Privacy and Solitude in the Middle Ages


She’s interested in a narrow sense of privacy: the rationale people had for retreating and their awareness of their dwelling spaces.

Household servants were not always seen as intruding on privacy. As Webb writes:

They were important to their masters and mistresses not as individuals but as essential functionaries and collectively as an attribute of status; therefore they may not have intruded on ‘privacy’ as then understood.

In some ways the middling classes had greater access to privacy than the truly elite. There were fewer social conventions which dictated or restricted their actions.

Privacy implies the right to keep oneself in company of one’s own choosing; choice is integral to it.

Withdrawing from the World

  • For the Romans solitude was a concept but often not one that meant an absence of others.
  • Privacy was common, and embedded within the architecture of the elite.
  • Those who did truly remove themselves from others’ presence were viewed as deviant (they were also often Christian).

Pioneers of Solitude

Detachment from ‘the world’, then, rarely implied the complete isolation of the individual. Total solitude was difficult to achieve and certainly difficult to sustain over a long period. Many never sought or achieved it at all; for some it was a temporary time of trial.

There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.

  • For desert monks there was both cenobitic (communal) and eremitic (solitary) approaches. Some lived in compounds, others in varying levels of isolation.
  • Total removal from community was rare or, at most, practiced intermittently.
  • Solitude was not inherently virtuous. And was seen as most meaningful for those already able to live in a crowd.

The Western Desert

  • Monasticism gradually came to leave less and less space for individual isolation. Benefactors (often monarchs) valued consistency in structure.
  • Isolation came to be seen as the province of the elite and those who had already settled in communal life.

Living in the World

  • Multiple factors limited the activity of private reading: limited books, limited literacy, lack of heating and lighting.
  • Leisure moments were passed outside or in domestic (and thus shared) space.
  • Language, for a long time, lacked a word for bedroom. Even those rooms with beds were used for multiple (and even public) purposes.
  • The wealthy had more access to private or at least semi-private space.

In Search of Lost Solitude

For the monk, the improvement of the mind in the most fundamental and far-reaching sense was the essential purpose of reading.

  • For these developing religious orders solitude was a means to an end: a closer relationship to god. It was also perceived as a risky situation, as likely to lead to faith as sin.
  • There are similarities between these religious writings and those of the Stoics.
  • There’s a strong concept of being able to be alone in a crowd or crowded while alone. That it’s the mind’s inner state that matters.

In the Midst of People

  • Some devoted religious followers isolated themselves within cells (almost like prisons). It’s difficult to say if this was done as a form of penance, a way to escape family, or something else. Both men and women did this.
  • The isolation was not complete, often with windows or additional rooms that were more public.
  • These anchorites were withdrawing themselves from expected or obligated vocations and thus gained freedom in choosing how to spend their time.

In Chamber and in Hall

  • Construction of homes for the elite and merchants (and to a lesser extent farmers) came to include a greater delineation of space. Even hospitals and inns became individualized.
  • Even within great halls, though, there was a concept of individual space with seating apportioned to role, rank, or gender.

Religion in the Home

  • Men had much greater freedom of movement and space than women. Many of both were devoted to religion and solitude within ordinary domestic life.

Men of Letters

There are those to whom the solitary life is harder than death and seems to bring death with it. This applies above all those who are ignorant of letters and who, if they lack someone to talk to, do not know what to talk about with themselves or with their books, and are therefore dumb. Solitude without literature is exile, prison, torture. Add literature and it is homeland, freedom, delight.

  • Books were more widely available at this time. And Petrarch, see above, saw them as foundational to Good Solitude.
  • Reading also brought certain religious habits into the domestic sphere.
  • Neither reading nor writing were inherently personal or private pursuits.


  • Rarely in Classical Latin was the word for study (verb) used to refer to a study (room). Rooms for this purpose pre-dated language. And by the mid-1400s both rooms and language were relatively common.


  • Our understanding of medieval gardens is limited by the fact that none still survive.
  • Gardens existed in lay and secular life, but we lack written sources on their view or purpose. We have to rely on bits and pieces as well as literary descriptions.

Loss of Community

  • Dining habits were both changing and a point of contention. More of the wealthy were retreating to eat privately, outside the communal hall of the house.
  • Monastaries were far from closed systems. Laypeople came in and out (along with all the benefit and vice associated with that).