Democracy, Gunpowder, Literacy and Privacy

In an important sense, privacy is a modern invention. Medieval people had no concept of privacy. They also had no actual privacy. Nobody was ever alone. No ordinary person had private space. Houses were tiny and crowded. Everyone was embedded in a face-to-face community. Privacy, as idea and reality, is the creation of a modern bourgeois society. Above all, it is a creation of the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century it became even more of a reality. [p. 258]

In a time when amorphous “rights” to privacy seem to be multiplying like wildflowers, this is an important insight from Friedman. In my opinion, many of the creative privacy theories being concocted today are often based on false nostalgia about some forgotten time in the past when we supposedly all had our own little quiet spaces that were completely free from privacy intrusions. But as Friedman makes clear, this is largely a myth. It’s not to say that there aren’t legitimate issues out there today. But it’s important that we place modern privacy issues in a larger historical context and understand how many of today’s concerns pale in comparison to the problems of the past.

So writes Adam Theierer in “Privacy as ‘a modern invention’,” quoting Stanford law prof Lawrence Friedman.

Medieval people also didn’t have democracy, gunpowder or widespread literacy. That makes none of them the creation of “a modern bourgeois society.”

It’s a tad embarrassing, really.

Maybe, with more time, there would be more context which I could find.

16 thoughts on “Democracy, Gunpowder, Literacy and Privacy

  1. Actually, there were many medieval cities run as democratic communes, and many did have widespread literacy, such as the university cities of Cologne and Paris. It is a popular misconception to think that the aristocracy ruled the entire country – that didn’t start to develop throughout most of Europe until after the medieval era.
    Privacy, however, was not even a concept.

  2. Never mind privacy rights, medieval people didn’t have a concept of human rights in general. There were plenty of moral rules, but they were centered on allegiance to a lord or God. Right and wrong were what somebody more important than you told you they were, with no element of natural entitlements at all. How many medieval or renaissance writers ever argued for freedom of conscience and expression? It wasn’t until the rise of classical liberalism in the 17th century that these ideas took form, giving shape to the American and French Revolutions a century later. Privacy rights are a natural extension of those principles.

  3. Never mind privacy rights, medieval people didn’t have a concept of human rights in general. There were plenty of moral rules, but they were centered on allegiance to a lord or God. Right and wrong were what somebody more important than you told you they were, with no element of natural entitlements at all. How many medieval or renaissance writers ever argued for freedom of conscience and expression? It wasn’t until the rise of classical liberalism in the 17th century that these ideas took form, giving shape to the American and French Revolutions a century later. Privacy rights are a natural extension of those principles.

  4. It is nonsense to claim that “Medieval people had no concept of privacy. They also had no actual privacy” in medieval Europe.
    There were, of course medieval people in Asia, Africa and America etc., where things might have been a little different, but the vast majority of those in Europe did not go around confessing their sins in public.
    They usually (but not exclusively) confessed them to God in private via a Catholic (or Orthodox) priest, who was then, and who still is today, under strict rules not to reveal the secrets of the confessional to any other human.

  5. It is nonsense to claim that “Medieval people had no concept of privacy. They also had no actual privacy” in medieval Europe.
    There were, of course medieval people in Asia, Africa and America etc., where things might have been a little different, but the vast majority of those in Europe did not go around confessing their sins in public.
    They usually (but not exclusively) confessed them to God in private via a Catholic (or Orthodox) priest, who was then, and who still is today, under strict rules not to reveal the secrets of the confessional to any other human.

  6. I would actually argue that the lack of efficient storage and transfer of information gave people more privacy than today. On one hand, yes, you lived more cramped. But on the other hand travel to the next city and you were a blank slate. You could start over with your life if you needed it.
    Today… Not so much.
    Forgetting and reshaping information as humans tend to do is one of the most important privacy protections.

  7. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis defined privacy as “the right to be left alone.” If you have an email account, they will follow you everywhere!

