This book covers about 1,000 years of private life, from the polytheistic era of classical Rome through the acceptance there and then institutionalization of Christianity in the dark ages. It is a dazzling side glance into the cultural evolution of these tumultuous times with some reference to the larger political context.
The distinctions between these cultures are at once subtle and brutal. First, we view the civitas of Rome, that is, the obligation that Roman citizens felt towards their cities, which involved complex community-oriented mores and expensive public displays that were paid for by private means; aristocratic children, brought up with relatively less sense of their individuality than we enjoy, saw their lives and careers as reflections of the glory of their cities. The reader is also treated to the way that slaves and families were treated in great detail.
Then, in the early Christian era, more privatized cultures arose, first with the increased introspection that the christianization of the empire entailed. Next, the barbarian invasions - in which nomadic tribes smashed the urban cultures in whose wealth they had wanted to partake - merely accelerated this trend; they greatly valued their possessions, often war booty that they had to carry with them, and hence had little regard for fixed property and its supporting laws that enabled cities to flourish. Infrastructure and larger communities and political units in this period deteriorated, which severely impacted trade and hence economic welfare. The standard of measure of a life at that time became purely personal wealth and power.
A sub-theme of the book is the influence of monasticism, which created its own closed communities and became the model for family life at the beginning of the gothic era. Monks and the clergy were the holders of standards of conduct and literacy through this little-known period, and exerted immense influence on the mores of the people who lived nearby. In all its detail, this was new to me. Indeed, if it were not for their labors, much of classical learning would have been lost forever. They are also virtually the only source for information about life in Byzantium.
While there is something lost in having so many authors involved in a single volume, the chapters in this book are so long and detailed that they are like self-contained books. Ample illustrations transport the reader to each era, revealing the mystery of what made us who we are in the west over so many centuries. Nonetheless, the chapters are uneven. The chapter on Roman architecture in N. Africa is very boring indeed, and the one on Byzantium is dull as well. But those on pagan and then Christian Rome are superb, as are those on the dark ages.
Finally, this book relies more on written sources than on archaeology, which is a pity in my opinion, as the sources written after pagan Rome are rather formulaic and outright boring in their rhetorical flourishes as you read about them over hundreds of pages. At times, it reads like a compendium of obscure sources, including exhaustive analysis of funery inscriptions, though that is often what academia comes down to. Another odd thing is that there are only two pages of footnotes, which are followed by a rather poor bibliography. While the book is trying to strike a balance between popular and specialized audiences, I would have preferred better info on sources.
In spite of these criticisms, there is no question that this book is an ample and fascinating meal. Recommended.
on 17 February 2008
This is a fine collection of essays on the changing quality of family life as classical Rome shifted to medieval Rome. I found its accounts of early Christianity's impact on personal life particularly interesting. For example, Michele Rouche shows how evolving church doctrines on marriage affected families in Western Europe. In the long process of conversion, many missionaries seemed to assume that cultural standards from the old Near East were those of God, while those native to Europe came from the Devil. Most clergymen taught that the church's rites and approval were necessary for valid marriage, but for centuries this was hard to enforce. The priests could not simply declare all existing marriages invalid. Still, they increasingly denounced families that formed their own bonds independently, saying that these couples were living in sin. The clerics taught that lovers who separated and found other lovers were "bigamists", and their children were "bastards". The church informed local people that lovers of the same sex were "sodomites". Many European women found it shocking that the church condemned lesbian lovers, demanded they abandon each other, and required them to perform heavy "penances for sin". (p. 533)
The book traces slow but big changes in human relations, rights, duties, expectations and dreams over several centuries. It gives perspective on the options we face as families today.
on 22 July 1998
The subjects, and people, covered in this volume of the History of Private Life are probably the most remote for the modern day reader. Medieval and Renaissance life appears more colorful than Pagan Rome and Early Christian Byzantium, just like a medieval tapestry draws the eye away from a worn marble statue. But Roman life proves to be just as colorful and complex--perhaps more so than medieval life. This volume pays close attention to the everyday activities which took man, woman, child, and slave from cradle to grave. One learns that a man would be fined more for stealing a pig than for killing a slave; that women would attempt to attract men by feeding them a fish that had been held between their loins; and that the domestic sphere of ancient Rome was queerly both public _and_ private. Copiously illustrated with photographs and reproductions, some in color.