitude and withdrawal as a means to reach God. The first monks were pioneers of solitude, rejecting property, family life, public careers and ordinary sociability networks, although they did not necessarily embrace physical isolation. The same can be said of those men and women who experienced their vocation within their domestic retreat, imitating monastic seclusion but without joining a religious house. Webb sees monastic and spiritual withdrawal as one of the first expressions of medieval privacy, a forerunner of modern privacy.

Secular men and women also valued solitude, which they associated with devotion, intellectual activities and restricted sociability according to rank and gender. Webb traces interesting parallels between secular and religious elites. By the late Middle Ages, wealthy families evolved forms of privacy reflected in their everyday routine - for instance, the tendency of family members to eat by themselves rather than with the household, clients and visitors, as had traditionally been the case. At the same time, institutional life changed in similar ways. The communal monastic lifestyle was challenged by monks avoiding collective routines, deserting the dormitory and refectory, and choosing to sleep separately or eat with their acquaintances. Hospitals and almshouses saw an analogous trend. They began to provide more differentiated interior spaces, accommodating the sick and the poor in small and more private cubicles rather than in large collective chambers.

If the ability to move between the religious and the secular realms, and to show the blurred boundaries between them, is a striking feature of this book, perhaps its most original aspect is the close attention reserved to space and its visual representations. Webb implicitly suggests that we cannot fully understand attitudes towards privacy without examining these two aspects. Following recent scholarly work, she underlines analogies between private spaces found in secular and sacred buildings. At home, private chapels, oratories and altars were built close to bedchambers; the holy readings often performed at mealtimes sanctified the dining table and, by extension, the house. Furthermore, in secular and religious environments similar spaces were devoted to similar activities: domestic studies and monastic cells were used for meditating, reading and praying; domestic gardens and monastic orchards served for recreation, reading and growing plants and herbs. Visual representations underlined the ambivalent sacred and secular nature of private spaces. Paintings and frescoes found in homes presented their audience with holy scenes set in domestic-like interiors. Portraits of abbots displayed sumptuous interiors furnished with cushions, rugs, velvet drapes and finely bound prayer books.

Although Webb tends to gloss over socioeconomic factors and their impact on attitudes to privacy, she recognises the tremendous importance of literacy. Changes in text production and layout, and modes of study contributed to forging the experience of privacy. The widespread practice of collective readings, accessible to larger numbers of people - though heavily subject to gender discrimination - declined in favour of silent reading and the prayerful contemplation of texts, and solitude became regarded as an important condition for reading. Books began to be produced in smaller formats allowing personal use and private ownership, reflecting the move away from reading as a collective activity.

Privacy and Solitude , which relies on a broad variety of sources and keeps a good balance between the particular and the general picture, is a hugely enriching and insightful exploration of the medieval world.

Silvia Evangelisti is lecturer in European history, University of East Anglia. Her book Nuns: A History of Convent Life is published by Oxford University Press.

Privacy and Solitutude: The Medieval Discovery of Personal Space

Author - Diana Webb
Publisher - Hambledon Continuum
Pages - 288
Price - £40.00 and £20.00
ISBN - 9781852854799 and 47252012

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