Privacy in the Middle Ages

Privacy in the Middle Ages

By Danièle Cybulskie

So, I’ve been reading a really great book this week (that shall remain nameless), but I was stopped in my tracks by a couple of odd statements about pre-modern thinking. Since this author isn’t the only person I’ve heard this from, I thought it might be worth taking five minutes to address just one of these statements: privacy is a relatively new idea.

If we’re talking about privacy as in “private parts”, people have been wearing clothes for millennia for modesty and protection, so that theory doesn’t hold much weight. Many medieval women covered their hair, for example, to keep it from the public eye. Nuns in some communities continue this habit (pun intended) in the same fashion to this day.

If we’re talking about physical privacy, then yes, people have lived in shared spaces for thousands of years (and many people are living in similar conditions now). Medieval peasants frequently had homes that were one big room, in which the family slept, ate, and generally lived. That space was often also shared by animals. The reason for this, however, is not because privacy was unknown. People shared space for practical reasons, warmth and security being paramount. The richer people were, the more private rooms they had, and if they were really rich, they started to build garderobes (bathrooms). It seems to me that privacy was definitely considered when it came to building living spaces, though it was secondary to necessary considerations. It’s not so much that physical privacy was unknown; more modern Westerners can afford private, warm, secure spaces now than ever before.

It’s possible that this author was talking about mental privacy, though, as a few paragraphs later there’s a reference to Shakespeare possibly having invented the internal monologue (that’s a debate for another time). To this I’d say that, again, privacy was not unknown in the past. Courtly secrets certainly needed to be kept for security reasons, and then there was always tact.

Sir Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has a central struggle about what should be public knowledge and what should stay private, both to spare the feelings of his host, and to save his own life. Real people would have also had to consider the ramifications of speaking their private thoughts as, even centuries ago, loose lips sank ships. Allegedly, when Henry II roared, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Thomas Becket was martyred. Clearly, that should have been internal monologue.

For people practicing their religious beliefs, personal confessions were made to a priest for the simple reason that he was the only one who could absolve the believer’s sins. Choosing personal embarrassment over the potential for eternal damnation must have seemed pretty straightforward. Hermits and anchorites, such as Julian of Norwich, also secluded themselves so they could better contemplate their faith, knowing that conversation can be distracting for both the speaker and the listener. Private meditation was central to their practice of faith.

I can see how a modern might make the mistake of thinking people didn’t keep their thoughts to themselves, however, since dictation was such a key part of life for a population that was largely illiterate. If you needed a private letter sent, for example, you would need to speak your thoughts aloud. This doesn’t mean, though, that you wouldn’t rather have kept them to yourself.

If I ever get a moment to sit down with this author, I’ll share this beautiful Anglo-Saxon poem called The Wandererwhich features many references to keeping one’s thoughts to oneself. (Incidentally, it was also the inspiration for Aragorn’s song of Rohan in The Lord of the Rings, and that’s always a great piece of trivia to have in your pocket.) In the meantime, I think I’ll go finish that book in private.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

Top Image: A medieval bedroom – British Library MS Royal 20 B XX f. 1

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