  8. Back in the day, slavery used to be ok, too.
    If the concepts of human rights and privacy are bourgeois inventions, does that somehow make them bad?
    I think Prof. Friedman should get some major irony props for echoing Marx’s observation regarding the revolutionary, world-historical nature of the bourgeoisie.

  9. I once read the following quotation, for which I’ve been able to find no attribution (so let’s attribute it to me until the real owner steps up to claim it by challenging me to a duel!):
    “Privacy is a recent phenomenon. It arose when people stopped believing God saw everything, and ended when governments realized there was a gap to be filled.”

  10. I once read the following quotation, for which I’ve been able to find no attribution (so let’s attribute it to me until the real owner steps up to claim it by challenging me to a duel!):
    “Privacy was a temporary phenomenon. It arose when people stopped believing God saw everything, and ended when governments realized there was a gap to be filled.”

  11. Yeah, the whole idea is like comparing oranges and apples really… A good example was what one of the other comments said, travel to a different city and that person basically started a new.
    Today there are companies that know about us that WE don’t even know about. I find it to be more of an unfair advantage really… Companies get to collect all this wonderful information about us and yet we are extremely limited to what we get to know about the company. On the other hand… lots of people willingly give out their information on social networks. Hard to fight for privacy if people are just giving it away I think.

  12. C, privacy isn’t about keeping things secret. It’s about having the ability to keep things secret. Part of having control of something is being able to share it with others.

  13. In the middle ages there was no need for a “right” to privacy because actual privacy was so easy to obtain. People simply had to walk a few miles outside of their villages to be completely isolated.
    According to the ever-authoritative Wikipedia, “at the time of Charlemagne [the population of Europe] is thought to be between 25 and 30 million [about 1/25 of today’s population], and of this 15 million are in the Carolingian Empire that included France, the Low Countries, half of Germany, Austria, and Italy. Medieval settlements were thickly populated, with large zones of unpopulated wilderness in between. To be alone in the Middle Ages, and not part of a community, carried great risks. Crowded communities existed as islands in a sea of uncultivated wilderness.”

  14. The concept of secrecy was well established in the guild system and maintenance of trade secrets was an economic necessity. But what other secrecy would the common man (or woman) want?
    At the start of the middle ages the vast majority of Great Britain was dense forest. Anyone who wanted a spot of fornication had plenty of opportunity to do so unobserved.
    In practice that was unnecessary since the concept of sexual morality is considerably more recent than most imagine. Until the introduction of syphilis from the new world most towns and every city had at least one brothel, many run by the municipality. There was not much need for privacy without a press to create scandal.
    The role of the church and confession was to provide pardons for transgressions. By the end you could buy your pardon in advance through indulgences.
    Lords were absolute powers in their own domain, thats where privilege comes from – private law. The ‘law of the first night’ is almost certainly a later invention, but only because the role of virginity changed. A medieval night would recognize the need for virginity in a wife to ensure that her children was his. Demand for virgin prostitutes only began to pick up after the introduction of syphilis.
    The concept of political ideology did not yet exist. But there was plenty of intrigue.
    All in all, the original statement demonstrates only a profound ignorance of what medieval society was like.

  15. Er, I guess that pre-19th-century lack of privacy also explains the complete lack of adultery, premarital sex, gay sex, and sheep-f–king of all those previous centuries. It also explains why books and tracts and speech which were forbidden never circulated. And more generally, why making any action or good illegal eliminated it entirely.
    Here’s a quote from the English translation of the Hypocratic Oath:
    All that may come to my knowledge in the exercise of my profession or in daily commerce with men, which ought not to be spread abroad, I will keep secret and will never reveal.
    I’m no historian, but that looks kind-of like a recognition of a right of your patients to privacy.
    I assume the source he’s quoting has more of a clue than comes through from that particular quote, but I haven’t read it. And as I said, I’m no historian, and I don’t doubt that much of our modern notion of privacy (especially within the law) is new. But the claim in the quoted post seems massively and obviously wrong.

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