A History of Private Life: Passions of the Renaissance is the third volume in a history of private life from antiquity to the twentieth century. Published in France between 1985 and 1987, the five volumes of this series have been appearing in English translation at the rate of one volume a year. The first volume ranged from pagan Rome to Byzantium in the tenth and eleventh centuries; the second focused on the medieval world and the beginnings of the Renaissance. Volume 4, overlapping slightly the volume under review, will span the period from the French Revolution to World War I, and the final installment will bring the survey up to the late twentieth century.
This ambitious project was initiated by the late Philippe Aries, whose pioneering studies showed how some of the fundamental constants of human experience have been perceived in radically different ways in the course of Western history. Although he died before the project was completed, Aries is credited as coeditor of the series, with the medievalist Georges Duby; volume 3 includes an introduction by Aries. Each volume in the series consists of essays by several writers. While the contributors worked in collaboration, with their essays designed to complement one another, they explicitly disavow any attempt at comprehensive coverage. The volumes are lavishly produced, with a central section of color plates as well as black-and-white illustrations scattered liberally throughout the text. At the end of each volume there are notes, a bibliography, and an index
Volume 3 has been misleadingly labeled by Harvard University Press. As the more prosaic French title indicates, this volume spans the period from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment; in fact, the emphasis in most of the essays is on the period from the mid-seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth, with very little discussion of the Renaissance proper. Geographically and culturally, the focus is almost exclusively on France, though there are occasional references to other areas.
Like preceding volumes in the series, Passions of the Renaissance has two principal claims on the reader’s attention. There is, first, the intrinsic appeal of the subject matter. C. S. Lewis suggested that the primary value of reading literature is enlargement of being: “We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as our own.” Some people read history for the same reason: to experience the past in all its otherness, to inhabit imaginatively worlds much different from their own. This is the aim of a whole field of historical studies, the history of mentalitis, in which Aries and other French scholars have played a leading role. Yet once this aim is granted, the means by which it is to be achieved are not self-evident. How does one reconstruct the attitudes, the worldviews, the thoughts and emotions of past generations? What kinds of evidence are to be used, and how are one’s findings to be transmitted to the reader? The interest of Passions of the Renaissance, then, lies not only in its subject but also in its method.
At first glance the table of contents seems perversely calculated to drive away the general reader. The essays are divided into three sections: “Figures of Modernity,” “Forms of Privatization,” and “Community, State, and Family: Trajectories and Tensions.” Fortunately, these arid abstractions are belied by the essays themselves, which are rich in concrete detail....
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