A History of Private Life, Volume II Summary

Georges Duby

A History of Private Life, Volume II

A History of Private Life: Revelations of the Medieval World is the second volume in a series which began with Histoire de la vie privée: De L’Empire romain á l’an mil (1985; A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, 1987) and will continue through three additional volumes. This survey of the private life of past civilizations is one of the fruits of the new social history which began when the French historians Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch founded Annales: Économies, sociétés, civilisations and Fernand Braudel began his influential studies of economic history as it was defined by everyday life. This new social history has aimed at exposing the past not from the perspective of sovereigns whose names frequently have been used to identify the periods of time in which they waged war and negotiated peace but from the perspective of the masses of men and women whose lives are more difficult to reconstruct.

The first volume, which focused on the ancient world of pagan Rome and Byzantium, had geographical centers that facilitated this project. In the second volume, the time frame is larger and the geographical boundaries are defined in large part by the expertise of the editors and contributors. The focus is upon France and Italy; feudal England is given a cursory architectural survey; medieval Spain is virtually ignored. The impact of the “infidels,” the not yet fully assessed contribution of Arabic science and Islamic culture, is excluded from this inquiry. Breadth of vision is sacrificed in the interest of depth.

There are many justifications for adopting a tunnel vision of the medieval world. Regionalism is so predominant that the national boundaries which begin to define early modern history do not exist. It is important to recognize that this study is selective geographically and that even medieval Europe was not homogeneous. The portraits of private life which are sketched in this volume ignore kings, although they still obtrude because they are more likely to leave records. The segregation of women’s quarters is described as a feature of some medieval castles. How prevalent was this segregation; was it a legacy of the ancient world; and if not, what caused it to develop? Were the boundaries of medieval Europe impervious to the influence of the powerful Turks who segregated their women? The Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus describes Germanic women accompanying their men to the battlefield and banging pots to urge them into battle.

In his essay “Civilizing the Fortress: Eleventh to Thirteenth Century,” Dominique Barthélemy cites two instances in which women’s quarters are segregated. Barthélemy seems to intend these to be representative and so to serve as a corrective to earlier views that women came into their own during the Middle Ages. Even on such a basic issue as whether there were separate living quarters for women, the evidence is ambiguous. The reader is left without a clear sense of how much credence to give the “gynaeceum,” a term coined by Danielle Régnier-Bohler, defined as “a group of women living together in an area set aside for the purpose.” In a large household made up of many servants of both sexes, it makes perfect sense that unmarried men and women would have separate quarters and that unmarried women would be protected. It is startling, however, to discover that, except for two architectural cases cited in Barthélemy’s essay, the generalizations about segregated women’s quarters derive from fiction, “virtually the only source of information on this subject.”

Ironically, the need for public order strongly affected the history of the development of private life. Georges Duby, the editor of this collection of essays, emphasizes that those who absorbed the authority once understood to be public and shared by free citizens became owners: “The master was lord over men, women, children, animals and belongings, just as he was lord over his oven, his stables, and his granaries.” When serfs died, their property—livestock in the case of a man, clothing in the case of a woman—belonged to the lord. The lord arranged their marriages. Duby charts the gradual erosion among the poor of the distinction between slaves and free men until all poor men came to belong to the land as serfs. Those people who did not belong to the lord were still expected to swear allegiance to him. The position of the individual without power under feudalism is portrayed graphically and without sentimentality.

Leading questions are...

(The entire section is 1866 words.)


Booklist. LXXXIV, February 15, 1988, p. 958.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, February 15, 1988, p. 274.

Library Journal. CXIII, March 1, 1988, p. 65.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 10, 1988, p. 11.

The New York Review of Books. XXXV, March, 17, 1988, p. 30.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, March 20, 1988, p. 24.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIII, February 5, 1988, p. 77.

The Times Educational Supplement. May 6, 1988, p. 19A.