There’s nothing less private than private life

At least for a historian. Seriously, those guys will raid your garbage bin and steal your receipts. And the humanity will be grateful. After a while. I’ve just put my hands on the last (well, fourth out of five, they weren’t delivered in the right order) volume of History of Private Life. It’s probably one of the best series about history ever written, especially if you’re interested in social changes, not the fates of battles and wars. And if there’s some study area I’d love more than social and cultural history, I haven’t found it yet.

The series comprises of five volumes, each written by different set of authors, experts in their fields. The books are not popular science, but they are not dry or written only for historians. It’s engaging, exciting, and weirdly entertaining. And a little bit like a voyeurism; minus the sexual part. Because who wouldn’t want to live in the glorious past?


Book one, From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, takes us through several centuries, and boy, what a ride! We read about marriage, utopias and traquilizers in the Roman Empire, learn about “The New Morality” in Late Antiquity, get a overwhelming amount of information about private life and domestic architecture in Roman Africa (that’s not really true, it’s in no way overwhelming, just impressive and very cool), see violence and death discussed in context of Early Middle Ages in the West, and finally realise what was the importance of being earnest and private in Byzantium (10th and 11th centuries).

Are you entertained already? But you must be. Let me quote:

The wedding night took the form of a legal rape from which the woman emerged “offended with her husband” (who, accustomed to using his slave women as he pleased, found it difficult to distinguish between raping the woman and taking the initiative in sexual relationship.

Oh, damn. Let me try again:

The Franks openly encouraged procreation. Anyone who killed a free woman of childbearing age was obliged to pay 600 soldi, as much as for the murder of an antrustion; but a woman killed after menopause rated a fine of just 200 soldi.

Oh, yes. Sorry. You won’t be entertained, not really. It’s true history and world was always awful. You know, I did not pick these quotes to prove some point, I just opened the book randomly in two places and gave you the first full sentences that caught my eyes.

Yes, the books are grim, dark even. They are written based on historical accounts, with proper bibliographies, notes, and illustration. They are not for light reading before going to sleep. Well, they are written well enough to be easily read, but they will make you think. A lot.


So, book two! Revelations of the Medieval World, an enthralling story of private power, communal living, and the search of solitude and intimacy. We’ll skip the quotes if you don’t mind, but be aware that the world was no less awful. However, the book tries to concentrate more on the concepts of privacy, of individualism, symbols and metaphysics, even if we’re still operating on the Material Plane. Have you ever wondered how exactly life in the medieval castle or village looked like? Look no further, I’d bet my cup of tea that in this book you’ll find the answers to all of your questions, including the ones you were afraid to ask.


That leads us to book three, Passions of the Renaissance (and the Enlightenment, despite the title) – in my opinion, the best of them all. Why? Probably because of this:

This [volume] celebrates the emergence of individualism and the manifestations of a burgeoning self-consciousness. It explores an era characterized by a new regard of children as unique personalities, by a sudden upsurge in private writings such as journals and diaries, and by a new concentration on, and exaltation of, the self in literature and art.

What could appeal to a bloger more than that? And to a librarian? As the book really concentrate more on literacy, civility, and cohabitation of people, it’s less depressing, and even more fascinating. It speaks of the practical impact of writing, of printing press, of memoirs, and gives a much brighter vision of life in the past than the previous volumes. (It’s just a vision; awfulness continues.)


The fourth volume presents the one and only, beloved and cherished Nineteenth Century, From the Fires of Revolution to the Great War (so 1789-1914, but in studies of history it’s customary to discuss 19th century “the long way”; well, that era did not end with 31st December 1900, it was the Great War that shut it close).

The 19th century is really dear to me – partly because I’m writing a book set in Victorian times, and I strive for historical accuracy (in a fantasy-steampunk world, silly me!). Just look at the section names:

  • The Curtain Rises
  • The Actors
  • Scenes and Places
  • Backstage

If you know anything about the social history of the 19th century you’ll have to agree – it was just a one, big play; in Europe, at least. The social roles, the classism, the expectations of one’s life and choices, the lack of true personal freedom, the gossip, the reputation (to uphold own, and to destroy one’s enemy’s). So much pretence! So much illusions! And at the same time: so much social upheaval! I’m extremely glad I wasn’t born then, and can just look at the 19th century and enjoy the aesthetics.


The final volume, Riddles of Identity in Modern Times, is as modern as it could be, being originally published in 1987. Is this book still valid to this day? Sure, and not only in its historical aspect. Many processes we observe right now (feminism, never-ending fight with racism and homophobia) started a long time ago (ridiculously long time ago; sometimes you think when it all started and can’t understand we still have to fight for it).

By analysing the construction of secrecy and intimacy in modern era, the final volume brings us closer to understanding all the privacy issues we have nowadays: why do we like to share our private stories and photos? What are the boundaries of sharing intimacy with other people? Will those boundaries move in the future? Will we start protecting our private life again, as we did for so many centuries? Is there anything that is still private at this point?

I don’t know. I still haven’t finished this volume, dropped it for the 19th century one.

But Anna, you say. Was there any century that was better for living than this one, rotten one? Ah, I say, no. There wasn’t. World was always awful (and they didn’t have toilet paper up until 1883; just remind me to tell you some funny stories from before that date). But you see, the future might look quite bright when looked at with eyes not shadowed by hatred and prejudice.

Let’s just not repeat our mistakes.

The painting in the header is called Birth by Marc Chagall.

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